Friday, January 30, 2009

Boris. Pink (Southern Lord, 2005)

"Agonizing noises are now put in a line."

Prolific Japanese garage-drone maestros Boris specialize in high-volume, paint-peeling noise, handcrafted using Gibson humbuckers and towering stacks of Orange, Sunn, and Ampeg amps cranked to 12. Theirs is a heavy '70s stoner sound tinged with punk, worshiping at the altar of droptuned pioneers like Sabbath and Blue Cheer but borrowing from the blitzkrieg rhythms of Black Flag, exulting in mammoth riffs and bruising tempos, cranky and belligerent.

And exceptionally pulse-quickening, especially on an album as masterful as 2005's Pink, which manages to expertly blend the trio's more avant-garde and experimental impulses with a hook-heavy, Motorhead-huffing, amphetamine-fueled metal attack.

Boris (who, in a nod to their influences, take their name from a track off of the mighty Melvins' 1991 doom touchstone Bullhead) have been around for a while, going through several lineup changes since releasing their 1996 debut LP Absolutego on their own (very metal monikered) Fangs Anal Satan label. In the decade-plus since, these dudes have put out a ton of records and collaborated with loads of folks (Sunn0))), Merzbow), never staying in one place stylistically too long, alternating between highly theoretical, nearly ambient noise-smithery, stoner/doom in the Kyuss-Sleep-Queens of the Stone Age mold, and blistering hardcore.

The fact is, Boris have serious chops, and as long as it's loud, they own it. In fact, it's safe to say that Boris have a significant piece of the loud market cornered.

Pink is one of Boris's most accessible records, incorporating undeniable melodies and infectious riffs into the usual maelstrom of swirling sonic chaos (and
2008's Smile is great for the same reasons). It's a punishing listen, but in the best way. The drums and bass (provided by Atsua and Takeshi, respectively -- Takeshi also handles the vocals, but don't bother trying to decipher them, 'cuz they're buried in the mix and sung in Japanese) stay locked in the pocket regardless of the insanity guitarist Wata gets up to, which keeps the music from drifting inexorably into boring. Each of the eleven tracks here is a tune -- some lumbering, most rushing -- more than capable of holding your attention.

The LP starts off with the leviathan Farewell, a down-tempo beast which takes its own sweet time building but delivers a huge payoff. As the guitars gently echo and sway in the first minute, the drums slowly, menacingly pick up force and form. At 1:18, Boris bring it, unleashing primal ruckus, cymbals crashing, snares snarling, chords washing. The song uses volume as an instrument in itself, reveling in decibels but keeping one foot squarely in the tuneful. The simple melody is beautiful, majestic, breath-robbing. A tour-de-awesome, and nearly reason alone to buy the album.

But the fun doesn't stop there. While there are several more monolitihic drone fests here (see the terrifying "Blackout," especially) Pink is jam-packed with rockers, as well. The title track uses a sweet palm-muted thrash riff as its centerpiece, the rhythm section sprinting ahead in a mad dash, punctuating the guitar stabs with their own overdriven flourishes. Mid-tempo masterpiece Afterburner takes a lazily funky, staggering drum part -- with some half-hearted handclaps thrown in for good measure -- and lays the groundwork for some furious face-melting, acid-blues in a bad mood. And Electric smacks you in the face repeatedly, the high-voltage arpeggios gorgeously distorted, the rhythms ponderously nimble.

Boris are masters of their craft. And their craft is punishing volume employed in the pursuit of threatening, angry rock'n'roll. Next time you want a break from saccharine pop/rock, tune into Pink and give your ears a spanking. Your ears will like it.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Richard Buckner. Devotion + Doubt (MCA, 1997)

"I saw such light in you/ Crushed by the basement view."

I arrived at Devotion + Doubt through a friend, drunk.

One summer, while spending the better part of two months nursing a hangover and teaching high school U.S. History to disinterested and disgruntled teenagers, I heard this friend play a lovely version of Richard Buckner's "Lil Wallet Picture" on his guitar as a prelude to my descending (or rather, returning) into my customary evening inebriation. I was immediately touched by the song's raw emotion and wounded vulnerability, by the simple beauty of the melody and the heartfelt poetry of the lyrics. Consequently, I determined to check out this Richard Buckner fellow post haste, and rapidly acquired a copy of 1997's Devotion + Doubt. And I've never regretted it.

Buckner is a fairly bright star in the alt-country universe, with a string of well-received albums stretching back to 1994's Bloomed. It's easy to see why: this Californian balladeer has a way with a melody, and a striking ability to strip songs down to their bare essence, revealing the fundamental truths buried under the gloss and filigree. His is a dusky, tarnished sound, matte black and burning bright, with an urgent intensity expressed through delivery, not volume.

Devotion + Doubt, Buckner's third LP, is an excellent showcase for his considerable talents. This is a collection of mostly spare, acoustic arrangements, windswept, lonely guitars kept company by fiddles, pedal steel, and mandolins. Members of Giant Sand and Calexico are along for the ride, as are ace countrypolitan multi-instrumentalist Lloyd Maines (father of the singing Dixie Chick) and avant-guitarist Marc Ribot. It's a pretty strong bench, and they're backing up some pretty strong material.

What Devotion + Doubt lacks in sonic punch it more than makes up for in atmospherics and emotional resonance. And Buckner has a voice custom built for this stuff, a rich-yet-shaky tenor, with a touch of southern-by-way-of-Bakersfield lilt (does this Californian have some Okie in him?) and a sweet rustic trill. The high lonesome affectations suit the material, coming across as sincere where they could have come across as inauthentic.

The isolated pianos and slightly dragging snare of Pull frame the opener's reverbed chords, as Buckner sings of love and dysfunction and longing. "Of course I'll show/ Of course I'll fire/ And I'll pull along you for miles," he whispers, sounding lost and hopeful. Lil Wallet Picture is a revelation, a luminous air, a downtrodden masterwork. The pedal steel keens as the guitars quietly rage, notes bouncing off the echo chamber of the protagonist's broken heart. "There was one last look as the UHaul broke free/ Now the ditches are flooded over the backroad/ Damn this stretch of 99, that takes so many lives/ One of them was mine." Anyone who's ever watched miles multiply between himself and his lover can instantly identify with the feelings of powerlessness and sorrow pulsing from those lines.

