Friday, February 27, 2009

Twilight Singers. Powder Burns (One Little Indian, 2006)

"I got love for sale/ Come on, get some/ Before it gets stale."

Greg Dulli is a a pretty sinister dude. The man's got some demons, and I'm not so sure he's fighting 'em so much as inviting 'em down to the neighborhood joint for a few drinks and maybe some 9-ball. In many ways the embodiment of male braggadocio curdled and turned sour, Dulli nevertheless possesses a powerful charisma and charm, a swagger and stride equally alluring and offputting. He's a complex kid, brooding and dreadful, seemingly comforted by his dark places.

A lot of Dulli's pull comes from his voice, of course: the ex-Afghan Whig is blessed with a singular set of pipes, capable of soul-stirrer falsetto croons and gutbucket growls, his range matched by his ability to fiercely emote and vividly convey impressions and moods. In the Whigs, Dulli used his voice to meld grunge-inflected indie rock with Stax and Motown soul, and in so doing created one of the most enduring, recognizable sounds of the decade. Whether you loved their dirty blue-eyed r'n'b stylings or looked askance at their often over-the-top posturing, the Afghan Whigs sounded like no one else.

Throughout the Whigs' '88 to '98 career, you could sense Dulli's attempts to draw closer and closer to making an honest-to-God r'n'b album, not simply a collection of soul songs wrapped up in rock trappings. They lovingly covered TLC's "Creep," and put out an entire EP -- Uptown Avondale -- of Stax and Motown tunes. Their last album, the exceptionally underrated 1965, was probably the purest distillation of Dulli's ambitions with the Whigs, a scorching set of driving, pulsing songs informed by urban radio and New Orleans jazz. 1965 went pretty far in Dulli's chosen direction, but not quite far enough.

So the Afghan Whigs broke up, and Dulli put together the Twilight Singers. His second band relies far more on beats and electronics, essentially aping the neo-funk perfected by Prince in his '80s heyday, but with an emphasis on the shady side of town, the murky, best-hidden depths of the human psyche, and the poisonous potentialities of desire and infatuation. Over four albums, beginning with 2000's Twilight as Played by the Twilight Singers and including one all-covers collection (She Loves You, which featured takes on Marvin Gaye, Mary J. Blige, and Skip James, among others), Dulli has satisfied his soul and r'n'b leanings, sometimes nailing it, sometimes not, but nearly always managing to entertain.

2006's Powder Burns is the Twilight Singer's fourth proper LP, and like its predecessors, treads emotional ground few would willingly choose to tread. Dulli continues to expand upon the themes he's been haunting for years: dependency, addiction, abuse, desire, all entrenched in thumping, soaring compositions, smoldering to the point of combustion. Throughout the album, guitars slash and grind, anchored by insistent beats and rhythms, melodies hung on butcher's hooks.

For every riff-driven jam like the towering Bonnie Brae or the rushing "Underneath the Waves," there's a stomping monster like Forty Dollars, a frightening ode to desperation and regret, Dulli taunting/pleading, "Mangy dog without a collar/ Buy me love for forty dollars," offering the brutal equation, "Love don't mean a thing/ but two AM and a telephone ring," before lifting and twisting the Fab Four to sneer, "She loves you, yeah yeah yeah," with all the contempt and ill-will he can muster.

Elsewhere, Candy Cane Crawl might be the best song Dulli's ever dragged to the surface, a devastating moebius strip of a composition that endlessly repeats its melody and lyrics, a serpent perpetually eating its own tail. "Who loves you true?/ But they'll just forget it, they'll just forget it/ That shit'll twist your little mind if you let it/ Believe me," warns Dulli. The melody -- slithering, dragging its feet, in no rush to get to its bad end -- is hypnotic, fed by a subtle snare-kick combo and flickering organs.

Greg Dulli can be a bit much, but here he's found his perfect musical vehicle. An outlet for his soul obsessions, he can fully explore the musical styles that the Afghan Whigs only let him dabble in. And If Powder Burns was what he had in him from the get go, then we can be thankful that he found the Twilight Singers. This is good stuff, dark as pitch but highly compelling, a long stare into a deep hole.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

The Cassettes. The Cassettes (Lovitt, 2002)

"Thank you, afternoon/ I'll slip between your spaces."

