(Artwork care of Karen Ramsay (www.karenramsay.com), profile photo care of brianlackeyphotography.com)

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Video pick: Team Spirit, Teenage Heart

A bloody wonderful video from the thrash pop savants

First off, I need to offer a full disclosure: I am in the employ of Team Spirit and have been for some time. It's a loose arrangement; they pay me in killer recorded music, great videos, and amazing shows. Oh and the occasional interview. Every critic has their favorite bands and Team Spirit is one of mine. Aside from their joyous, irreverent thrash pop sound, they're genuinely friendly guys. Now, after waiting for more than a year, they're very close to releasing a new album, Killing Time, scheduled for the end of September.

Their latest video is a teaser single for the project, featuring front man Ayad Al Adhamy and his "Teenage Heart". It's less weird than the animated videos from the Team Spirit EP and less irreverent than some of their earlier videos, too, but it's every bit as intense. It also encapsulates much of what I love about the band: it's simultaneously over-the-top with theatrical cheesiness and it's deeply committed. The plot is as sketchy as the song is simple - there's a motorcycle accident and Al Adhamy plays both patient and surgeon in the Grand Guignol tradition. But that simplicity strips the song down to its roots as a sincere plea for mercy, sung straight from the doghouse: "Come on, baby, give me another second chance."

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Recording review - The Clientele, Suburban Light (2000 / Reissue: 2014)

Dreamy surrealism shines through

Where many bands can take years to discover their voice, Alasdair MacLean and The Clientele seem to have effortlessly nailed that down from the beginning. Although their 2000 “debut”, Suburban Light was largely just a loose collection of previously released singles, it held together as a coherent statement of gently drifting introspection. This new reissue combines the original U.K. release with a second disc that contains the alternate songs from the U.S. version and a number of additional tunes. Bonus content is generally a treat, but when tracks are shoe-horned in, they can end up diluting the experience of the main album. But rather than defocusing their sound, this expanded set flows smoothly, with each song falling into place. The only bit of distraction comes at track 21 of 23, “Monday’s Rain (Portastadio Version),” which triggers a déjà vu moment, as it reprises the album version from back at the fifth track of the first disc.

In this case, though, the extra material makes this reissue particularly attractive because it includes some very well crafted songs. For example, “Driving South” begins with a ’70s easy listening vibe that invites a musing detachment. The chorus picks up energy even as it turns more melancholy, “Me and Mr. Jones / So, so speechless and alone.” Then they borrow the descending riff from the Beatles’ “Dear Prudence” for the next lines to recover the earlier dreaminess and set up the next verse. Although the progression is fairly sophisticated, the band makes it feel loose and inviting. Later, “Tracy Had a Hard Day Sunday” effortlessly blends a casual jazz vamp with the band’s trademark mid-’60s psychedelic pop. The lyrics seem both mundane and profound, “People are papier mâché/ People and the games they play.” But even if MacLean slips into non-sequitur, it all fits because the music weaves a dream logic spell that’s irresistible.

Suburban Light takes all of The Clientele’s influences – especially the Beatles, but also the Byrds, Love and the Hollies – and filters them through a dreamy surrealism. They fall into a reverie of sun-dappled pop; they’re turned inward, but hopeful. At times, the thickly reverbed vocals and guitar jangle can seem a bit precious, but their sincerity is strong enough to overcome jaded ears. Even so, there’s an intriguing skew that keeps them from falling into predictability. In “Joseph Cornell”, they get esoteric with a cryptic line, “151 or 145 or twice times 123,” and it’s not clear what that or any of the other lyrics have to do with the surrealist artist of the title. The meaning may be obscure, but it still just sounds right. Then, too, relatively straightforward songs, like “Monday’s Rain”, can turn up evocative poetry like, “Is the lamplight curling from your fingers to your face/ Leaning out into the wind with fear?” Those creative sparks keep the music far from falling into a pastiche of their inspirations.

Over time, with better budgets and nicer recording equipment, The Clientele would polish their sound, but that sonic clarity never fundamentally changed their aesthetic. The band may be more or less defunct now (although they've announced a few appearances in honor of the reissue), but it’s a joy to sink into this extended bit of elevated pop that still feels as fresh as it did a decade and a half ago.

(This review first appeared in Spectrum Culture)

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Recording review - Camper Van Beethoven, El Camino Real (2014)

More of an afterthought than an aftershock, the band continues their focus on California

In their latest release, Camper Van Beethoven departs from the lost coast via the King’s Highway. Last year’s La Costa Perdita (review) served as the band’s hazy appreciation of navel-gazing Northern California. By contrast, El Camino Real winds its way southward with less time or patience for hippy-dippy bits of psychedelia or introspective reverie. Instead, David Lowery and the boys settle into a busy swirl of purpose and angst. That’s not to say that they don’t face down some surreal moments. They do, but they quickly let them run their course and then move on. In fact, they leap the first hurdle right at the start. After a brief ambient soundscape, “The Ultimate Solution” takes off into a classic CvB sound, a bit like “Dustpan” from II & III (1986). The driving rock punch is thickened with violin and slashes of slide guitar. Lowery’s lyrics paint a prosaic picture of loitering boredom, but his chorus hits with a cold flash of anxiety and dissociation, where the ultimate solution is a nihilistic solvent rather than a sideways Nazi reference. The song is chock full of random images from Korean girls to game shows, which provide some low-content entertainment, but it’s hard to tell whether they trigger Lowery’s upset or flow from it.

