Thursday, September 13, 2012

The Leopards - Kansas City Slickers

Kansas City Slickers (1977) ***1/2

The Beatles have their Rutles, and the Stones have their Aerosmith, Black Crowes, New York Dolls, Black Keys, White Stripes, Chocolate Watchband, Keith Richards & the X-Pensive Winos, etc., etc., so you'd expect a Rutles-style imitation of the Who to pop up somewhere in middle America at some point, and this is not it.  That would be the Clash.  But they were from nowhere near Kansas.  So, Dorothy, we're not in "Oklahama, U.S.A.," anymore, we're in the Kinks Kinkdom as envisioned by a gaggle of local Midwestern musicians who, stranded in the middle of Nowheresville, KC, MO 

(463,202 - Jul 2011

Source: U.S. Census Bureau)

....and proferring such extremely unfashionable Victorian pop during the year of punk (in the U.K.) and gaudy arena rock (in the U.S.), the Leopards released their debut independently and were subsequently unheard from until a decade hence.  And then, after 1987 and two indie albums, never heard from again.  The sound, as you'd expect, is pretty lo-fi and the musicians are competent semi-pros, and the album is a wonderful, lo-key delight.  The songs are unabashed rewrites of various Kinks tunes performed in Village Green era style sung with a dead-on Ray Davies vocal imitation, with subtle lifts stolen directly from certain Kinks tunes.  "Bugle Boy," sounds a wee bit close to "Tin Soldier Man," don't she; "Road to Jamaica," is the kind of faux-ska that could've slid easily onto the studio half of Everybody's in Showbiz (and would've been better than half the tunes on that platter); "Recess," likewise is superior to most of the tunes on Schoolboys in Disgrace; "'57 Chevy," - hey, another little rockin' humdinger about "Drivin'"; and we could go on all day with this, or at least 'til I'm finished with each of these 11 tracks.  None of these songs could truly be called A-level Kinks klassiks - imitation rarely competes with genius - but they do mostly reach at least B-level.  Sorta like Badfinger to the Beatles, y'grok?

Actually, the Kinks have inspired scores of bands over the decades, but there are two considerations that make this particular imitation special.  Firstly, rarely are Kinks imitations this blunt.  Even the likes of Blur don't sound like the Kinks, keeping matters technologically up-to-date.  These tracks sound old-timey as if they lept directly off Muswell Hillbillies, which must've been quite the amusing retro-twist in 1977.  You keep your smart modern prog-rockers and fancy studio equipment, gimme my Victrola gramaphone.  Gander at that LP cover - give you a sense what time-bound atmosphere they're aiming for?  Secondly, very few bands aim for this particular era of the Kinks when they're on the Davies Bros. bandwagon.  Generally speaking, your average Billy Childish or Jack White cranks up the amps and sets the controls for the heart of 1965.  Not 1925.  Which was clearly where these fellas' hearts were.  Oh well, as the old tune goes, this is my street, and I'm never gonna leave it, 'cuz this is where I belong.....

Friday, May 25, 2012

The Lambrettas - Beat Boys in the Jet Age

Beat Boys in the Jet Age (1980) ***1/2

Trawling through the byways of the highways of rock'n'roll (B-roads as opposed to A-roads in British English), here is yet another completely forgotten minor gem.  Justly or unjustly unremembered?  Justly because it's a lightweight, merely entertaining album that couldn't remotely be described as essential to even hardcore fans of the genre (power-pop or Brit-pop, take your druthers).  Unjustly because - hey, there's nothing "mere" about crafting a consistently listenable and entertaining pop-rock album.  You try doing it - tens of thousands of bands have tried and failed miserably.

As you might guess from the band name (the scooters, you see) and the album title (it's a Paul McCartney quote), this smells like some sort of Mod Revival outfit, and guess what - on the button 'tis.  For an exceedingly brief spell (which would be an eternity by U.K. trend-of-the-month standards these days), a number of beat groups sprung up to revive mid-'60s mod pop/rock in 1979, inspired by (and not necessarily in this order):

1.  The Jam
2.  Quadrophenia (the film released that same year)
3.  A tuneful reaction against the excesses of punk

Nearly every single one of those Class of '79 Mod bands is so well-buried that even your average rock trivialist might not be aware of even the movement's mayfly existence, and in many cases that's no crime (ever heard the Secret Affair?  Anyone?  Well - don't).  This album is one of the very small handful of bright spots in that hyper-faddish precursor to '60s derivative '90s Brit-Pop.  The Lambrettas had the tunes, and in the end, that's what counts, innit?  Actually, this is as tunefully consistent as There Are But Four Small Faces, so don't let knee-jerks against '80s bands copping the '60s Beat Boom prejudice you.  The sound's more than a bit too thin - hey, this is the post-punk era, there's no excuse to not beef up those guitars and drums; I mean, the Hollies had more sonic depth and bite.  Antiquated production values and guitar tones aside, the Lambrettas managed to score two substantial hits in their homeland:  an unexceptional cover of "Poison Ivy," that adds too little new to be any other than a redundant superfluity of a song whose original I never cared for in the first place; and the much superior "Da-a-ance," which lives up to its title - hyper-lightweight fodder for the all-ages disco catering to the high school mating crowd, catchy as rubella and yes, da-a-anceable.  The more lyrically substantial "Another Day, Another Girl," was a smaller follow-up hit, concerning the socially relevant topic of the Page 3 girls baring their tits in the British dailies.  Two more A-level tunes round out the 12-track album's highlights:  "London Calling," which in no way possesses a fraction of power of the Clash song of the same title (released a mere year earlier - cheeky 'Brettas!) but is substantially more tuneful (well, that Clash song was based on one chord); and "Living For Today," which creatively recycles the ubiquitous "I Feel Fine," riff for the hook (not that I'm complaining - the song is surgingly wonderful and catchily anthemic; who cares about a mild Beatles cop?).  As this was the era of Two-Tone, the Lambrettas toss in a smidgen of a ska influence on several tracks, which are not my favorite tracks (sorry, not a fan of ska, even the Specials variety).  Some ska-ish bounce in even many of straighter guitar-poppers, as well.  Which certifies this as an identifiably 1980 album as opposed to 1966 vintage - not many '60s Brit-Invasion bands betraying a trendy ska influence (aside from "Ob La Da Obla Dee Dee Dee Doo Doo Doo", the legendary lost McCartney/Sting collaboration).

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Queens of the Stone Age - Era Vulgaris

Era Vulgaris (2007) ****

Predictably consistent yet taking a markedly different approach on each release, once again QOTSA solidify their rep as one of the best (the best?) hard rock bands of the Dubya administration.  If the gimmick on Lullabies was bloozy and gothic, the shift on Vulgaris is to the tighter and poppier:  at little over 47 minutes (hey, that's practically an EP in modern terms) and a mere eleven songs, this is the first QOTSA release that does not overstay its welcome.  It helps immensely that it's also the most sonically varied, with a wider swing of tempos and textures than previous entries in Josh Homme's rockalogue.  That said, it's not quite their most accessible, as there aren't any truly knockout singles like "Little Sister" or "Feel Good Hit of the Summer"; it's more of an even ride, without so many of the low valleys that marred the band's more over-long releases.  The poppiness can actually be initially off-putting:  megabyte to digital, what the heck is this opening track, "Turning on the Screw," freakin' Weezer?!  And then there's "Make It Wit Chu," the lead single, which is a poppy, mid-tempo piano-bouncy smooch note - what is this, a metallized Ben Folds Five?!  Relax -- QOTSA offer much more sophisticated hard rock arrangements than the former, even if Homme truly lacks the talent for pop melodicism of either.  The Foo Fighters-ish "3 & 7" (opening riff seems to borrow a bit familiarly from Nirvana, don't it?) is more in line with Homme's alley, and is a much pleasanter new pop direction for the band to navigate.  "Suture Up Your Future," demonstrates that after all these years he's finally gotten to grips with a slow psychedelic one, and then he turns around and closes the album with one of their most relentlessly pounding and heaviest tracks ever, the pummelling "Run Pig Run".  "Into the Hollow," Grimm-ly sounds like an outtake from the previous album, and if "Sick Sick Sick," does indeed feature the Strokes' Julian Casablancas on vocal duties, who cares when the T. Rex-gone-psychorobot riff is so sick sick sick?  Move along, nothing more to analyze here, just one more excellent QOTSA album with their impeccable formula of killer riffs and duckwater-tight, almost proggy arrangements.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Red Rockers - Good as Gold

