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]
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.
Continue reading “Battles: Life During Wartime”
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]
Eli Simon, leader of Philadelphia-based Bottom Of The Hudson, claims to be an unrepentant control freak: “The only reason I don’t tell the other musicians exactly what to play is because I can’t afford to pay them.”
Continue reading “Bottom Of The Hudson: Muddy Waters”
If for some bizarre reason you’ve remained immune to the candy-colored charms of the Go! Team’s 2005 debut Thunder, Lightening, Strike, then for the love of God, avoid this one like the plague. Because when it comes down to it, Proof Of Youth is pretty much more of the same: blaring Motown horns, double Dutch chants, cheerleader exuberance, blaxploitation soundtracks, early-’80s hip-hop party joints and guitar riffs lifted wholesale from Daydream Nation-era Sonic Youth. All this usually occurs within the same song (listen to frenetic opener “Grip Like A Vice” for proof).
The pace is relentless, egged on by a Phil Spector-on-crack production style that only adds to the general air of genial chaos. Proof Of Youth is less sample-heavy than its predecessor, and there’s a host of guest stars on hand including Solex and Chuck D. Occasionally, it veers dangerously close to being irritatingly perky—as if the kids from Peanuts had formed a band after one too many bong hits—but ultimately, only a churlish, dead-eyed cynic would refuse to be moved by this inspired mix of riotous noise and feel-good vibetasticness. [www.subpop.com]
In her day job as singer/guitarist for Erase Errata, Jenny Hoyston takes a back seat to her monstrous rhythm section, content to yelp and add scratchy guitar patterns to the no-wave groove being thrown down behind her. Yet hiding behind that detached exterior is an artist who actually does know her way around a melody, and on her debut album under her own name, Hoyston proves to be remarkably diverse. No wonder she leaves us dangling with the album title: Isle Of … what? Opening with a Mary Timony-style rocker (“Bring Back Art”) and a bluesy punk stomp that could be cribbed from the Gossip’s songbook (“Spell D-O-G”), Hoy-ston then moves through acoustic country territory and what sounds like an ’80s bedroom collaboration between Anna Domino and ESG. Though this album shares some traits with her lo-fi—and comparatively unremarkable—Paradise Island project, Isle Of is a full realization of the somewhat timid and tentative moves heard there. “Everyone’s alone,” sings Hoyston; here she proves that with or without her band, her creative well runs deeper than you might think. [www.southern.com]
It’s tempting to lump Oakley Hall into some twangy alt-country ghetto with its Gitche-goomee references and ability to wring two syllables out of the word “truck,” but the Brooklyn band—led by ex-Oneida guitarist Pat Sullivan—has the melodies, musicianship and experimental twists to avoid any snap-shirted pigeonhole. The slow-burning “Marine Life” gets things started with flickering guitars and quavering vocals before the soaring boy/girl harmonies of “No Dreams” spiral into a swaggering stomp that hints at Oakley Hall’s reputation as a fire-breathing live act. But it’s the subtle touches—a harpsichord here, a backward-tracked guitar there—that elevate the band above its more tradition-minded contemporaries. “Alive Among Thieves” practically arrives from a whole different album with a darting waltz, and “Free Radicals Lament” resembles a well-caffeinated Will Oldham with its groaning strings. The only missteps are when Oakley Hall drifts into more straightforward terrain, as on “Angela” and “First Frost,” which veer uncomfortably close to coffeehouse fare. Still, there’s a lot to love here, no Western wear required. [www.mergerecords.com]
Things don’t start all that promisingly when Johnathan Rice opens his sophomore platter with the telltale sound of a Nikon shutter going off. Oh, right, we get it—he’s going to show us some snapshots from his life! Indeed, his songs aspire to be taken with the utmost seriousness as Rice spins yarns about this big ol’ world through which the weary-but-wide-eyed troubadour journeys. And most of the material is forgettably inoffensive strum ’n’ twang fare—the title track and “The Middle Of The Road” aim for Tom Petty and Steve Earle but come off like Eagles outtakes—suggesting Rice is merely another in a long line of singer/songwriters snapped up and smoothed out by major labels for a boardroom-approved approximation of Americana. Yet there are encouraging signs of life here. “The End Of The Affair” is an upbeat country/rock duet with Jenny Lewis that allows Rice to relax by not having to shoulder the whole load; the psychedelic swirl and big-beat thump of “THC” locates the improbable intersection between “Tomorrow Never Knows” and “Rock And Roll Part Two”; and “What Am I Gonna Do?” mines a Searchers/ Hollies jangle motif to luminous effect. When Rice ditches the No Depression-lite shtick, his instincts serve him well. His challenge will be to stop listening to A&R execs and trust those instincts. [www.repriserecords.com]
There are two kinds of Black Francis fans: the smallish cult who’ve followed his every whim and U-turn since disbanding the Pixies and morphing into Frank Black, and the ones who stopped listening after the release of the Pixies’ 1991 finale, Trompe Le Monde, only to return to the fold when Francis reformed the band in 2004 to tour. Bluefinger is the former Charles Thompson IV’s first solo album under the Pixies-era Black Francis moniker. Ostensibly, it’s a signal that he’s back in “rock” mode after more than a decade of stylistic and qualitative wandering. While it’s certainly no Doolittle, Bluefinger is the most intriguing set of new songs he’s released in the ’00s. Like much of Francis’ most compelling work, the album is a meditation on a muse. In the past, such inspiration was provided by Francis’ fixations with Puerto Rico, UFOs and/or the Three Stooges, but here it takes the shape of Dutch musician/multimedia artist Herman Brood, a proto-punk whose influential solo work in the ’70s and ’80s and hard-partying lifestyle made him Holland’s equivalent of Johnny Thunders. (Brood took his own life by leaping from an Amsterdam hotel room in 2001.) Bluefinger thrashes along nicely in service of pseudo-biography that details Brood’s unapologetic junk worship (“Captain Pasty,” “Tight Black Rubber”), his metaphysical wrestling with life beyond this planet (“Threshold Apprehension,” “Angels Come To Comfort You”) and even a cover of one of Brood’s songs (a Sonic Youth-like reading of “You Can’t Break A Heart And Have It”). Hell, now that he’s seen fit to don the Black hat again, can a proper Pixies reunion album be far behind? [www.cookingvinylusa.com]
Not many musicians get a shot at a second career, especially if their first one lasted more than 15 years and produced music of such intensity as to dare a follow-up of any sort. Yet with Angels Of Light, ex-Swans honcho Michael Gira has done just that, and fifth album We Are Him arguably surpasses his work with his old band merely by simplifying things a bit. The orchestrations that graced such Swans masterpieces as 1996’s Soundtracks For The Blind haven’t been completely dispensed with, but Gira isn’t consciously avoiding the “rock” tag anymore. He is, however, just as likely to sing a waltz (“The Man We Left Behind”) or turn the clichés of a 12-bar blues (“Promise Of Water”) into something nearly as scary as an old Skip James record. But elsewhere, oh how he rocks. “My Brother’s Man” consists of Gira’s stretched and disturbing voice sailing atop a jagged guitar riff. There’s redemption here, but as with a Bad Seeds record, it’s only attained through the spilling of blood. On “Sun-flower’s Here To Stay,” Gira and the Angels produce a pop song with piano and trombone, complete with positively joyful, wordless backing vocals. Gira used to focus on the sheer sound of his productions; with We Are Him, he puts his energy into the songs themselves. [www.younggodrecords.com]