First Exposure: New Bands Worth Knowing

ROYAL BANGS: We Breed Champions [Audio Eagle]
Listen to the weary vocals and languid, Strokes-like guitars on “Broke Calculator,” and you could peg Royal Bangs as snotty, post-punk New York brats. The five-piece, in fact, comes rumbling and beeping out of Knoxville, Tenn., with a rough tangle of garage guitars and low-budget electronics. It’s no mystery why this self-produced debut found a home on Audio Eagle, the label run by the Black Keys’ Patrick Carney: There’s mud and grease smeared all over “Cat Swallow.” But there’s also considerable divergence from any one playbook, with cut-up hip-hop beats invading “Let’s Get Even” and closing-time keyboards bolstering the Wheat-like “Japanese Cars.” With no outside assistance—aside from “vocal and instrumental coaching” credited to the Pabst and Miller brewing companies in
We Breed Champions’ sleeve—Royal Bangs are free to party out of bounds. []

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VETIVER: Thing Of The Past [Gnomonsong]

Releasing a covers album when you’ve only got three LPs to your own credit can be a dicey notion. Yet Vetiver doesn’t have much to lose; the San Francisco band is known more for its associations with other artists, having recently backed up Devendra Banhart, Vashti Bunyan and the Jayhawks’ Gary Louris. With Thing Of The Past, the members of Vetiver further confirm their rep as record-collector geeks by opening the album with a cover of “Houses” by Canadian psych/folk obscurity Elyse Weinberg, then proceed to dip deep into the songbooks of other ’60s/’70s songwriters such as Garland Jeffreys, Norman Greenbaum and Townes Van Zandt and invite folkie fogies such as Bunyan and Michael Hurley to join them. It’s saying a lot that the most recognizable track here is “The Swimming Song” (written by Loudon Wainwright III for Kate and Anna McGarrigle), and it’s this curatorial taste of the obscure that makes Thing Of The Past more than a romp through campfire favorites you’ve heard a thousand times. It’s all pleasant enough, especially when co-producer Thom Monahan (Banhart, Pernice Brothers) bathes everything in analog tape so that even your mp3 player manages to sound as warm and fuzzy as those old vinyl records. As tasteful as it all is, you still wonder what Vetiver is bringing to this material other than reverence. Not that it matters when Thing Of The Past closes with Bobby Charles’ “I Must Be In A Good Place Now,” a song that, unlike some of the album’s more inconsequential material, deserves the kind of loving resurrection it receives here. []

—Michael Barclay

THE SUBMARINES: Honeysuckle Weeks [Nettwerk]

For a group that earned its reputation for the confessional nature of its debut album (2006’s Declare A New State! was written and recorded as the duo broke off, then resumed, a romantic relationship), the L.A.-based Submarines have returned with a surprisingly sprightly sophomore effort. The direct, insistent choruses of songs such as “Maybe” seem to be crafted solely for their sing-along ease, while even the more brooding numbers (“Fern Beard”) are buoyed by singer Blake Hazard’s light-as-air voice. Things come together most effectively on “Thorny Thicket.” The song relies on copious amounts of glitchy electronica and warm, analog keyboards, over which Hazard and husband John Dragonetti (former frontman for Boston alt-rockers Jack Drag) wend their way through soaring harmonies about love in a way that’s either blissfully happy or perversely ironic. It’s a unique admixture of the serene and the sappy, of pop formality and contemporary experimentation, making the Submarines notable for more than just their romantic backstory. []

—Jason Ferguson

The Last Shadow Puppets: Fact Sheet

Arctic Monkeys frontman Alex Turner has never been one for vague disclosures. His lyrics often feature long, twisting details of urban tomfoolery and daft-punk diatribes about teenage life in seedy Sheffield. It’s both predictable and surprising, then, that his first piece of non-Monkey business would be an aggrandizing long-player (co-written with Miles Kane of upstart U.K. band the Rascals) supported by the 22-piece London Metropolitan Orchestra and titled, naturally, The Age Of The Understatement (Domino). The video for the opening title track provides most everything you need to know about the Last Shadow Puppets: Turner and Kane, looking dour in shaggy Beatles bowl cuts and leftover wardrobes from the 1964 Help! shoot, recline on a Russian battle tank like a couple of comrades while battalions of troops sing backup vocals in the snow. Much like the half-galloping, half-prancing album, it’s equal parts goofily outsized and gloriously over-the-top. Turner debunked MAGNET’s myths over the breakfast din of a Manhattan diner.

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FOUR TET: Ringer [Domino]

Four Tet is usually all about addition, juxtaposition and harmonious collision of potentially incompatible elements. This half-hour EP feels like a corrective move, as though Kieran Hebden felt a sudden need to make music that was just one thing. So Ringer’s percolating title track is a stripped-down, totally electronic groove, while “Ribbons” is dreamy desktop dub; they’re solid, but they leave you wanting more. The other two tracks, “Swimmer” and “Wing Body Wing,” swing the pendulum back by making sampled guitar harmonics dance with a techno pulse and sampled jazz drumming slam into stadium synth rock. With Four Tet, more is generally more. []

—Bill Meyer

RUSSIAN CIRCLES: Station [Suicide Squeeze]

