Monday, March 30, 2009

Super Saver/Bargain Bin: Uzi. Sleep Asylum (Homestead, 1986/Matador, 1994)

Bargain Bin/Super Saver is a series in which guest writer Oliver Jones reconsiders the work of artists reviled, forgotten, and/or underexposed. In this entry, he discusses Uzi's Sleep Asylum LP, an early effort by Come's post-traumatic blues banshee Thalia Zadek.

“Where does my baby go? / When all the lights come on?”

Uzi’s Sleep Asylum, according to the liner notes, is “one of those records heard of more than heard.” It's a short album, only six songs long, and clocks in at under 22 minutes. I listen to Sleep Asylum mostly when in my car at night. Driving countless miles on an empty highway, I can listen to it end to end for hours at a time.

This is much how I imagine the band Live Skull heard it as they were on tour in 1986. According to the oral history, Live Skull, a distant second to Sonic Youth's preeminence on the New York/No Wave scene, had a cassette of Sleep Asylum
on heavy rotation in their tour van. At a show in Providence, a shy young woman in the audience introduced herself to Mark C, Live Skull’s guitarist and vocalist, and humbly admitted to having been the lead singer and songwriter of a little known and short-lived Boston outfit called Uzi. And that's how Thalia Zedek became the lead singer of Live Skull.

Thalia Zedek has been in more bands than God, which is why it's actually kind of amazing that she remains relatively unknown to the wider indie audience. She came closest to recognition with her mid/late-'90s outfit Come, who put out four albums on Matador. Unlike Come, Uzi sounds, understandably, like the work of younger artists. Uzi wears their influences on their sleeves, which would be irritating if their influences weren’t fairly awesome. One hears large doses of Joy Division, Siouxsie Sioux, and the Birthday Party. Had the band seen a longer life and wider sales, it would have undoubtedly found classification in the "Punk/Goth/Death Rock" section at Sam Goody.

Emerging from the Boston scene in 1983 and '84, Uzi is also in debt to Beantown's legendary Mission of Burma, who had disbanded just as Uzi was coming up. This debt is most notable in Uzi’s integration of tape loops and tape manipulation into their live instrumentation. While Burma blends these hyper-textual elements seamlessly into their song structures, Uzi’s manipulations tend to sit on the surface, which seems a bit amateurish but works to great effect in songs like "Pale Light," where the sound of dripping water provides a kind of languishing counter-rhythm, or in "Collections," where a reversed Gregorian chant plays against sweeping guitar melodies.

The album begins with a loop of Thalia screaming unintelligibly, deep in the throws of a night terror. This establishes a kind of narrative arc for the album. While not a concept album, Sleep Asylum must be listened to in a particular order. Listening to it on random undoes the magic. Rather than being a collection of short stories, Sleep Asylum is a riveting novella that doesn’t bear dissembling. There’s not a lot of “verse-chorus-bridge-repeat” in Thalia’s songs; rather, each song is a collection of movements, and the spaces between the songs become increasingly irrelevant. At least that’s how it is with this album and her other brooding masterpiece, Eleven: Eleven, recorded with her later band, Come.

Out of this mumble/screamed, fever dream of an intro the band launches into the tense, driven "Criminal Child." Lyrically and vocally, Thalia is reminiscent here of Patti Smith more than any one else. In her raspily androgynous voice, she peels off weird and disturbing lyrics like, “I checked every pulse in a city that never wakes/ Disguised as a stranger, I felt so out of place/ I wrapped her sweater around my face.” Clearly, one needs to have a slight melancholic streak to really dig Thalia; she doesn’t ever lapse into morose pretensions, as she is far more interested in making music that sounds dangerous. However, wounded and dark psychologies are definitely her bread and butter.

As the song climaxes and the garbling of the night terror stops abruptly, a calm, clinical voice asks, “Can you imagine yourself relaxing?" This is, one supposes, the beginning of the hypnotherapeutic phase of the album, as the first dripping of "Pale Light" starts. This is the downswing of the bi-polar mania, the moment of clarity in which she reflects, as Thalia does in many songs, on the cold, lonely Bostonian winter.

In "Gabrielle," the Cure-ish follow-up to "Pale Light," we get the suggestion of what -- or who -- is making Thalia’s winter so lonely. Here we see her lamenting her reverse-midas touch on relationships. In an interesting and unusual vocal melody that’s just a little outside her own prowess, she delivers a deft assessment of a self-aware self-saboteur: “Daylight pins me to my bed/ Do you ever get that feeling? / Make a movement and disturb the air/ And consequences will start repeating.” In "Ha-Ha-Ha,” this self-assessment turns on itself and manifests as self-hatred. It’s the angry and chaotic climax, guitar lines swerving around and into each other like cars in a demolition derby.