In the '90s, Frodus was one of DC's most fearsome outfits, spazzy, darkhearted post-hardcore kids of the crankiest caliber. Fronted by singer/guitarist/Hungarian Shelby Cinca, those dudes produced perpetually/awesomely alarming sounds before flaming out in the early aughts with the 2001 release of the excellent And We Washed Our Weapons in the Sea. Check out the caustic doom of Year of the Hex for a taste of their sinister magic.

After Frodus, Cinca decided to take a turn for the much (much) mellower, and gathered together the Cassettes. Where Frodus were steeped in wild-eyed abandon and panicky dread, the Cassettes basked in faintly stoned, cheerfully shaggy power pop a la Badfinger, Big Star, and Sloan. All chunky power chords and monster riffs, the Cassettes orchestrated soundtracks for lazy afternoon drunks and mesquite-scented summer Saturdays, tunes guaranteed to put a smile on your face, a bob in your head, and a beer in your hand.

2002's eponymous debut is an aggressively pleasant collection of sun-drenched '70s AM radio throwbacks, featuring support from some future indie semi-stars: bassist Steve Kille and drummer Stephen McCarty would eventually wind up in psychedelic Sabbath-worshippers Dead Meadow (McCarty would also log some time in Ian Svenonius's agit-rock project Weird War). Over 11 tracks and 35 minutes, the Cassettes paint a sparkling, chiming picture, as song after song goes for the pleasure center and sets up shop there.

"(Intro)" lets us know what we're in for right off the bat. This instrumental features crunchy lead guitar from Dead Meadow's Jason Simon, with a vaguely country feel and a plodding rhythm track straight from the Crazy Horse playbook. There's a lot of flange and crybaby wah, grinning and picking and beard tugging. The punchy How Can It Be So Bad comes crashing in next, more lead-footed beats and thickly distorted major key melodies. Cinca used to shred vocal chords in Frodus; here he sings in a relaxed, casual tenor when not knocking out stadium sized Grand Funk Railroad-cribbed solos.

Girl With the X-Ray Eyes rides a wave of blurred, hectic strums and pounding keyboards straight into power pop perfection, Cinca's intuitive vocal delivery a nice counterpoint to the thrashy playing. The slanted, vaguely math-rockist riffs of "The Good Times" rub up nicely against glimmering acoustic strums and luminous "ooh-ooh-ooh"s, and The Improbable Solution is larger-than-life chamber pop, built around a once-in-a-blue-moon central riff, careening unsteadily, wonderfully, as the rest of the band does their best Beach Boys impression and Cinca proceeds to peel serious paint with some epic shredding.

In the years since this debut, the Cassettes have undergone a pretty significant stylistic metamorphosis, and bear little resemblance to the band captured on this LP. Shelby Cinca has found new sidemen, and transformed the Cassettes into a "steam-punk" band, whatever that means (I think it's like punk with more rivets, goggles, and top hats, but don't quote me). I haven't heard of lot of their stuff lately. But their initial release is a goldmine, perfect for blissing out on a clear day, lightly buzzed and without a worry. As winter begins its exit into spring, crank The Cassettes and get a glimpse of the warm days ahead.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Looper. Up a Tree (Sub Pop, 1999)

"Someone had got up and gone to the moon/ And nothing else was more impossible than that."

I bought Looper’s Up A Tree used from a record-seller in Madison, Wisconsin notorious among young ladies in the area for his creepy offer with a wink to “zip it open” every time you bought a CD. Creep factor of the salesman notwithstanding, Up A Tree turned out to be a sound investment. I listened to it through twice the day I bought it on the road to Milwaukee with my then beau (now husband), where I can only think it was the mellow beats and infuriatingly catchy hooks that tranced us into getting so tanked at an Irish pub we were forced to leave the car on the street and find a hotel for the night (insert plug for the historic Pfister Hotel here).

Looper began as a side project of the other Stuart from Belle & Sebastian. Stuart David and his wife Karn hooked up with a couple of friends from the Glasgow School of Art and fed their need for sunny electropop with Looper. Living up to the band’s name, each song on Up A Tree (their first full-length album) contains maddeningly charming loops you will find yourself humming long after the record ends (you’ve had fair warning). If you’ve heard A Space Boy Dream from The Boy With the Arab Strap, then you’ve got a pretty good idea of Looper’s general schtick.

