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

Thursday, July 31, 2014

Recording review - Bad Luck, Cold Bones (2014)

In praise of angst and attitude, thrash and crunch 

Long before I had heard of the label pop punk, I had my own name for it: snotty boys with guitars. The SBWG label might encompass more than just pop punk, but thrashing guitars, tight harmonies, and a lyrical mix of angst and sarcastic attitude occupy the sweet spot. While it's nowhere near as intricate as my other favorite styles - psychedelia, post-rock, and modal jazz - there's something compelling about the primal energy that bands like Bad Luck tap into. For me, it's intimately tied to the feeling of being 14, an age where the stakes are unimaginably high and a roiling mess of thoughts and emotions always lurk below the surface. One moment can embrace the camaraderie of close formation harmonies, but the next soars off alone in a furious scream. It's a reminder of when I was partly formed, when anything was possible but I didn't have enough perspective to know what I even wanted.

The best examples, like Green Day's American Idiot, Team Spirit, or Colorado's Convalescents, can somehow blend a search for meaning and an emotional truth into a rallying cry. At their worst, SBWGs can be self-indulgent and immature. Even then, though, the risk seems worthwhile, because there's a pretty good chance at catharsis if nothing else. On Cold Bones, Bad Luck mostly beats the odds and delivers a satisfying collection of songs.

It didn't seem like a slam dunk at first, though. The loaded pathos in the opening lines of "Willoughby" aren't promising, "Oh, nobody wants me back home/ Nobody loves me at all," but Bad Luck doesn't take long to rush headlong into defiance. The tempo kicks up and the guys run through a hoarse autobiography of neglect and self-reliance. As the vocals trade back and forth, they strain a bit on some awkward phrasing, but that initial bit of self-pity transforms into a badge of honor. Ultimately, the technical execution is trumped by the power of their obstinate fatalism.

The next run of songs harness grinding guitars and solid uptempo drumming to set a relentless pace. Highlights along the way include the inevitable Green Day tribute ("King of the Ring '98") and a satisfying mix of ringing feedback and punk rage on "I Wish the World Would End (Every Jan. 10th)".

The band surprised me, though, with a strong change-up on "Lantern Park", which is a bittersweet breakup ballad. Bad Luck wisely abandons the distortion for a simple acoustic guitar and delivers the song with a tenderness that accentuates the pain and loss. The first verse is incredibly well written:
And it's overcast in the back of this van Mental photographs are flooding my head So I strike a match and set fire to my brain Just to burn away every image of you And that's only cause I know it's what you want me to do But still I'm stuck I dwell in your ashy remains 
Aside from the great imagery - who hasn't found themselves stuck in the ashy remains of a lost love? - the vocal delivery is perfect,from the rough edge of sexual frustration in the second verse to the little shrug and half laugh as he acknowledges his ex moving on while he's still trapped. Rather than get too caught up in the morose mood, the band eases back into crunchy catharsis on the next song, "Graphic Novel(s)", which balances soft and loud sections.

Throughout Cold Bones, brothers Dominick and Joseph Fox trade vocals in a one-two punch. The whipsaw shifts build a nervous energy that permeates even slow-burn tracks like “Ex-Friends”, where their paired voice of conscience becomes a straight-edge rant at a user (ex-)friend. The theme may be a bit mature for my inner 14 year old, but it resonates with the static that filled my head at that age.

Maybe that’s what I’m still looking for from all of these SBWGs: raw passion, a calm eye in the middle of a distortion storm, and a belief in an order that’s both reassuring and something to fight against. Cold Bones does a fine job delivering on those needs.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Recording review - Chrissie Hynde, Stockholm (2014)

Vulnerability and strength, doubt and inspiration

It’s kind of fitting that the best Pretenders album of the last decade is Chrissie Hynde’s new solo album, Stockholm. That’s not a cheap shot at 2008’s Break Up the Concrete, the sole competition for that award, but where Concrete dug deep into blues, rockabilly and early rock, Stockholm largely returns to the Pretenders’ classic sound. Back in the day, Hynde and the group infused the radio with a refreshing mix of rock, new wave, and power pop. They paired her expressive voice with the tight chop of a Stratocaster to create a string of hits that could rouse rebellion, slink into a sultry mood or move hearts. Although she always emphasized that the Pretenders was not just a backing band, her singing was always ascendant over the music. While that remains the case on Stockholm, releasing this as solo album may just be an acknowledgment of the tensions between Hynde and the band. That last Pretenders album notably did not include long-time drummer Martin Chambers, although he toured with them afterwards. A solo release provides some distance from the politics and personality conflicts and, ironically, lets Hynde sink deeper into her strengths as a performer.