Not much happens on Russian Circles’ sophomore album. In fact, you’ll be nearly three minutes into the opening “Campaign” before the slowly expanding sound reaches a volume loud enough to grab your attention. At that particular moment, the guitars and drums swell to a glorious crescendo, and then … fall largely silent. This play on dynamics—lots of melodious quietude, punctured occasionally by loud, frenetic exertions—was also evident on the Chicago group’s 2006 debut, Enter. But for Station, Russian Circles emphasize the solid, flexible drumming of Dave Turncrantz. It’s quite easy for a post-metal instrumental group to get lost in guitar effects and noodled notes (and these guys have plenty of both), but a strong, understated drummer is a secret weapon. Without relying on overly complex time signatures or flashy skin-bashing, Turncrantz subtly guides the ship into interesting waters. Though Station only gets fully cranked twice (the Battles-esque title track, the explosive “Youngblood”), Turncrantz’s surefooted playing will keep your interest from flagging. []

—Jason Ferguson

MATMOS: Supreme Balloon [Matador]

For more than a decade, Drew Daniel and MC Schmidt have been taking electronica for a joyride. They’ve sampled liposuction slurp and bone-crushing crunch for use as dance rhythms. They’ve manipulated banjo, sewer pipes, steel guitar and outdoor ambience. Supreme Balloon is a synthesizer album in the strictest sense. Using nothing but vintage ARPs, Korgs and Moogs—and with guest appearances from veteran Sun Ra octogenarian Marshall Allen and sonic titan Jay Lesser—Supreme Balloon pays homage to these instruments’ pioneers. On opener “Rainbow Flag,” Matmos’ goofiness acknowledges the playful sound of 1966 synth-pop classic The In Sound From Way Out!. For the next several tracks, things remain lighthearted, with farty swishes and gurgles setting up grooves similar to 2001’s surgery-influenced A Chance To Cut Is A Chance To Cure. What keeps Supreme Balloon from trivial silliness, though, is its 24-minute title track, whose relaxed, subtle changes in harmonics and rhythm sound less like a smart-assed dance throwaway and more like the kind of work Hans-Joachim Roedelius and Dieter Moebius did with Cluster and Harmonia. Without “Supreme Balloon,” Matmos has made a fun, to-be-forgotten EP. With it, Daniel and Schmidt have created a peculiar album that reminds us of the majesty contained in vintage machinery. []

—Bruce Miller

Petra Haden Makes MAGNET A Mix Tape

Petra Haden is a member of one of America’s most prolific musical families: Father Charlie is a jazz bassist who played with Ornette Coleman, brother Josh fronts slowcore outfit Spain, and sister Rachel is in pop act the Rentals. Although Petra is best known as a violinist (for the Decemberists, that dog and others), she’s currently in a singing mood. Having released an a cappella version of The Who Sell Out in 2005, she’s now working on an album of a cappella film themes, tentatively titled Petra At The Movies.

JO STAFFORD “He’s Gone Away” (1959)
My dad introduced this song to me a few years ago, and the melody still haunts me. It’s a traditional song, but Jo Stafford sings my favorite version. She’s a legendary singer; she did jazz and standards. My dad plays mainly classical music for me, but this is kind of like a lullaby.

CHEAP TRICK “Surrender” (1978)
Simply the greatest rock song of all time. This is not an overstatement. It has the exact ingredients of a perfect rock song. It’s in the (1979) movie Over The Edge, which was one of my favorite movies when I was a kid. It’s a movie about suburban kids who trap their teachers in the school and blow up cars and stuff. I think my brother rented it on VHS, and he was also really into Cheap Trick at the time.

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TOLERANCE: By Chris Mars [Billy Shire]

To those who might be expecting beercan-label designs or Skyway At Dusk, be forewarned that the paintings of Replacements drummer Chris Mars share no aesthetic with the boozy rock iconography of his former band. This 160-page coffeetable book depicts Mars’ nightmarish world of scarred and bandaged monsters. Inspired by difficult experiences with his older brother Joe, who suffers from schizophrenia, Mars isn’t attempting to give you the creeps; he’s trying to make you accept these grotesque faces, to learn not to see them as monsters or freaks or mentally ill. []

—Matthew Fritch

CONSTANTINES: Kensington Heights [Arts & Crafts]

The Constantines have always come across as a hard-working outfit, but on the 12-track Kensington Heights, they seem for the first time to be working far too hard for it. The fourth LP from this gritty Toronto five-piece offers a few genuine gems sprinkled among many more tracks borne out of blue-collar blood, sweat and tears. “Hard Feelings,” a headstrong rush of rhythmic experimentation that sounds like a thousand coiled springs let loose in succession, launches the record with twin electric guitars scrapping for lead billing over a long-division time signature. The impression is that a more academic affair (a la Minus The Bear or Battles) awaits. That’s thankfully not the case, as the rest of Kensington Heights earns its rightful place in the Constantines’ lunchpail canon. The problem is, there’s nothing all that memorable about the majority of these songs, but when there is, watch out. “Our Age” is a triumph of classic guitar melody and mid-tempo emotional restraint; “Time Can Be Overcome” hints at the band’s not-so-hidden inner blues; “I Will Not Sing A Hateful Song” stops just short of fist-shaking self-parody; and “Trans Canada” explodes from a rote, one-note metal riff into an impassioned collar-clencher that ends before the inclination to celebrate it can begin. If only all the songs on Kensington Heights were so easy to like. []

—Noah Bonaparte Pais