Ed's Song features one of the LP's best vocal performances, Buckner investing the gentle tune with a nuance and subtlety that elevates it to the realm of the sublime. Elsewhere, the Appalachian a capella of Fater is darkly touching and highlights Buckner's mastery of old-time cadences and language, while the upbeat jangle of "A Goodbye Rye" sounds like a stellar Uncle Tupelo outtake circa Anodyne.

Richard Buckner is a singular singer/songwriter, with a unique vision and the chops to bring it to life. His tunes conjure up heartbreak and joy, defeat and wistful, haunted elation. And for me, they conjure up a summer of idle dissipation, liver abuse, and laughs. Which is also pretty awesome.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Chavez. Ride the Fader (Matador, 1996)

"There is nothing to not be amazed at."

Chavez were, hands down, one of the most underrated and overlooked bands of the 1990s. There were few groups that decade -- or any decade -- that so successfully married atonal guitar experimentation with fist pumping stadium-ready hooks and chest-thumping anthemic bluster. Chavez were incredibly powerful, melodically and rhythmically, and their two LPs -- 1995's Gone Glimmering and 1996's Ride the Fader (there was an EP in there, as well: Pentagram Ring came out in '95) -- still sound way ahead of their time.

Based out of NYC, Chavez coalesced around former Skunk and Wilder guitar savant Matt Sweeney, whose six string prowess produced thrilling walls of heavily distorted, wildly off-kilter but invariably duck's-ass-tight riffage. Adding to the mix second guitarist Clay Tarver (of Boston's Bullet LaVolta and no slouch), bassist Scott Marshall, and mighty dynamo James Lo behind the kit (seriously, this cat was incredible), Chavez set out to conquer late-Clinton-era indie hearts and minds, armed with a massive sound, an impeccable sense of timing and dynamic interplay, and the ability to switch between subtle tonal approaches and blitzkrieg sonic assaults in a way that toed the line between terrifying and beautiful. Chavez were it.

And if you don't believe me, just listen to anything from their tragically scant catalogue. If you put a gun to my head, I'll say that Ride the Fader is my favorite, but Gone Glimmering is only slightly less epic (check out the remorselessly squalling calling card of Repeat the Ending for starters). The overall approach of both is the same: take hyper loud, overdriven twin guitars helmed by cockeyed masters of the craft, a bass committed to defining the melodies and opening up the musical space, and thunder-god drums that never trade brute force for temporal precision, throw in some AP physics and Cheap Trick, and mix vigorously. The end result is a heady cocktail, noisy but catchy as hell, capable of knocking the wind out of you and plastering a smile on your face at the same time.

Simply put, there's not a bad song on Ride the Fader, just under forty minutes of hair-raising guitar punishment. Nearly every track is a display of riveting technique, as Sweeney (who also handles all vocal duties in his thin, desperate-sounding tenor) and Tarver duke it out over and over, twisting and untwisting melodic lines, keeping the volume pinned to the red, switching lead and solo duties repeatedly, intuitively. Layers and layers of melody and harmonics testify to Chavez's awesomeness, proving time and again how totally on time these guys were.

Top Pocket Man steps to the plate with a curtain of menacingly shimmering chords before things get rad. Listen to how the bass and drums keep everything in check as the guitars go steadily apeshit; here as elsewhere, Lo and Marshall make Chavez possible. The Guard Attacks maintains a psychotic swagger, as the rhythm guitar lines slice and dice with gorgeous serration. Unreal Is Here shows off the band's (slightly) quieter side while still finding time to get ugly and loud. "Tight Around the Jaws," "Our Boys Will Shine Tonight," and especially the pummeling Flight 96 all manage to bludgeon and hypnotize, employing whiplash shifts in tempo and an innate tunefulness to brilliant effect, the ear-catching melodies serving not to relieve the tension but to ratchet it up and up and up until the listener is left gasping for breath.

Amazingly, Matador -- in an uncharacteristically boneheaded maneuver -- actually allowed Chavez's records to fall out of print in the late '90s and early '00s. By 2006, someone over at Matador got wise, and that year the career retrospective Better Days Will Haunt You was released, featuring virtually every song Chavez put out, remastered and repackaged in a lovingly curated two-disc set. Priced for the cost-conscious consumer, this is a must-have item for fans of forward-thinking guitar heroics, as Chavez -- like similarly-minded rockstronauts Polvo -- relentlessly pushed the boundaries while never forgetting to keep things catchy. This is some of the sturdiest music of the last 20 years, so tune in and prepare to be blown away.

Friday, January 23, 2009

The Breeders. Safari EP (4AD/Elektra, 1992)

"He didn't cry on a safari/ In over his knees."

By 1990 or so, the bonds holding together post-punk wunderkids the Pixies were fraying. After releasing some of the most savage, thrilling, and disturbingly hooky albums of the '80s, the fearsome Massachusetts foursome had begun crowding each other; in particular, the creative visions of guitarist/vocalist Frank Black (aka Black Francis) and bassist/vocalist Kim Deal (one of the triumvirate of female bassists -- along with Sonic Youth's Kim Gordon and Jawbox's Kim Coletta -- that led me and my friends to call all female bassists "Kims" throughout high school) were coming to blows. There wasn't room enough in that band for both of them, sadly, and the countdown to implosion started tick-tocking down.

But before the Pixies called it quits in '92, Deal was using a new project, the Breeders, as an outlet for songs and sounds she couldn't get past Black's gates. Pulling together Slint's awesome (dude! "Good Morning Captain"? awesome!) Britt Walford on drums (listed hilariously as Mike Hunt), Josephine Wiggs on bass, Throwing Muses's lovely Tanya Donelly on guitar, and trading a six string for the four she frequented in the Pixies, Deal masterminded the Steve Albini-produced Breeders debut Pod, released in 1990.

And Pod was great, one of the most underrated albums of the decade (and reportedly a favorite of Kurt Cobain) and a testament to Deal's superior songwriting abilities (though she'd already written "Gigantic" for the Pixies, so her abilities were never really in doubt). And before going on a nearly 10-year hiatus, the Breeders released the epic Last Splash LP in '93, whose greatness can't be underestimated (remember "Cannonball"? It's still effing amazing). It's a crime that Last Splash has been banished to used CD dollar bins; if you don't have it, or lost it or whatever, go get it again. It's more than stood the test of time.

