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PopMatters Music Short Takes
our brief reviews of new releases
16 December 2004
Ariel Pink's Haunted Graffiti 2, The Doldrums (Paw Tracks)
Listening to The Doldrums by one-man acid test and LA lo-fi oddity Ariel Pink, I'm thinking that while this album may be the first non-Animal Collective release on the Paw Tracks label, it at least... wait, did he just cop the bridge from The Wall's "Hey You"?! Like some hideous alliance between Phil Spector and Syd Barrett by way of Beck and Twink, Ariel Pink's Paw Tracks debut -- recorded some two years ago and first released on CD-R -- is a psychfolk-inflected shimmy through classic FM. Cassette warbles abound, the disc finds the enigmatic Pink committing his vocals (layering ghoulish drones upon soulful falsettos), Love-inspired guitars, dreamy keyboard embellishes, and unique beat-boxed percussion to 8-track, finding interesting, if not entirely consistent, results. So Mellow Gold it ain't; his Haunted Graffiti is an exciting enough addition to the Collective family. Like in the meandering, 10-minute "Ballad of Bobby Pyn", Pink sometimes lets his imagination get ahead of him, but -- for the most part -- his combo of psychedelia and vintage Wall-of-Sound pop makes up for lack of accessibility through sheer charm.
A. Graham & the Moment Band, This Tyrant Is Free (Sonic Unyon)
When you first hear This Tyrant is Free, the debut album by Kansas's A. Graham & the Moment Band, either you're going to warm up to it instantly, or be repelled by it, depending on how much you enjoy indie rock gimmickry. Bandleader Andy Graham employs every indie rock trick that's been used in the last decade on the album, originally released as a demo in 2003. You get the jarring vocal cadence of Modest Mouse impresario Isaac Brock, the comfy-yet-quirky tones of The Shins, the choral goofiness of The Polyphonic Spree, and above everything else, heaps and heaps of Pavement influences, from Graham's sloppy, dissonant guitar, to his lackadaisical, Malkmus-esque phrasing, to his surreally comical lyrics. Despite the myriad (and at time painfully obvious) influences, the disc has its moments, such as the countrified "Not the One", the fun "Motorcycle Shades", and the hilariously sarcastic "So Many Girls". Graham and his supporting cast pull it off convincingly, but This Tyrant is Free teeters precariously between fun and annoying, something best exemplified by "Glorious", a song so deviously catchy, a) you'll be charmed by it, or b) you'll find it impossible to get out of your head, like that Duff Beer jingle from the time when Bart and Lisa Simpson went on the musical ride at Duff Gardens. "Glorious... triumphant... optimistic... transcendent." Please, stop the ride. I want to get off.
Yellow Swans, Bring the Neon War Home (Narnack)
With an unbelievable collection of self-released (and largely out of print) CDs, tapes and vinyl behind them, the Oakland noise duo Yellow Swans have dropped their first "proper" full length with Bring the Neon War Home. Both cerebral and visceral, this 40-minute mindbender isn't something you're going to be throwing on at your next cocktail party. Upon my first listen, Bring the Neon War Home accosted and mocked me, with pulsing electronic bursts, and thick sheets of guitar noise daring me to engage it. However, somewhere into my second listen, I began to respect the dense, layered noise Yellow Swans had meticulously crafted. Though improvisation plays a large part in the group's songwriting, there is nothing random about these songs. They each build and cascade in deliberate waves, but remain completely unpredictable and thoroughly compelling. Though I don't think I will be pulling this out for a listen very often, Bring the Neon War Home will sit proudly on CD shelf, serving as a reminder that innovation and creation don't have to come at the expense of accessibility, and that sometimes the very difficulty of discovery can lead to an experience which is that much more rewarding.
Jonny Polonsky, The Power of Sound (Loveless)
Jonny Polonsky was discovered by The Pixies' Frank Black and later signed by Rick Rubin. Needless to say when you have those two in your corner, you're doing something right. This album's 10 songs wow you from the onset, beginning with the 'Mats punk pop of "Let Me Out". Relentless and yet still air tight, the tune sets the stage for a lovely 30 minutes of seasoned, well crafted tunes. The darker "Even the Oxen" is just as promising despite taking a tad longer to gel. It's the roots rock thread which makes it all fit, with the Westerbergian "Much Love" and driving, crunchy Guided By Voices-like "My Secret Life". The consistency here is its biggest plus as "Calling All Babies" glides before soaring high. Only "Where The Signs End" falters with its nu-metal wails concluding it. But fortunately the shine glaring from "How Much Do You Know?" will keep fans of Collective Soul appeased. A collection of songs you won't tire of.