Good as Gold (1983) ***

A couple of years and a label change later, the Rockers re-emerge as a totally different sounding band.  No longer even remotely resembling Strummer & Jones, what we hear instead is a collection of smooth, professionally polished power-pop songs with a dark edge.  The opener, "China," must've come as a shock to former fans when laying needle to disc in '83:  what's this, a rousing, bright, shimmering pop song that sparkles like China and shines like Japan?  A deserved hit, but I'm obliged to say, far and away the best song on this 36 minute, 10 song platter.  The rest of the album shifts into less commercial waters:  what I shall refer to as the genre of 'dark pop', with nearly every tune building its melody around a series of minor-chord progressions, giving this series of mostly anthemic rockers a slightly gothic feel.  Vaguely resembling October era U2 with its glidingly echoing guitar tones and vaguely political existentialist anthemic quality, this is mostly a solid, enjoyable early '80s rock album, if only occasionally exceptional.  Except for the attempted dancefloor annoyance, "'Til It All Falls Down," on which they may have aimed at the Talking Heads but bullseyed the Fixx.  Yuch.  "Running Away From You," unsettlingly resembles "White Wedding," though the resemblance to Billy Idol may or may not be coincidental (both came out the same year, and anyway, it's only the bassline intro where the similarities are noticable).  Aside from "China," "Fanfare for Metropolis," is the only other song that rises above the level of merely good to exceptionally good (that is, makes the mixtape as a song I actively want to seek out and hear again):  a starry-eyed small-town boy's awestruck paean to the Big City lights.  Other than those two songs, there's little to get excited about here, but aside from "Til It All Falls Down," little reason to turn it off for, either.  A fairly good little early '80s rock album, and rarely has a three-star rating been more mathematically appropriate. 

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Red Rockers - Condition Red

We're gonna rock with revolution!

Condition Red (1981) **1/2

As a counterfactual alternative history scenario, imagine if American hardcore punk had followed in the path of the first Clash album instead of Black Flag and the Ramones.  If you are among those (such as myself) who consider the Clash's 1977 debut to consist of the hottest slab of rock'n'roll ever recorded on either side of the Atlantic, then this laughably second-rate, second-hand imitation from the shores of the Gulf Coast will serve as a sneakingly guilty pleasure after you've worn out "Janie Jones," on the 10,000th listen.  New Orleans in 1981 was not London in 1977 by a insufferably long dole queue's stretch, which makes the Red Rocker's protests somewhat rather silly when not frustratingly scattershot and generically vague.  Musically powerful as it might rock, it's hard to get past the laughable poseurdom of "Guns of Revolution," - the idea of an American proletariat rising up in armed revolution against the 1% was as impractical in the early '80s as it would be today, more a product of a juvenile angry young late teen's "fuck the system," fantasies than a practical political program (just ask the MC5 about "guns, dope, and fucking in the streets").  Peaceful protest on Wall Street is one thing; advocating chasing and gunning down rich people, as if America needed a replay of the French Revolution, is quite another.  These Rockers are much more lyrically tolerable when they tackle subjects closer to the actual mean streets, such as the anti-drugs, "Peer Pressure," and the album's poppiest moment, the generically anthemic "Teenage Underground," which is as meaningless as it is rousing.  Of those attempting to tackle issues of greater political import, only "White Law," which tackles a subject that these Deep South whiteboys would possess a heartfelt understanding of, makes much of an impression - but even then, its rhetoric is overblown and overheated.  The heaviosity and intensity of the track make up for it, however, and actually, about half of these dozen tracks possess a white-hot intensity that make up for the revolutionary silliness and Strummer-worship (though pretty-boy lead singer John Griffith is closer to the wimpy Mick Jones vocal style).  The other half - well, don't.  But only on a lame-o cover of "Folsom Prison Blues," (guest hee-haws courtesy Jello Biafra) and the unintentionally self-parodic "Dead Heroes," do they truly get obnoxious.  Oh, and the finale, "Live or Die," which seems to patriotically contradict "Dead Heroes," seriously blows.  One more point in their favor:  as this was 1981 not 1977 and this is American hardcore punk, the Red Rockers are indeed heavier in their assualt than the Clash's brittle bite.  Which is to say that in an objective sense they rock harder but not harder if you know what I grok.

Judge for yourself --

Friday, March 23, 2012

Queens of the Stone Age - Lullabies to Paralyze

Lullabies to Paralyze (2005) ***1/2

Nick Oliveri is gone due to drug problems/general fucked-upness, and he's missed, not just his barracuda bass throbbing but his manic intensity, goofball humor, and general wild-ass rock'n'roll presence.  Also seriously missed is Dave Grohl, with the drums noticeably thinner and less beefy without the FF mainman on skins.  That said, QOTSA have always been Josh Homme's baby, and the transition of QOTSA into the Josh Homme Experience isn't that jarring:  despite what some disgruntled fans have to gripe, this is not a major step down for the band.  Oh, it's noticably weaker than the previous couple of albums, with a few too many draggy slow crunchers that hang around far too long on the second half, but the first half is more or less killer (the less consisting of the opening "This Lullaby," sung gruffly by Mark Lanegan).  Should I mention that just as on Songs for the Deaf, there is a concept:  Grimm's fairy tales, which you can feel free to ignore, because the concept basically consists of Homme singing half the songs about witches and wolves, with the rest being concerning the perennial hard-rock subject matter of good'ol sex.  The tone is somewhat raunchier, and not just the lyrical subject matter - the guitar tone and overall feel is considerably bluesier (and bloozier), more warmly (and pleasingly) '70s than Deaf's firmly '00s masters-of-technology bludgeoning sheen.  "Burn the Witch," is practically a John Lee Hooker stomp on steroids, and for the first time Homme unleashes a slow number that's not only bearable but one of the album's highlights, the blues-glammy "I Never Came."  The bonafide hit single, "Little Sister," seems born to blast out of muscle-car speakers down the strip cruising the Wal-Mart parking lot for high school chicks, while "In My Head," begs to be the followup A-side as the album's most relentlessly propulsive and simultaneously poppiest number.  But as I said, the band starts to lose its grip on good material around the midway, with a couple too many 7-minute numbers, which while displaying a welcome addiction to psychedelia ("Someone's in the Wolf," "Blood is Love,") unwelcomely display a bog-standard addiction to banal hard rock lyricism ("Skin on Skin") - namely, a previously undisclosed misogynistic streak.  Disappointing in a band that, while never blew me away with their goofball lyrics, at least kept the subject matter non-stereotypically hard rock-ish, and didn't resort to building a chorus around, "I wanna lick it, lick it, lick it too much!"