The relief from all this angst comes in the fifth and most lengthy track on the album, "Collections." It's a haunting six and half minutes into which Uzi throws everything but the kitchen sink: the aforementioned Gregorian chant, horns, a dizzying collection of melody and counter-melody. This was the original album closer, but when Matador reissued Sleep Asylum in the early '90s, the label appended the LP's final track, “Underneath,” which had been recorded at the same time as the rest of Sleep Asylum. With heavy does of Closer-era Joy Division in its trembly, descending guitar lines and phaser-masked bass line, "Underneath" is a solid addition to the mix and does a seeker of such obscurities a fine service by consolidating all of Uzi's known recordings in one collection.

It’s a shame that six songs stand alone as the sole product of such a promising band, an outfit channeling so many diverse influences at a time when post-punk -- and to a greater extent indie rock -- was still so new and undefined. That the band dissolved because of creative differences is an even greater shame considering that its breadth of sound and scope of ambition are what make Sleep Asylum such a great album. Furthermore, even given the Matador re-issue Sleep Asylum is still a hard album to find, lending credence to the liner notes' assertion that it's an album "more heard of than heard.” -- Oliver Jones

Sleep Asylum by Uzi

Friday, March 27, 2009

Various Artists. Judgment Night OST (Epic, 1993)

"All it takes is intelligence/ I'm great with embellishments."

The 1993 Emilio Estevez, Cuba Gooding, Jr., Jeremy Piven, and Stephen Dorff (remember him?) vehicle Judgment Night is a terrible, terrible movie. The aforementioned quartet -- playing domesticated suburban dudes -- head into downtown Chicago to see a boxing match, take the wrong exit, witness a murder, and spend the rest of the movie running from Denis Leary and the guy who played Redfoot in The Usual Suspects. It's utterly formulaic, surprise free, and forgettable.

But the soundtrack? The soundtrack kinda rules, and is likely the only reason anyone still remembers the film. Here's why: In an era mercifully free of rap-rock, someone got it into their head to pair up some really, really decent rock bands (folks like Sonic Youth, Teenage Fanclub, Dinosaur Jr., Faith No More, and Helmet) with some early '90s hip-hop heavy hitters (De La Soul, House of Pain, Cypress Hill, Del Tha Funky Homosapien, Run D.M.C.) and see what would happen. And what happened was pretty great, as each group clearly decided to have fun with it and managed to play to their styles and strengths in some surprising ways. The collection has its missteps -- we'll get to those -- but it also has some diamond-bright gems.

For starters, the pairings are clever and natural. "Fallin'," by Teenage Fanclub and De La Soul, is a perfect example. Teenage Fanclub's breezy, effortlessly sharp indie pop serves as the perfect complement to Daisy Age De La's philosophic, thoughtful meditations on stardom and the fickle tastes of the tastemakers (which also raises an important point about this soundtrack: few, if any, of the songs have anything to do with the movie, at all. While there are some thematic parallels -- I'm coming for you, I'm going to get you, run -- generally speaking the album is almost entirely disconnected from anything connected to the film). The groove -- cushions of reverbed guitar and plush drums, with a recurring Tom Petty sample as the hook -- is dreamlike, and De La Soul own it, crafting an endlessly listenable track and a clear album highlight.

Dinosaur Jr. and Del Tha Funky Homosapien combine monolithic shredding and an off-kilter vocal approach to bring us "Missing Link," a massive mid-tempo stomper awash in J. Mascis's endless acid funk soloing and slamming syncopated beats. In between six-string salvos, Del (a member of the West Coast Hieroglyphics collective and Ice Cube's cousin) flows like mercury, bouncing verses off walls of screaming distortion and Mascis's ghostlike, falsetto backing vocals.

Faith No More and Boo-Ya (Who?-Ya) T.R.I.B.E. tackle the majestically menacing "Another Body Murdered," marked by a terrifying piano echo, death from above power chords, hell's-chorus vocal motifs, and propulsively predatory rapping. The sample of a desperately screaming woman looped over Mike Bordin's giant drum patterns never fails to unsettle, in the best way. Similarly, on "Just Another Victim" Helmet's Page Hamilton cranks out mechanistic riffs over wickedly on-time beats as an air-raid siren wails and House of Pain emotes menacingly; shit gets real at the 2:35 mark when the band takes a back seat and Everlast commences to drop science about Sun Tzu while DJ Lethal attacks the ones and twos. Elsewhere, Sonic Youth detunes their guitars while Cypress Hill smokes up on "I Love You Mary Jane;" it's fun, but hearing Kim Gordon lifelessly murmur, "Sugar come by and get me high," is likely to make you put the weed away for a while.