The Treehouse intros with what I can only surmise are a bandmember’s kids waxing enthusiastic about (what else?) their treehouse, which by the sound of this little jam is the most awesome thing ever built by man. From here, we flow into the nostalgic Impossible Things #2, a sort of sickeningly Glaswegian fairytale of the impossibly twee courtship between Stuart David and his future wife. Perhaps as a palate cleanser, they then offer us "Burning Flies," seemingly about, well, burning flies on a beach.

An album standout, Festival ’95's lyrics pretty much sum up the sunshiney hopefulness that is Up A Tree: “There are some days that catch the light/As if someone's put a magic spell on them/So that all of these kind of ordinary things/Seem like magic things.” Saccharine? Maybe. But paired with an infectious bass line and harmonica/flute loops, by the end of the song, you’ll be reminiscing about your own “days like diamonds.”

Strap on your 1999 dancin’ shoes for the Ballad of Ray Suzuki. There’s nothing I could say that can improve upon this review from the You Tube video of the song: “This is fookin class tune. At the end of a good night out, when you should have had enough of all the things that make you bad, stick this on and go like a fucking nutter!”

"Dave the Moon Man" seems to pick up where David left off with "A Space Boy Dream," and "Quiet and Small" is a gentle lullaby complete with twinkling bells. If you’re into spoken-word jazz you might really enjoy "Columbo’s Car" (saxophone and all), but this is really the only track on this record I forward through (maybe because being jarred awake by a saxomophone after the last song is a bit of a hassle). Luckily, things take a turn for the soothing with "Up A Tree Again." And before you know it you’ve looped (get it?) back to the beginning with "Back to the Treehouse," a sweet piano rendering of the peppy hook from the intro, replete with Belle & Sebastian-esque children-at-a-playground backdrop.

All told, this record is a little ray of sunshine. Pop it in when you’re feeling blue, and I can guarantee by the end at least a little bit of your grim will have melted away.

-- Anneke Chy

Friday, February 20, 2009

Owls. Owls (Jade Tree, 2001)

"We fall into patterns quickly/ We fall into patterns too quickly."

Chicago's Cap'n Jazz were one of the most influential emo bands of the '90s, a fiercely fractured sob team helmed by the Kinsella brothers, Tim and Mike. Crafting weird and excellent indierock abstractions, toying with the English language like a cat with a mouse and a thesaurus, Cap'n Jazz became heroes of bespectacled year 'round scarf-sporters across the nation. And when they broke up 1995, Cap'n Jazz spawned a handful of other beloved bands like The Promise Ring (fronted by adenoidal Cap'n Jazz guitarist Davey von Bohlen), Joan of Arc (the Kinsellas), and, in 2001, Owls (the Kinsellas again).

Owls proved to be a one-off (so far, anyway) collaboration, featuring Mike Kinsella on drums, Tim Kinsella on vocals, Cap'n Jazzer and Joan of Arcer Sam Zurick on bass, and Victor Villareal on guitar. Hewing to the mad lib, free association lyrical approach and complex, disjointed instrumentation first explored in the preceding decade, Owls released one self-titled, Albini-produced LP, and its a difficult, complicated, but ultimately fulfilling collection of post-modern sonic pastiche. Baudrillard, Derrida, and Lacan walk into a bar, drop some coin into the jukebox, and this is what comes out.

Which sounds horrible, admittedly, but this album is anything but. At first listen, Owls is chaotic, woefully unstructured post-music. But eventually, the ear begins to acclimate itself, and what emerges from the jarring jangle and heavily thudding syncopation is an engaging, almost hypnotic melodicism, bolstered by aggressive, even daring, playing.

Behind the kit, Mike Kinsella is a beat engine, pounding out the spine of each tune with a strength that almost distracts from his incredible agility and sense of timing. Listen to his loose, instinctive technique on What Whorse You Rode Id On (yeah, I know: cute, nerd), casually bellicose and meandering, but perfectly suited to the rest of the tune. "Everyone Is My Friend" employs Kinsella's thundering volleys to prop up everything else, cymbals and snare locked into a fight to the death.

Along with the drums, Victor Villareal's guitar is crucial to this outfit's sound. Like Kinsella, he's clearly got chops, a spidery, every-note-I-know-right-after-the-other style that's initially disorienting but ultimately awesome. Check out the relentless flurry of sounds springing from his frets on "Anyone Can Have a Good Time," or the flinty, tightrope anti-funk of I Want the Quiet Moments of a Party Girl, reined in on a short leash and claustrophobic, all tension and no release.

