The Back Page: Almost Heinous

backpage77I spent a lot of time thinking about fame this summer. It started with the story I wrote elsewhere in this issue about a band called the Mendoza Line, which was as successful at ducking fame as it was at making great records. I followed the thread to a live performance by Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová, the stars of the movie Once, who were astonished by the film’s impact on their music careers. Before its release, they had played to a tiny crowd at the Tin Angel, an intimate folk club in Philadelphia. Now they were playing at a sold-out theater-style venue in Philly that’s hosted everyone from Radiohead to Ray Davies.

Hansard is also the lead singer and songwriter for the Frames, an Irish band that’s been plugging away since the early ‘90s. He was all too keenly aware that this little independent film was making a bigger splash than his entire career with the Frames.

“It’s like I’ve spent the last 17 years knocking on the world’s door,” Hansard said from the stage. “And now the world suddenly has turned around and said, ‘What do you want?’”

All those years seeking fame, and now he was freaked out to get a taste of it.

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Ween: A Band Of Superbad Brothers

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Great bands don’t form via drummer-wanted ads or happenstance encounters at the local guitar shop. Instead, they come together in a fashion similar to New Hope, Pa.’s Ween, whose two members met in a middle-school typing class and decided to jam later that day. Twenty-three years later, Aaron “Gene Ween” Freeman and Mickey “Dean Ween” Melchiondo have given the world nine studio albums featuring some of the weirdest, most disturbing and utterly glorious rock ’n’ roll imaginable. (Incredibly, six of them were released by a major label.) Ween has become the quintessential cult band for stoners, meatheads and record geeks who remain united in their worship of the duo’s uniquely “brown” sounds.

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CAROLYN MARK: Nothing Is Free [Mint]

For years, Carolyn Mark played a sort of wise-cracking truck-stop-waitress character in the alt-country world. Over the course of four solo albums and as half of the Corn Sisters (along with Neko Case), Mark kept herself hidden behind sassy one-liners and wry observations on other people’s lives. Like hillbilly singer Rose Maddox, she has the bark to back up that bite: a magnificent voice that slides from honeyed purr to throaty torch-song belting. For fifth album Nothing Is Free, Mark strips away the cheekiness and shines a bright beam on emotions hidden under her bed. On “Pictures At 5,” she examines a moment when she let a lover get too close, and “Pink Moon And All The Ladies” reminds us to run if we meet true love. When she sings “Home just gets farther away/The closer you get” on the graceful “Happy 2B Flying Away,” we glimpse a perennial drifter who is simultaneously mourning her lack of roots and yearning to be free. Guitarist Paul Rigby (Neko Case), bassist Paul Pigat (Cousin Harley) and violinist Diona Davies (Po’Girl) provide sparkling backdrops for these intense musings. By the end of Nothing Is Free, Mark seems less like a cartoon character and more like a friend willing to confide her secrets. [www.mintrecs.com]

—Tizzy Asher

LES SAVY FAV: Let’s Stay Friends [Frenchkiss]

Les Savy Fav’s deserved reputation as a rowdy, irrepressibly fun live act has often overshadowed any serious intentions in its tunes. Without singer Tim Harrington’s bodystocking-beard-breaking-shit show to watch, his yelps and Seth Jabour’s volcanic arena-rock guitar are inherently too boisterous to breed contemplation. But back on the band’s 2000 Rome EP, Harrington heartily groused that “The Empire State/Made out of ginger cake/Came crumbling down/Before we had a taste.” On Let’s Stay Friends, Harrington implores people to party like it’s 1999. Is this the sort of party politics obsessed with how great loft jams used to be or the sort that inserts a little politics into LSF’s boundless, rocking joy? At the very least, political underpinnings are here. Some are heavily coded (“Brace Yourself”), and some are in the form of indie-culture civics lessons (“Pots And Pans,” “Jenny Lee,” “The Lowest Bitter”). “Raging In The Plague Age,” which pumps it up like early U2 if Bono liked Black Sabbath instead of, you know, God, features the kind of narrative lyrics LSF is best at, with make-believe and historical allusion morphed into political critique. (In this case, a retelling of Edgar Allan Poe’s The Masque Of The Red Death, which taunts the folly of isolationism and ignorance). Guests on Let’s Stay Friends include Enon and the Fiery Furnaces’ Eleanor Friedberger (whose breathy duet on “Comes And Goes” has her playing Jane Birkin to Harrington’s steroidal Serge Gainsbourg). This heady mix of stratospheric rockers and inventive, smart and slyly revolutionary lyrics yields Les Savy Fav’s best album yet. [www.frenchkissrecords.com]