Like I said before, there are some missteps. Biohazard and Onyx's "Judgement Night" is blustery and little else; on "Disorder," Slayer and Ice-T sound like Body Count, which no one needs more of; and Seattle team Mudhoney and Sir Mix-a-Lot sound like they're singing the theme song to some kind of wacky cross-cultural sitcom on "Freakmomma," Mix-a-Lot's rapping rubbing uncomfortably against Mudhoney's dirtbag surf grooves. But even these relative failures can't dampen the power of the collection's considerable triumphs.

When I was I was in high school, I had the Judgment Night soundtrack on tape; one summer I wore it out. Everything about it seemed unbelieveably cool at the time, incredibly forward thinking and daring. Rap? And rock? Together? And Aerosmith aren't involved? And Teenage Fanclub and Dinosaur Jr. and Sonic Youth ARE? Awesome. And today, though my ears are far more jaded than they were back then, a lot of this collection still sounds pretty sweet. Nostalgia has something to do with it, sure, but that's not the whole story. The better part of two decades on, the best songs on here totally own.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Suicidal Tendencies. Lights...Camera...Revolution! (Epic, 1990)

"Who are you calling crazy? You wouldn't know what crazy was if Charles Manson was eating Fruit Loops on your front porch!"

LA's Suicidal Tendencies started out in the early '80s as one of a slew of SoCal hardcore outfits in the vein of Black Flag, the Dead Kennedys, and other angry young men dedicated to exposing the societal rot spreading under the West Coast sunshine. ST's particular gimmick? A few of the members seemed to be gangbangers, sporting Crips blue bandannas, Venice 13 tags, and other affiliated labels. These dudes also perfected the classic upturned baseball cap brim look, never complete without a scrawled "Suicidal Tendencies" in permanent marker. Nice.

Over the course of the decade, ST -- fronted always by the angrily intelligent Mike Muir on vocals -- gradually shed their strict hardcore sound in favor of a more metal-oriented approach, and by the end of the Reagan era they were cranking out awesomely accomplished thrash metal. Thrash, as the name implies, emphasizes speed and shreddability, but also -- and especially in the hands of ST -- places a high premium on melody and catchiness. Power chords and wailing, flash-fingered solos ride doubletime rhythms, allowing for far more melodic development and space than straight hardcore, but with a more punishing tempo and visceral impact than classic metal.

In 1988, after a series of declines and comebacks in which the band experienced a rotating cast of characters and seemed to struggle with their overall direction, ST signed to major label Epic to release How Will I Laugh Tomorrow When I Can't Even Smile Today? With How Will I Laugh, ST had fully embraced their thrash aspects, bolstered by lead guitarist Rocky George. George was a monster, constantly pushing the envelope with inventive leads that occasionally flirted with prog rock but never lost their considerable edge. From How Will I Laugh onwards, George's blistering guitar work increasingly came to define ST's sound, ripping the band away from their hardcore roots and placing them in more Motorheadesque territory.

Lights...Camera...Revolution! came out on Epic in 1990, and stands as gold standard ST, as well as one of the best metal albums ever. On Lights, ST are fully in the zone, whipping out massive tune after massive tune, effortlessly marrying their punk pedigree to their too-smart-for-their-own-good Mensa metal leanings. The end result is a stellar LP of prime SoCal thrash, shout-along anthems and headbanging riffs, whiplash beats and turn-on-a-dime dynamics. Lyrically, Muir's anger and aggressiveness is undercut with an almost emo level of self-doubt and introspection, as wounded pride, broken hearts, and crippling confusion intermix with blind rage and biting sarcasm.

"You Can't Bring Me Down" opens Lights with a stone classic jam, an outsized epic unfolding on squalling sustain, gently plucked strings, slamming power chords, and George's wicked fretwork. R.J. Hererra's drumming is a key ingredient, unleashing flurries of kick-drum thunder and pummeling rolls, powerfully precise. The song -- like many on the album -- passes through a few movements, as blitzkrieg bombast gives way to startlingly beautiful mid-tempo songcraft, George's soaring six-string motifs perfectly complementing Muir's choirboy vocal turns. Plus, the video was awesome.

From then on, Lights never ceases to excite (well, almost never -- the metal funk disaster of "Send Me Your Money" is avoidable). The first half of the album, especially -- "Lost Again," "Alone," "Lovely," and "Give It Revolution" -- is effing killer, each track following in "You Can't Bring Me Down"'s footsteps of highly melodic, endlessly surprising thrash attack. Though the second half if the LP isn't as tight, it's by no means embarrassing, and "Emotion No. 13" stands as one of the LP's strongest entries.