The best thing about Stockholm is that it proves that Hynde still has the same vocal and emotional power she had in her prime. Those early releases built on the unique ground she claimed, somewhere between Blondie’s new wave coquettishness, Joan Jett’s tough girl snarl, and Patti Smith’s poetic depth. The new album works a lot of those facets with a set of fairly short, focused tracks that get their punches in and then step aside for the next song to take a turn. The 11 tracks don’t quite make it to 38 minutes, so the time passes quickly, but most of the tunes have something worthwhile to impart.

Stockholm opens with a nod to Break Up the Concrete’s retro sound with a slow burn, Phil Spector-style ballad, “You Or No One”, but it really begins with the second song, “Dark Sunglasses”. The pensive, new wave verses take elements of early tunes like “Private Life” (Pretenders, 1980) and “My City Was Gone” (Learning to Crawl, 1984). Hynde is sharp and sarcastic, dissecting her target with clinical precision, “And you’ll remember/ How good it tasted/ Inside the ruling classes/ Wasted, behind your dark sunglasses.” The backing vocals and the R&B pop edge to the chorus remind me a little of Annie Lennox and the Eurythmics, but the layers of guitar – staccato slashes against a relentless arpeggio riff – resurrect fine memories of Hynde and Pretenders’ guitarist Robbie McIntosh in tight formation.

A couple of songs later, “Down the Wrong Way” takes the gloves off and lunges forward with a raw wrench of electric guitar. I hadn’t read the liner notes in advance, so it was particularly sweet to immediately recognize Neil Young’s distinctive playing. The warm fuzz of his Fender Deluxe and his ringing tone fit perfectly into the low-fi grind of the tune. The sound is ragged, but Hynde effortlessly slides from sneering post-punk to power pop. The opening line, “I’ve become what I criticized/ The porn queen in my deck of lies,” is an uncompromising bit of self-analysis, but her taut innuendo opens into a weary sigh of jaded experience that tempers a defiant streak of bruised yearning. This is what she does best: project a deep vulnerability that lurks behind a tough protective shell. It’s the strongest track on the album in large part because of Young’s contribution, which adds the undercurrent of desperation that drives the tune. It ends with a thick cloud of reverberations that rolls away like fading thunder or the repercussions of a string of bad decisions

While nothing else gets as down and dirty, Stockholm still has a couple more tricks to play. “In a Miracle” contrasts moody musing delivered in a lush Karen Carpenter vocal tone with a bridge that soars with hopeful highs. The see-saw between doubt and inspiration provides the album’s emotional heart, even as it ends in a question that offers no resolution.

The other standout is a dark outlier, “Tourniquet”. This is more like a theatrical tune from a musical; think Streisand or Midler, but more restrained, or perhaps an introspective Patti Smith piece. It’s a kind of opium dream, where each line or couplet could serve as a panel in a graphic novel, and, fittingly, the instrumentation is completely different, with classical guitar, music box chimes and a faint whistle accompaniment. Hynde’s voice is captivated by obsession and she infuses the two and a half minutes with a rich web of darkness and codependent themes. That tourniquet could be bandage or bondage – both are implied. She takes a big chance by including this song; it’s stark and revealing in a unique way. That risk almost pays off. Unfortunately, the hypnotic power is sabotaged by the track order. If it had been followed by “Adding the Blue”, the lazy beat and heartfelt poetic lyrics would have melded smoothly to close the album. Instead, Hynde splits the two with “Sweet Nuthin’”, which breaks the mood like a splash of cold water and comes across as more lightweight than it deserves.

That’s not a fatal error; it’s easy enough to swap “Tourniquet” and “Sweet Nuthin’” in the play order and salvage the moment. Once that distraction is removed, Stockholm accomplishes its purpose and shows off Hynde’s skills as a timeless performer.