—J. Gabriel Boylan

THE GREY RACE: Give It Love [UnFiltered]

“I need to leave the cracks and creases in,” sings Grey Race frontman Jon Darling on “Cracks.” You’d never know it by listening to Give It Love. On the debut by his trio, Darling’s repeated efforts to plummet into the craggy abyss are cushioned by tightly layered acoustic and electric guitars, brush-stroked waltz tempos and subtle orchestration. (Vibes, anyone?) A New Zealander living in New York, Darling displays a near-perfect mastery of the endless contradictions posed by mood and melody, playing the languid off the lustrous with the skill of an artist who’s been doing this sort of thing far longer. (Think XO-era Elliott Smith, Big Star’s Chris Bell or even Paul McCartney’s more somber moments.) Credit Darling with finding quality help in the form of seasoned bassist Jeff Hill (Rufus Wainwright) and drummer Ethan Eubanks (Ivy). You’d never know it, but Give It Love’s expansive sound was hashed out in Hill’s Brooklyn bedroom with a drum set, ProTools, a Mac and a few microphones. Darling’s vocals—a resonant, if largely one-dimensional, instrument—perfectly convey an expat’s sense of longing and culture shock. An edgy detachment looms over Give It Love, from a deceptively serene paean to excess (“Stop Before You Start”) to a wickedly dead-on reflection on the perils of band leadership (“Take It On The Chin”). “Lights Out,” a perky charmer, slams the door shut on the album with a giddy Britpop flourish: “Lights out for now/Lights out forever” goes the chorus. Forever, whatever. Here’s to brilliant beginnings. [www.worlds-fair.net]

—Hobart Rowland

GRAVEYARD: Graveyard [Tee Pee]

By plundering Black Sabbath, Blue Cheer and Leafhound riffs and sprinkling the grunge ashes of Soundgarden over the prog/metal of Salem Mass, this Swedish quartet believes it has resurrected the corpse of heady ’70s blues rock. Instead, listeners are subjected to a toothless and nontoxic attempt at running with the devil. Kick- starting this bong-toting witchcraft ritual with the brutal Stegosaurus stomp of “Evil Ways” and the hellacious, psychedelic “Thin Line,” Graveyard initially seems headed for the grim reaper’s finest funeral march. But a too-apparent Chris Cornell fixation on laughable Ouija Board fodder (the doom-laden “Lost In Confusion,” the balls-in-a-vise screech of “Satan’s Finest”) coupled with unexpected and surreal psych/folk ramble (“Blue Soul”) fails to cast an evil spell and is neither menacing nor highly imaginative. Thankfully, ominous voyage “Submarine Blues” saves this séance from stoner-rock purgatory. Why subject your auditory canals to retro acid-rock crud like Graveyard when you can seek out reissues by far superior and more wicked groups like Pentagram? [www.teepeerecords.com]

—Ron Bally

AKRON/FAMILY: Love Is Simple [Young God]