Every time I throw on Lights...Camera...Revolution!, I'm taken aback by how much I enjoy it. Suicidal Tendencies adopted some regrettable funk flavors in the '90s, with Muir founding the Red Hot Chili Peppers-lite (ouch) Infectious Grooves, but here -- with leviathan riffs, punishing rhythms, and an innate sense of melody and time -- they're as mighty as thrash comes.

Suicidal Tendencies

Monday, March 23, 2009

Architecture in Helsinki. Fingers Crossed (Trifekta, 2003)

“Drinking stolen gin from the rich peoples’ bar next door.”

Ah, art school, ever-reliable indie rock Petri dish, you have delivered yet another adorable, delicate record. Hailing from Australia, Architecture in Helsinki is an eight-piece of musical virtuosos equally at ease behind a keyboard or glockenspiel. Rising from the late ‘90s ashes of the truly unlistenable “funk-grunge” (shudder) band The Pixel Mittens, Architecture in Helsinki’s Fingers Crossed is at once understated and over-the-top. The verging-on-ridiculous assortment of instrumentation is counteracted by such restrained vocals at times you feel like you’re overhearing someone at a bus stop accidentally let loose and sing along with their iPod.

Fingers Crossed sets the mood right away with the short “One Heavy February.” Teeming with handclaps, it’s a quick, heady high, goofy and delightful - just try to turn off the record now. Reaching its apex early on at the 1:30 mark, “Souvenirs” unleashes a cacophonous-bordering-on-coming-apart-at-the-seams instrumental breakdown that ends with the slightest of sighs.

Fingers Crossed keeps you guessing as the third track, “Imaginary Ordinary,” begins. Before you can finish asking yourself, “What is this poncey bullshit?” it resolves into a pretty little love song that will make you googly-eyed for that special someone all over again.

“Scissor Paper Rock” is maybe the most song-like song on the record, with an actual melody and linear progression, so sweet it almost captures the same wistful, carefree feeling as Burt Bacharach’s Butch Cassidy & the Sundance Kid masterpiece Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My Head (for the kids:

While not necessarily skippable, “To And Fro” and “Spring 2008” tend to stand between me and “Owls Go,” perhaps the best song on the LP. Listen to this with the windows down on the first 70 degree day of the year. And following “Owls Go,” “Fumble” and “Kindling” show off the band’s brass skills. “It’s Almost a Trap” slows things down again, I like to think in preparation for “Like a Call,” which was seemingly created special for after-hours, last-call mixes.

Fingers Crossed keeps the party waning with the quiet “Where You’ve Been Hiding,” “City Calm Down” and “Vanishing.” All three are cute and quiet, if not massive hits.

I saw Architecture in Helsinki on their In Case We Die tour, where they were already turning alarmingly toward some brutal world-music beats. Following that, the band splintered, with some members relocating to Brooklyn to record the slightly edgier Places Like This. It was clear following Fingers Crossed that Architecture was experiencing some turmoil. In this listener’s opinion, their early tentative and unsure era wins the day, hands down.

-- Anneke Chy

Architecture in Helsinki

Friday, March 20, 2009

The Twilight Sad. Fourteen Autumns and Fifteen Winters (Fat Cat, 2007)

"I'm 14, and you know/ That I've learned the easy way/ Some stupid decisions/ And with it a broken heart."

Much of Scotland is rocky, windy, overcast, and damp, and these environmental aspects often find themselves reflected in the music the country exports. Bands like the Arab Strap, Mogwai, and the Jesus and Mary Chain tend to revel in Hibernian gloom, while even the sunnier, more pop-oriented acts -- the Vaselines, Belle & Sebastian, Orange Juice, Franz Ferdinand -- can't entirely mask an underlying sense of sadness and regret, flirting frequently with the darker aspects of the human condition, touched by a northern chill that settles in the bones and seemingly can't be shook.

It's in the tension between ear-catching tunefulness and tear-jerking sentiment that so much of Scottish rock and pop excels, nailing the sweet-n-sour essence of popular music. Glasgow's The Twilight Sad, telegraphing their approach nicely with their band name, are a solid entry in the Scottish musical canon, rocking with the monolithic intensity of Mogwai (shimmering walls of distortion, thundering drums) and emoting with the mumbly, down-in-the-mouth charisma of Arab Strap's Aidan Moffat or B&S's Stuart Murdoch. The quartet specializes in a multilayered, high-volume, paint-peeling ruckus grounded in undeniably catchy melodies, sung by vocalist James Graham in a heartrending burr. The combination is winning, and the overall effect is achingly wistful and alarmingly bracing.

