Friday, May 29, 2009

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

"You got the time ahead to pay."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, May 18, 2009

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

Friday, May 15, 2009

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

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Belle & Sebastian

Monday, May 11, 2009

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Futureheads

Friday, May 8, 2009

Turin Brakes. The Optimist LP (Astralwerks, 2001)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Turin Brakes

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pacific 231 - Burning Airlines

Monday, May 4, 2009

Japandroids. Post-Nothing (Unfamiliar, 2009)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Friday, May 1, 2009

Chisel. 8 A.M. All Day (Gern Blandsten, 1996)

"You're solid gold now, but they'll still be a show without you."

Before he developed into one of indie rock's foremost purveyors of thoughtful, stunningly accomplished, expertly crafted guitar pop, Ted Leo headed up DC's oft-overlooked neo-mod-punk outfit Chisel, a burning ball of hopped-up zealotry and blistering hooks. Though not as expansive or ambitious as Leo's later work with the Pharmacists, Chisel was solidly top shelf, and stood out from the pack of early '90s punk poppers due to an abundance of style and clever concepts, setting the foundation for Leo's subsequent sound and establishing the Jersey troubadour as a talent to watch. Listening to Chisel, you can hear the bright days ahead.

The trio (Leo on vocals and guitar, Chris Infante on bass, and John Dugan on drums) first coalesced at the University of Notre Dame, where Leo, Infante, and Dugan bonded over a love of nervy post-punk and brash Who-, Jam-, and Faces-flavored mod abandon. Leo was a veteran of the New Jersey and New York all-ages punk scene, while Dugan had been playing in DC hardcore bands since high school. In 1994, after Infante had been replaced by Chris Norborg, the group relocated from Indiana to the nation's capital (Dugan was do-gooding at Amnesty International at the time), and soon ensconced themselves in the city's then-flourishing indie scene, falling in alongside such titans as Fugazi, Jawbox, and the Dismemberment Plan and building a reputation for bracing, galvanizing earcandy.

Over the course of their too-short career, Chisel released a bunch of singles and 7"s, an EP (1995's Nothing New), and two LPs, 8 A.M. All Day and the 1997 swan song Set You Free. Introductory full length 8 A.M. All Day is their strongest collection, a slashing, crashing set of tight-fitting and well-turned-out garage mod mayhem, bursting with memorable melodies and insistent riffs that manage to capture the cool essence of '60s and '70s rock-n-soul without sounding goofy or stale or slavish. Throughout, Leo's fleet-fingered axemanship is on full display, and his fervent tenor -- occasionally joined by Norborg's infectious background harmonies -- wraps the tunes in a palpable enthusiasm. It's nervy, electric, and invigorating music, guaranteed to break a sweat and wear out your dancing shoes in the best Northern Soul-cum-Jersey Turnpike tradition.

Nearly every song here buzzes with raw pop power, as the band pushes the limits of the three-piece setup. Leo's guitar playing is, as always, incredible: the sound he coaxes out of just six strings is consistently surprising, blending choppy, chunky chording with bursts of blazing fretwork. "Hip Straights" blasts out of the blocks with violent strumming and soaring backing vocals, the skewed main riff bouncing off the rhythm section to excellent effect. "The Dog in Me" is a reluctant anthem and tuneful mea culpa, riding a lovely crunch, while "Your Star is Killing Me" stomps and swaggers and points fingers, frantic distortion and running-scared treble framing Leo's sadly accusatory pronouncement of, "And I'll always be thrilled, and you'll always be the one who's thrilling me/ But if I die unfulfilled, I want you to know that your star is killing me."

Elsewhere, the serpentine melody of "Looking Down At The Great Wall of China" captures the structure's vast, winding ways effortlessly. The LP's title track is a lilting pearl, and one of the best numbers on the album, as Leo pleads and cajoles behind a jittery, buoyant instrumental, finding space to stretch out and open up while retaining the thrilling claustrophobia that defines the band. "Citizen of Venus" is almost impossibly catchy, built around a downbeat wavering between stomp and glide; the solo that breaks through at the 2:30 mark is a heartstopper, further testament to Leo's abilities.

In their time, Chisel were a welcome dose of levity and fun in what could be an overly-serious DC scene. By placing post-punk and hardcore in a mod and soul context, Leo and his accomplices created a thrilling and exciting sound with a debt to the past but an eye on the future. And a decade-plus down the road, 8 A.M. All Day sounds as quick-witted and spit-shined as it did the day it was released.