Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Fine China. The Jaws of Life (Common Wall Media, 2005)

"So I designed a postcard/ To send out to my friends/ It had a photograph of you/ And it said, 'Happy, the end.'"

If you look up “sullen” in the dictionary, you may well find a picture of Fine China's lead singer Rob Withem glaring back, eyes hooded and mascara running. Seriously, check out the pictures in the liner notes to The Jaws of Life: these guys look like they’re in a perpetual pouting contest. I can only imagine the mood on the tour bus.
Regardless, Fine China were a brilliant band hailing from Phoenix, of all places. They signed a record deal in 1997 and between then and 2005 put out three LPs. The Jaws of Life (sadly, because it finds them at the height of their melancholy swagger) was their last.

Withem’s dour, dream-soaked vocals combined with mega-catchy pop hooks make for a record you’re not sure you sing along with or cry along to. Either works, really; The Jaws of Life is equally at home on a road-trip or bawling your eyes out on your bedroom floor. Few bands are apt at serving both purposes; of course The Cure, The Smiths/Morrissey, and Joy Division set the standard, and Fine China stack up admirably, seamlessly mixing sometimes downright dance-y beats with positively grim lyrics.

"Rated-R" starts things off with a catchy organ line, then the guitar comes in almost surf-y, and then - wham! – that sighing synth smacks you in the face. You know what kind of record you’re dealing with even before Withem opens his mouth. And just in case there’s any doubt, lyrics proclaiming that, “kisses are the cheapest kind of drug,” cement the case.

"Don’t Frown" is presumably about a breakup, but just when things take a turn for the sappy, our singer is admonished repeatedly with, “You’re such a killjoy.” It’s shockingly easy to imagine that someone (or someones) have actually said this to the members of Fine China at some point, especially when the song ends pleadingly, “Please hang around, tell me don’t frown.” Next up is "Are You on Drugs?", hands down one of the best songs on this record, begging a friend to see the truth in a relationship: “Everybody knows/ That it’s not love/ Are you on drugs?” Condescension laid on so thick it devolves into hilarity; this is the point where you realize Fine China are in on the joke and you like them even more for it.

"The Cells Divide (And I Might Ruin My Life)" is a deliciously catchy gem about navigating the depths of vulnerability in relationships. Before that even has a chance to get stuck in your head though, you’ll be singing along with "Skull and Crossbones": “Somebody said I’m nice/ It tweaked me ‘cause they’re right.”

"Bivouac" is more mope-along than sing-along, but the crisp guitar and breathy vocals rescue it from the doldrums. "I’m Sorry For The Hating" is also a bit dirge-like, finding Withem nostalgic for (and ashamed of) experiences he hasn’t even had yet. "I Can’t Fall Asleep" and "Moving Up" continue on that theme, lamenting the aging process from the enviable vantage-point of a 26-year-old.

"My Worst Nightmare" sets fears of being abandoned by loved ones to a sing-along melody. "Prosecute Electrocute" breaks out the most Cure-like riffs, hearkening back to Three Imaginary Boys. And "Person Of The Month" rounds out the record with swelling keyboards and bass set to a frenetic drum machine beat, the singer begging his girlfriend, “I want to be the person of the month/ I need to hear you say you’re still in love.”

Well, I’m still in love with this record, and if you’re the only-happy-when-it-rains type, maybe you’ll fall in love with it, too. Who knew the desert-dry southwest could produce such moist melancholia, especially with all that sun? -- Anneke Chy

Monday, April 27, 2009

Superchunk. Leaves in the Gutter EP (Merge, 2009)

"If I drift out into channels way too deep/ It's 'cuz I can't stand the shifting sand and shells beneath our feet/ Put your suitcase down and leave your shoes/ Gently by the door, in a puddle with your blues."

The aughts have been criminally Superchunk-deficient. With the exception of the 2007 7" "Misfits and Mistakes," the Chapel Hill indie pioneers haven't released any new material since 2001's stellar LP Here's to Shutting Up, the title of which appears, in hindsight, to have been a hint to their forthcoming silence.

But let's cut the quartet some slack: in the eight years since their last delivery, the label they founded has essentially blown up: Merge is home to two of the decade's biggest success stories, the Arcade Fire and Spoon, bands that have skyrocketed from fanboy obscurity to international acclaim. It's probably pretty tough to write and record new material when you're constantly trying to meet Win Butler's demands for more Faberge eggs and Bowie collaborations. I can only imagine.

At any rate, Superchunk -- who turn 20 this year, impossibly -- have broken their eight-year semi-silence with the Leaves in the Gutter EP, a classic good news-bad news story. The good news: this is as strong a batch of tunes as Mac McCaughan et. al. have released in a good long while. The bad news: there's only five tracks.