2007's Fourteen Autumns and Fifteen Winters is The Twilight Sad's debut, an accomplished chronicle of adolescent longing and early teenage angst. These songs lay bare the cluelessness and anxiety of childhood and its immediate successor, using blasts of droning noise and steady, sometimes plodding pacing to spell out the emotional shifts and brooding intensity common to the age. In these nine songs can be found all that's awesome, exciting, and devastating about growing up and realizing your place in this world, as the scales of youthful innocence fall from the eyes and the cynicism of adulthood starts to take root. It's a story old as aging itself, but rarely has it sounded so good on tape.

"Cold Days From the Birdhouse" opens the album on bended strings and gently hammered piano keys, drifting through curtains of subdued dissonance and building momentum gently, gently, until the 2:28 mark, at which point the droning and slamming kick in. "And your red sky at night won't follow me/ It won't follow me now," declares Graham as the rest of the band (Andy MacFarlane on guitar, Craig Orzel on bass, and Mark Devine on drums) whips up an appealingly dynamic sonic tantrum. "Where are your manners?" Graham demands. Where indeed?

Cold Days From The Birdhouse - The Twilight Sad

The steady, almost martial syncopation of "That Summer, At Home I Had Become The Invisible Boy" propels the tune to thrilling heights, as accordions and glockenspiels throw their weight behind the bass and guitar to thicken the sound. The point at which Graham exclaims, "Kids are on fire in the basement," and the band explodes into flames behind him is worth the price of the album alone (and certainly makes the track worth downloading, it goes without saying).

That Summer, At Home I Had Become The Invisible Boy - The Twilight Sad

"Walking For Two Hours" starts off blistering and rarely lets up, bouncing patiently and alternating between plaintive lament and bitter rage. The rolling onslaught of "Talking With Fireworks" is one of the LP's mightiest offerings, pulling melodies out of the lion's mouth; "Mapped By What Surrounded Them" features one of Graham's more appealing vocal performances: as he sings, "And these walls are filled with blame," the music cuts with a savagely serrated edge, feedback sanding down the rough edges to make rougher edges, anger and resentment crashing through in cathartic waves.

The Twilight Sad continue in the fine Scottish tradition of taking rock 'n' roll fun dead serious. These four boys know their effects pedals and their overdrive knobs, and they sure as sunrise know their moping. If I had first heard these dudes when I was 16, they would have been at the top of my maladjusted, woe-is-me, teenage mess playlist. As it happens, I first heard these guys when I was 31, and they still managed to make me mad at my parents. And tha isnae bad.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Tenement Halls. Knitting Needles and Bicycle Bells (Merge, 2005)

"Do you believe there's a place for us/ Up and over thee turnstiles?"

Merge boasts a pretty impressive roster, and pretty much always has since it was founded by indie impresarios Superchunk twenty years ago. The number of good to great acts put out by the label -- to include Dinosaur Jr., Destroyer, Neutral Milk Hotel, Polvo, Spoon, Teenage Fanclub, the Arcade Fire, Magnetic Fields and scores of others -- runs the gamut from sugary power pop to experimental guitar noise to thorny post-punk to cabaret showtunes to bleep-tastic electronica and beyond. Merge is more than a label; it's an institution.

In 2005, Tenement Halls -- headed by former Rock*A*Teen singer/guitarist Chris Lopez -- added its name to the Merge annals, releasing their debut -- and so far only -- LP, the fetching psych-pop collection Knitting Needles and Bicycle Bells. Moving in a slightly different direction than the buzzing six-string bluster of the Rock*A*Teens and towards a more intimate, literary, singer-songwriter space bedecked with lush multi-instrumental passages and blinding bright melodies, Lopez has managed to craft a winning handful of deceptively straightforward indie pop outings.

Knitting Needles and Bicycle Bells starts strong with the sweetly shimmering "Silver From The Silt," in which Lopez cheerily delivers images like "a wolf looking down/ On the town/ Wondering which house he should hit this time," before abandoning himself to a series of wistful "la la la"s. The opener serves as a nice appetizer to the rest of the LP, which turns out to be full of small-scale grandeur and budget-priced luxury.

"Up & Over Thee Turnstiles" crashes on waves of soaring guitars, "Charlemagne" jangles addictively behind Lopez's excited lament that, "We never even went to bed/ We spent all our time just a-fuckin' with each other's heads," and the loping "Now She Knows" rides a sing song melody into a western sunset. Album standout "Plenty Is Never Enough" is pure sugar rush, a galloping ode to overindulgence and all its rewards, marked by violently swinging acoustic strums and an insistent core melody. "One is too many, yeah/ And plenty is never enough," explodes the unforgettable chorus, which could be Tenement Halls' motto.