Throughout the LP, Tim Kinsella's shrill (and ok let's face it pretty effing grating ) voice spouts bits of precious, overeducated, theoretical poesy like, "As much as we are we will not be as much as we are/As much as we are we will not be as much as we are/ Hey Golgotha, do your friends still do their great Ike and Tina karaoke?" When he starts shouting "Unname everyone! Unname everything!" it's almost too much to bear, but not quite. Frankly, the awesome playing is what saves this record from itself, rocking the singer's foot out of his mouth time and again.

Owls shouldn't work, but it does. It's got all the signifiers of a self-involved trainwreck, but it's lifted beyond insufferability by thrilling, ballsy instrumentation. Take time to take it in, and you'll return again and again, giving your ears a work out and your brain a bath.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Erlend Oye. Unrest (Astralwerks, 2003)

"Wish I could tell you/ About the distance between/ How my life is unfolding/ And how I thought it would be."

Erlend Oye is one half of largely-acoustic Norwegian folk pop duo Kings of Convenience. In that outfit, he helps deliver elegant, melancholy, and supremely catchy ditties informed by northern isolation and the steady rains of his Bergen home town. It's Simon and Garfunkel as presented by Nokia, trading shaggy Americanism for a cool Nordic sheen, and it works nicely. See the stellar LPs Quiet Is The New Loud (2001) and Riot On An Empty Street (2004) as exhibits A and B.

Despite his folky leanings, Oye has a clear electronic yen. Kings of Convenience put out a great remix album, Versus, back in '01, which gathered a bunch of IDM and glitch-pop luminaries to try their hands at Quiet Is The New Loud's delicate treasures. The results were pretty awesome, in the way that good remix records can be: they retained the essential winning qualities of the original compositions and presented them in surprising, thrilling new ways. Plus, they added beats, propping up the pretty but at times anemic melodies.

Clearly (and justifiably) stoked by the results of Versus, Oye traveled the world in 2001 and 2002, getting together with electronic and dance artists to collaborate on an entire album of new tracks, 2003's Unrest. Drawing on the talents of knob-twiddlers and button-fiddlers from NYC, Rome, Berlin, Uddevalla, Barcelona, Connecticut, Turku, Helsinki, Bergen, and Rennes, Oye pieces together an unnervingly toothsome collection of only slightly -- but never distractingly -- Euro-trashy electro-pop winners, each one evidence of his steady eye for hooky tunes and intriguing atmospherics.

The guiding moods of Unrest are nocturnal, sadly romantic, and passingly sinister. There's a gloom hanging over the entire effort, redolent of the malaise that's often inherent in futurism (see: Blade Runner, Mad Max). But the overarching mopiness doesn't, thankfully, weigh these tunes down, a testament to their elemental catchiness and Oye's considerable skills as a tunesmith. Unrest unfolds smoothly, like a gentle buzz in a darkened backyard, nightsounds mixing easily with the rhythms of passing cars and headspace.

Unrest is best listened to as a whole, each track blending seamlessly into the next. Standouts include opener Ghost Trains, with its shimmering keyboards and skittering thump; the rousing handclaps and hi-hats of "Sheltered Life"; "Every Party"'s sly, obtusely infectious bounce and observationist lyrics ("Every party's got a winner and a loser/ One host who's gonna regret/ Telling all they could feel like home"); the glossy Eurorail push and lilting vocals of Symptom of Disease.

Unrest fits snug around your ears like one of those shiny space blankets: it's from the future, but cozy, too. It's a perfect record for back-to-mines and late night chill outs, curated by one of Norway's more gifted musical sons.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Riverboat Gamblers. Riverboat Gamblers (Vile Beat, 2001)

"Part time in the hole/ Full time rock 'n' roll."

The first time I ever saw Texas psychotics the Riverboat Gamblers was on a Saturday night in the early aughts, at the eternal Beerland, on downtown Austin's Red River St. I was pretty lit by the time they took the stage (that's how Beerland rolls -- it's a drunk place), and didn't really know what to expect. But I know what I got: one of the livest live shows I've ever seen, complete with mike-stand swingin', stage divin', and eardrum blowin'. And afterwards I witnessed some smack shootin' in the bathroom, to boot. It was pretty effing great.