Despite its brevity, Leaves in the Gutter is bursting at the seams with the tried and true Superchunk sound: unceasingly hyper hooks, sweet-n-sour six string buzz, rushing rhythms, and wide-eyed melodies belted out by McCaughan in his eternally-adolescent tenor. If you're a fan, you'll be far from disappointed. And if you're (somehow, oddly; get with the program, already) not, then these tracks might just win you over, as overflowing with bright ideas and infectious energy as anything you're likely to hear. This EP once again confirms Superchunk as reigning kings of punchy, excitable indie pop, a band still capable of teaching kids decades their junior a thing or two about crafting blinding anthems and raucous verse-chorus-verse concoctions.

Opening track "Learned to Surf" might be one of the best songs Superchunk has ever recorded. Built around a patented Superchunk-style guitar line (file under: thorny), the tune chugs and charges brilliantly, as McCaughan cries out in his invigorating angry/righteous bark, "When I learned to talk/ I found words, they weren't worth dirt/ Heavy like the rocks we carry/ I stopped sinking and learned to surf!" It's straight shoutalong genius, custom-made for repeat listenings and bruised eardrums. There's an acoustic demo version included, as well, just to show that there's a fair deal of complexity underlying the brash bash-and-pop bluster. Check the fleet-fingered plucking for proof.

"Misfits and Mistakes" features neatly clipped riffage as its centerpiece, tightly wound and barbed; at the 2:45 mark, the song cracks wide open under manic drum rolls and cries of, "Put all the random pieces together!" Meanwhile, "Screw It Up" is Superchunk's summertime jam: crunchy major key chords wash up beside nicely reverbed strums and unspooling lead lines, glittering kitestring climbing ever sunwards. "Knock Knock Knock" takes no prisoners, drums and bass pinned in the red, guitars grinding away in double time, flailing solos the definition of unruly.

After nearly a decade, it's great to see Supechunk back in the saddle, especially when they're riding such an impressive (though brief) collection of new material. Leaves in the Gutter finds these Tarheels in fighting form and ready for action, a fitting memorial to 20 years of Superchunk and Merge; let's keep our fingers crossed that it's a harbinger for a similarly winning full length.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Act Surprised is taking the week off, and will return with a new post on Monday, April 27.

Friday, April 17, 2009

For Friday, A List.

Some Favorite Music Recently Purchased, In No Particular Order:

Telekinesis!. Telekinesis! (Merge, 2009)

First-class power pop in the Big Star/Badfinger/Sloan tradition, full of crunchy chords and tart melodies that resonate for days. Produced by Death Cab's Chris Walla, who also lends a hand to the instrumentation. Excitable, as the exclamation point ably implies.

Coast Of Carolina - Telekinesis

The Thermals. Now We Can See (Kill Rock Stars, 2009)

The follow-up to 2006's phenomenal The Body, The Blood, The Machine, Now We Can See finds Portland's premier agit-poppers The Thermals embracing a cleaner sound and dialing down the righteous rage, but only a little. There's still plenty of aggression hanging from the massive hooks.

Now We Can See - The Thermals

Tenement Halls. Knitting Needles & Bicycle Bells (Merge, 2006)

Shaggy, hand crafted indie rock, reminiscent of -- but not as cloying as -- the Decemberists and the Arcade Fire. Small-scale music with large-scale ambitions from a former Rock*a*Teen.

Young Widows. Old Wounds (Temporary Residence, 2009)

A brilliantly terrifying record of power trio mayhem. Bad mannered and so effing heavy. Fans of the Melvins, Drive Like Jehu, and Hot Snakes, rejoice.

AC Newman. Get Guilty (Matador, 2009)

Chief New Pornographer strikes again with another LP of sterling, expertly constructed chamber pop masterpieces. Newman writes unforgettable melodies like he's taking a walk in the park, and we all benefit mightily. Thanks, Carl.

Bonnie 'Prince' Billy. Beware (Drag City, 2009)

If you like Will Oldham's brand of creaky indie Americana and haunted retro-hillbilly, then you're in for a treat. Beware is Oldham's latest masterwork, tender and sinister and touching, as powerful as anything he's put out in the last decade.

Beware Your Only Friend - Bonnie "Prince" Billy

Mott the Hoople. All The Young Dudes (Columbia, 1972)

I apparently made it to this point without ever actually owning this glam milestone, but I don't know how. It's pretty great (you heard it here first, folks!), showing off Ian Hunter's considerable songwriting chops: though the title track is Bowie's, "Sucker" and "Jerkin' Crocus" belong to Mott and Mott alone, and stand out as some of the best sounds the glam era had to offer.