Honeypower, Deflowered (Push Productions)
Honeypower, or Gavin Rhodes to his friends, is yet another follower of the punky shoegazing legacy of the Jesus and Mary Chain. At least Honeypower has the decency to spread a little sunshine into the generally dark world that the brothers Reid inhabited. Nothing on Psychocandy was ever as cheerful and sing-a-longy as the delightful "Oh, Kumiko" (featuring, of course, lyrics far darker than its sugary chorus suggests). Sure, "My Little Sun" with its statement "There is nothing to keep me sane" is a beautiful downer, but Rhodes keeps Deflowered infused with enough power pop smarts to defy any claims of mere mimicry. The sound is much larger and grander than most one-man band affairs, with Rhodes switching gears from clean Television riffing to full-on power fuzz in a matter of seconds. Even the drum machine has a force and an immediacy that I haven't heard on a record since a little cult band with a sacrilegious name released a little album called Automatic.
Peas, Filters (Kanpai)
If you have fond memories of Soul II Soul, there is really no way to resist the album-opening "Fences", with vocals by Rachel Leslie. Although there's nothing as immediately satisfying on the rest of the album, it is a surprisingly coherent and persistently enjoyable exercise in genre defying low-key funky house. Peas, AKA Peter McEvilley, is a Hollywood-based musician who has worked on projects as diverse as a set of drum & bass remixes for the soundtrack to Miramax's Confessions of a Dangerous Mind and the complete soundtrack to the 12-episode Japanese anime Ninja Scroll. Filters is loosely based on the work of Japanese ambient pioneer Kitaro, and every song features extensive samples from that oeuvre. Despite some sameness in texture, the album does manage a surprisingly crisp diversity. Fans of Zero 7 and the Thievery Corporation who aren't afraid of darker notes scattered throughout the chilled atmosphere will find a lot to like here.
Kava, The Empty Hall Sessions (Fabrique)
The Empty Hall Sessions is the debut full-length album from Austrian DJ/producer Thomas Pötz, also known as Kava. It's a curious creation of the "Hey! Your new soul jazz is in my techno-glitch!" variety. In other words, if Brand New Heavies and Aphex Twin met on a mixing board and had a baby, it would sound something like this. For better or worse, though, the most striking element of The Empty Hall Sessions is Pötz's employment of vocalists Anng, who sounds just like Madonna, and Noemi, who sounds just like Bjork. The two singers add some structure to the chattering, heavily-textured arrangements, even if they can't manage a lot of melody. Actually, the sophisticated sound and occasional dramatic, hard-boiled horn blasts indicate that Kava would be a wise act to tap for the next Bond theme.
Moron Parade, Dark Knights: Knife City (Paradeco)
This is the type of rock and roll played by excessively smart hoodlums since the dawn of time. They've got screaming guitars, droning basslines, thrashing drums, and barely-heard vocals over it all. They've undoubtedly got a knack for the type of wry indie songwriting influenced by Pavement and any number of K Records groups. Surprisingly, they're also quite versatile, with material running the gamut from the joyously ramshackle, major-chord shout-along "Borrower", to the early-Clash crib "Castle" (which has the exact same chord progression as "Clash City Rockers"), to the Modest Mouse vamp "Systems Cycles". For fans of the irreducibly lo-fi, this album may prove a major revelation. Moron Parade may not have reinvented the wheel, but they have produced -- with the help of some obvious influences -- a damn fine record.
Traindodge, The Truth (Ascetic)
This Norman, Oklahoma group decided that more was better and more was good. A double album and 100 minutes later though, that is extremely debatable! Beginning with a seven-minute "Abandon City!" the band hits the skins and guitars quite hard, resulting in a crunchy nu metal-ish approach that is okay at best. Add a New Wave synthesizer and this song is a train wreck happening soon. "Bent and Broken Down" is another appropriately titled tune. Fortunately "Watermark" has a few fleeting moments where a groove is actually established, but it takes nearly four minutes to get there. "Streets" has a certain Floydian thread in it which makes it somewhat pleasing as does the folk adventure "The Valley" which recalls Shrimp Boat. Disc two fares just as inadequately too often, although "Love and Venom" has more oomph and focus to it. However, when you have a nine-minute "March Of The Damned" that is listless two minutes in, you have major problems. Ditto for "Say Mercy". Here it sounds like a band running on empty while "Bushido" and "Lamplight" are a tad more impressive. Overall the truth hurts here for a ridiculous amount of time.
Machine Go Boom, Thank You, Captain Obvious (Collectable Escalators)
Machine Go Boom is hard to categorize. It's not a band, but one guy called "Mikey Machine". At times, Mikey is creating terrific Ween-like rock, as on "Captain Obvious", and other times he's mixing that style up with some Devendra Banhart-ish moments as on the opening track, "Lil Devil". So basically what you have here is something completely original and fresh and worth picking up. Other tracks, like the oddly sincere "What My Buddy Said" almost border on '70s acoustic So-Cal pop, while "Hot Potato" and "The Kazoo Star" take off in the freaky directions you might expect them to with those titles. But it's all very modern and quirky in the end, making Thank You, Captain Obvious one of those albums that reminds you of how great indie-pop can often be.