Wednesday, March 21, 2012

The Fall - Levitate

Levitate (1997) **1/2

Fan reviews on are all over the place on this, and I can sympathize with both those who rave about this as one of the Fall's best-ever and those one-star reviews that revolt at this as the worst-ever disaster the Fall have ever spat out of the studio.  One thing is for certain, that both the five and one star reviewers can all agree on:  this is one WEIRD album.  The musical backing for most of the album revolves around heavily mixed WAY up-front drum patterns with Mark's filtered vocals weaving in and out of the mix, sometimes at forefront and sometimes barely intelligible behind the beats, and at seemingly random intervals:  this is one of the most bizarrely mixed records I've ever heard, with constantly alternating shifts that make no linear sense - the dramatic shifts in volume control within songs are extremely disconcerting, in a thrilling "test the speakers" way.  Take "Hurricane Edward," for example - for the first three minutes, it's a (relatively) straightforward minimalistic number in which Mark declaims over a repetitive marching drum pattern, until suddenly the entire track breaks down as Mark seemingly abandons the studio, walks across the street, and records the rest of the track from inside a phone booth (for those of you listening to the CD version, your CD is fine - the skipping at the 4:00-4:15 mark is intentionally built into the track).

Why are the songs so sonically all over the place?  The answer is simple.  The credits clearly state, "Produced by Mark E. Smith".  And being Mark E. Smith, apparently he was drunk as a lord and higher than Lemmy during the entire recording process, with no outside produce to edit out his insanity or every half-baked idea.  What wound up on the table is the most sonically interesting Fall album, ever....but let's not kid ourselves, a lot of the experimentation is flaky and half-baked.  Which wouldn't be such a problem is most of the songs were up to snuff.  This would scratch up to a better rating if I hadn't concluded that there was simply too much throwaway filler to make this an acceptable Fall release.  It's not just the goofy covers - "I'm a Mummy," and "Jungle Rock, this time - fans of late-period Fall simply have to grin and bear those.  The whole album has a lazy, tossed-off feel, as if Mark just said to hell with it and went berzerk in the studio, indulging in all his personal whims with the gee-gaws of studio equipment, having his whimsical fun without bothering to put in the work necessary to cohere these musical whims into actual songs to please music listeners.  How else can you explain (or excuse) a track like "Tragic Days," one minute and 29 seconds of lo-fi violin and industrial sawing noises (someone knocks on the door, rustles some piece of paper, and zips a zipper - track ends).  Self-indulgent?  Um, yes.  Oh, I forgot - there are three covers, technically perhaps four, since the Hiroshima eulogy, "I Come and Stand at Your Door," is repeated twice, once with poetry reading, and once as a pretty piano instrumental with the gratuitously racist title, "Jap Kid".

If only all the songs (or even half of them) were as fully developed as "4 1/2 Inch," which sounds like it originated as some simply, bouncy rockabilly tune before Mark E. wrung it through his gleeful kaleidescope.  Go listen to that one, now!  I have helpfully provided the youtube below.  This one track effectively summarizes this album gone right.  Right?  I meant gloriously, messily all gone wrong.

Monday, March 19, 2012

The Chords - So Far Away

So Far Away (1980) ***1/2

A band as startingly original as their name, the Chords were actually one of the better bands to emerge from the quixotically brief '79-'80 Mod Revival, and like every single one of those power-pop revivalists, will forever live in the shadows of the Jam and the Jam's modfathers the Who.  Unlike many of their contemporaries, though, the Chords had - at their best - both the songs and the muscle to render those comparisons irrelevant, at least for the duration of their best songs.  This is essentially the first two Jam albums beefed up with a twin-guitar attack that enables the Chords to rock more mightily than all but Paul Weller's very finest tunes.  The Jam never rocked this hard (or one-dimensionally); after The Modern World, the Jam actually didn't do punchy mod rave-ups that often, opting for a thinner, more expressively colored pop sound that owed more to Revolver than My Generation.  So the Chords are 'purer' Mods than the Jam were in 1980; the Jam if the Jam really were the hard punks punching out "Substitute" rewrites that some people mistook the Jam for.  And if you're already sick of the Jam comparisons, well, I'm sorry; every single reviewer who has ever reviewed the Chords' one and only studio album has to, because - have you heard them?  Inexplicably, the singer even goes so far as to mimic Weller's colorless bark (why would anyone want to do that?!).  The good news is that this album is easily better than the first two Jam albums (not the rest of the Jam's output, no no no - I'm not crazy!).  Like I said, the presence of two guitars enables the Chords to punch you in the ears with a sound that corrects the thin production mistakes of Weller's sadly one-guitar lineup:  this rocks as hard as any (non-hardcore) punk band of the era - the Buzzcocks or early Clash wouldn't have been ashamed to sit in this company.

At their best the Chords perform what a great punk band should do:  to make the listener think, for the three minutes that it's flowing through the speakers, that this is the greatest song ever by the greatest band ever.  Of course once the thrill sweats off, the rational mind rejects such a thesis, but while they're on, they're on - singles "Maybe Tomorrow," and the even better followup, "Something's Missing," feel perfect:  as perfect as raw, angry intelligent hard rock gets (which, seeing as that's one of my favorite kinds of music, means as close to perfect as music gets to me).  The title track might even roar mightier, the nearly five-minute epic that takes a more measured pace to arrive at a surgingly bitter chorus, and may stand as the band's signature tune.  And then --

-- and then.....

-- and then.....

....the Chords suffer the same problem the Jam suffered on In the City and This is the Modern World:  for every hit there's a miss.  They even have to pad out the original 12-track album with a pair of covers:  Sam & Dave's "Hold on I'm Coming," raves up excitingly enough, but is unnecessary, as is "She Said, She Said," - the lads do a fine job and it's a highly enjoyable listen (how could it not be?  What a great song!), but by no means replace the original (how could they possibly?!).  More problematic is the banality of such material as "What Are We Going To Do?" and "Breaks My Heart," and....frankly, half the album.  As such, the original 12-track album would likely garner a mere three stars, but an extra half-star is appended due to the appendages of bonus tracks that append contemporaneous singles A's & B's, bringing the total of memorable and exciting songs on the disc to an acceptable dozen or so, more or less.  Less, actually, and I should still not give the CD a particularly high grade, except that as I said when this band gets it all right, it's more than just alright - it's as awesome as stumbling across an undiscovered 1966 Who A-side.  And since occassionally soaring to greatness matters more than sustained goodness that never gets transcendent, this album earns a higher score than many technically "better" albums.

And angry young men these south London mods are.    Like the Jam, the Chords lack a sense of humor, but likewise their fierce righteousness only adds to the intensity of their music.  No time to crack jokes while the British welfare state is crumbling to bricks and mortar around you, eh mate?  Songs like the single, "The British Way of Life," paint as grim and bitter as possible a picture of the land of tea & crumpets & passive-aggression behind a veil of clenched-teeth politeness & civility.  "In My Street," may overdo it with the "we're all potential suicides," chorus and its ultra-cynical portrait of English neighbors that smile in your face and laugh when you fall, but hey - life was pretty miserable back in the pre-Thatcherite U.K., wasn't it?  Not that I was there or anything.  I've only got my info second-hand from the one million late '70s punk era records offering one billion complaints. 

Thursday, March 15, 2012

The Chameleons - Script of the Bridge

Script of the Bridge (1983) ***

This is one BOMBASTIC album.  Big '80s all the way, emphasis on both '80s and big in every way:  cavernous drums booming as the vocalist declaims as if he's Bono hurling from his throne in the heavens, with gushingly oversized heartfelt emotions unheld in check, and the band stroking every angular guitar lick for maximum effect, as the sound washes over the ears with melodramatic intensity.

This is BIG music.

Which, once you've gotten over the arena rock shock of the opening track (the pounding "Don't Fall") and let your ears sink in, can make for an engaging sound: sonically, the textures wash over the ears soaringly enough to justify the band's outsized ambitions.  Arriving on the scene a little too late to be true innovators, the Chamelons (UK in the US, but who cares about whatever lame American band inadvertantly ripped off their name?) take inspiration from a melange of post-punk influnces - U2, Siouxsie & the Banshees, the Teardrop Explodes, U2, Joy Division, and U2 - which, in other words, makes them sound like Radiohead circa Pablo Honey or Interpol circa now.  Or in one of my snarkier moods, Simple Minds.  Or the Waterboys, probably, except I've never heard any album by the Waterboys, so what me worry?  Oh, and minus any traces of discernible humor, and minus any such notions as sonic variety.  At an hour's length (not quite the norm in the early '80s; the U.S. import was butchered to fit onto vinyl), this album feels like one big, long track.  There's enough individuality to individual tracks to make some of the songs independently memorable, but yeah - the band employ the same hyper-melodramatic approach that it takes a few listens for those individual tracks to stand out from the hot porridge of boiling intensity.