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)

Stern shreds. Eddie Van Halen should watch his back.

Transformer - Marnie Stern

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

Jersey boys with a Springsteen fixation and Strummer chops, The Gaslight Anthem sing about dead end towns and the beautiful losers trapped in them, filtering the sorrow through joyous hardcore energy and defiant volume. Awesome more often than not.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. Hard Promises (MCA, 1981)

"It's a circle of deception/ It's a hall of strangers/ It's a cage without a key/ You can feel the danger."

Who doesn't like Tom Petty? Not only is he responsible for some of the greatest pop and rock tunes of the last 30-plus years -- honestly, when "American Girl" or "Freefallin'" or "Don't Do Me Like That" or whatever comes on, who changes the station? Who doesn't, at this point, own Tom Petty's Greatest Hits? Who wouldn't be happy to just let Tom Petty play the Superbowl halftime show every year?-- but he's always come across as a humble, easygoing guy who can't believe his luck. He's gracious enough to wave off the fact that the Strokes basically lifted "American Girl" wholesale for one of their biggest hits, "Last Night," saying in essence, "Yeah, well, I guess everyone borrows from somebody sometimes. That's a great song." Petty even goes so far as to basically play himself on King of the Hill, voicing Luanne's genial redneck husband, Lucky, who's drawn to look exactly like Tom Petty, lank blond hair, weak chin, and all.

And here's another reason to like Tom Petty: he once stood up to the record industry and won. After recording the Heartbreakers' fourth LP, Hard Promises, MCA announced that the album would be sold for the price of $9.98, a dollar more than the then-standard full-length price of $8.98. The reason? Tom Petty -- who had already released a string of massively popular albums and established himself as a bonafide hit maker whose songs were on constant FM radio rotation -- was considered such a quality artists that his albums would be subject to the so-called "superior" pricing (Steely Dan and Olivia Newton-John were also considered "superior" artists, by the way).

Tom Petty thought that was bullshit, man. So what did he do? He put his popularity to work and publicly slagged off MCA and the record business in general, generating such bad press for the price increase that MCA backed down and charged the standard $8.98. Nice work, Tom.

And it of course helps that the LP at the heart of all the controversy happens to rule. Because they have so many effing amazing singles and radio hits, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers don't get enough credit for crafting strong albums, whole collections that sound good from beginning to end. Hard Promises -- along with, especially, Damn the Torpedoes and the transcendent Southern Accents -- is a great example of Petty's ability to keep up the quality over the course of an entire LP and avoid any real obvious filler.

Hard Promises is a pretty dark, introspective record, with a running theme of emotional distress and romantic hazards. The LP's biggest hit was "The Waiting," and it's not hard to see why. A sad, sparkling anthem featuring Petty's signature addictive jangle and a triumphantly resigned chorus, "The Waiting" is pure platinum. The way Mike Campbell's lead guitar chimes, siren-like, as Petty croak-croons, "You take it on faith, you take it to the heart/ The waiting is the hardest part," straight slays, instantly ensuring the track's place in the rock canon.

"A Woman in Love" is a wailing character study in fragility and impending disaster, as tight a track as any Petty has ever written, with some of his most heart-wrenching lyrics. "Time after time, night after night/ She would look up at me and say she was lonely," murmurs Petty despondently. "I don't understand what she needed/ I gave her everything, she threw it all away on nothin."' Bleak and bleaker, buoyed by hazy, noir-ish organ lines and slide guitar runs. The Beatlesesque ballad "You Can Still Change Your Mind" covers similar emotional ground with a different melodic approach, scoring another victory for the Heartbreakers and adding to the LP's string of winners.

An overlooked classic, "Nightwatchman" rides an infectiously syncopated drum break (sampling was invented for this) and a tightly-wound rhythm guitar scratch as Petty paints the hilariously creepy picture of a low-level security officer, alternately boasting, "Honey, this ain't a job for a man like me," and sneering, "How safe do you wanna be?" "Something Big" comes next, a mini-epic, a snapshot of a bad situation about to get worse, awash in acoustic twelve-string minor chords and sinister narrative threads. By the time the hotel maids find Speedball lifeless in his room, it's the only way the story could end.