Specializing in beer-and-Beam-and-crank fueled maximumrocknroll a la the Supersuckers, the New Bomb Turks, the Hives, and the Candy Snatchers, these Lone Star Staters aren't aiming to win a Nobel Prize or break any new ground.They mix equal parts Ramones and Exile on Main St. to produce a vaguely southern-fried garage rock sound, long on hooks, overflowing with tight ragged riffs and jackhammer drums. It's big and dumb and hugely entertaining, sure to set your heart aflutter and your fists a'pumpin'.

The Gamblers have been around since the late '90s, cycling through numerous lineup changes and producing a handful of full-lengths and 7"s. Their eponymous debut came out in 2001: produced by Tim Kerr of legendary '80s Austin fun-punkers the Big Boys, the album ably captures the band's greasy, drunken charms, and stands as a handsome portrait of an ugly sound.

With 11 songs clocking in at a tidy 27:35, the Riverboat Gamblers aren't interested in wasting your time or theirs. They get in, get the job done, and get out, leaving the smoking wreckage for someone else to clean up. Most of these tracks are under three minutes, and aren't likely to let your attention wander, jam-packed as they are with frantic rhythms and molten fret work. Guitarists Fadi al-Assad (aka Freddy Castro) and Colin Jones (aka Colin Ambulance) buzz and rip with abandon, supported by Pat "Spider" Lillard on bass and the eight-armed Chris "Tuffy McKeller" Adams. Vocals are handled by Mike Wiebe, alternately known as "Teko Buller" or "Rookie Sensation," in a snotty, sneering slur capable of some primal barks.

Each track here is a punchy little champ. Jenna gets the album off the blocks with tightly-wound chording, non-stop shredding, and cymbal-heavy stomps. "High Roller" is a rabid statement of purpose, with shout along verses and choruses both. Don't Look at Me has a nice early Who feel, revved-up soul, amped handclaps, and wounded pride. The grinding central riff and tom-abusing beat of Whatever Whatever set the stage for some prime chaos, the sonic equivalent of shouting fire in a crowded theater. At over four minutes, closing track Kick In The Stereo is an epic by Gamblers standards, and the extra time pays off, letting the boys stretch out a bit and open up their sound: dual left-right solos pour from the speakers, irresistibly crunchy and sour/sweet, while a pounding barroom piano adds a nice new dimension to the attack.

The Riverboat Gamblers are troublemakers of the first order, armed with bad attitudes and blinding sharp chops. They only came here to do two things: rock your ass off and drink beer, and, well, you know the rest. Get the debut and get gone.

Friday, February 13, 2009

For Lovers Only.

Hey fellas/lay-days,

Trying to make some time with that special squeeze? Below is a list of tunes guaranteed to set the mood and quicken the pulse. So drop some coin at emusic or iTunes or whatever, put some or all of this on a mix/playlist, and get busy.

Happy Valentine's Day.

1. "My Funny Valentine" -- Elvis Costello, from Rykodisc's reissued/expanded edition of Armed Forces.

Elvis, accompanied by a lone guitar, puts his own indefatigable spin on this bulletproof standard. A lovely rendition.

2. "Tupelo Honey" -- Van Morrison, from Tupelo Honey

One of Van the Man's most gorgeous and stirring compositions, this epic, drifting hymn to love and desire never fails to melt the heart and stoke the soul.

3. "Here" -- Pavement, from Slanted and Enchanted

An inscrutable gem, with one of Pavement's prettiest, saddest melodies. The ticking guitar line speaks volumes, as does the strikingly soulful vocal delivery.

4. "How to Live Alone" -- The Pernice Brothers, from Yours, Mine, & Ours

Joe Pernice knows his way around a sterling melody, and this is just one great example of his unique gifts. Listen and know he comes up with gold like this daily, if not hourly.

5. "Lost in Space" -- Luna, from Penthouse

A narcotized, endearingly foggy ballad pulled along by ringing guitars and a punchy rhythm section, "Lost in Space" is custom-built for slow dancing and fooling around.

6. "New Partner" -- Palace, from Viva Last Blues

Palace fan favorite "New Partner" is touching and creepy, delivered by Will Oldham in an off-kilter and slightly off-key high lonesome warble as the backing band sways and staggers into the arms of a lover.

7. "Moonlight Mile" -- The Rolling Stones, from Sticky Fingers

Is Mick singing about a woman or about heroin? Either way, it doesn't matter, especially when those unbearably regal strings come in to match Keef's otherworldly, nocturnal guitar progression. "I am only living to be dying by your side." Is there anything more romantic than that? Is that possible?