So I can safely file this away under the second tier of post-punk bands:  while they do have a unique and somewhat enjoyable, well-sculpted sound, after quite a few listens I've yet to recall one truly memorable song on this disc.  Oh, it's not as if I can't stick snatches of verses and chorus lines in my head, but none of the songs rise to the level of exceptional:  nothing here to snip out for the mix-tape.  There are plenty of excellent, even thrilling moments scattered throughout, but that's what I said - bits of brilliant moments.  There's something rather hollow underneath the bombast (as is usual with bombast), like a britely colored, puffy balloon ready to burst.  Not just the huge, cavernous sound, which is full of big holes (mixing the vocals and guitars WAY up at the expense of the bass lines creates a vast distance between all that stuff on top & the drum sound - there's a veritable canyon of emptiness between the vocals/guitars and the drums), but the emotional impact as well.  You get the feeling that the Chameleons are straining for big, deep feeling, and not quite reaching it.  Take the six-minute final track, "View From a Hill," - it mimics the feel of 'gorgeously epic' but it's all surface sheen.  A band crafting the sense of gorgeous and epic out of a fistful of elements without actually managing to create an epically gorgeous song.   As with many second-tier bands, at their best the Chameleons manage to recall the glories of their predecessors while never transcending those influences.


Friday, March 9, 2012

Queens of the Stone Age - Songs for the Deaf

Songs for the Deaf (2002) ****

Messago to Josh Homme:  ou-yay are-ay ot-nay unny-fay.  The fake radio station concept isn't nearly as clever as it was the first time around in 1968 (who would've thought up such a concept?  Who, I ask you?  Who?)  Frankly, Homme's sense of humor makes him sound like a douche - you know, the type of smirking douche who would actually use the word 'douche'.  Homophobia is for faggots.  Anyway, the radio broadcasts are easily ignored, but not so Homme's lyrics:  the harder he tries to be clever, the dumber he sounds.    Which I'm not sure is preferable to Nick Oliveri's upfront drug-crazed stoopidity schtick, which apparently is no schtick at all - he genuinely is the drug-crazed lunatic he claims to be on "Six Shooters" (the lone track that flat-out s-u-x, and h-a-r-d) and the opener, "You Think I Ain't Worth a Dollar, but I Feel Like a Millionaire," (which does not suck - no, it's pretty exciting).

But who listens to QOTSA for lyrics, man?  The only thing we seasoned listeners and zot-faced tweenagers ask from our hard rock is that it rocks.  And once again, the Queens deliver the goods.  You want heavy?  These boys can give you heavy, and heavier than ever before, because on this album the missing link has invited himself to the drum stool:  Dave Grohl (famous hell, you know).  His monster truck rally drums pound (and do they pound!) the final nail into the mixed metaphor that is QOTSA's modernized Cream.  QOTSA have arguably released their best album ever, and yet.....while the band is tighter, more powerful, heavier, harder, punchier, yadda zinga zooba, it's still a draw with the previous album, as this album has one notable and glaring flaw:

It goes on forever and it all sounds the same.

OK, technically that's two flaws.  And every album these days lasts over an hour (fuck you, CD running length), so maybe kids raised on a steady diet of nothing but hour-length CDs have generationally had their ears rewired to accept such lengths without boredom and monotony.  I, however, have my ears wired so that 22:22 minutes is the scientifically optimal length for side one, before you  switch over to side two.  So maybe that's not a legitimate complaint for Gen Y.  But the monotony of sound?  That is a legitimate gripe.  And see how these two flaws compound each other when combined?  It's like swallowing sleeping pills on top of alcohol.  Anyhow, it's not as if there isn't some variety; but while, "Mosquito Song," is a noticable improvement over their previous ballads (OK, a vast improvement), it comes foolishly as the final song - which does not make the preceding 13 tracks in a row any less monotonous.  Maybe it's the unvarying guitar tone - the exact same problem I have with the New Pornographers (the problem, not the guitar tone).  It's a problem that in particular seems to afflict a few too many bands of our age.  QOTSA try to cover this up with the production trick of dramatic volume shifts (soft, LOUD) but that's annoying more than anything, and besides, PJ Harvey did that to better effect a decade previous.

Now, upon reading this review, one might get the impression that I dislike this album.  Zounds!  (That means, "God's wounds!" in Elizabethan English.  See, that Master's degree study has been useful for something beyond, " 'Twouldest thou likest fries with that, m'lady?")    "No One Knows," pounds away with heavy pop hit single sheen; "First It Giveth," driveth alongeth with a most drivingesteth basso profundo line; "The Sky is Falling," mixes goth-psychedelia with Sabbath crunch most heavenly. "Go With the Flow," "Gonna Leave You," and "Another Love Song," (nice '60s-ish roller rink organ [barely noticable at first] in the background) are just excellent pop-garage-metal numbers, and....well, there are good things to say about most of the tracks, aren't there?  Definitely more hits than misses (90% last time I crunched the numbers at my day job as an accountant for the Jamaican drug trade).  This is more or less as good as hard rock gets in the '00s.  Never mind my bitchin' & quibblin'.

Oh, you say the '00s are over?  Done?  Two years it has been?  My, how time flyeth.

Friday, March 2, 2012

The Fall - The Light User Syndrome

The Light User Syndrome (1996) **1/2

The last album actually had me looking forward with enthusiasm to new Fall music.  This album reminds me that I've listened to over twenty albums by the Fall, far more music by any one band than I ever need to hear in my life, and I have no particular desire or need to listen to another note from Mark E. Smith's bandmates.  After some musing, I realized that perhaps the major flaw with this album is the departure of long-time guitarist Craig Scanlon:  there's an uncomfortable hole in this wall of sound, and it's Scanlon's clattery-clangey guitar washes.  The guitar parts on this longplayer are distressingly banal, and having learned nothing from the relatively short'n'snazzy Cerebral Caustic, once again the Fall present us with an album that puts the long in player.  Someone needs to whisper in Mark's tone-deaf ears that any 15 track album that stretches on for over an hour is going to seem like it's a never-ending goes-on-forever endurance-piece.  Even the goofball covers are third-rate, with Smith handing over vocal duties to Mike Bennett's godawful fake country drawl on the Johnny Paycheck cocaine-admonition (he takes the lead on the original "Cheetham Hill," for some likewisely inexplicable reason).  There's a weird juxtaposition of minimalist arrangements and underproduction ("The Ballard of J. Drummer", all marching snare drums & moody background synths), and overblown, overheated bombastic rock performances.  It seems that the Fall are trying to combine their dancey early '90s experimentation with their more traditional garage-guitar sound, and while the approach occasionally works fine enough, it's one shade less than enough for true enjoyability:  this is the roughest and most abrasive album they've recorded since.....well, I was going to say Grotesque, but more like ever.  "Das Vulture Ans Ein Nutter-Wain," is so ridiculously bass-heavy it's some new sort of sonic achievement - which isn't so far as to say it's an actually good track.  In short:  this album is rough on the ears, even by the Fall's usual standards.  In other words:  newbies, beware.  If you're already a fan, there are about 1/3 of a CD's worth of quality Falltracks, and thus justify purchase for the committed fan ("He Pep!," "Oleano," "DIY Meat,"  and especially the catchy as measles, "Spinetrack").  Oh, and they're back to composing l-o-o-o-n-g songs again:  "Interlude/Chinilist," succeeds despite the seven minute running time (maybe because it's three songs squooshed together as one long track), but the ridiculous "Coliseum," stretches out to an insane eight minutes without ever altering its basic disco groove, or even building up to a chorus.  Repetition, repetition, repitition, blows, blows, blows.