Between Pod and Last Splash, the Breeders dropped one of my favorite recordings -- EP, LP, or otherwise -- of the '90s. Hell, of the evers. The four song Safari (which also features Kim's identical twin sister Kelley on guitar) is a blistering, atmospheric little gem of a release, abrasive and catchy, sweet and sour, punchy and coy. Each one of its tracks -- three originals and a winning cover of the Who's Townshend-penned "So Sad About Us" -- hits hard and moves on. The whole LP is just over twelve minutes long, and every second is just about perfect.

Opener Do You Love Me Now is a drifting, deceptively powerful anti-ode. The rhythm section plods as the guitars patiently scratch out your eyes, Deal delivering her stalker's lines in a breathy, sinister space case drawl. Don't Call Home starts and stops with mid-tempo whiplash precision, and features some of the best six string chaos on the album. So Sad About Us -- originally from the Who's '66 burner A Quick One -- is, duh, great, and demonstrates Deal's love of shiny British invasion pop while also standing in as a farewell letter to the soon-to-be-estranged Frank Black.

The highlight of the LP, however, is the title track, a blindingly rad titan of a tune. Built on a rock-solid, heavyweight, semi-tribal bass and drums rumble and non-stop surfy rhythm guitar riff, Safari is a masterpiece. The weird "ahh-ahh-ahh"s Kim floats over the funky breaks, slashing chords, and twisted solos are hypnotic and unnerving, as are her acerbic, taunting lyrics: "He couldn't leave a finer life/ Always hugging the ground/ And crying out for me," Deal sneers, making me weak in the knees.

Plus, the video was killer. Check out the psychedelic, Sabbath-aping, bad trip visuals! The emotionless, bored expressions on everyone's faces! The adorable way that Tanya Donelly pays such close attention to her chording! The early '90s nerd-chic clothes! Whenever this came on 120 Minutes, I was front and center.

I love this EP. Early alt-rock (what we called it before we had indie, and before alt-rock became a catchword for jock jams) simply doesn't get any better than Safari. The Breeders have released some albums in the '00s, and while not embarrassing by any means, nothing comes close to the genius they displayed in their heyday. Track down Safari and have a taste.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

The Sea and Cake. The Fawn (Thrill Jockey, 1997)

"I'm doing alright with just enough."

The Sea and Cake are part of the Chicago-based Thrill Jockey family of post-rock eggheads. Taking their band name from the Gastr del Sol song "The C in Cake," this foursome (Thrill Jockey man about town Sam Prekop on guitars and vocals, Windy City rhythmist extraordinaire and Tortoise staple John McEntire on drums, Eric Claridge on bass and synths, and Archer Prewitt on guitar, piano, and vocals) deal in smoothed-out, electronic tinged lounge pop spiced up with straight rock grooves. It's a pretty intoxicating brew, mainly because the Sea and Cake always include a heavy dose of hooks and head-bobbing beats in their semi-experimental concoctions, making everything go down real nice.

The Sea and Cake have been making soothing ear candy since '94, when their debut eponymous LP first surfaced. They've released eight full-lengths since then, the last of which, Car Alarm, came out in 2008. 1997's The Fawn is a great example of this band's particular charm, an extremely accomplished collection of irresistibly warm, jazz-informed future rock, catchy enough to make up for its pretensions, with charm and memorable melodies to spare. The overall result is a pleasantly sophisticated, nocturnal cityscape of an album, sparkling with just the right gloss-to-rock ratio.

Opening track The Sporting Life sets the tone right away, with a splendidly bubbling bassline and a wobbly synth track framing the tune, Prekop's spacey, semi-lethargic tenor acting as a sonic narcotic. The drum track is loose but driving, injecting subtle rhythmic flourishes to the song and adding to the layered, dense feel.

Things pick up significantly with "The Argument," triggered drum loops giving the song a skittering, hotfoot feel while the cyclical bass motif keeps everything going in circles. Album highlight The Fawn builds around a swaggering rhythm guitar, pouring on syrupy bass and crackling drums to create one of the LPs most hypnotic nod along numbers.

"Rossignol" is a lazily meandering melodic meditation, tethered earthward by a repetitive guitar line and quietly insistent kit work from McEntire, while "There You Are" bounces along amiably beneath its calm catchiness. Bird and Flag uses a swaggering cool Donald Byrd sample to craft gentle funk, Prekop's wistful lyrical delivery juxtaposed nicely with the street tough instrumental strut. Closer "Do Now Fairly Well" is a lovely lullaby, the soft drums tick-tocking and building occasionally to a quiet crash with the rest of the band before everything retreats back to a peaceful drift.

The Sea and Cake know what they're doing, and The Fawn is a top shelf auditory intoxicant, expensive and smooth. It's not too rocking, and isn't likely to get your heart rate up, but it'll always taste good. And it won't give you a hangover, guaranteed.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Marnie Stern. This Is It and I Am It and You Are It and So Is That and He Is It and She Is It and It Is It and That Is That (Kill Rock Stars, 2008)

"I have not slept for nights/ I am learning to travel through time/ That's right, nothing can hold me down."

When they first lumbered across the early '80s hardcore landscape, Dinosaur Jr. were credited with making guitar solos cool again. Punk and hardcore looked askance at the solo, dubbing it a selfish mode of flaunted virtuosity, a means of setting yourself above the rest of the band and the audience both. That stuff was for parents, prog nerds, and classic rock meatheads, not punks who prided themselves on their DIY amateurism in a movement that placed energy and passion over skill.

But then J. Mascis came along, channeling his love of Neil Young and Peter Frampton through high-decibel hardcore amplification, churning out wailing solos at blistering volumes and making it ok to be pretty good at guitar. Dinosaur Jr. reminded the punks that virtuosity could be put to awesome use.

What J Mascis did for Neil Young Marnie Stern is doing for Eddie Van Halen. This chick is one of the best guitar slingers out there right now, a straight shredder with phenomenal chops and the pop sensibility to use her talent in the pursuit of hooks. Stern liberally employs the tapping technique, perhaps best known for its use in Van Halen's "Eruption." Basically, tapping involves using your fingers to strike the guitar strings at the fret board instead of down at the body. It requires a lot of dexterity and precision, and when done right results in a skittering flurry of single notes. Stern does it right, and it sounds pretty sweet.