8. "Shiver Me Timbers" -- Tom Waits, from The Heart of Saturday Night

Before he transformed into a grizzled lunatic with a case of the Cookie Monsters, Tom Waits was a jazz stylist of the old school. "Shiver Me Timbers" is an achingly beautiful number from 1974's The Heart of Saturday Night, which captures him in perfect hipster crooner form.

9. "Mystifies Me" -- Son Volt, from Trace

Trace was a masterful debut for ex-Uncle Tupelo front man Jay Farrar's Son Volt, and this Faces cover is a perfect vehicle for his gruffly romantic style. A wonderful song wonderfully interpreted.

10. "Drop Me a Line" -- The Owls, from Our Hopes and Dreams

The Owls -- not to be confused with ex-Cap'n Jazz po-mo rockers Owls -- unfailingly craft simple, catchy, engaging chamber pop. "Drop me a Line" is a bittersweet, buoyant example of their considerable powers.

11. "Hey" -- The Pixies, from Doolittle

A straight classic, obviously. The swaggering, preening guitar line nicely balances the building, churning sexual menace and seductive delivery. If this song doesn't get you going, you've got problems.

12. "Candy Cane Crawl" -- The Twilight Singers, from Powder Burns

Former Afghan Whig and current Twilight Singer Greg Dulli built his rep on a damaged lothario persona and his darkly soulful pipes. "Candy Cane Crawl" is a mobius-strip burner, relentlessly sexy and threatening, with a hypnotic melody born from flickering flames and tinkling ice cubes.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Orange Juice. The Glasgow School (Domino, 2005)

"I looked deep within my pocket/ For the note you sent to me/ To put it in a nutshell/ You're a heartless mercenary."

Scottish twee-punkers Orange Juice emerged from late-'70s Glasgow to pave the way for a slew of like-minded, fiercely pop-obsessed pansies from rocky Caledonia. Their brash, aggressively naive, and incessantly catchy style can be heard in later Scottish acts like the Vaselines, Bell and Sebastian, Teenage Fanclub, and especially -- given Orange Juice's love of and penchant for thumping disco rhythms -- Franz Ferdinand.

Orange Juice adopted punk's reckless amateurism and outsiderness but abandoned its macho, nihilistic posturing, turning the genre inside out for their own ends. Instead of bellowing nonsense about anarchy in the UK or whatever, they looked inward, loudly, joyously moping about girls and their inability to pull any. But instead of coming across as fey (well, ok -- it's a little fey), it comes across as funny and brave.

Plus, because the music is so winning -- Orange Juice SOP was to crank up the treble on their Gretsch semi-hollowbodies (no Fenders or Gibsons for these boys, no) and strum maniacally as the hi-hats and kick-drums pounded and fluttered, the bass punchy and elastic in vintage R 'n' B mode -- it more than carries the day. Which is good, since the vocal stylings of Edwyn Collins (he of "A Girl Like You" fame) can be a bit of an acquired taste: uber-arch and stylized, self-consciously dramatic and very, very wimpy, Collins clearly didn't care to meet anyone's preconceived expectations of what "good" singing might sound like.

Orange Juice -- their name taken after their favorite beverage, as apparently they were too delicate for alcohol (true story, if Simon Reynold's excellent post-punk chronicle Rip It Up and Start Again is to be believed) -- were some of the first stars of Glasgow's legendary indie pop label Postcard, for which they recorded their seminal tracks from 1980-81. In 2005, Domino reissued some prime Postcard-era OJ tracks in one handy-dandy, bargain-priced comp, The Glasgow School. One disc, 23 tracks, representing a handful of 7"s, one LP, some early demos, and an '81 Peel Session, The Glasgow School is as fine an introduction to these irresistibly charming Scots as you could reasonably ask for.

There's an embarrassment of riches on display here, and every song is pretty much a gem. That said, there are some clear highlights: Falling and Laughing's agile rhythm chords, flinty and dry, drive the song, as the bass bounces all about. "Lovesick" is a lovely raver, slashing and pounding. Sit still through Blue Boy and I'll give you a Coke: it chugs and jumps behind its trebly charge, begging the wallflowers to get off their asses and out on the floor. And Consolation Prize is a heartbreaker, a vaguely country-and-western lilt backing up po' boy lines like, "I don't mean to pry, but didn't that guy/ Crumple up your face a thousand times?/ He made you cry/ I'll be your consolation prize," before Collins launches into a Smiths-worthy refrain of, "I'll never be man enough for you."