At times, Tenement Halls is somewhat reminiscent of the Decemberists, due largely to Lopez's voice -- an imperfect but charismatic tenor -- and delivery -- slightly feverish and unbalanced. The gently swaying "Marry Me," with its vaguely sea-shanty-esque cadence, is the album's best example of this tendency. However, unlike the Decemberists, Tenement Halls don't come across as precious or contrived, and lack the kind of posturing and self-awareness which so often annoys me about the Portland band. There's little artifice in Lopez's work, which, while certainly touching on the dramatic, stays firmly grounded in the turf of "not insufferable." Elsewhere, as on the steadily pounding "My Wicked Wicked Ways," Lopez seems to be doing his best Win Butler impression, nailing the Arcade Fire's patented high-flying theatrics.

Lopez is no stranger to a good song, a gifted composer and arranger with an eagle eye for sterling melodies. Here's hoping that Tenement Halls continues down the path it started on a few years ago, adding more excellent LPs to Merge's ever-expanding catalogue of riches.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Young Widows. Old Wounds (Temporary Residence, 2008)

"I fell in a hole/ A deep, deep hole/ At the bottom I found god."

Are you a fan of ill-tempered, angrily precise, and excessively accomplished noise in the vein of Drive Like Jehu, Slint, Big Black, the Melvins, and similar purveyors of rocking bad vibes? If so, then Young Widows is right up your alley, a trio dedicated to blowing speakers and raising hairs, delivering sonic sucker punches left and right, leaving the listener a bruised and happy heap on the canvas. These boys are heavyweights.

Blasting out of Louisville, KY's fabled scene in 2006 with their pummeling Jade Tree debut Settle Down City, Young Widows (Evan Patterson on guitars/vocals, Nick Theineman on bass/vocals, and Jeremy McMonigle on drums) were born from the ashes of post-hardcore outfit Breather Resist. Though Settle Down City is an impressive collection of abrasive angularity, it ultimately lacks the focus of sophomore triumph Old Wounds.

In their first incarnation (with Breather Resist drummer Geoff Patton), the trio was feeling their oats and settling into their sound. By Old Wounds, they've settled in nicely, with a clear idea of what kind of mayhem they want to stir up and a defined plan of attack.

The mission: unsettling. The approach: brute rhythmic force and an arsenal of repetitive, trance-inducing riffs played at top volume. On Old Wounds, Young Widows produce wave after wave of wall after wall of sound, conjuring up noisy maelstroms of sonic doom and gloom shot through with a galvanizing energy and concussive swing.

Throughout the LP, Theineman and McMonigle stay locked in and bent on pulverization, with the bass thickly distorted to hold down rhythm guitar duties while Patterson explores new modes of jagged, slanted melodicism on lead guitar. Time signatures and tempos are switched up and shuffled mercilessly, adding to the disorientation and overall sense of unrest. But underlying it all is an innate and pervasive tunefulness, darkly catchy and vastly entertaining, bolstered by the desperate vocals pitched somewhere between a growl and a shriek.

From the savage plod of opener "Took A Turn," the blitzkrieg cadence and bed-spin guitar motifs of "Old Skin," and threatening stuttersteps of "Lucky And Hardheaded," Young Widows concentrate mightily on taking your effing head off, operating without pause and without remorse. When they slow things down, as on skulking nightmare "The Guitar" and the paranoiac "The Heat Is Here," they give off a distinct Melvins-esque aroma, redolent of cheap weed and bad trips. These guys can do the negative creep with the worst of them.

Young Widows are a force to be reckoned with, unabashed fans of early '90s mathematical thrash and post-hardcore belligerence. On Old Wounds, they do themselves proud, crafting a joyously caustic body of songs, their enthusiasm and skill bleeding through in every speaker-shredding note.

Young Widows: Old Wounds

Monday, March 9, 2009

Act Surprised, It Is A-Changin'.

Act Surprised is taking the week off to make some changes. Regularly scheduled programming will return on Monday, March 16, 2009.

Friday, March 6, 2009

Richmond Fontaine. The Fitzgerald (El Cortez, 2005)

"The alcoholics and the ruined and the framed/ I'm on a black road."

Listening to The Fitzgerald, you delve into the sordid lives and witness the less than stellar choices of front man Willy Vlautin's characters - gamblers, alcoholics, murderers - and somehow you come away from this record intimately identifying with all of them. It's a testament to Vlautin's story-telling ability, most recently on display in his critically-acclaimed novels The Motel Life (recently optioned for a film by 21 Grams writer Guillermo Arriaga Jordán) and Northline.

Vlautin formed Richmond Fontaine in 1994, and though he claims to feel more comfortable writing than singing, his voice is rich and evocative, often approaching a sucker-punch to the gut. He's clearly most at home chronicling small-scale tragedies, as in Welhorn Yards, in which the listener is left to her imagination to construct a scenario that could have led up to this: "Everything went wrong," he cried. "I lost the money and I think J.P. is gone, he was just laying on the floor when I ran for the door." Eeps...welcome to Bleaksville.