Brandtson, Send Us a Signal (The Militia Group)
Send Us a Signal marks the seventh album in Brandston's career, and perhaps its no surprise the group have yet to make any large waves. Making the move from Deep Elm to the Militia Group for this record hasn't made much of a difference. The Cleveland quartet still plays a mind-numbingly paint-by-numbers brand of emo that is sorely past its time. Unless you are a diehard fan, there is little on Send Us a Signal to recommend. There are so many other bands doing this style of music, including the glut of bands on Brandtson's former label. No doubt the group has a fanbase that is buying their records, and perhaps Brandtson are comfortable playing to their loyal following, but if they hope to make any steps out of the circle that supports them, Brandtson need to take a hard look at the musical climate that surrounds them and adjust accordingly.
Number One Fan, Compromises (Pat's Record Company)
Professional doesn't always equal good. Take Number One Fan, for instance. Their album Compromises sounds big and shiny, but underneath all the nifty production, they're another group with one-and-a-half feet mired in emo. You get the soft fuzzies listening to this dreck, and it's enough to make you turn into a hardcore anarchist and smash some shit up with a pair of Doc Martens. Hearing these boys whine on "It's Happening" is too much for any sane person to stomach, and other mopey moments like "Nothing Will Change" and "Sorry" only up the nausea quotient. If nothing else, Number One Fan gets my vote for Dullest Album of the Year. Don't bother with another one boys if this is the best you can do. Not even the 16-year-olds are going to fall for this waste of plastic.
The Slats, Pick It Up (Latest Flame)
There's one great song on here and it's called "Teena". It's a nice slab of hard pop with fuzzy guitars and some great lead vocals by B. Cox. Yet at the same time, it's sufficiently sloppy which also gives it an edge of attraction. The rest of The Slats' Pick It Up isn't as good, but does have some good moments. "Another Physical Reaction" borders on classic SST rock with its thin production, while "The Rules Are There Are No Rules" is a shambolic instrumental mess that hides some good riffs. Elsewhere, the band gets weird on "Algorithms & Arithmetic" and topical on "I Believe Timothy McVeigh". It's a huge mess when all is said and done, but there's enough here to keep a sustained interest, even if your fingers do reach for the skip button every now and then.
Powerman 5000, The Good, The Bad and the Ugly - Volume 1 (Megatronic)
Deviating from the grunge blueprint of the early '90s, Powerman 5000 fought its way to prominence with a unique blend of thrash and funk. After two indie releases in 1994 and 1995 respectively, followed by a pair of successful major label recordings in 1997 and 1999, the band appeared on the cusp of stardom. Yet a scrapped album and subsequent line-up change in 2001 took the band off the map and put it in the musical afterthought bin. With a moderately successful album in 2003 and the plan for another studio recording in 2005, the band had chosen to revisit its once promising past with a collection of early material. The tracks fall somewhere between embryonic Chili Peppers and Ministry and provide an interesting glimpse of a group finding its sonic direction. While generally unspectacular, the disc will appeal to PM5K's most loyal fans. As far as wider appeal however, it's questionable if anyone else will care, as the Powermen missed their window of opportunity some time ago.
Paul Motian, :rarum XVI (ECM)
Paul Motian's entry in ECM's :rarum series is good. It could, and probably should, be better. The fault lies in the song selection. The :rarum series allows artists to select their favorite work from over the course of their careers with ECM. All have been leaders on sessions at one time or another, but none limit themselves solely to work under their own name. As a top-notch drummer in the ECM stable, Motian has played on a number of compelling albums over the years. But on his :rarum collection, only one track is taken from a date not released under his name. That track, "One in Four", taken from a self-titled disc by the Paul Bley Quartet. Otherwise, it's all Motian. Makes sense on a best-of disc from the man, of course, but it seems limiting. Another problem? Well, it's not really even a problem so much as a limitation. Though Motian made some great music on ECM, it's not necessarily his best work. So, while it's good for what it is, it isn't the best it could be. The presence of this disc only emphasizes the need for a better, all inclusive best-of collection from Motian. That's less a criticism than a suggestion. As it stands, this nine-track compendium offers some brilliantly off-kilter moments, some fantastic playing by frequent collaborators Bill Frisell, Joe Lovano, Keith Jarrett and Charles Brackeen on recordings that span the time from 1972 to 1987. But what is good could be better.
The Blondes, Inc., The Blondes, Inc. (self-released)
This band, originally formed from two Nashville area loners, have made some inroads in the Big Apple with a dirty, lo-fi sound that resembles what they must have mastered in their original recording space -- an 8x10 shed. Falling somewhere between early Tom Petty and The Strokes on Quaaludes, the foursome get to the point on the simple but appealing "Listen". "You Got It" has a definite spark that brings to mind an airtight and sober Replacements. The stilted harmonies on "Special" are an acquired taste though. "Soft Texas" gets them back on track however. Television's Richard Lloyd produced, recorded and mixed the album which rarely falls into a rut. "Stupid Things" takes a while to get off the ground and is quite primal, but in a very attractive way a la Singapore Sling minus the feedback. The gem of the record though is pop glimmer of "Wasting My Time" recalling The Cure before Robert Smith's hair went wacky! This influence continues during the softer melody pedaling "Crush". They also hit paydirt on the play-by-numbers "Bad Girls".
.: posted by Editor 1:12 PM