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

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Recording review - Team Spirit, Killing Time (2014)

Forever young and other deals with the Devil

Some 18 months ago, Team Spirit dropped their five song self-titled EP and it's little exaggeration to say that I've been waiting for their first full length release ever since. Their infectious blend of thrash, pop, and muscular dual guitar riffage made them one of my favorite acts of 2013. Killing Time captures the manic energy of their live performances with a well-crafted set of songs that delivers on the promise of that first taste.

The album leads off with"Surrender", and although it's not a cover of the Cheap Trick classic, it's easy to hear that band's influence in the uptempo staccato beat and the chorus harmonies. The lyrics are soaked in the turmoil and ambivalence of teen love. Tired of being toyed with but still drawn back to the flame, front man Ayad Al Adhamy is left with no other choice but to surrender. He yo-yos between sneering attitude and helpless fascination, driven by the punk guitar thrash. Of course, all of this is effectively trumped by the revelation that "It's too late to help me / Cause I made a deal with the devil / And I'll be forever young," which goes a long way towards explaining Team Spirit's magic. Al Adhamy wears his teenage heart on his sleeve and, like Joey Ramone, it doesn't really matter how long it's been since his high school years. He taps into the angst, the naïveté, and the seething emotions of adolescence, and distills them into tight servings of pop punk perfection.

I've often referred to my love of "snotty boys with guitars" and Team Spirit knocks that out of the park with a sound that links back to Too Much Joy and The Refreshments along with punk idols, The Ramones. But they also have a polished pop attitude that doesn't get mired down in simple blues-based progressions. Even a darkly heavy track like "Closer" can't quite settle for a single facade. The initial splash of New Order introduction gives way to a thick tidal wash of guitars, while the sneering vocals come straight from the garage or fuzz-warped basement. This kind of layered experience is typical of these tunes. Team Spirit is equally happy, regardless of whether listeners head bang along or pick up on the danceable drive of the songs. Along the way, they toss out plenty of interesting perspectives that may be missed the first time around underneath the low-fi grind, but they give Killing Time some real staying power.

In many of these songs, Al Adhamy takes on a borderline persona, like the hapless character in "Teenage Heart" who tries his best to talk his way out of trouble ("C'mon, c'mon/ Come on, Baby, give me another second chance") even though it's clear that it's a hopeless task. He may have forgotten to tell his girl that he suffers from a teenage heart, with all the hormonal fluctuation that incurs, but there's no way she's going to fall for that. Again. "Cool Guy", on the other hand, wallows in indecision about whether to commit or walk away from trouble, "I'm trying to convince you/ I want you to convince me, too" but can't get much beyond, "I'm trying to convince myself/ That you are worth all of this Hell."

That 18 month lag since their debut EP included plenty of changes for Team Spirit with Al Adhamy losing his original bandmates fairly early on, but he quickly regrouped with a solid line up that includes Daniel de Lara and Alex Russek holding down the rhythm and Kieren Smith on guitar. While these guys bring their own personalities to the mix, Killing Time shows that the band never abandoned their core thrashy attitude or dedication to party-time rock. Turn it up to 11 and soak it in. Then, when Team Spirit makes it to your corner of the world, come out and see what rock and roll is in all its exuberant glory.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Coming attractions - Primus, "Golden Ticket"

Here come the Bastards. 

Well, that was my first instinct when I heard that Primus' next release would be an homage to the classic "Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory". But the more I thought about Les Claypool's cracked reflection juxtaposed with Gene Wilder's beloved character, some of the ludicrous logic began to make a kind of warped sense. The big question in my mind is whether he'd find his own expression of Wonka or whether it would owe more to Johnny Depp's spin. Primus' dark slant argues for the latter, but the earlier taste of "Pure Imagination" was sufficiently intriguing that any real judgment will have to await Primus & the Chocolate Factory with the Fungi Ensemble. Part Tom Waits inspired percussion (thanks, Mike Dylan) and part uneasy Claypoolean dreaminess, the song is pure Primus weirdness, but the focused moodiness has a calculated clarity that contrasts well with the hyper-attack the band is usually known for.

"Golden Ticket" offers another stop along their re-imagining of the "Willy Wonka" soundtrack. Claypool's moping, weary intro belies the optimistic lyrics, "I never had a chance to shine/ Never a happy song to sing/ But suddenly half the world is mine/ What an amazing thing." Then the tune launches into a martial beat borrowed from "Here Come the Bastards". It doesn't take long for Claypool to assume his twisted Ringmaster persona.  Although Claypool chews the scenery true to form, the music stands up well for itself.  Like their version of "Pure Imagination", the syncopation drives the tune and Sam Bass' cello solo is an expressive treat. There's also a precision that evokes Frank Zappa at his best.

I'm still not quite willing to swallow the ("Primus Bar") chocolate bars whole, but looking over the songlist which parallels the original soundtrack, I find myself eager to hear the Primus take on "The Rowing Song", "Semi-Wondrous Boat Ride", which seems to be right in their wheelhouse.

Primus & the Chocolate Factory with the Fungi Ensemble is due to release on October 21.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Recording review - Cymbals Eat Guitars, LOSE (2014)

Growing up is serious work

Cymbals Eat Guitars filled their 2009 debut Why There Are Mountains with a tangled jumble of musical interests. Despite the roller coaster ride, the album worked, maybe because of how the shorter tunes broke up the more sweeping tracks. Since then, the band has tried to tame their urge to run off in a hundred different directions and LOSE generally provides something closer to pop structure than they’ve managed before. That said, the opening track, “Jackson”, is a callback to their debut even as it attempts to reach a wider audience. It’s catchy, with soaring pop vocals, but it also juxtaposes a grab bag of ideas into its sprawling six and a quarter minutes.