Thursday, February 23, 2012

Queens of the Stone Age - Rated R

Rated R (2000) ****

Adding a heavy dose of psychedelia and more than a smidgen of pop to the Queens' heavy rock formula makes for an expected rise in quality.  First off, this has one element that the debut sorely lacked:  a sense of variety.  Not that the Queens vary too far into the eclectic soundscape - it's still all mid-tempo rockers, heavy and glammy at the same time, with a handful of thrashy goofs for good measure ("Quick and to the Pointless," and the infamous opening track, the pro-drugs "Feel Good Hit of the Summer," both screamed goofily by bassist Nick Oliveri).  The latter manages to be awesomely catchy ("c-c-c-COCAINE!") and rather annoying at the same time, while the "Pointless" lives up to its title.  The production makes the guitar fuzz rather mellower yet still bite-y in a metallized Revolver kinda way; I'm sure heavy ingestations of marijuana were responsible for the oddly cuddly vibe to this heavy rock.  No, I can't avoid drug references when discussing this album - why would I even try?  The band make those stellarly clear themselves, and thus helped usher in the era of "Stoner Rock" as the critics coined and many bands of the genre embraced the label:  rejecting the excesses of '80s glam-metal and '90s grunge, and skipping back to the '70s hard rock ethos but with a more modernized sound.  You know, taking metal back to its roots, when it was tied to gritty rock'n'roll, not the slickly produced technological horror-show for 13 year olds it morphed into in the '80s.  Better songs about such down to earth rock'n'roll topics as drugs and scamming for underage groupies than Corpsevomit and carnivorous erections.  OK, so my biases are clear - I detest the vast majority of post-'70s metal, mostly for the polished production values and wheedly-whee guitar tones that divorce it from what I understand to be rock'n'roll.  Yeah, rock, but it don't roll.  QOTSA actually roll from time to time, perhaps because unlike most metal bands, they don't seem to erase the bass player's parts from the mix - sure, they're as guilty of dynamic overcompression as any modern band, but they have an actual rhythmic groove underneath the guitar parts.

Anyway, back to the album in question, after getting sidetracked (this is a pretty crappy review so far; whatever, QOTSA's second album isn't so important to my life that I feel like rewriting the half hour of my life I've spent so far on this blogpost).  "Autopilot," possesses the shock of acoustic guitars (yeah for sonic variety!  I mean, HELL YEAH for sonic variety!).   Once again Homme makes the mistake of closing the album with a piano ballad, a musical genre for which he has no feel or ability for ("I Think I Lost My Headache").  Fuck no for sonic variety.  "Lightning Head," rips your head off with its heaviness like some great lost Black Sabbath IV outtake - hell, for all I know the riff is a Sabbath ripoff; it certainly sounds familiar, doesn't it, though I couldn't identify the source if Nick Oliveri himself offered to split his stash with me.  Mark Lanegan (ex-Screaming Trees) offers his soul-grunge vocals for the power-balladic "In the Fade," (actually sorta good - this sonic variety stuff is starting to work out after all).  "The Lost Art of Keeping," is a tightly rocking hard-poppy rocker; "Better Living Through Chemistry," is a spacey drugged-out psych-rocker; and "Monster in the Parasol," has a chorus as disappointingly goofy as you'd expect from the title (sigh, maybe that Blue Oyster Cult influence isn't so cool after all) - but it's a solid tune nonetheless.  There's really not much filler on this record - nearly all the tracks are worthwhile ("Tension Head," only lasts 34 seconds, so who cares?).         

The Comsat Angels - Fiction

Fiction (1982) **1/2

Following the oppressive heaviness of A Great Cure For Insomnia, the Comsats make a 180 degree turn into a shocking lightness.  By which I mean production and instrumentation - lots more space in these arrangements (ah, finally some breathing room) - not necessarily the emotional tenor, which is as sullen and gloomy as ever.  The combination of sleek, lightweight musical presentation and oppressively sad moodswingery makes for a startingly odd, and not altogether unpleasant, emotional affect.  However, that's the nicest thing I've going to say about this album.  Once again, the Comsats offer a richly, lovingly textured album of grace and beauty that's long on atmosphere and short on memorable songs.  Oh, it's not as if they aren't penning choruses and littering their songs with elements of hooks - slowly, they're returning to songcraft after the excessively layered texturecraft of the previous album - it's just the choruses are a bit too repetitive and the songs themselves so lifeless:  there's no energy to any of them.  This has the feel of a transitional album, as the band stakes out a new style halfway between the gothy post-punk of their first two albums and the shiny synth-pop they'd spend the rest of the decade pursuing.  As such, it's the last half-way decent album they'd ever release, before completely selling out and morphing into a poor man's Flock of Seagulls.  Guitars still float around prominently in the mix, even if synths are slightly more prominent and drum & bass are once again the clear dominators.  As I said, the sound itself is pleasant enough, it's the songs that are problematic - way more inconsistent than they need to be, and frankly after the lead-off single, "After the Rain," (its self-conscious brightness and lightness a meta-commentary on how, musically speaking, they've emerged into the sunshine from the grey, dark thunderclouds of Sleep No More?), this album takes quite its time in getting going.  Boring song, boring song, boring song....hey, "Juju Money," is nice'n'moody!  Cool brooding chorus, fellas.  Some more boring songs to wade through, and the album only truly wakes up near the end.  "Pictures," isn't much to speak of - musically, it's as dull as most of the rest - but it gets by via the sharply detailed lyrical theme of ripping up photos from a failed relationship and burning them in the fire.  "It's History," the final track, is a fine little pop song on similar theme, and "What Else!" the second-to-last track, is to me the album's most successful track, with its dynamic upbeat arrangement almost making it peppy (in a surly, moody way, of course).

Anyway, this may or may not be my bidding adieu to the Comsat Angels' ouvre, depending on how much of a masochist I am:  like I said, starting with the next album, they were so desperate to sell out that they made A-Ha look cutting edge, and the rest of their '80s output is for all purposes and intents worthless synth-pop dreck.  Oh, and I should mention one bonus track on the reissue, "Mass," which is completely out of step with the rest of the album's sound - it sounds like an outtake from the Sleep No More sessions, which it undoubtedly was.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

The Fall - Cerebral Caustic

Cerebral Caustic (1995) ***1/2

Like U2 returning to the '00s with their big guitar rock comeback album after spending the '90s losing fans by the droves with their electronic music excursions, so the Fall returned in the mid-'90s with the most direct and hard-rocking material they'd composed in years.  Initially, it comes across as the most exciting Fall album in years - they haven't sounded this invigorated in nearly a decade.  Forget all that dancey disco crap, the motherfreakin' FALL are back where they once belonged, bringing back the noise with a dozen hard-hitting headbangers!  And at ony a dozen tracks, there's practically no filler - all the songs are listenable.  Even the three experimental tracks near the end are highly listenable.  In fact, "Bonkers in Phoenix," is a clear triumph, and I've concluded one of my all-time favorite Fall songs:  structurally resembling "Hotel Bloedel," (from Perverted By Language, remember?), its musical bedrock is an utterly lovely Brix melody that Mark deliberately fucks up to unsettling effect by chipmunk-speeding the vocals and throwing swathes of wobbly noise on top.  Brilliant!  (And oh yes, if you didn't notice, Brix is back.  Maybe that's got something to do with these songs being catchier than usual for '90s Fall.  Anyway, she almost steals the album with her protestations in "Don't Call Me Darling," - post-marital tension, eh?)