And as if spending time with the adults in these songs isn't difficult enough, Vlautin even takes us on a few heartbreaking romps with their children. A father-son camping trip in The Incident at Conklin Creek begins: "We were camping in the desert near some old mines/For a week we walked around the deserted old shafts/That's when we saw the body." And appropriately ends with the father passed out drunk in a seedy motel room while his kid sits staring wide-eyed and sleepless. In "Laramie, Wyoming" we follow a boy escaping god-knows-what horrors at home to find sanctuary with his aunt in Laramie (the aunt being one of the bright spots on the record, thank God: "When she saw him she held him and promised she'd never make him go back").

And let's not forget the heartwarming love song "The Janitor," in which a hospital janitor falls for a patient who has been beaten to within an inch of her life by her husband. Our hero gets a haircut, buys a new shirt, rescues his love and takes her (where else?) to a seedy motel. Just when you think all is well, she begins coughing up blood, and well, you get the picture.

We do get another bright spot at the end of The Fitzgerald in Making It Back. Making it back from what? I'd rather not know. But the lovely final lines of this record -- "The lights are all covered and dim and there's nothing but a gentle ease here/ 'Summer in Siam' plays and you and me and our whole place, we're okay/ Now that I'm in your arms again" -- complete the cycle of aural violence. After spending most of The Fitzgerald beating you up, "Making It Back" is Vlautin's apology and the promise that it'll never happen again.

Some may find The Fitzgerald a tad dark, but what will keep you coming back over and over to this record is the obvious affection Vlautin feels for each and every one of his wayward characters. It's infectious, so much so that by the end of this record I find myself wishing I could go hang with Wes at the Astro Lounge and have a few on break, or spend six nights a week in a Reno casino. Maybe not for a living, but just a visit couldn't hurt. Much.

-- Anneke Chy

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Archers of Loaf. Icky Mettle (Alias, 1993)

"And that's a lot to reject/ If that's the best you can do/ And that's a lot to accept/ If that's the best you can do."

Icky Mettle is one of the best records of the last twenty years, period. A relentlessly hooky, punchy, snarling LP packed to the gills with perverse riffs and absurdist, Honors English lyrical nonsense, Archers of Loaf's debut is alarmingly accomplished, and sounds as brilliant and fresh today as it did nearly two decades ago. It's a snapshot of a particularly vibrant time for American indie rock (the early '90s) in a particularly vibrant place (North Carolina). And it sounds huge.

Like Superchunk and Polvo, two other mindblowing Carolina acts of the era, Archers were committed to making a giant sound from below the Mason Dixon line, contributing to the regionalism and local scene-centrism that broadcast indie rock from places like Chapel Hill, Athens, DC, Austin, Chicago, and Olympia. In many ways, Archers embodied the energy and excitement of the time, churning out overstimulated blasts of sonic mayhem informed by noise-mongers like Sonic Youth, the Pixies, and Mission of Burma, full of enthusiasm and bright ideas and songs where red-faced anger and wide-eyed delight seemed to have each other by the throats.

The Archers sound was always a winner: jagged distortion and slamming drums wrapped around Eric Bachmann's sandpaper baritone, odd-cornered and off-kilter melodies that were catchy -- really catchy -- in spite of themselves, lyrics that usually didn't mean anything but were great to drunkenly shout along to. There was menace and self-doubt and wounded pride, served up on a tarnished platter at earsplitting volume.

And as far as first albums go, Icky Mettle knocks it out of the park. The entire LP is incredible, from first song to last. And speaking of first: Has there ever been as great a first song/first album cut as Web In Front? Doubtful. It's a classic, from its one-two-three-four snare count off to Bachmann's immortal introduction -- "Stuck a pin in your backbone/ Spoke it down from there/ All I ever wanted was to be your spine" -- to the sheets of white noise that serve as the canvas for exhilarating lead guitar murder. Meanwhile, the rhythm section just keeps swinging and swinging, going for broke with crashing cymbals and massive kick drum volleys. "And there's a chance that things'll get weird/ Yeah that's a possibility," admits Bachmann in one of the album's best lines, providing an epic statement of purpose disguised as a winningly confused rallying cry. "Web In Front" could serve as the theme song to early '90s indie, encapsulating everything great and thrilling about the genre in just a shade over two minutes.

And while "Web In Front" is the clear standout, the rest of the album far from pales in comparison. Cut after cut finds Archers serving up plate after plate of thorny, twisted masterpieces. The snarling "Last Word," the stuttering, furious "Wrong" ("No I do not think that you could love me anyway/ Because you are inferior to me/ And no I do not think that you could love me anyway/ Because you are superior in all aspects to me" -- brutal and hilarious), the chiming anthem of Plumb Line, and Learo, You're a Hole's slashing stomp and needling guitar lines are just a few of the highlights.

