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. [www.billyshirefinearts.com]
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. [www.arts-crafts.ca]
—Noah Bonaparte Pais
Sean Scolnick has one hell of a band behind him. Anybody who’s felt its force in a live setting can attest to that. But for as long as Scolnick (a.k.a. Langhorne Slim) has made the downtown-NYC rounds, his stage presence has been more impressive than his songcraft. The guitar-toting folk troubadour knows how to move, and he knows how to stomp. When the fuse for the Langhorne Slim explosion—derailed by V2 Records’ demise last year—went wet, the Kemado label stepped in to light things again with Scolnick’s full-length debut. Langhorne Slim boasts a slew of fingerpicked beauties of a meatier, fuller variety than on 2006’s Engine EP. The difference is identifiable in the first piano tickles and shreds of cello on opener “Spinning Compass” and in the steel-drum flourishes of roadhouse burner “She’s Gone.” While Scolnick hasn’t refined his oftentimes maudlin lyrical sensibilities to match his serious taste for pop hooks, his honeycombed, hopscotching vocal delivery now has some muscle to back it up. [www.kemado.com]
Nobody said loving Tindersticks was easy. Since 1992, the Nottingham, England, outfit has pursued a sonic and lyrical palette according to the gray and gold of its elders (Hazlewood, Brel, Gainsbourg, Morricone) with occasional curves thrown into its thoroughly somber and sometimes disturbed arrangements. While other artists (Nick Cave, for example) have followed those roads with thunderous footsteps and an incumbent litany of sad/jealous/hateful lyrics, Tindersticks have walked softly and played in more subtle, noirish tones. But with three members of the band now gone (including writer/violinist Dickon Hinchliffe), the off-kilter madness that would once throw the group into a tizzy is missing from seventh album The Hungry Saw. Led by mercurial crooner Stuart Staples, the current lineup’s grand balladry is more stately and slow-boiled than ever. “The Other Side Of The World” and “All The Love” are smoky and choked-up, while “The Turns We Took” is cool and laconic and mesmerizingly so. Yet the grandeur of such tunes as the gospeled-up “Mother Dear” are touched by a too-severe sentiment. Tindersticks may have been in a dismal mood in the past, but at least it seemed like fun. Being sealed off from its own sense of spirited weirdness and play has made them dull boys. [www.cstrecords.com]
There’s an old saw about sophomore records: You get a decade to write your first record and four months to write the second. El Perro Del Mar’s self-titled debut LP was among the best releases of 2006. Despite being culled from various singles and EPs (some dating back to more than two years), the sonically and thematically cohesive album marked the arrival of a classy, timeless and mesmerizing pop talent in sole band member Sarah Assbring. How ironic, then, that when Assbring intentionally sets out to craft a full-length statement the results are so desultory. On El Perro Del Mar, Assbring displayed a gift for trimming all lyrical fat and getting to the matter at hand, repetition be damned, to wonderful and wondrous effect. On From The Valley To The Stars, Assbring edits her songs and arrangements so severely that there’s barely a chorus left, while mystifyingly allowing multiple aimless instrumental interludes to interrupt throughout. Something is amiss here, and it can only be chalked up to a lack of time and focus. From The Valley has some fine moments, but it looks awfully unflattering in the light of its less distracted and infinitely sharper predecessor. [www.controlgroupco.com]
It’s hard to imagine, nearly three decades down the line, improving on what the Replacements did in their 11-year tenure as alt-rock progenitors. Their impact is as seemingly contradictory as their music: Paul Westerberg and Co.’s collective work has easily outlived the good and the bad reviews, surviving to that now time-honored plateau of deluxe reissues. The first batch of ’Mats re-releases address the band’s Twin/Tone catalog: 1981’s Sorry Ma, Forgot To Take Out The Trash, 1982’s Stink EP, 1983’s Hootenanny and 1984’s Let It Be, each remastered and expanded with band-selected bonus tracks and produced by manager Peter Jesperson.
The necessity of remastering the first four Replacements releases is arguable, and the result is what you’d expect. The varied output of the band either benefits from the treatment or barely shows signs of tampering. The very point of the Replacements is the untempered nature of their music, and the new remastering job thankfully doesn’t go so far as to smooth any of the rough edges that have helped the music endure.