The album's highest light is the beautiful "Insider," a duet with Stevie Nicks. It's a lean, fragile anti-ballad, featuring some of Petty's best lyrics and a haunting melody. As the band smolders behind them, Petty and Nicks harmonize soulfully, explaining, "I'm an insider/ I been burned by the fire/ And I've had to live with some hard promises/ I've crawled through the briars/ I'm an insider." When they spit, "And I'm the one who ought to know/ I'm the one you left to rust/ Not one of your twisted friends/ I'm the one you couldn't love," it's almost too much to take. (Incidentally, uber-indie troubadours Silkworm would years later turn in a devastating, terrifying version of "Insider" on the really-quite-good Tom Petty covers collection You Got Lucky. Definitely worth checking out.)

Hard Promises, maybe because it boasted only one sure-fire hit single, sometimes gets lost in the shuffle of great Tom Petty records. But it more than stands up to anything else in his enviable catalog, a rock-solid collection of honest, hooky, emotionally resonant songs, and further evidence (as if any was needed, even back in '81) that Tom Petty is bulletproof.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Juno. A Future Lived in the Past Tense (DeSoto, 2001)

"You said everything like it was an afterthought/ You should have used it more wisely, that soul you bought."

Purveyors of densely layered, rhythmically complex math rock, Seattle's chronically overlooked Juno were a brilliant case of cross-country indie networking, Pacific Northwesterners signed to the DC-centric DeSoto label founded by Jawbox's Bill Bardot and Kim Coletta. Though based a continent away from the Nation's Capital, Juno were cut from the same brainy, fitted postpunk cloth as other DeSoto acts like Faraquet, the Dismemberment Plan (with whom Juno released an excellent split EP in 2000), and Burning Airlines, churning out grandiose slabs of well-planned, meticulously constructed indie noise, brows furrowed and amps cranked.

Juno coalesced in 1995, putting out some singles on Sub Pop and Jade Tree before releasing their debut full length This Is the Way It Goes and Goes on DeSoto in 1999. In 2000, they put out the aforementioned split EP with the Dismemberment Plan, followed by second full length A Future Lived in the Past Tense in 2001. Sadly, the latter would be the band's final release, and today the band is officially defunct (though they did play a reunion set in late 2006 for a KEXP benefit).

The key to Juno's sound was its triple guitar attack. Axemen Arlie Carstens (who also handled vocals), Gabe Carter (also keyboards), and Jason Guyer combined to form an awesomely interlocking sonic wall, with multiple melodic and harmonic lines interweaving to create a shimmering, shifting tapestry, hooks echoing off hooks and riffs rebounding off riffs. Behind it all labored Herculean drummer Greg Ferguson, keeping the ship on course and giving shape to the chaos with impeccable timing and a commanding technique. Bass-wise, Juno depended on a rotating cast of hired hands, including Death Cab for Cutie's Nick Harmer and Sunny Day Real Estate/Foo Fighter Nate Mendel, both of whom worked to guide the melodic center on the low end.

Though both of Juno's two LPs are superior examples of top-shelf postpunk, their swansong is the group's masterpiece, and a hell of a note to go out on. An ambitious and far-reaching collection of towering master class anthems and brainy bombast, A Future Lived in the Past Tense gets complicated quick and stays that way for the duration of its 70 minutes, relentlessly battering the listener with wave after wave of six string turbulence.

Instrumental opener "A Thousand Motors Pressed Upon the Heart" instructs, "Enter the secret code," before a tight organ motif ushers in darkly chiming guitars, heavy reverb and endless sustain washing through the speakers in thick pulses. The drums pound out a knotty beat as the bass earns its keep with nicely propulsive runs. "Covered With Hair" is classic Juno, triumphant and wounded, brash and enthusiastically vulnerable. Moving from windmilling power chords to quick-footed push, the band successfully charts a path between punk and prog. "All the hip kids wail in the cold/ Bluffing to dying sounds of indie rock's dying soul," Carstens bitterly observes, as the guitars mercilessly slash and jab. "Put on your punk belt and rock it for all the square cools."

"When I Was In" starts off with delicate plucks and strums before exploding into bruised rage. "No one ever gets it right!" wails Carstens, the frustration palpable in every nimble snare punch and gnarled note. Slow burner "The French Letter" seethes and smolders, beautiful in its malice and ill intent, while the meditative, wordless "Up Through the Night" plays like a melancholy lullaby. Back in full-on guitar abuse form, Juno deliver "You Are The Beautiful Conductor of This Orchestra" with full throated abandon, swinging for the fences with each twisted and thorny note.

A Future Lived in the Past Tense is at once unsettling and exceedingly satisfying, trading on future shock and millennial anxiety, filtering bad vibes and foreboding through joyous riffs and stadium drums. It's the sound of a band hitting their stride, finding their voice, and maybe realizing that this is the end of the road. An album of discovery and loss, glad tidings and troubling realizations. Epic comes close.