The somewhat annoyingly-named This Is It and I Am It and You Are It and So Is That and He Is It and She Is It and It Is It and That Is That is Stern's second LP for Kill Rock Stars, and comes on the heels of the 2007 debut In Advance of the Broken Arm. This Is It is an excellent showcase for Stern's abundant gifts, and is one of the most exhilarating listens I've had in a while.

On song after song, Stern -- who sings in an adorable high-pitched cheerleader yelp -- just wrecks it, making her guitar do unholy things in the pursuit of chest-thumping, fist-pumping abandon. Check out Transformer and "The Package is Wrapped" for the tapping, and try not to go blind. The Crippled Jazzer is effing epic, moving between lightning-paced fretwork to mid-tempo stomp wondrously. It's totally hypnotic, sure to send you into a headbanging fugue state. Roads? Where We're Going We Don't Need Roads builds and builds around ringing power chords, and boasts one of the best hooks on the album.

Stern's mad skilz aside, one of the reasons the album works so well is because of the powerhouse drumming of Hella's Zach Hill. Hill more than keeps up with Stern, matching her shredding beat for beat, employing frantic kick drum volleys and snare rolls to keep things moving right along. He's Stern's secret weapon, giving her a rock-solid rhythmic foundation on top of which she can build her towering temples of guitar wizardry.

While there's certainly no shortage of hard rocking lay-days on the indie scene these days, it's still surprising to see one who rocks with such abandon and employs a playing style that's more often associated with male D'n'D enthusiasts than petite blonds from NYC. But novelty or no, Stern is the real thing, as This Is It and I Am It and You Are It and So Is That and He Is It and She Is It and It Is It and That Is That loudly testifies to.

Friday, January 16, 2009

The Gaslight Anthem. Sink or Swim (XOXO, 2007)

"We are the last of the jukebox Romeos."

One of my favorite musical trends of the last few years has been the re-emergence of stripped-down, gimmick-free (unless you consider the lack of gimmicks itself a gimmick), bass'n'drums'n'guitar-driven bar band rock'n'roll. Bands like the Hold Steady and Marah have looked back to Thin Lizzy, Springsteen, and the Replacements as musical touchstones, picking up on the honesty and bruised bravado of those groups, combining strong narrative tendencies with powerful, hook-laden singalong instrumental bluster. It's nearly impossible not to get drawn into the ardor and intensity of this stuff when it's done right, making your heart swell 'til it's ready to burst from your chest, your throat hoarse from shouting along with the chorus, fists all but pumped out.

The Gaslight Anthem are four Jersey boys who fall squarely into this backward-leaning, forward-looking camp, a band obsessed with early Boss (they're from Jersey, so...) but raised on post-punk and hardcore. The resulting sound is effing fantastic: roaring bombast tempered by bruised sentiment, cocksure hookiness filtered through sadness and nostalgia and longing. There's no false posturing here; these guys are the real deal, on the level, totally above board. And in the short time I've been aware of them, they've become one of my favorite new bands.

The Gaslight Anthem first crossed my transom at a friend's house. I heard The '59 Sound (from the 2008 album of the same name) on his stereo and was immediately intrigued. And for good reason: "The '59 Sound" is a stellar jam, a heartrending meditation on death and redemption and friendship and youth, built around a surging melody and gloriously feverish playing. I dare you not to get a little choked up when Brian Fallon stridently muses, "Did you hear the old gospel choir/ When they came to carry you over?/ Did you hear your favorite song/ One last time?" It's incredible, defiant and resigned all at once, perfectly phrased and artfully conveyed.

After I heard that song, I decided I had to investigate further. So I picked up The Gaslight Anthem's 2007 debut Sink or Swim, and was immediately glad I did. Like The '59 Sound, Sink or Swim is jam-packed with finely honed hooks and mammoth riffs delivered by scruffy kids with their hearts pinned to the sleeves of their ragged jean jackets. The LP finds the band obsessed with place and time, investing memories and favorite songs with intense meaning and importance, and elevating the entire endeavor to a place well above adolescent navel gazing.

The majority of these tunes are barnburners, classic rock as interpreted by post-hardcore diehards. The dynamics are powerful, and Fallon's voice -- a gravelly bark capable of nuanced tones and expressions -- is perfectly suited to the task. Lead off cut Boomboxes and Dictionaries uses a staggering riff and hurry-up drums to nail home lyrics about driving around and listening to the radio. "Because the radio will still play loud/ Songs that we heard when our guards first came down," Fallon assures.

The Brando-esque narrator of I Coulda Been a Contender warns, "There's a storm front coming/ There's an S.O.S. on the seas tonight," before commanding, "Steady now, steady now/ Soldier, hold fast now," as the band plays on full overdrive; when things take a turn for the Fugazi -- fractured rhythms and snarled guitars -- at the 2:11 mark, The Gaslight Anthem shows off their smarts for our benefit.

We Came to Dance is almost unbearably great, a tale of barroom seduction and deluded romance, of characters who find comfort in familiar songs loudly played and little else. "We learned from the very best dancers in town," rages the small town Lothario. "Come take my hand/ Mama, we came to dance," he implores, making it sound like a promise and a threat.

"Drive" does just that, ringing single note siren calls piercing the curtain of furious chords, while We're Getting a Divorce, You Keep the Diner thrashes vengefully, snares and chords duking it out over a shoutout shanty before the victorious closing chant of, "It's all right, man/ I'm only bleeding, man/ Stay hungry, stay free/ And do the best you can." It's a moment of pure rock transcendence, showing the pure naked power of distorted chords and amplified cymbal crashes.

Sink or Swim isn't all redlining, though. The acoustic hymns "The Navesink Banks" and "Red at Night," both of which conjure up memories of Nebraska and Darkness at the Edge of Town, are quietly gutting, excellent showcases for The Gaslight Anthem's more subtle touches.