Initially, it sounds like a big Trail of Dead setup: a dreamy opening dissolves into a circling wave of loudness. Percussion drives the tension while tiers of guitar infuse it with epic intent. But where Lenses Alien (2011) would have milked that into a full-blown exploration, “Jackson” intentionally lets the power slip away, leaving behind a thoughtful post-punk progression. Frontman Joe D’Agostino sounds calm but strained as he starts, “You’re taking two Klonopin/ So you can quit flippin’ and face our friends.” His voice is a bit ragged, which fits the sense of loss that permeates this whole project. The new wave simplicity of this section is eventually buried under thicker walls of indie pop guitar. He catalogs a headful of experiences with wistful poignancy as his falsetto is backed with guitar jangle, but before it tips into maudlin self-pity, clashing discord reveals the underlying angst with fluttering horns and waves of distortion. The meandering lead jam resurrects the original Trail of Dead feel to close out the piece.

The backstory is that LOSE is effectively D’Agostino’s music therapy for working through his grief of a good friend’s untimely death. Looming larger than that, though, is a more universal theme of growing up. Like the rest of the album, ”Jackson” wrestles with nostalgia, mortality and the painful clarity that comes with adulthood. Some tracks may explicitly refer to D’Agostino’s friend, Benjamin High, but that loss is really just the trigger for trying to make sense of a long overdue post-adolescence. From song to song, the lyrics vary in their degree of obliqueness – Cymbals Eat Guitars have always held their cards close to their chests – but they all circle around random recollections, tales of self and substance abuse and the niggling survivor’s guilt that can kick in as the years pile on and the friends slip away.

If that seems to hit harder than you’re ready for, that’s okay, because the band has worked out the math so that listeners can choose how deeply to immerse themselves. Tease out the words from D’Agostino’s raw vocals or visit the lyrics link on their website and you can soak in all the darkness you can handle. But plenty of the songs juxtapose music that contrasts with the cathartic lines, from the mellow wistfulness of “Child Bride” to the cool Berlin-style new wave pop of “Chambers”. A shallow ear will still catch ominous phrases – “‘Til your dad slapped the living shit out of you,” or “The panic sets in, cause nothing’s happening,” – but it’s easy to surrender to the rhythmic drive and interlocked layers of guitar so they glance off.

It’s hard to pick a favorite track, but it comes down to “Place Names” or “Laramie”. The former is a moody Jane’s Addiction set piece. D’Agostino’s swooping proclamations capture Perry Farrell’s lazy falsetto and the song is filled with shimmering swirls of feedback static. Cymbals Eat Guitars have had this sound in their arsenal since the beginning, but the frayed thread of lyrical logic fills it with sacred poetry and profane pronouncements. “Laramie”, on the other hand, is another nomadic journey across genres, like “Jackson”. It starts with a dreamy glam glory, but manages to blend in a weird post-rock experimentalism. The latter half heads off into other directions, turning from driving rocker to indie acid rock meltdown. Despite the gear-stripping changes, there’s an internal logic that keeps the piece on track.

Cymbals Eat Guitars have come a long way since their debut and LOSE is certainly their strongest release yet. The challenge will come with their next album. Now that they’ve confronted adulthood, will they actually grow up or will they linger in this shadowy twilight? If they do step forward, will they find something interesting and new to say? Based on their growth to date, I’m betting that they will.

(This review first appeared on Spectrum Culture)

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Coming attractions: Negativland, "Right Might"

Gather 'round, kids, while I tell you about the biggest punks and anarchists that ever released an album. Sure Black Flag was hardcore and the Butthole Surfers were a chaotic, artistic mess, but Negativland managed to fight the system and spit in the face of authority without relying on mere guitar thrash to carry their message. Instead, they pioneered audio editing to create sonic collages with subversive themes. Their first album, Negativland was released in 1980, but I didn't find out about them until their 1987 record, Escape From Noise. I still remember being floored by the audacity of "Christianity is Stupid", which sampled a preacher, turning his message on its head. They later achieved much wider exposure because of the lawsuits over their 1991 EP, U2, which sampled the Irish band and an obscenity-laced Casey Kasem rant. They eventually made their case for fair use.

In the years since, Negativland hasn't been completely idle, but their last release was a good six years ago. That dry spell is ending with a new album, It's All in Your Head, due October 28. Continuing their history of thumbing their noses at the popular and powerful, this album arose from an unusual gift: access to Disney's private audio archives. The source is appropriately cloaked in mystery, but Negativland asked for and received countless hours of material. It should come as little surprise that they're not only poking their fingers in Disney's eye, but they're continuing their challenge of religion's place in society. You can bet that this sound from the happiest place on earth is going to piss off a lot of people.

The first taste they're offering is "Right Might", which splices up the animatronic Abraham Lincoln to offer up a commentary on faith and Christianity's Dominion Theology. Based on an excerpt from the recording sessions for Disney's "Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln" attraction, voice actor Royal Dano offers up a host of takes on his line, "Let us have faith that right makes might." This is quickly transformed into "Let us have faith that right faith makes might right," and other variations, Accompanied by a downshifted version of "The Battle Hymn of the Republic", Dano is repeatedly cued by the producer to adjust his intonation to fine tune the nuance of the performance. The message becomes more strident and confrontational.

Much like the classic punk bands, Negativland is still focused on pushing buttons and generating outrage while making their point. On the plus side, they have honed their skills over the years and they're likely to garner more attention than Jello Biafra's post-Dead Kennedys lectures/rants. I'm going to guess that they've already shared their press material with the right wing Christian press to trigger the first wave of denouncements.