Friday, April 10, 2009

The Duke Spirit. Cuts Across The Land (Loog, 2005)

"I'm trying to get you but you don't realize/ I'm a nightmare."

Yet again, the proverbial "art college" spawns a tasty musical treat. London garage rock quartet The Duke Spirit's lead singer and guitarist met there; after adding a couple friends, the band's current lineup came to life in 2003. Lead singer Liela Moss is a powerhouse, a secret weapon raised on rock, soul, and blues. Her voice is throaty, deep, and unfailingly evocative. Backed by loud guitars and sharp drums, she's never lost in the din, which is a good thing: in The Duke Spirit formula, Moss is clearly the moneymaker. Sexy British chick with smoldering eyes and smoky pipes roaring hyper-hooky rock songs=yummy.

Released in 2005, Duke Spirit debut Cuts Across The Land touts fifteen tracks (including three bonus tracks), which may come across as a tad excessive, but the tunes are so damn likable that you'll find the largesse forgivable. It's a toothsome collection of shimmering, grinding treasures, equal parts Pixies and Shangri-Las -- with a little bit of Troggs and Sonics thrown in for spice -- and easily one of the most distinctive LPs of the decade.

The LP opens with a bang, its title track immediately drumming its way into your good graces. Moss's throaty voice kicks in with a sexy lilt and cute British accent, and if you're not won over by that, perhaps you'll fall for her Stevie Nicks-rivaling tambourine talents. Normally, I'm pretty annoyed by singers who don't play an instrument, but this chick sort of seduces you into thinking the tambourine is a totally legitimate "instrument," if only for the duration of this record. In her defense, Moss also plays harmonica and piano, and frankly, once you hear her sing, you'll wonder how she can make room for any instrumentation at all with that larger-than-life voice.

"Love Is An Unfamiliar Name," an album standout, breezes in with an almost Serge Gainsbourg beat, which is of course cut to shreds by Moss' penetrating vocals. This song really takes off around the 2-minute mark, and ends with such catchy ooh-ooh's I dare you to not sing along. The Duke Spirit keeps the ride going with another winner, "Darling, You're Mean," featuring Moss suggestively and repeatedly belting, "Ooh, I'm so cheap." "Win Your Love" ups the sexy with even more seductive lyrics: "Yeah, I know those eyes/Now I want those bones."

The band slows down and takes a breath for "Hello To The Floor," Moss's tambourine sounding more Mazzy Star than Fleetwood Mac. "Bottom Of The Sea" is perhaps the best song on the record, opening with haunting "Wave Of Mutilation" guitar strands. Moss sounds laconically pissed at some idiot who treated her like garbage: "I swam to the bottom of the sea for you...So long, my lovely."

"Fades The Sun" is relentless with the beats; just try not to shake your ass along with it. "You Were Born Inside My Heart" and "Lion Rip" are fun little jams, if not breathtaking in their genius. "Lovetones" seems to pick up where "Fades The Sun" left off, building to a satisfying climax at the chorus before ending in gratifying guitar clatter.

"Stubborn Stitches" and "Red Weather" are solid songs standing between me and "Take A Look Around," one of the bonus tracks and the last big winner on Cuts Across The Land. Take some very simple lyrics -- "Take a look around, la la la la" -- lather , rinse, and repeat to a squalling wall of noise and you have a 1:40 powerhouse of a song.

Cuts Across the Land is a modern garage rock classic, delivering a delicious lady-fronted rockgasm you'll return to again and again. Like all great garage rock, it reduces the music to the bare essentials: head-bobbing beats, heartpounding hooks, and loads of nervous energy. Plus, it sounds sexy as hell. And what more could you possibly need? -- Anneke Chy

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

The Delta 72. The R&B of Membership (Touch and Go, 1996)

"Stolen nights and borrowed time."

Washington, DC sits below the Mason-Dixon line, and its south shows. The District is a city of soul food and soul music, the hometown of Marvin Gaye, Roberta Flack, and Chuck Brown, and occasionally these influences find their way into DC's hardcore and postpunk scenes. A handful of DC groups -- the Make-Up, the Delta 72, the Dismemberment Plan, the Fort Knox Five -- have always been drawn to the r'n'b, soul, and gospel sounds native to the nation's capital, combining punk volume and abandon with a street-wise strut and deep-fried swagger.