It's been a while since I've heard a band that's connected with me so quickly and directly as The Gaslight Anthem. They are undeniably awesome, possessed of real skill and an innate sense of what makes rock'n'roll great. I could listen to these guys for a long time without ever getting bored, and I intend to.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers. Moanin' (Blue Note, 1958)

I'm not a jazz guy. I mean, I like some jazz, but I am definitely not a jazz guy. I don't have the patience, really, and I'm too big a fan of hooks and riffs and the power of tightly constructed rock and pop. I like structure, and jazz -- some jazz -- is the antithesis of structure, a musical approach predisposed to tear structure a new one in the pursuit of new kinds of musical understanding and expression. And that's great and all, but you can have it.

The only jazz I get really, well, jazzed about is hard bop. A style that emerged in the mid-50s or so, hard bop's blueprints are gospel and early R'n'B, driving, with well-defined melodies and beats. Hard bop players stretch out and solo, but they work within defined melodic parameters, pushing the boundaries without wandering off the reservation. It's a highly listenable approach, earthy and gutsy and raw but capable of intense lyricism, beauty, and sensitivity.

And of all the hard bop jazzmen, Art Blakey is by far my favorite. As a drummer and a bandleader, Blakey brought a level of daring and innovation to his instrument -- and to jazz as a whole -- that's hard to hold a candle to. His playing is ferocious, precise, commanding; he owns whatever track he plays on without overpowering the rest of the players. Never too showy but always technically and intuitively phenomenal, Blakey's chops are some of the best ever laid to tape.

Take the classic '58 LP Moanin'. Recorded for Blue Note and produced by legendary Blue Note house engineer Alfred Lion, the LP features the classic Blues Messengers lineup of Blakey on drums, Lee Morgan on trumpet, Benny Golson on tenor sax, Bobby Timmons on piano, and Jymie Merrit on bass. It's an incredible collection of originals and standards, played with force and muscle but smooth and swinging, too. It's jazz for folks who "don't like jazz," with massive hooks and straightforward soloing that emphasizes the various melodic themes instead of exploding them.

Lead off cut Moanin' is a monster, with a hypnotic central theme provided by Timmons (the tune's composer), and irresistible trumpet playing from Morgan, who makes his horn shout and cry at will. The bass goes for a long walk as the piano pounds out the bluesy, snakey melody. And beneath it all is Blakey, keeping a solid 4-4 beat, wailing on his snare like a redheaded stepchild, providing the foundation for flights of (nothing too) fancy from his sidemen. "Moanin'" is a mid-tempo burner, catchy and instinctively cool, the kind of jam you want as your theme song.

It's hard to follow up a track as legendary as "Moanin'", but Blakey and his band give it a shot, and not too shabbily. Of particular note are "Drum Thunder Suite," a rhythmic tour-de-force and showcase for Blakey's technique, a cacophonous symphony of timing in several movements, and the New Orleans swagger of Blues March, which features an impossible to forget horn motif and some delightfully insistent drumming from Blakey. Lovely standard Come Rain or Come Shine is given a nicely upbeat treatment, the somewhat melancholy melody perked up by the tempo, scattered rays of light on an overcast day. Timmons' piano bits are bright and spry, Blakey's ride cymbal laying a luminescent wash over the proceedings.

To me, Art Blakey is about as rock'n'roll as jazz gets. He played with an overabundance of energy, throwing himself into his work with abandon but never losing complete control. Cool, but not in the narcotized, above-it-all way that would be embodied by Miles Davis, Blakey was clearly excited by his music, and that excitement is impossible not to hear, especially on an album like Moanin'.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Islands. Arm's Way (Anti-, 2008)

"The capillaries of the community/ Are hemorrhaging on everything."

Islands sprung from the ashes of mad Montreal geniuses the Unicorns, whose talent for perpetually surprising, sonically jarring, and genre defying indie pop was matched only by their internal volatility and penchant for pissing people off. After releasing a sole LP, 2003's stunning Who Will Cut Our Hair When We're Gone?, the Unicorns imploded in late 2004; some members resurfaced briefly as the Th' Corn Gangg -- a weird indie rock/hip-hop hybrid -- in 2005 before Unicorns Nick Thornburn (aka Nick Diamonds, guitar and vocals) and Jamie Thompson (aka J'aime Tambeur, drums) formed Islands.

Where the Unicorns traded in stripped down, raw reinventions of rock formations, Islands is far lusher, boasting six members vs. the Unicorns' three, and enveloping various musical genres (calypso, reggae, afro-pop) into their pop pantheon. Sometimes the sound strays way too close to Vampire Weekend-brand preciousness or -- gah -- world music, but basically this is punchy, hooky, somewhat sprawling psych pop, clever music for the clever kids that saves itself through sheer enthusiasm.

Though Islands' first record Return to the Sea was strong -- see especially the epic "Swans (Life After Death)" and Th' Corn Gangg relic "Where There's a Will There's a Whalebone" -- and featured personnel from the Arcade Fire pitching in, it sounds to me like a band struggling to find its personality. The vibe is scattershot and unfocused, the end result being a somewhat diluted listening experience. There's a certain charm to the rougher aspects, but overall its an unsatisfying listen, album-wise.

By 2008, Islands had undergone some lineup changes; most notably, ex-Unicorn Thompson was out. The new six-man incarnation featured bass, guitar, drums, synths, violins, violas, oboes, clarinet, and some more kitchen sink odds and ends. The resulting album, Arm's Way, is a far more concentrated, distilled work of sonic assembly, melding psychedelia and polished pop in an intensely pleasing way to produce a spread-eagled work of fist-pumping smart-aleck rock 'n' roll.

Arm's Way shows its wise-ass stripes right away with the galloping, disco-stringed beauty of The Arm, a crashing, orchestral exercise in hyperbole. Its hooks are massive, its ambition more so, and it works incredibly well. The lyrics introduce a death-obsessed theme running throughout the LP, Thornburn -- who sings in a mocking, high-tension tenor that makes you want to smack the taste out of his mouth -- declaring, "Well, you'll swim until it's deep/ Until you feel like you're asleep/ Against the sound of warning cries you don't hear." It's a sentiment steeped in dread, but bearing a cockeyed smile, too sunbaked to be taken too seriously.