This is a fun, fun album, and a highly listenable entry point for newbies - the rock may be hard, but in a non-threatening and clean, non-noisy way:  there's nothing here to alienate the uninitiated (aside from Mark's vocals - can't do anything to change that).  Just raw, hard-bouncing punk.  You could do worse than making this your first Fall purchase.  However, for the non-novitiates, the music is two steps forward in listenability, and two steps back in innovation and uniqueness.  It's an essentially conservative album, retracing the footsteps that the Fall and plenty of other punky rock bands have trod before.  The sound is produced rather thinly, but I can deal with that; more problematic is the slapdash feel of several of these tracks.  "The Aphid," in particular just sounds like sheer slovenly songwriting.  And as much fun as this album can be when it's playing and you're bouncing around to the cute little riffs, the songs aren't nearly as memorable as they should be.  Keepers include the aforementioned "Bonkers in Phoenix," "Don't Call Me Darling," and the opener, "The Joke," an exciting rush of a rocker based on a Milan Kundera novel, apparently (guy in Soviet-era Czechoslovakia makes a political joke and gets sent to a labor camp; Mark changes it to "PC camp," an obvious alusion to political correctness).  A cover of Zappa's uproarious sad-sack satire, "I'm Not Satisfied," is another highlight, but too many of the originals sound like rush-jobs.  This is a very, very good Fall album - a 3.75 verging on 4 star Fall album, in fact.  A good album that could've been a great Fall album if only the songwriting were a bit stronger.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

The Comsat Angels - Sleep No More

Sleep No More (1981) ***

This is the densest and most impenetrable album I've ever heard.  I say that without exagerration:  the keyword here is oppressive, as according to fact (not legend) they obtained the booming drum sound by recording the drums in an elevator shaft and miking the six floors adjacent the drum kit.  The effect is almost literally crushing:  the sound waves across as thick as a fog of quicksand pea soup, enveloping the ears from all corridors from which there is no escape.  Talk about wall of sound:  this is as heavy as Black Sabbath's osmium, though in a totally different genre and vein.  Drums and impossibly deep-throated bass lines are the weapons in the Comsat's arsenal, doomily building layer upon layer of deeply oppressive atmosphere that chokes the listener into bewildered submission.  If you're morbidly claustrophobic, avoid this album at all costs (me, my primal fear is of heights).  And in contrast to classic metal, the Comsat's post-punk aim is an atmosphere of morbid, gloomy sadness and alienation, rather than morbid aggression.

As such, this album is a highly influential, five-star landmark of '80s post-punk goth-gloom; the Cure were obviously listening closely, as they ripped off the basic sound for Pornography the subsequent year.  However, on after try after try after try (lost count - more than seven, less than a dozen listens) I've given up trying to make my way out of this labyrinth of sound:  it's easy to get lost in these thickets, but once you've emerged for breath, the only impression taken away is of the overall sound.  These songs lack anything so mundane as hooks and choruses:  as so often sadly is the case for albums with a startingly unique and original sound, the band coasts far, far too much upon that sheer sound, and forgets to write memorable songs to accompany the atmospherics (and it goes without saying, not bothering with any song-by-song analysis I am - the sheer uniformity of sound is bludgeoning).  The songs are bottom-heavily rhythmic and for the most part as oppressively slow as they are oppressively heavy, with meekly detached, declaimed vocals and shards of ghostly synth-lines floating above the rhythmic bed for color and melody (what little there is of that).  Naturally a commercial flop, with no singles even attempted to be pulled from this morass - in an unusually perceptive move, both the band and the record company realized that no way in hell did any song on this platter remotely possess any commercial potential, so they didn't even bother.  Some singles were released concurrently with this album, however, and have accompanied the album proper as bonus tracks on reissues.  They're considerably more immediately involving than the album tracks (hell, anything would be) - some could even be called catchy.  "Eye of the Lens," stands out:  imagine the album's gloomily oppressive atmospherics applied to the dynamics of an actual song, and you have a masterpiece:  the CD reissues' highwater mark, and possibly the career of the Comsat Angels as a whole.


Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Queens of the Stone Age - s/t

Queens of the Stone Age (1998) ***1/2

The secret to QOTSA is that they play heavy metal as if it were rock'n'roll again - real metal, not boppy hair-metal bullshit:  dry, heavy, complex, lyrically non-interested in standard boy-porks-girl fare.  Equal parts Sabbath, Hawkwind, Metallica, Blue Oyster Cult, Stooges, Hendrix, Kyuss (lead guitarist/vocalist and for all intents and purposes [as would be made clear on subsequent releases] dictator of these Queens, Josh Homme's former band), QOTSA do have a glammy side, but not nearly as much as their name and unfortunate LP cover might imply.  (God, I've got to review something, anything immediately after posting this review, simply to get that unsightly blemish off the intro to my site.)  Oh, and throw some Meat Puppets into that influence mix, willya?  I have no idea if Homme, bassist Nick Oliveri, and drummer Alfredo Hernandez (only here for one LP!  Catch'im while you if you care!) actually listened to the Kirkwood Bros. or not, but their music has the same red-eyed, dry, dusty feel as those other scions of the lonesome desert.  No doubt geography influences musical style, as 18th century ethnographers surmised that the skin colours and humours of the races of man were influenced by their native environments.  Having only heard one Kyuss album in glancing that left no great impression on me, I've been told that Homme's former band was more experimental and expansive, not to mention also including both Oliveri and Hernandez, which means that the only major lineup change was ditching Kyuss' douchebag singer.

BTW, ever noticed how "I Was a Teenage Hand Model," sucks?  I understand that a slice of quirky piano pop may seem like a necessary change of pace when all the other songs on the album sound exactly the same.  Well, not quite the same, but sonic variety this album has it not (aside from the general flow of starts-off-really-good but the material on the second half starts growing noticably weaker - the best songs are all frontloaded).  Some of the songs are faster (and therefore better) even if none of them chug along faster than mid-tempo, with the exception of "How to Handle a Rope," which is quite speedy and uncoincidentally by far the album's best song.  And some of the songs are slower and therefore draggier and therefore suckier.  Except for "If Only," because the riff and its interplay with the rhythm section are so darn interesting.  In fact, none of these riffs are, generally speaking, all that interesting in and of themselves:  it's the band interplay that elevates these heavy rockers to great rock'n'roll.  Have I mentioned how tight this band is?  Have I mentioned that they can play?  Well, maybe that's because every reviewer does.  Facts are facts.  These guys R-O-C-K in an objective sense.  If QOTSA don't make you, through sheer involuntary act of will, curl your fingers into a devil sign and nod your head in a banging rhythm like a slow motion epileptic fit, then I question the validity of your nervous system.  Facts are facts.  However, that's all QOTSA do or seem capable of, and if you're looking for something other, or more than headbanging heaviosity with impressively complex arrangements and jaw-droppingly tight playing, then seek ye elsewhere.    

Monday, February 13, 2012

The Fall - Middle Class Revolt

You're sleeping with some hippie halfwit who thinks he is Mr. Mark Smith

Middle Class Revolt (1994) ***1/2

Hey, this ain't half bad!  And half-good is roughly accurate:  Fall fans may not agree on much, but they seem to agree that about half the songs here are a return to prime Fallform, while the other half range from the disposable to the crap to the band's-a-phonin'-it-in.  Which makes for a much better album than you'd expect, as with 15 tracks you'd expect at least a mild amount of dross.  I say tracks not songs because "Symbol of Mordgan," is perhaps the most useless of three minutes committed to a Fall tape, consisting of nothing more than guitarist Craig Scanlon and John Peel discussing football.  And unintelligibly, too boot.  It's the pro forma "experimental" track.  "The experimental is now conventional!"  Remember when you uttered those words in 1980, Mark?  So please spare us these "experimental" tracks that are not , in fact, experimental, but merely nothing more than tired old ways to annoy.