The Delta 72 burst out of DC in the early '90s peddling a fiery mix of brash Capitol City hardcore and gritty southern soul, relentlessly distorted guitar rumble and bruising postpunk rhythms bolted to greasy Farfisa organ riffs, blasted harmonica blares, and screaming blues slides. It was an exciting, bracing sound, taking some cues from the sleep-deprived fervor of the Nation of Ulysses and the high calorie blues-punk of Jon Spencer, but without Jon Spencer's smirkiness or the Nation of Ulysses's mock-revolutionary manifestos. The Delta 72 sounded dead serious, throwing their backs into hi-octane rock, filtering r'n'b through blown amps and youthful exuberance and glowering aggression, shaking assess out of seats and hips out of sockets.

The Delta 72 (who would eventually relocate to Philly before breaking up in 2001) were initially a two-piece, with drummer Ben Azzara backing up guitarist/vocalist/harmonica player Gregg Foreman. In short order, Azzara and Foreman's skeletal line-up added some muscle in the form of organist Sarah Stolfa and ex-Cupid Car Club (which also featured Nation of Ulysses's hipster messiah Ian Svenonius) bassist Kim Thompson, rounding out the Delta 72's sound and giving the group a substantial amount of low-end power and rave-up potential.

In 1994, the Delta 72 debuted with the On the Rocks 7", a joint Kill Rock Stars/Dischord release. Shortly thereafter, Azzara split to join the more straight-ahead DC punk outfit the Capitol City Dusters. New drummer Jason Kourkounis assumed the throne, and the Delta 72 joined the venerable Touch and Go roster, where they would stay for the remainder of their existence.

Three LPs and a few EPs and 7"s later, the Delta 72 had earned a rep for blistering live sets, developing into a feral soul-punk beast whipping kids into a frenzy of battered abandon and exhausted, sweat wet joy. They were a party band for a party that was definitely gonna get broken up by the cops, a party which might see some bloody noses and broken bones, a party that everyone would remember as one of the best parties ever, man.

1996's The R&B of Membership finds the Delta 72 at their crazy-eyed best, churning out syrup-thick riffs over pounding beats and panicky organ lines, bass and drums committed to a pummeling swing while the guitars scream and cry. Each of the LP's twelve tracks nails the sweet spot between punk and soul, coming across as reverent and respectful instead of kitschy or mocking. The R&B of Membership is no joke.

The music speaks for itself. "On The Lam" rides waves of stun-ray guitar and Farfisa funhouse chords into oblivion, bruising ribs and blacking eyes. The hyped slide of "Rich Girls Like to Steal" is backed up with a nicely circular central riff, crashing ride cymbals, and hectic harmonica work, an album standout. "On The Rocks" uses tribal rhythms and shouted vocals to underscore the vaguely spy-themed melody and mood, while "Capitol Contingency" gets started with a droney organ line before metastasizing into an Addams Family punk orgy. "7 & 7" gets drunk off its own sonic cocktail of driving drums and squalling six-string mayhem, one of the album's most infectious hipshakers. And "Hustler" is just that, a slyly insinuating tune that knows all the angles, copping wise and casing squares to a mid-tempo prowl.

The Delta 72 found a sound a stuck to it, perfecting their approach and never taking the piss. They prayed at the same r'n'b altar they set to tear down, paying respect while simultaneously lighting the joint on fire. And on The R&B of Membership, the destruction sounds great.

The Delta 72 -- The R&B of Membership

Monday, April 6, 2009

fIREHOSE. Ragin', Full On (SST, 1986)

"The enemy turns captain/ The captain turns civilian/ The lieutenant becomes casualty."

Most indie nerds know the story of fIREHOSE: Minutemen guitarist D. Boon died in a van accident in 1985, leaving his bandmates and best friends -- bassist Mike Watt and drummer George Hurley -- devastated and distraught. Into this period of mourning stepped Minutemen superfan Ed Crawford, a 22-year-old Ohio kid who called up Watt out of the blue and persuaded him to start making music again. Crawford trucked out to California, and fIREHOSE -- also featuring Hurley behind the kit -- was born.

From 1986 to 1993, fIREHOSE -- not to be confused with hairmetalers Firehouse -- flew the flannel on five LPs and a handful of EPs, first with the legendary SST label and then on major Columbia. Though not quite as visionary and viscerally exciting as the Minutemen, the trio were a bit more melodic, trading D. Boon's hyper-literate, hopped-up spazz-speak for Crawford's more traditional tenor. The group's debut, Ragin', Full On, is one of the best indie albums of the '80s, a startling statement of purpose and a triumphant return for Watt and Hurley, one of the most ferocious rhythm sections ever to mark time.

Even though fIREHOSE tended to emphasize more standard rock and folk structures over the Minutemen's aggressive jazz punk, they retained much of the Minutemen's energy and impact. Crawford was never an amazing guitarist, and his playing pales in comparison to the blinding virtuosity of Watt and Hurley, but he has an intuitive feel for melody and timing, playing off the bass and drums in a natural, lived-in way, owning the melodies and creating space for the rest of the band. Ragin', Full On works because it sounds improvised and precise all at once, with hooks to spare and an overarching sense of excitement and enthusiasm.