J'aime Vous Voire Quitter is a jagged gem, a headlong rush into a violent tale of attack and betrayal. The guitar slashes like shards of glass, and the rhythms stay pegged to thrash -- until the 1:45 mark, that is, when the band switches up its steez to indulge in some steel drum Caribbean piss-taking. Even that can't ruin this tune, though, a testament to the band's charms.

"Creeper" is a slinky, serpentine stalk, a thumping 4-4 beat bolstering one of the record's best riffs. "Right from the start, I was stabbed in the heart," observes Thornburn morbidly, "Didn't know I wasn't breathing, didn't know I had been bleeding." When the violins and violas start to stab the melody in the back, things get interesting.

My favorite tune in the collection is Kids Don't Know Shit, a wonderfully snarky potshot at anyone younger than you, with see-sawing strings, monster chords, and thrilling drums. Thornburn's vocals are inspired, soaring and searching, but accusatory and kinda sad, too. "Kids don't know shit/ Everything they've learned is wrong," he sneers. "Kids don't know it, but everything they've touched is gone."

Arm's Way isn't for everyone; it takes some patience to put up with Islands' at times too-cute pastiche approach. But for those willing to invest some time, there's gold here. At worst, Arm's Way is interesting. At best, it's pretty exciting, engaging, overflowing with great ideas and wide-eyed ambition. So if you don't mind sprawl, and are turned on by experimental potential, Arm's Way might just be up your alley.

Friday, January 9, 2009

Jets to Brazil. Orange Rhyming Dictionary (Jade Tree, 1998)

"You're such a willing stick to beckon that wanting knife/ You've been looking for it, the right blade all your life/ Saying, 'Who's gonna cut me down to a size that suits me?/ Is there a worthy sculptor among all you fine young knives?'"

Orange Rhyming Dictionary is a great album, but it occupies a precarious position. On the one hand, it can be considered the apogee of first-wave emo, an unfailingly hooky album steeped in post-hardcore belligerence and bleary-eyed sentiment, a nearly perfect blend of aggression and vulnerability. On the other, you can trace its influence in any number of kohl-eyed, velvet-jacketed, confusingly-coiffed 21st century "emo" bands -- your Good Charlottes, your My Chemical Romances -- currently violating the airwaves, trying -- and failing, annoyingly -- to nail this album's sound.

But can we really blame them for trying? Because the sound captured by Jets to Brazil on Orange Rhyming Dictionary is fantastic, loaded with unforgettable melodies, thrilling dynamics, unpredictable progressions, and clever wordplay. There's not a tune on the album any less than great, and the great tunes are, like, super-great.

Singer and guitarist Blake Schwarzenbach, previously the frontman for the mighty Jawbreaker, pulled together Jeremy Chatelain on bass and John Daly on drums to form this outfit after Jawbreaker called it quits. They named the band after Audrey Hepburn's poster in Breakfast at Tiffany's, got signed to emo-tastic Delaware label Jade Tree, and pulled in DC indie stalwart J. Robbins (Government Issue, Jawbox, Burning Airlines) to produce. The end result was the startlingly grand Orange Rhyming Dictionary (nothing rhymes with orange, gettit?).

Drawing on punk, new wave, and a healthy dose of good ol' meat and potatoes classic rock -- there's a lot of Free, Guess Who, Grand Funk Railroad, and Mott the Hoople on display here -- Jets to Brazil craft an inaugural LP that stands as one of the best of the decade. It's rough in all the right places, smooth in others, sensitive and bullying alternately, complex but easy to enjoy. Robbins's production fits like a glove, placing Schwarzenbach's distinctive sandpaper tenor at center stage while also capturing the band's power trio energy. The bass, drums, and guitars (Schwarzenbach's guitar tone throughout is incredible, by the way -- it sounds like a Telecaster Deluxe, maybe) play off one another intuitively, imbuing a sense of intimacy into the most thrashing moments.

Crown of the Valley starts things off with a sweet crunchy wah riff and slamming drums, a nice glammy number with vaguely paranoid class-conscious lyrics (lyrically, the album tends towards the impressionistic throughout, though Schwarzenbach has a tendency for startling turns of phrase). "Thought we had the lock in '54/ Now the maid owns the house next door/ And what's more, swims in the pool she used to clean." The way the track moves from tight semi-funk to wide open power chord jam and back is pretty rad, and the double-fisted melody beats its way into your brain right away.

From then on, the album refuses to let up. "Morning New Disease" rides an acid surf guitar line and a charging bass-n-drums section for just over four minutes, a showcase for Schwarzenbach's locked-on rhythm chops. The dystopic "Resistance is Futile" is an anthem for an increasingly surveillance-prone society, a tightly wound descending chord motif giving way to dark guitar chimes and a tension-filled solo. "You're never too small for our attention/ You watch TV while we watch you/ You're never too small for our attention/ You're never so small that we can't find you."

"Starry Configurations" starts off gentle, with ricochet guitar lines and softly insistent rhythms setting up shimmering chords before transitioning into rockier sonic territory after the 2:00 mark. "My dear diary/ It's just you and me/ Tonight!" bellows Schwarzenbach in probably the most emo lyric ever. Later, "Lemon Yellow Black" just stomps and stomps, Schwarzenbach raking his six strings without remorse as Chatelain and Daly fight it out behind him, later stretching out into full-blown guitar hero mode for the solo.

The unhurried, loosely played Sea Anemone is simply lovely, a dark lullaby strewn with bright jangles and melancholy conviction. The guitar solo that comes in at 2:41 is like tiny pinpricks to the heart, especially when combined with the song's disquieting lyrics: "Now I'm making out the shapes/ Like the shower rod -- can it take my weight?" Similarly, album closer "Sweet Avenue" is touching and placid without being boring, a luminously acoustic romantic ode with a sweetly driving tempo and glittering major keys.

My favorite song here -- and one of my favorite songs ever, truth be told -- is King Medicine, a sprawling mini-epic in several parts, all awesome. The savagely sing-song melody and ringing instrumentation -- the bass line on this track is particularly impressive -- are addictive, an unrelenting jolt to your pleasure centers. Check out the "chop-chop-chop" rhythm riff at 2:30, or the cascading monster chords at 3:22, or the unwinding solo at 4:00 for proof of this song's undeniable power.