(This review first appeared on Spectrum Culture)

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)

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Recording review - Tori Amos, Unrepentant Geraldines (2014)

Unrepentant, but that's how she's always been

With a recent foray into classical music on Night of Hunters (2011) and Gold Dust’s orchestral interpretations of her back catalog in 2012, it seemed like Tori Amos had left her contemporary pop days behind. Last year’s musical staging of I for the National Theatre in London suggested that this was how she planned to grow old gracefully, abdicating her earlier career and setting herself new challenges outside the image and age conscious pop world. This new work was worthwhile, but lacked the visceral punch of Amos’ heights of righteous indignation, sly sedition, and her richr inner life.

Unrepentant Geraldines is so satisfying because it proves that Amos has not given up on pop music. More moody than confrontational, the album recalls both Little Earthquakes (1992) and Under The Pink (1994), its storytelling lyrics rooted to an inner truth, its intimacy and connection reliant on her piano and rich voice. From the very start, Amos weaves a spell that shuts out the rest of the world. The Beatlesque opening of “America” weaves a fine tapestry for her breathy sighs and vulnerable vocal catches. Her stylized singing stretches out, creating a dreamy detachment that complements the oblique lyrics. Her protagonist, “the other America,” is sketched with the barest of details, and it’s not until the flashy psychedelic pop of the bridge that her political message creeps in. Then the hypnotic lethargy of the piece becomes a commentary itself. The protective shell lingers even as she shifts gears and throws off the languor for the work-song cadence of “Trouble’s Lament”. It’s a strong lead single for the album, offering a frisson of dark abandon in her knowing tone as she sings, “If danger wants to find me/ I’ll let him in.

At this point, the album seems to promise a roster of allegorical woman characters, but Amos breaks the pattern with “Wild Way” and this is where Unrepentant Geraldines moves into deeper currents of confession and disclosure. Although the arrangement gradually fills out, it starts out as a stripped down ballad of piano and voice that showcases her painful emotional ambiguity. Amos conveys the weariness of being worn down by the broken chemistry of her relationship, yet she’s still wistful for what once was. She sidesteps the wordplay and clever conceit of the first two pieces with lyrics that are stark and direct, “I hate you/ I hate you, I do/ I hate that you’re the one who can make me feel gorgeous/ With just, just a flick of your finger/ It is that easy.” It’s a powerful moment that shows that Amos can still capture the raw truth of songs like “Mother” or “Me and a Gun”, but with more clarity.

The album flows smoothly from this auspicious beginning, with plenty of notable moments. The duet with her 13 year old daughter, “Promise”, calls back to Amos’ smart pop and infuses it with modern R&B swoon. The title song is a stripped down, lazy evocation of “Cornflake Girl” and “God”, from Under The Pink. But my favorite track looks more forward than back. “16 Shades of Blue” is built upon Amos’ archly precise vocals and light piano accompaniment, but the production is thoroughly up-to-date. Producer-collaborators Mark Hawley and Marcel van Limbeek apply a heavy hand, twisting the initial recording into an arty remix. They add electronic fills and sound effects, program an understated beat and mutate the vocals. The contrast is particularly apropos because the lyrics are a jaundiced take on aging and relevance. The piece walks a fine line; it would be easy to slip into pastiche, but it works because it preserves Amos’ pensive and poisonous intent. Although this is one of two outliers on the album, the artistic risk pays off, even as she almost sneers, “There are those who say/ I am now too old to play.

The other odd duck, “Giant’s Rolling Pin”, doesn’t fare nearly as well, more for context than content. It’s a whimsical potshot at the spooks and spies of the world, with the jaunty feel of early pieces like “The Wrong Band”. It doesn’t mesh with the rest of album, and might have worked better as a bonus cut outside the tracklist flow. Despite that minor quibble, Unrepentant Geraldines is a remarkably consistent, strong album. On “Oysters”, Amos sings, “‘Cause I’m working my way back/ I’m working my way back to me again.” It’s been a long time since she started, but she’s definitely still herself.

(This review first appeared on Spectrum Culture)