Orange Juice were true pioneers, basically inventing the kind of indie pop that would become the bread and butter of U.S. indie labels like K and TeenBeat in the '80s and '90s. They challenged what it meant to be punk without forfeiting punk's best bits: excitement, a thrilling DIY-ness, and an emotional honesty that continues to resonate. Three decades on, we can all learn something from The Glasgow School.

Monday, February 9, 2009

Jonathan Fire*Eater. Tremble Under Boom Lights (The Medicine Label, 1996)

"We were the princes of the diamond district/ When every caper made it in the paper."

There are few albums that have excited me upon first listen as much as Tremble Under Boom Lights. A stone indierock classic, this sophomore release from the much-missed NYC-via-DC neu-garage upstarts Jonathan Fire*Eater packs more energy, swagger, and good ideas into its five tracks and 22 minutes than most outfits can hope to conjure up over entire careers. Everything about this album sounds and feels right, the embodiment of effortless rock 'n' roll cool and fuck-it-all abandon.

Jonathan Fire*Eater were five kids who met at elite DC prep school St. Albans in the early 1990s. Though enmeshed in the city's rich indie and hardcore scenes, JFE eschewed the more doctrinaire and dour aspects of bands like Fugazi and Hoover and instead embraced a preening, hedonistic approach that owed more than a little bit to the Nation of Ulysses and their frontman, hypercaffeinated lothario Ian Svenonius.

JFE released three LPs before dissolving: the good but unfocused eponymous debut in 1995, the blinding Tremble Under Boom Lights in 1996, and the intended-breakthrough-that-never-really-went-anywhere Wolf Songs for Lambs in 1997 on major label DreamWorks. JFE were supposed to be the next big thing, and listening to Tremble Under Boom Lights, you can see why. Unfortunately, they couldn't capture that album's power a second time around, and they ended with more of a whimper than a bang. Which is way less than these guys deserved.

On Tremble Under Boom Lights, JFE nail their formula: take pounding, tom-heavy beats, lock in some tribal, pulsing bass, add liberal doses of soul-damaged funhouse organs to the hooky, tremeloed guitar attack, and top it all off with the irresistibly melodramatic, pouty, rasping vocals of singer Stuart Lupton (now of the Child Ballads). Technicolor narrative lyrics about collapsed starlets and lecherous undertakers never hurt, either. Tremble Under Boom Light's songs feel like cinematic shorts, painting images and scenarios with considerable detail and vibrancy, creating little worlds in the verses and choruses.

Take deliciously sinister leadoff track The Search for Cherry Red, a near-perfect rock song. The stabbing organ/guitar riff and massive echoing drums frame Lupton's gasping, hallucinatory tale of depraved Hollywood scenesters and deluded jet trash. "In Hollywood, I caught the phone call/ That made my heart and limousine stall/ You'd fallen down in the hotel hall again/ A little drunk from the Warners' Christmas ball," Lupton sneers, before advising, "Lock yourself in your hotel room/ I'll take the next flight and be there by noon." The song builds to an exhilarating rave-up, the rhythm section pushing ever onwards as the guitars twist and snarl, finally collapsing in an exhausted heap.

Though the rest of the album can't quite compare to the epic burner of the opening tune, it tries its damnedest. Make It Precious sways and raves, arch and impeccably attired in rich, echoey chords. The creepy sweet Give Me Daughters is a
punching, bucking ode to fatherhood, blessed with a see-saw organ riff and the rousing refrain of, "Give me daughters/ And make them one two three/ I will raise them/ They will look like me/ And when they send, send me away/ Well, I will always pray for a happy birthday." "Beautician" prowls under spy-theme melodies, and closer "Winston Plum: Undertaker" is a cracked character study, a low-key meditation on a nightmare awash in sweeping gestures and spacey sentiment.

Jonathan Fire*Eater seemed destined for great things. Alas, they ended up being a case of brightest stars burning half as long. But before they flamed out they gave us Tremble Under Boom Lights, for which we can be eternally grateful.

Friday, February 6, 2009

Act Surprised has had a tough week, and will return to its regularly scheduled programming on Monday, February 9.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

The Wrens. The Meadowlands (Absolutely Kosher, 2003)

"A sophomore at Brown/ She worked lost and found/ I put your face on her all year."