For me, emo essentially began in '85 with Rites of Spring's debut, and ended in '98 with Jets to Brazil's debut. Not a bad run, and you couldn't ask for a better capstone in Orange Rhyming Dictionary, a catchy, sweet-n-sour collection of slightly down in the mouth anthems that never forgets to have a good time,
and one of the most consistently enjoyable albums in my collection.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Trans Am. Surrender to the Night (Thrill Jockey, 1997)

The mid to late 1990s witnessed the emergence of post-rock, a genre which briefly distracted indie hipsters from straightforward verse-chorus-verse guitar noise before ultimately boring them nearly to death and sending them running back into the arms of hooks and riffs. Post-rock filtered Eno experimentalism, progressive jazz, and electronic bleepscapes through a more or less standard rock lens, shedding what many believed were the constrictive rules of rock 'n' roll to forge a brave new path. It was supposed to be the future of music.

The tools were guitar, bass, and drums, mainly, with lots of synth flourishes and studio trickery. The final results were decidedly mixed: for every classic post-rock LP like Tortoise's Millions Now Living Will Never Die or The Sea and Cake's The Fawn, there were dozens of drone merchants with more buttons and knobs than good ideas, peddling album after album of remixes and warmed over jams. By 2000, the movement had seen its heyday, and melodies were back in style.

Trans Am's second LP Surrender to the Night, however, is one of the genre's crowning glories, a testament to the potential of the form. These eleven tracks fuse arena rock, Jan Hammer-esque '80s TV chase themes, shoegaze, krautrock, dub, and who knows what else into a mind-blowing melange of instrumental magic. It's an album bursting with eureka moments, startlingly smart and awesomely rocking.

Trans Am were from DC, but the District indie labels at the time weren't really supporting their sound. Instrumental semi-electronica -- no matter how good -- wasn't the fashion in a scene so strongly tethered to its hardcore legacy. So Trans Am looked to the Midwest, where they found a home on the Windy City's Thrill Jockey, a staunch supporter of all things egghead. They released their first eponymous LP in 1996, and have been with the label ever since. Thrill Jockey put out Trans Am's latest album, Sex Change, in 2007.

Surrender to the Night, from first song to last, never ceases to excite. Eschewing vocals, the trio -- Nathan Means (bass, keyboards), Philip Manley (guitar, keyboards), and Sebastian Thomson (drums) -- is forced to rely on instrumental dynamics and phrasing to get their thoughts across, and the notes speak volumes. These dudes are masters of composition, building intricate, tightly interlocking tunes and delivering them with gale force. John McEntire -- of Tortoise fame -- produced the record, giving the tracks a rich sonic sheen perfect for headphone headnodding.

Motr is a brilliant opening gambit, steadily building tension with soaring synth lines, clarion single note guitar cries, and pounding toms until everything bursts into the light at the 1:32 mark, a crashing mid-tempo giant. The beat -- played entirely on kit drums -- doesn't let up, and Thomson abuses his cymbals for your listening pleasure. Finally, the band dials it down, and the tune bids farewell quietly.

Album standout Cologne is a stunning bit of chilly faux-euro gloom, buoyed by a g-funk-cum-casbah keyboard line and echoey blips. It's the Knight Rider theme as imagined by indie nerds, constantly moving forward, shark-like, for its 4:05 running time. "Illegalize It" is built around Coke-bottle percussion and smoothed-out guitar washes, sufferable jazz.

The blown-speaker beats and damaged Spy Hunter guitar lines of Rough Justice are a bracing palate cleanser, stripping your ears of whatever you've been listening to forever. "Tough Love" is a skittering, bouncing delight, deep bass tones and keyboard lines breaking through the digital darkness with some welcome fresh air, while "Night Dreaming" is a lovely, spaced-out nocturne. "Carboforce" is probably the album's most straight ahead rocking track, with gnarled guitars and flailing drums giving way, eventually, to a more reflective, downbeat, dubby dialogue.

Post-rock is best left half-remembered. A lot of it amounted to little more than self-reflective navel gazing from guys disappointed with the post-grunge doldrums. But there are some gems left over from the era, and Surrender to the Night is one of the most precious. In the years since releasing their second LP, Trans Am have reinvented themselves several times -- going from post-rock to cock rock, basically -- but they were never any better than they were here.

Monday, January 5, 2009

Uncle Tupelo. Still Feel Gone (Rockville, 1991)

"Don't call it nothin'/ It might be all we ever have."

Uncle Tupelo were the alt-country Beatles. Not only did their 1990 debut No Depression (which in turn stole its title from the Carter Family standard "No Depression in Heaven") lend a name to one of the decade's most distinct musical movements and the magazine that chronicled it, but, like Liverpool's favorite sons, Uncle Tupelo were able to take fairly sophisticated sonic structures and ideas and make them infinitely listenable, never getting bogged down in showmanship or theory. Each of their four EPs is an exercise in honest musicianship done intelligently, never dumbed-down but never putting on airs.

Also like the Beatles, Uncle Tupelo had two gifted songwriters who approached the material in two distinct ways. Jeff Tweedy was the McCartney-esque bass player, with brighter melodies and a tendency to delve into matters personal and romantic. Guitarist Jay Farrar played the role of a dour Lennon, bashing out blistering riffs and walls of distortion behind social observations on Rust Belt malaise and the desperation born of too few options.

The combination of the two sounds works perfectly, especially since Tweedy and Farrar managed to successfully bridge the gap between vintage country and punk, recognizing the anger and attitude common to both and avoiding the gimmicky schtick that plagued previous "cowpunk" outfits like Rank and File, Lone Justice, and the Blasters. Uncle Tupelo -- which found its inception in the blue collar St. Louis suburb of Belleville, Illinois in the late '80s -- sounded pissed off and serious, sincere in their admiration of bluegrass and Depression-era folk and determined to weld it to the hardcore they grew up worshipping (see "D. Boon," a touching paean to the Minutemen's departed guitarist). And they pulled it off better than anyone before or since.