Rock fans squeamish with the hippie-adjacent aesthetic of the unfortunately named freak-folk movement will be weeded out quickly with Akron/Family’s second proper studio album. Which is a shame, because once you get past the Brooklyn quartet’s beatific call to “love, love everyone” in the opening (and closing) moments of Love Is Simple, the LP is an unpredictable and often euphoric collection with plenty to, well, love. (Even for those who just can’t accept any band that occasionally covers the Grateful Dead.) Akron/Family mixes unhinged enthusiasm with an almost shocking level of musicianship, most notably on seven-minute-plus epics “Ed Is A Portal” and “There’s So Many Colors,” the latter of which sounds like Crazy Horse on the commune circuit. Love Is Simple also makes stops for pretty back-porch folk, Beatlesque melodies and free-jazz excursions. While such stylistic ADD allows for some undeniably goofy moments (the mouth-trumpets punctuating “I’ve Got Some Friends”) and resin-coated lyrics pondering the differences between white and brown rice, it’s easy—and much more rewarding—to get caught up in Akron/Family’s exuberant spirit. [www.younggodrecords.com]

—Chris Barton

THE A-SIDES: Silver Storms [Vagrant]

A sweet swell of strings is followed by the peripatetic patter of percussion: The E Street Band gets ready to rumble anew in Jungleland, perhaps, or Spiritualized prepares yet another space-age symphony? Ladies and gentlemen, we are floating in … Philadelphia, where local heroes the A-Sides have seeded their musical cloudlings to yield the utterly cleansing Silver Storms, produced by Brian McTear (Bitter Bitter Weeks, matt pond PA). The opening, strings-laden title track gives way to “Always In Trouble,” duly setting the album’s tone by ushering in a grandiose wave of chiming guitars, surging organ and impassioned vocals. Soon enough, you’re awash in the bouncy “We’re The Trees” (a top-down anthem for summer lovers everywhere), the truth-in-titling “Cinematic” (which gingerly suggests Wilco gone shoegaze) and the neo-baroque “Great American Novelist” (a suite for strings, keys and Who-styled power chords). The A-Sides have moved beyond their early-’60s/Beach Boys sound to ply a brand of dream pop that hearkens directly back to the great guitar groups of the ’80s college-rock era: the Feelies, R.E.M., Dumptruck, et al. Rather than wave their record collections in our faces, however, these five young men generate an infectious level of energy that makes the old seem new and fresh again. [www.vagrant.com]

—Fred Mills

Battles: Life During Wartime

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Pretension, prog and the politics of dancing. Forward-thinking New York quartet Battles overcomes all obstacles to deliver 21st-century fight songs. By Michael Barclay

“Make me believe!”

The plea comes from the back of the audience at the sweltering-hot Lee’s Palace, the Toronto venue where Battles are midway through a set during their summer tour. The band is awkwardly attempting to fix a blown speaker cabinet that’s derailed the show, ending a weekend of Friday the 13th curses that also plagued Battles’ set at the Pitchfork Music Festival two nights ago, in front of 17,000 people. But since the May release of debut full-length Mirrored (Warp), very little else has slowed down the New York quartet. And the legions of believers are growing.

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DEVASTATIONS: Yes, U [Beggars Banquet]

These three Australians relocated from Melbourne to Europe a few years ago, eventually landing in Berlin where they recorded their third studio album. Intentional or not, Yes, U has absorbed some of the same noirish urban decay that famously found its way into the music of David Bowie and Nick Cave during their respective Berlin sojourns; in that context, the LP takes a while to pick up steam. Its first half is populated with slow-tempo numbers so draped in hushed vocals and hissing atmospherics that at times it more resembles incidental film music than discrete tunes. After that, though, the band turns poppy—for Devastations, a relative term—with “Mistakes” (a kinetic, cathartic sing-along that sounds like mid-period Talking Heads), the waltz-time “The Face Of Love” and the acoustic-shaded “The Saddest Sound.” On these tracks, the band also brings elements of countrymen the Church and the Go-Betweens to the mix, tapping the former’s strain of elegant psychedelia and the latter’s conversational, folkish intimacy. Devastations still cling to their gothic roots like comfort food, but with Yes, U, they’re clearly intent on moving away from that stereotype as they branch out in both stylistic and emotional terms. [www.beggars.com]

—Fred Mills