There was a lot of ink spilled about New Jersey's Wrens when their buzzing indiepop masterpiece The Meadowlands dropped in 2003. The basic story goes like this:

The Wrens released their debut LP, the shoegazing Silver, way back in 1994. They followed up this first salvo with the far more focused, tightly-wound, pop-perfect treasure Secaucus in '96 to increasing acclaim and attention. And then.... and then. They got dropped by their label (Grass, which would go on to release Creed. No shit), and floundered for the best part of the decade. The 20th century turned to the 21st as Clinton turned to Bush and this Jersey quartet's hopes turned to ash. All seemed lost.

But lo, these Garden State troupers persevered, writing songs and polishing their chops in the salt of their own tears. Careers were started and floundered. Children were had and marriages collapsed. And all the while the Wrens (Charles Bissel, Greg Whelan, Kevin Whalen, and Jerry MacDonald) continued to toil away, using the years to craft what would eventually emerge as The Meadowlands, an album greeted -- when it was finally released by California-based label Absolutely Kosher in 2003 -- to universal huzzahs.

All of the sudden the Wrens went from half-remembered also-rans with potential and little else to indierock darlings, triumphantly selling out shows, moving units, and basking in long-delayed and much-deserved adulation. They were a great band with a great record and a great backstory.

And it's hard to argue against The Meadowlands, a breakup -- worse, a divorce -- record of the highest shelf. You'll certainly never find a disparaging word about this collection cross the threshold of my lips. It's a classic LP and no mistake, a cornucopia of irresistible pop drenched in hooks and infectious melodies, bursting with literate lyrics delivered with an energy and enthusiasm born of desperation and the recognition of near-disaster. There's sadness in spades, and disappointment and resentment and a king's ransom of terrible decisions, but there's unbridled joy, too. And it's the joy that sells the record. Joy and palpable relief.

The delicate, cheerily droning opener of "The House That Guilt Built" lays out the situation in brutal clarity, a straightforward explanation of the years between Secaucus and The Meadowlands. "Its been so long/ Since you've heard from me," Bissel recounts. "Got a wife and kid that I never see/ And I'm nowhere near what I dreamed I'd be/ I can't believe what life has done to me." The song sets the tone for the unsparing realism of the rest of the record, a chronicle of disillusionment and infidelity the likes of which has rarely been put to tape in such plain language. It's a harrowing listen at times, tempered repeatedly by the unflinching tunefulness of the songs.

Because the songs rule, every man jack of them. Hear Happy's infectiously chiming melancholy riff and try not to get sucked in to the track's steadily building momentum. The band ratchets up the volume and intensity as Bissel's wailing becomes increasingly intense. ""Don't worry about me/ Aren't you happy now?" he demands before spitting, "Got what you want/ I wanted you/ But I'm over that now." When the band turns the tune on a dime at the 4:09 mark, going from raucous churn to tight surfy bop, it's liable to suck the wind right out of you.

She Sends Kisses employs a tear-jerking melody and heartfelt lyrics about distance and desire to devastating effect. This Boy is Exhausted is bursting with luminous chords and bah-bah-bahs, a soaring highlight. Hopeless is one of the LP's most powerful offerings, with a slashing guitar centerpiece, slamming rhythm section, and withering sentiments: "This isn't what I wanted/ I should have listened them/ Go thank yourself for nothing/ It's really all you're good for." "Faster Gun" and "Everyone Choose Sides" search and destroy while the sunny Ex-Girl Collection charms in the best tradition of the La's and "Here Comes Your Man"-mode Pixies.

The Meadowlands is one of the best-regarded albums of the rapidly dwindling '00s, and will doubtless be remembered as one of the top 10 -- if not top 5 -- LPs of the decade. Sadly, the Wrens -- after touring so much behind The Meadowlands that my friends and I started getting annoyed about it, like, put out some new material already 'cuz I'm not paying to hear the same songs again, again -- have been aggressively recreating the post-Secausus era by not releasing a single goddam thing since '03. Bissel has been touring with Okkervil River, and I don't know what the other dudes have been up to.

But if The Meadowlands drained the Wrens of all they had left, then so be it. And I can't blame them. After all, most bands can't hope to produce anything approaching as good as The Meadowlands, ever. Good for them.

Monday, February 2, 2009

Act Surprised is taking the day off, and will be back with a new post on Wednesday, February 4.