Still Feel Gone is Uncle Tupelo's sophomore triumph, a raging collection of burners marked by Farrar's livid guitar work, Tweedy's propulsive bass, and Mike Heidorn's punk-cum-cowboy drumming. The previous LP, No Depression, is excellent, but Still Feel Gone finds the trio taking full control of their powers and realizing the potential only hinted at on the debut. Plus, Still Feel Gone's production is a significant step beyond No Depression's: recorded and mixed at the legendary New England studio Fort Apache (which has played host to the Pixies, Dinosaur Jr., and other such indie luminaries in its time), the LP has a rich, layered sound which serves the fury (and relentless tunefullness) of the songs well.

A Tweedy composition starts the record off, and it's a doozy: Gun comes out blazing, pounding drums and thick, staccato riffs girding Tweedy's seething lyrics: "Just don't tell me which way I oughta run/ Or what good I could do anyone/ 'Cause my heart it was a gun." You can here the frustration and disappointment as Tweedy spits, "But it's unloaded now/ So don't bother."

Farrar's loping, twisted Looking for a Way Out is up next, and in true Farrar form tackles the despair too often hidden in small-town existence. Over an insistent hook, Farrar asks, "What has a life of fifty years/ In this town done for you/ Except to earn your name and place on a barstool?" At 2:11, Farrar sucks in his gut to unleash a searing solo, the rage and boredom and defiance screaming from the speakers.

"Nothing" is an up-tempo thrasher, Tweedy using his (then) unsteady tenor to nice effect to deliver heartsick lyrics: "I found the roads less traveled/ To take you off my mind/ And I told myself I know everything I do/ I'm just looking for something/ To lead me away from you." "Still Be Around"'s acoustic thrust recall's quieter moments from Husker Du or Sugar, Farrar's Eyeore baritone a solid approximation of Bob Mould's.

Still Feel Gone sees Jeff Tweedy -- then only starting to come into his own as a songwriter and singer -- turn in the album's two most devastatingly pretty tracks. Cold Shoulder starts off quiet, with quick, shuffling drums and keening guitars boosting the vocal melody before transitioning into a lumbering bruiser, Tweedy bitterly demanding, "How could I have ever needed such a cold heart to count on?/ How could I have ever wanted such a cold shoulder to cry on?" Album closer If That's Alright is one of the best songs Tweedy has ever written: over a quiet guitar and an obsolete electronic keyboard called an optigan, Tweedy weaves a breathtaking melody and gutting lyrics: "When will it all become concrete/ Wouldn't that be sweet?/ To know where you stand?" finally concluding, "But until then, it's a slideshow/ That you're yawning through/ Or even sleeping," a gorgeous exercise in sadness.

Though the band would achieve a more sophisticated, mature sound on final LP Anodyne, Still Feel Gone is by far my favorite Uncle Tupelo album. It's punk bluster and country gloom brilliantly married in a shotgun wedding, delivered without a trace of smirking irony or dishonesty. It's also the sound of two new bands being born: Tweedy's Wilco and Farrar's Son Volt, each of which would take the various sounds of Uncle Tupelo and build on them in the years to come, with varying success. At any rate, alt-country simply doesn't get any better than Still Feel Gone, a bracing, ill-tempered batch of songs by kids from the sticks who were awesome because they didn't know any better.

Friday, January 2, 2009

Menomena. Friend and Foe (Barsuk, 2007)

"You always had the quickest wit/ The quickest quips and I can't keep up/ It's clear that you have a real gift of gab/ And I'm just jealous/ Maybe that's the way you and I will always relate."

There's a real easy answer as to why I love Menomena's third LP Friend and Foe: the drums. The drums on this record are effing awesome, man. They sound great -- way up in the mix, agile and pummeling -- and the dudes behind the kit (Danny Seim, Justin Harris, and Brent Knopf apparently switch up various instrumental duties, and the album's impressive cover art makes deciphering who's playing what when basically impossible) straight destroy the material.

The playing on this ear-catching collection of experimental pop and bargain-basement prog rock reminds me a lot of J Mascis's drumming on Dinosaur Jr.'s Green Mind: loose, heavy, and inventive, matching the cockeyed melodies expertly and adding a few facets of its own.

Of course, hooks are important, as well, and Menomena (who I can only assume took their name from the Muppet Show number) dishes them out wholesale. This is one of the richest, most intricately constructed albums I heard in '07, a dense, thoughtful bunch of endlessly surprising tunes. There's layers upon layers of melody in each track, employing strings and horns and pianos and guitars and who knows what else to carry the AP-level ideas. It's an LP of curveballs, and every one comes in right over the plate.

Muscle'n Flo gets Friend and Foe started with an album highlight: a gorgeous major-key dirge riding an incredible rhythm track. The way the tight snare rolls build into the thunderous cymbal crashes is a show stopper, sure to quicken your pulse and get your fists pumping. The gritty guitar flourishes and twinkling piano refrains add to the fun, and the result is a classic bit of mindbending indie pop. Check out the delicate, stately bridge at the 1:46 mark, lifted by a holy-rolling organ and a defiantly wistful vocal melody.

Second track Weird is a sinister, stalking exercise in kissing-off, another thrilling drum track pushing the rest of the band through a brutal break-up. The slightly mocking sax lines bounce off the sonar-sounding guitar pings as the singer sneers, "So I won't let how I sincerely feel here stand in my way/ 'Cause there's no love lost that I can't find again, my dear friend."

Menomena attempt their best Wolf Parade impression on The Pelican, the giant, echoing pianos, serrated guitar panics, and David Byrne nightmare vocals the spitting image of Canada's favorite wolf-named band. But it works, a clear album standout, so fair play. The track has a lurching majesty straight out of the best fever dreams.

"Wet and Rustling" is one of Friend and Foe's gentler offerings, an Arcade Fire-esque sojourn built around bright acoustic strums, cascading pianos, and machine gun snare hits. "Boyscout'n" uses an insistently catchy whistle hook and orchestral drums to brilliant effect; "My My" could be a Death Cab for Cutie -- or even a Flaming Lips circa The Soft Bulletin -- outtake, and a good one. The album's prettiest tune, Ghostship uses little more than a rubbery bassline and jingle bells to build an achingly affecting melody.

Friend and Foe is the work of some gifted -- and addled -- minds. While there are clear influences to be traced throughout the album, it ultimately sounds wholly original, far more than the sum of its parts. If you're a fan of leftfield song structures and space-cadet melodies tethered to monster drum lines, then you're going to like Friend and Foe.