"Brave Captain" is as good an introduction as any band could ask for, an instant classic and one of the best tracks fIREHOSE would ever lay to tape. Crawford frantically strums out a jarring, two-chord electrified jangle on loan from Mission of Burma while Watt and Hurley straight kill the time signatures, keeping things wild-eyed and jumpy without sounding like showoff a-holes. "There are doubts in your abilities/ There's too many blanks in your analogies," declares Crawford in a plaintive wail, drums and bass cascading behind him.

Other album standouts include the scatterbrained "Under the Influence of Meat Puppets," the charging anthem "Chemical Wire," and the playful "Locked In," which moves from sparkling pop to thoughtful folkiness to breathless rawk in under three minutes. And when Crawford, Watt, and Hurley bring the mood down, as on the delicate, Spanish guitar-inflected "The Candle and the Flame," the achingly pretty "Things Could Turn Around," or the acoustic lament "This...," fIREHOSE still pack a wallop, emotional resonance making up for instrumental aggression.

When I was in high school, I had a dubbed tape with Baldo Rex's awe-inspiring Parilda Cilgen Elmas on one side and Ragin', Full On on the other. Needless to say, it was one of my favorites, and I listened to it weekly. To my youthful ears, Ragin', Full On represented DIY excellence, instrumental prowess, and indie cool. Listening to it today, it still sounds that way, a gleaming jewel of an LP and the sound of a band rising from the ashes of tragedy.

Friday, April 3, 2009

Kings of Convenience. Riot On An Empty Street (Astralwerks, 2004)

“What is there to know?/ This is what it is/ You and me alone/ sheer simplicity.”

If you would have told me fifteen years ago that when I was 30 I would really dig a folk-pop duo from Norway, I might have kicked you in the shins with my combat boots. Fortunately now I’m older, hopefully wiser, and able to appreciate (some of) the Norwegians' music (if not their cuisine). Case in point: Bergen's Kings of Convenience.

Fronted by Erlend Oye (also solo recording artist and DJ extraordinaire) and his childhood pal Eirik Glambek Boye, Kings of Convenience first minced their way onto the festival scene in 1999 (after a short-lived turn during high school as Skog, Norwegian for "forest"). Their talent, perhaps combined with the revamp/re-moniker to the internationally friendly (certainly at least America/UK friendly) Kings of Convenience, landed them their first record deal.

2001 saw the release of Quiet Is The New Loud, a gorgeously understated record, lushly melodic and well worth checking out. Following that gem (and a delicious record of Quiet remixes, 2001's Versus), Riot on an Empty Street was released in 2004 to, well, maybe not fanfare, but it was certainly well-received and holds up, in this reviewer’s opinion, as one of the best records of that year.

For those of you who haven’t already heard Kings of Convenience, I can tell you that you already know Erlend Oye’s infectious voice (if you own a TV). He was the featured singer (with band Royksopp) in the hippest of the Geico caveman commercials. You know the one: airport, tennis racket, vintage carry-all, moving sidewalk, all very Wes Anderson. In fact, Oye sports a bit of a Wes Anderson-y look himself, with his ginormous Norwegian government-issue frames and unruly curls. Sigh. But I digress…

Riot on an Empty Street is everything that listeners loved about Quiet Is The New Loud, only more and better. From the first delicate opening chords of "Homesick," you'll be hooked. Channeling Simon & Garfunkel, their harmonies are indicative of their close friendship, reading and playing off each other like identical twins. "Misread" follows, with a mellow bossa nova beat and Astrud Gilberto feel, if a touch more melancholy, less sunshine and sand. "Cayman Islands" is a winsome song about vacationing and sometimes feeling more at home in strange places than in your own bed.

"Stay Out of Trouble" is a standout, the strings and chords gliding and practically leaping over the grim lyrics of a broken relationship: “So baby, what we’ve got has lately not been enough.” Then, on "Know-How," Oye and Boye bring in their secret weapon – Canadian indie chanteuse Feist. And this is 2004 Feist -- not the current overexposed, sorta insufferable diva Feist -- making her vocal contributions not only listenable but brilliant and indispensable.

"Sorry or Please" is a playful look at the early, awkward stage of romantic relationships (not as cheesy as it sounds). "Love is No Big Truth," "I’d Rather Dance With You," and "Live Long" bring the record’s blood pressure back up with dance-y beats a la a back-to-ours at Ibiza.