There are three covers, none of which I have heard the originals:

1) "War" (Henry Cow) - Weird!  Weird!  I'm not sure if I like it but I like it!  Mark adds a whole bunch of lyrics.

2) "Junk Man" (Groundhogs) - Sucks!  But I guess so does the original.   What I'm saying is that what've heard of the Groundhogs sucks.

3) "Shut Up!" (Monks) - Another Monks cover? Haven't the Fall done half a dozen of these?  This one's great fun!  They bring cheesy Farfisa up to the cheesy electronica age!

Of the originals, the openers, "15 Ways," and "Reckoning," are practically the same song - oh, different songs, with different lyrics and melodies and all, but performed in the same laidback jangly-pop style with nearly the same arrangement.  The first is about leaving your lover and the second is about your lover leaving you.  I assume both are autobiographical.  "15 Ways," was the MTV hit (they played it a couple of times on 120 Minutes at 1:15 A.M., Standard Eastern Time).  "Hey! Student," is the punkiest they've rocked in years, albeit in a clean, punchy, totally noise-free way (but very very rhythmic - feel that bass slap you upside the head).  No surprise - it's a rewrite of a '77 Falloldie, "Hey! Fascist".  They save three of the strongest tracks for last.  I've already mentioned the techno-carnival version of "Shut Up!" which closes the album on a nitrous oxide note.  The Zappa-esque "The $500 Bottle of Wine," comes across as a bit fratboyish in its drunken singalong chorus, but it is a catchy fratboy chorus, and Mark's closing admonition to, "Get down the fucking liquor store, boy," makes the tune.  Then there's the album's strongest and most musically forward-looking track, "City Dweller," a protest concerning Manchester's aborted Olympics city host bid, that in a more open-minded world would be dropped by progressive-minded DJs at clubhouses from Singapore to Southampton.

There are some other songs on this disc, and some of them are kinda good, but I'm too bored to discuss them.  Like most late-period Fall albums, there's way too much too much - 15 songs?  I could've done with half those.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

The Sound - Propaganda

Propaganda (1999) ***

Formed out of the ashes of the Outsiders, who released one of the first independently released punk albums in 1977, emerged the Sound, still a punky guitar band but edging toward artiness.  These late '70s demo-ish recordings, apparently recorded in Borland's parents' basement or garage or toilet, are remarkably tight and professional sounding given their origins, and the fact that the band were just forming as musicians learning how to play their instruments.  Anyway, perhaps the most amazing thing is how exactly this sounds like Warsaw.  Remember Warsaw?  Joy Division the punk band before they transmuted into Joy Division?  The ultra-stiff guitar and drum interplay, the menacingly plodding tempos, The Man Who Sold the World era Bowie influence (music closer to stiff plodding acid metal with a touch of punky kick), the dour grey overtones.  Borland also flouts a noticable Iggy fixation on the vocals, particularly the Stooges-ish "Physical World".  The band rock out heartily on quite a few tracks, and plod along on a few others, which is to say the material on this compilation is a bit hit and miss; and likewise, the band seem to be fumbling their way to their own unique sound without quite finding it - in other words, 'formative', is the key adjective (as if you'd expect it be any other way for a collection of early pre-major label demos).  So it's essentially an album for fans only, but for true fans, it's essential:  about half the songs here are more than worthy appendages to the Sound's studio catalogue.  And doesn't "Quarter Past Two," sound just like the Cure's "10:15 Saturday Night," in both lyrical theme and that opening guitar line - dry and chiming, could've leaped off Boys Don't Cry (as does "One More Escape," which adds some Roxy-esque clarinet)?  The title track also employs horns, but to an unpleasant '80 faux-funk effect.  Much better is the apocalyptic opener, the plodding thudder, "No Salvation," which direly bespeaks of the collapse of the Church and nuclear war.  There are several early run-throughs of songs that would later be retooled for their 1980 debut ("Night vs. Day," "Words Fail Me," and "Missiles") none of which are all that drastically different from the polished final versions, only rougher:  they had a pretty clear vision of what they wanted to achieve even at this stage. 

Caveat emptor:  this platter is not quite complete.  Of the band's 1979 debut Physical World EP, only the title track makes it way to this comp.  The non-synth version of "Unwritten Law," (bettered on the album debut) probably isn't an essential listen, but the lead-off cut of that three-song debut single is.  You've never heard "Cold Beat"?  It's likely their best early punk-era Sound track.  Why did they leave "Cold Beat" off this compilation?!  And yet they found room for that slice of phlegm, "Music Business"?!  Scratching my ears at this inexplicability.

The Sound - Thunder Up

Thunder Up (1987) ***1/2

Perhaps the most tragically ignored swansong in history, and I mean ignored - the AllMusicGuide doesn't even warrant this a review, and good luck finding many other reviews round the net, dear readers (so aren't you lucky that I'm here with ears).  The tragedy is that this by no means sounds like a typical swansong:  the band does not sound weary or self-consciously elegiac, and certainly do not seem to be running dry at the well of ideas, enthusiasm, and inspiration.  It's simply a startingly abrupt end to a brilliant career - "Huh?  You mean they didn't put out any more records?" - as if a band were rudely cut off right in the middle of their prime.  The natural inference is that the band called it quits for that simple reason:  they were ignored.  Not because they felt they'd run out of steam and had nothing more to say.  But because the world just didn't seem interested in what they had to say.

Ironically, this is the most polished and accessible mainstream pop album the Sound ever released.  There's very little that a casual MTV viewer of the period would not have found to his or her liking, at least in regards to the more upbeat, poppy singles such as "Hand of Love," "Iron Years," and "Prove Me Wrong," the latter a clear highlight with its upbeat lyrical gambit.  Fast rockers (actually closer to hyper-tempoed pop than rock) like the opener, "Acceleration Group," and the aptly titled "Kinetic," keep the pace varied, along with the sole downbeat number on the first side, the vaguely reggae-tinged, "Barria Alta."  The second side, however, returns us to more typically moody and darker-tinged Sound territory, and is naturally more compelling if less pop-accessible.  Only the overwrought "I Give You Pain," which comes off as a failed Doors-y epic (Borland's Morrison-esque bellowing doesn't help) flops; but the epically moody "Shut Up and Shot Down," and "Web of Wicked Ways," more than make for that one misfire.  And the final track, "You've Got a Way," is the album's triumph, a bite of goth-pop that stands as the album's tastiest morsel, with the guitar and piano chiming like chinks of sunlight into Borland's veil of gloom.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