The next couple of tracks maintain the idea that any motion counts as progress, whether denying personal responsibility on “It Was Like That When We Got Here” or tossing out a plotless paean to action film cutouts on “Classy Dames and Able Gents”. At this point El Camino Real feels like it’s willing to settle for the trite Hollywood reputation: flashy and shallow, but hard to resist. Fortunately, the next tune, “Camp Pendleton”, is worth digging into. The thoughtful music is laced with an undercurrent of agitation, reminding me of some of El Ten Eleven’s recent work. Lowery’s vocal is understated as he casually delivers the first line, “I have dreamed/ Immortal suns/ I gazed upon their fiery surfaces,” and it merely registers as idle imagery. Soon enough, though, it becomes clear that his character is immersed in PTSD, tamping the pressure down and trying to cope. The arrangement and the lyrics work well together, utilizing cognitive dissonance to accent the surreal mindset; for example, “Pump up the violence / Bring the ordnance on down,” sounds as innocent as a pop song calling for a party. It’s a sympathetic, albeit disturbing perspective. A younger incarnation of the band might have relied on dark satire or righteous indignation to cover this theme, but this subtle approach is stronger.

El Camino Real is most effective when it finds the right balance between catchy tunes and nuanced darkness. “I Live in L.A.” deconstructs the town’s dreamy lifestyle in the verses, while the chorus caps it with an ambivalent response to Randy Newman’s “I Love L.A.” It’s an ear worm that hung with me well after it was over. This is followed by “Out Like a Lion”, with Lowery hoarsely channeling his inner Leonard Cohen. The chorus is a bit repetitive, but the deliberate pace and restrained tension complement each other.

Although there are enough strong cuts to carry the album, it feels more conventional than the group’s earliest work that made them college radio darlings. The exotic swirl of punk, gypsy folk and psychedelia from that era is only faintly echoed across these songs. Jonathan Segel’s violin gets a mild workout during the bridge jam for “Out Like a Lion”, but is otherwise relegated to accents rather than the heady melodies he’s contributed in the past. Tunes like folky “Sugartown” and the country rock of “Darken Your Door” hint at Camper Van Beethoven’s rootsy side, but they’re nowhere near as flamboyant as “Waka” (Our Beloved Revolutionary Sweetheart) or “No Krugerrands for David” (II & III).

According to an interview with bassist Victor Krummenacher, El Camino Real was born out of the La Costa Perdita sessions. As that album coalesced from a general California theme into a more regional flavor, it left a number of songs that didn’t fit No Cal ambiance. This set the band up for a quick follow on release. The net result is that it’s still worth a listen, but it’s hard to shake the sense that it’s more afterthought than aftershock.

(This review first appeared on Spectrum Culture)

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Recording review - Trans Am, Volume X (2014)

A whirlwind tour with little chance settle into appreciation

If there was ever a band to demonstrate that labels are meaningless, it would be the long-lived but under-the-radar band Trans Am. Wikipedia sticks them under the vague umbrella of post-rock, but their tongue in cheek web site declares their sound as “heavy American electro rock”. Whatever you call them, over the years, they’ve been happy to appropriate elements of just about everything they’ve ever heard: classic rock, electronica, new wave, heavy metal and Krautrock just begin the list. Volume X, their appropriately named 10th release, tries to shoehorn in all of these into a single muddled heap of songs. While the plaid and polka dots juxtaposition is clearly intentional, it’s hard to tackle the album as a coherent whole, even though the individual tracks are pretty good.

Trans Am kicks off with “Anthropocene”, where an ethereal wash of synth heralds in a grinding psychedelic excursion into the middle of some arcane rite. Saw wave guitars set a plodding zombie pace, accented by the band’s trademark savant drum work, full of flourishes and hyperactive fills. Echoed and twisted shreds of keyboard provide a hint of relief to the otherwise oppressive heaviness. It’s a solid start, promising further journeys through heady darkness and brooding obsession. Rather than build on this intensity, they springboard into an unexpected direction. “Reevaluations” lives up to its title, calling the last five and a half minutes into question. Where the previous track trudged through a thick grungy miasma, the one percolates, blending Devo style new wave with Ozric Tentacles space rock. As a standalone piece, the crystalline structure and repressed tension work together to lure the listener in deeper, but in context it’s just a jarring transition. Even though the next couple of tracks gesture towards continuity, with synthesizers and syncopation, they don’t actually mesh either. By the time we persevere through these additional flavors of electronica to reach the fifth track, the band seems afraid that we’re getting complacent. So they decide to reshuffle the deck and dive into a metallic shredfest for “Backflash”, locking into a repetitive fan-blade rhythm vamp. We’re halfway through the tracklist and it feels more like a well-shuffled iPod playlist than a planned series of songs by a single band.

Trans Am’s established fan base may well be used to the short attention span. In any case, they’ll find plenty of familiar elements on Volume X, like the tight drum work, twisted electronics and processed vocals. But it’s hard to imagine the group winning many new converts with this grab bag collection. It’s frustrating, because I can find things to like about most of the multiple personalities they try on and discard on this album. Still, it’s telling that my favorite track is probably the least representative. That should be a high bar to pass, but “Insufficiently Breathless” has little to do with any of the other tunes. Rich flourishes of 12-string acoustic guitar provide a stately canvas for a variety of melodic additions. Where most of Volume X favors unsettled tension if not overtly stressful moods, the album closes out with a gentle psychedelic tip of the hat to short-lived progressive rockers, Captain Beyond. Trans Am does a decent job of referencing more than just the title, falling into the same introspective meandering that their inspiration delighted in.

As pleasant a finish as this is, it still leaves me a bit dazed. Almost any step along this winding path could serve as a jumping off point for a whole record’s worth of creative exploration. By trying to hit them all, Trans Am barely manages to look out their window at the possibilities.

Trans Am - I'll Never from Thrill Jockey Records on Vimeo.

(This review first appeared on Spectrum Culture)