The party winds down for the last few tracks. "Surprise Ice" seems to be all about maintaining some sense of hope for the future in the darkness of Norwegian winter. "Gold In the Air of Summer" may just kill you with its sweet remembrance of an intoxicating trip to a summer house on the seashore: “Without giving anything away, you’ll find ships inside of bottles/ And the garden’s overgrown, the house is white but the paint is coming off…you’ll shine like gold in the air of summer.” "The Build-Up" is the last song on the record (and the second coming of Feist) and it sends you gently off into the sunset.

Kings of Convenience promise that they're working on a third LP, though they've been promising that since 2004. Erlend is busy with lots of side projects (Unrest is a great record, as is his DJ Kicks contribution), Eirik is busy with his own side-project Kommode, a band he formed with his old Skog-mates. A new Kings of Convenience record would be a welcome addition to this world, but if Riot On An Empty Street is the last we hear from the duo together, then at least they overshot the high note and went out on a transcendent one. -- Anneke Chy

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Tsunami. Deep End (Simple Machines, 1993)

"Are we all something to envy, are we all something else?/ Are we all something to envy or are we more like a threat?"

Though lacking the distinctive styles and sounds of other pioneering DC indie labels like Dischord (tighty wound, chest-thumping post-punk) and Teenbeat (hand-crafted, Factory-inspired Europop), Simple Machines was a formidable outfit. Founded in 1990 by Jenny Toomey and Kristin Thomson, it managed to release its fair share of great indie rock and pop artifacts -- LPs and EPs by the likes of Autoclave, Ida, the Monorchid, Retsin, Scrawl, and others -- before shutting its doors for good in '98. Plus, Simple Machines was founded and run by two women, making the label -- which never let itself be pigeonholed as an imprint for "chick bands" -- unique in the guy-centric indie landscape of the '80s and '90s.

Lucky for us, Toomey and Thomson weren't content to simply found an outlet for great music; they were also compelled to make some pretty great sounds of their own via their band Tsunami. Featuring both Toomey and Thomson on guitars and vocals, Andrew Webster on bass, and John Parmer on drums, Tsunami released a handful of singles and four LPs between 1993 and 1997, representing some of the hookiest and endearingly enthusiastic material to come out of the DC scene of the Clinton era.

Tsunami specialized in a heavily melodic sound steeped in punchy rhythms and dueling guitars, featuring the soaring interplay of Toomey's and Thomson's vocal harmonies. Like Superchunk, another group of buzzing early '90s indie upstarts trading on good ideas, overflowing energy, and an ear for tart 'n' tangy melodies, Tsunami had a knack for marrying dissonance and tunefullnes. The twin guitar attack of Toomey and Thomson was built around walls of fuzzily distorted power chords and frantic strumming, the drums and bass hurriedly trying to ground the sound and keep things on the straight and narrow.

Tsunami's debut LP Deep End is Exhibit A as to why they were so great, 13 tracks worth of irresistibly catchy, winningly abrasive racket. The guitars stay thorny and twisted, the drums push forward with little pause, and the bass pins the melody to the floor even as the rest of the band threatens to get ahead of themselves. Furthermore, the singing is unerringly affecting, as Toomey and Thomson belt out the songs with a mixture of bravado, sexy insinuation, and accusatory bluster, anger and joy tumbling after themselves in each high-ceilinged verse and high-volume chorus.

Deep End's opening salvo "In A Name" bursts forward on overcaffeinated riffs and wailing vocals, the sound of clever kids highly stoked and easily distracted. When "Slugger" isn't pounding it's floating, buoyed by layered vocals and bouncy stringwork. The mid-tempo stalk of "Water's Edge" adds danger and darkness to the mix, menacing syncopation scrapping with snarling guitars as Toomey and Thomson wail, "She waits/ By the water's edge/ She searches/ For a sign of life," one of the album's spookiest tunes. The anti-anthem of "Genius of Crack" plays like narcotized Pixies-sized surf rock, a tribute to and mockery of Gen X stereotypes. "We're so slack, we come off like geniuses on crack/ And I'm sad to give up on the one thing I never had." Album closer "Stupid Like a Fox" could be a mission statement, thrashing and gliding by turns, hemmed in by vexed vocals and rushing rhythms.

To my mind, Tsunami have never gotten the respect they deserve. I remember discovering them in high school and being immediately smitten with their approach: ballsy chicks fronting a serrated sound, riot-grrrls who would never call themselves that, rocking un-self-consciously and awesomely.
Tsunami remain largely unsung heroes, often overlooked in remembrances of the time but nevertheless boasting a catalog that more than stands up to scrutiny.