In the years since Icky Mettle, Archers of Loaf have broken up and Eric Bachmann has moved on to the far more contemplative and somber roots-rock project Crooked Fingers. A few years ago, he told some rock scribe, "When we first came out we had that energy. It's a weird thing that you can't put your finger on...I listened to Icky Mettle, and I almost cringe when I hear it. But what the people probably liked when they heard that record was the energy we were putting out." Uh, yeah, Eric: it was the energy, plus the effing rad songs. And if I ever hear you badmouth Icky Mettle again, Eric, there's gonna be trouble.

Monday, March 2, 2009

The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion. Extra Width (Matador, 1993)

"Stupid child/ Why do you lie?/ I'm gonna treat you/ Treat you/ Like a stepchild!"

In 2009, Jon Spencer has basically outstayed his welcome. His latest records unfortunately find him slipping into the realm of self-parody, and Spencer seems to have bought into his own hype by developing into a sort of indie hipster hype man and proto-blooze belter. Is he joking around, subverting society's conception of the blues and rock and punk, or is he serious? Or does it matter at all at this point? Is anyone still even listening?

But it wasn't always like this. When Spencer first crawled onto the scene in the mid '80s as part of the aggressively vulgar NYC-via-DC brat-punks Pussy Galore (featuring future Royal Trux disaster Neil Hagerty, one time Sonic Youth drummer Bob Bert, and Spencer's soon-to-be bride -- and general indie rock knockout -- Cristina Martinez) he was a breath of fresh hot air, hugely charismatic, brashly confident, and wildly exciting, dishing out deformed r'n'b riffs and blasts of searing noise. It was grating and enthralling, an unholy racket you could shake yr ass to.

After Pussy Galore split, Spencer recruited the mammoth rhythm section of Russel Simins (drums) and Judah Bauer (bass) to back up his six-string lunacy, and the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion (JSBX) emerged from their cocoon guns a-blazin', cribbing joyously from psychopunk forerunners like the Cramps, the Misfits, and even X. Basically, from their self-titled debut in 1992 to 1996's Now I Got Worry, there were few acts raising as much indie rock hell as these dudes, constantly taking the piss out of blues and punk while remaining faithful to the fundamentals of both. Spencer himself would constantly exclaim, "This is not the blues! This is ROCK AND ROLL!" apparently content to, well, explode conceptions of a venerated American art form for his own purposes and amusement.

And from '92 to '96, he sounded great doing it. This period's albums, but especially '93's Extra Width and '94's slightly more polished Orange (both on Matador, for whom JSBX were, incidentally, one of that label's biggest earners throughout the Clinton era), are classic collections of syncopated, swaggering, distorted rock'n'soul, greasy and filthy and foul mouthed and hilarious. They still stand up as bad-mannered testaments to an indie rock golden era, though Extra Width remains a purer, much more raw example of JSBX's rough and rugged talents.

From the first strains of Extra Width's massive opener "Afro," JSBX are locked in and full on. Afro is a monster, riding an undeniable central riff -- carried through on guitar, bass, and too-dirty-for-church organs -- over Simins' s behemoth beats. At the 1:54 mark, Spencer shouts "Damn!" and unleashes a squalling, squealing sheet of guitar madness. The loping menace of "History of Lies" revels in a pulsing sexuality and ill intent, while Soul Typecast is a stone genius rave-up, Spencer carving and sculpting white noise and ragged riffs into dance floor platinum, leaning on Simins and Bauer to do the heavy lifting they do so well.

Elsewhere, "The World of Sex" is a steady pounding night train of a jam, and Big Road relentlessly chews the scenery as Spencer attacks his axe without mercy, screaming about Roy Roger's roast beef sandwiches and listing off the names of NJ Turnpike rest stops -- Thomas Edison, Joyce Kilmer, Vince Lombardi, et. al. -- with a maniacal fervor bordering on hysteria. It's impossible not to get caught up in the evil spirit of things, screaming and growling along, your limbs moving helplessly to the future primitive rhythms.

One of my prized possessions is a Now I Got Worry poster signed by all three JSBX members, a reminder of a time in which Spencer, Simins, and Bauer comprised one of my favorite bands. Having seen them in their mid '90s prime, I still remember JSBX as a scorching live show, and listening to Extra Width today I'm vividly reminded why I used to care about them so much. Extra Width holds up as a harsh, pummeling album that never forgets to have a good time or keep things catchy. To hear it is to hear a band at the height of its powers, full of good ideas and the chops to pull them off.