Only ’Mats-rabid audiophiles would be interested in these reissues if it wasn’t for a wealth of bonus material. After 1997’s Sire-specific hits-and-rarities compilation All For Nothing, Nothing For All, this extensive revision of the Twin/Tone releases brings the unevenly expanded Replacements discography into balance and promises to supplant All For Nothing when Rhino releases deluxe editions of 1985’s Tim, 1987’s Pleased To Meet Me, 1989’s Don’t Tell A Soul and 1990’s All Shook Down this fall. From the band’s initial four-song demo to the accomplished instrumentation on Let It Be, these reissues show how the band first learned to create combustion, then sustain it, each time building a bigger and louder engine. Neophytes already intimidated by the Replacements’ back catalog will probably want to steer clear of these expanded reissues, while the rest of us can joyfully have the perspective afforded by almost 30 years of consideration and time-tested triumph jarred one more time. Bonus Material: A total of 30 unreleased tracks span the four CDs—comprising outtakes (notably, an alternate take of Sorry Ma’s “Customer” and alternate-vocal versions of Hootenanny’s “Lovelines” and Let It Be’s “Sixteen Blue”) and demos (“Shutup,” “Raised In The City” and “Answering Machine” among them)—and offer rare glimpses into Westerberg’s songwriting process. [www.rhino.com]
If your John Reis fix has been sated in recent years via his signature fretwork in Hot Snakes, it might take a while to warm back up to him in the role of singer in the Night Marchers. Reis is as lyrically blunt as Hot Snakes vocalist Rick Froberg was cryptic, with songs such as “Open Your Legs” and “Closed For Inventory” leaving little to the imagination. But then again, we’ve never looked to the former Rocket From The Crypt frontman for probing insights into the vagaries of life. What we want from him are big, badass riffs, and there are plenty of them here. “In Dead Sleep (I Snore ZZZZ)” is the best, building from a jagged run in the verse to a tense, ascending progression that culminates in a double-time finish. The choruses rarely skimp on melody, and Reis’ urgent delivery hammers them home on “I Wanna Deadbeat You” and “We’re Goin’ Down.” Deviations from the script are interesting but not as successful (the jangly “Jump In The Fire,” the rockabilly “Branded”). Luckily, they don’t detract from the main course: a heaping helping of straight-up rock ’n’ roll like only Reis can deliver. [www.vagrant.com]
When Pepi Ginsberg opens her mouth to sing, countercultural throwback signifiers come spiraling out: rose-tinted glasses, patchouli clouds, gypsy skirts, lungfuls of dope smoke, Janis Joplin. This 25-year-old Brooklyn singer/songwriter’s beanbag tunes exude a refreshing sense of freedom and possibility, even if she comes across as extraordinarily leathery: Natalie Merchant-husky vocally, sub-Dylan lyrically. She tackles the 12 tracks on Red with a breezy confidence beyond her years. On “The Contortionist,” all flashing-siren organs and fuzz-bass pow, Ginsberg transforms an emotional and financial swindle into a bouncy garage-rock party. “Nothing More,” a campfire folk number suffused with chirping-cricket samples, explores political dissatisfaction, head-in-the-sand ignorance and unrequited love for a best friend: a downer trifecta. But it’s “Ghosts Of Perdition” that encapsulates Ginsberg’s carpe diem appeal. As pianos whump like dancing feet, she sings, “There used to be a year, you say, when people didn’t write/ They showed up on friends’ doorsteps late in the middle of the night/Said, ‘Let’s go to the West Side, catch a movie, maybe we get ourselves high.’” Just live life already, Ginsberg seems to insist, while you’re still able. Like her beat/hippie psychic ancestors, maybe she is onto something. [www.parkthevan.com]
Five years after being typecast as a retro-rock buzz band, Danish duo the Raveonettes have brought their cinematic, hooked-on-classics sound into sharp focus. By Chris Barton
2003, America was heading into an election year full of hope and promise, with the prospect of real change in the air. Although a war had just started in Iraq, the government offered comforting promises that it would be over quickly, culminating with the unfurling of a “Mission Accomplished” banner on a battleship’s deck. And in the world of music, the White Stripes, the Strokes and vintage-sounding, feedback-embracing Danish duo the Raveonettes made fans and critics swoon. It was “the return of rock,” an apparent revival of the raw energy and integrity of garage rock that would bring the genre back to its roots and, it was hoped, dominance.
Continue reading “The Raveonettes: Deeper Into Movies”
The Duke Spirit creates the kind of record-collector rock that’s usually explained with mash-up descriptors that sound like they were written for a music-industry version of Robert Altman’s The Player.
“We’ve had some weird comparisons, like ‘Björk fronting Meat Is Murder-era Smiths,’” laughs guitarist Luke Ford, who grew up outside of London reading hype-afflicted U.K. music magazines. “One of our favorites was, ‘A crack whore fronting an Oasis tribute band.’ It wasn’t very positive, obviously, but we thought it was pretty funny. We almost put that on a sticker on the front of the album.”
But on an album like Neptune (Shangri-La Music), which was recorded in the California desert with Queens Of The Stone Age producer Chris Goss, it’s difficult not to point out obvious touchstones. Over the course of a dozen tracks, there are easily identifiable elements of Sonic Youth’s poppier moments, the neo-girl-group harmonies of the Raveonettes, shades of the shoegazers and cinematic ballads that would’ve made Lee Hazlewood proud. If those reference points weren’t obvious enough, the Duke Spirit’s website features photos of the band holding up albums by the Modern Lovers, Black Sabbath, Ronnie Spector and Sly And The Family Stone.
Continue reading “The Duke Spirit: Open Sea”