The Auteurs - New Wave

New Wave (1993) ***1/2

The actual contents are about as "New Wave" as the cover, which is to say not very at all - no, the cover (Lenny Bruce dragged up as Valentino) gets it right:  velvety dark, swishily arch, velly veddy British glam rock.  Too self-consciously "smart" for their own good, this was the first-wave '90s Brit-pop band that couldn't, and had to sigh & pine as the equally self-conscious, but more crassly vulgar (hey, it's glamtrash - not necessarily an insult) Suede shook the reconstituted Ziggy Bowie mantle.  But same as Suede, Luke Haines suffers one teensy problem that could turn into a major fault if you let it irk:  he's sanded his formula to such perfection that the word variety never occurs to him.  Which is to say that this resembles a classic T. Rex album moreso than '70s Bowie.  The formula, however, is intoxicating:  a swoony mixture of measuredly slicing electric and breathily strummed acoustic guitars lay a lush but crisp bed of sound for Haines' wispy vocals ruminating as the tunes trot on at a briskly energetic mid-tempo pace.  At first it's difficult to tell the good songs apart from the bad, or even if there are any bad tunes at all - Haines could literally cover the Take That! songbook and still come out this side of charm (barely) with this formula of sound.  But is it the uniformity of sound or something deeper and more problematic that makes this an album that I like but don't like like?  I finally figured out that it was the vocals.  Haines comes across as an urbane, literate English gentleman bohemian, a starstruck scion of showbiz parents (as he puts it in one song) fronting a rock band - all of this is good.  Imagine the Go-Betweens penning songs for Oasis.  (No, no, that's all wrong - that would imply that this is much better than it actually is - but you get the gist of the idea.)  The problem is that his wispy vocals lack any sort of force or presence.  One can imagine a more soulful or commanding of a singer actually putting some of these intelligent and parochially cosmopolitan lyrics across with enough vim and vigor to elevate these tunes to a plane beyond the cool and pleasant plateau they all more or less rest upon.  In a typical one-sentence "review," Robert Christgau gave this album an A- as the Pet Shop Boys gone guitar rock, and that's a hard summation to disagree with.  But while coolly detached ultra-British vocals work fine for the PS Boys' urbane dance-pop, they don't quite work so well for the Auteurs' urbane glam-rock.  Playing devil's advocate, it's likewise difficult to extricate the vocals from the words - a Daltrey-esque bellower to Haines' Townshend-songwriting would mangle the subtle, wispy charms of his tunes.  Oh feathers - I've spent too much time in this review fretting and frittering over the vocals.  Tunes?  Yes, we have them, and as I said, the formula is so winning that it's hard to detect a bad one - so I guess that makes them all good songs, then?  Some do stand out as better than others, and I'll list them:  the brisk & breathy opener, "Show Girl," (ah, but they are all brisk & breathy, aren't they?) and the nearly six-minute showstopper, "Idiot Brother," are the twin highlights - make an excellent A/B-side combo.  Three tunes stand out as close-to-almost-as-good as well:  the crunchy crush-with-eyeliner "American Guitars,"; the disgruntled employee-of-the-month "Valet Parking," (didn't the Go-Betweens pen a tune on the same subject once longdaysago? :>} ); the semi-autobiographical "Starstruck" (on a good day, better than the Kinkstune of the same title).  The other seven tunes are fine and dandy as well, but since this entire album's worth of tunes palm off as rewrites of each other, they're not worth mentioning.  Anyway, I'm sure you'll like it.  But develop a starstruck-smitten crush on it like a 1920s flapper on celluloid hero Valentino?  Doubtful.

P.S. From the Youtube commentary: "The Auteurs lost by a single point in the Mercury Prize to Suede's debut in 1993. Their lead singer Luke Haines punched a window at the after show party and was hospitalised for it. Took it well then!"

Friday, January 20, 2012

The Fall - The Infotainment Scam

The Infotainment Scan (1993) ***

Operation:  Mindfuck.  Well, that's the most memorable line Mark E. comes up with this time round.  I don't know if it's a Queensryche knock or not, and neither do I care.  After a string of sub-par releases featuring a noisy '80s guitar-rock band awkwardly and sometimes successfully, but mostly unsuccessfully, attempting to update their sound for the electro-techno baggy-pants '90s, the mother-rawkin' Fall are bee-ack, hobgoblins!  It's not so much that the opener, "Ladybird (Green Grass)," a social commentary on the stupidity of open air concert festivals or somewhatever, is one of my favorite all-time Fallgreats - it's not - but it is really good, hanging on a neatly memorable ascending garage-rock hook.  No, it's more likely the second track, a cover of Sister Sledge's disco classic, "Lost in Music," which performed Fallstyle - well, need I say more?  Has to be heard to be believed.  And yes, that's a way of saying that it's really, really good.  Track #3 contains the most fully realized original Fallsong on this particular platter, the Glitter-ish glam-stomp that is entitled, naturally, "Glam Racket."  It's not exactly a racket but it sure is glam.  Half truth in advertising.  I was this close to giving up on the band, and here they prove that they can make an excellently listenable and catchy and varied album's worth of music, without merely rehashing past glories but exploring new directions in Fallsound.

Well, for a three-song stretch, that is.

After that, the album grows frustratingly inconsistent.  It's not that I mind the corny Aussie-C&W cover, "I'm Going To Spain," with its shimmery shoe-gazish guitars enticing enough (hint hint hint:  await brighter guitar textures to come!  Specifically:  next album!), but it is a cornball slice of Antipodean-redneck pop, after all.   "Paranoid Man in Cheap Shit Room," boasts one of the greatest song titles ever, but it's only half as good as its title threatens.  Which isn't to say it isn't good.  But how could it possibly live up to that title?  Anyway, no more sitting on the cheap shit fence:  it's a good'un.  Not a great'un, but one of the better ones on this album.  Conversely, "It's a Curse," is twice as good as its completely banal title threatens to entertain.  Which isn't to say it's all that great, but it's a nice little garage driver.  "Service," and "A Past Gone Mad," venture even further into techno-dance territory, and they're good.  Still a little too awkward to shake up Madchester ecstacy raves, but they keep on improving with it.  Maybe eventually they'll get the hang of making some great dance music (hint hint hint redux).  "Why Are People Grudgeful," is a throwaway ska/reggae cover (maybe that's why they shoved it all the way back to #11 - man, is this the most frontloaded Fall album ever).  As usual with their "fuck you, casual pop listeners, here's our token Zappa-esque Revolution #9" experimental tracks, "Light/Fireworks," is certainly interesting....for one, and precisely one, listen.  OK, maybe two or even three repeat plays, but hardly deserving of more than that.  And the slight novelty rant, "League of Bald Headed Men" did not warrant recursion as "League Moon Monkey," - see, one's more garage-rocky, and the latter's techno-spacey!  Ah, feck off, Mark.

In other words, in sum, in toto:  goddamn bloody feckin' inconsistent.  But there are enough good to great moments to offer hope for the future.  Hint hint hint tre três trois.

Monday, January 16, 2012

The Sound - Heads and Hearts

Heads and Hearts (1985) ***1/2

On first listen it's clearly a step down from previous Sound albums, but damned if I know exactly why.  The production's slightly glossier and the lyrics focus more on boy-pines-for-girl than usual, but cries of sell-out are misplaced:  the tone is, for the most part, as gloomily dour as All Fall Down.  The swirlingly downbeat opener, "Whirlpool," dispells those accusations forcefully, and the next two songs, the delusionally hopeful "Total Recall," and the Cars-gone-goth "Under You," both clear highlights, aren't any brighter.  The claims that the Sound have grown more happily poppier seem to rest on a mere handful of these eleven tracks:  "Love is Not a Ghost," a Psychedelic Furs-ish ballad that with its '80s saxes and banal love lyrics, actually is as conventional as they've gotten yet - still a fine song, though; the glass-is-half-full, "One Thousand Reasons," (to live); and possibly the closer, "Temperature Drop," which lyrically may stay positive, but the chilly frost pervading the atmosphere nullifies the words.  If there is one adjective to describe this album, that's it - chilly.  Frosty?  Icy?  Snowdusty?  A more important question is, are there any truly bad songs on this album?  The answer is predictably "No," as the Sound's greatest strength has always been their immediate accessibility and smooth hooky listenability.  The songs are, however, somewhat less immediately hooky than usual, and the album is frontloaded with the strongest material, though "Restless Time," stands as the most energetic slab of much-needed vital rock energy on this downcast and emotionally desolated album.  Perhaps that's it:  it's not so much the band performances and songwriting, which are still up to par, as much as Borland's moody depression has finally sunk into listless weariness.  He sounds tired, and drags the band down with him, despite the forced optimism of "Love is Not a Ghost," and a handful of other tracks.  Nevertheless, a highly underrated album, and most certainly not any sort of jumping the shark moment for the band.  It is a step down from previous albums, but hardly that drastic of a departure - there's no reason to not enjoy this one if you enjoyed the first four Sound releases, only slightly less so.