Archive for May, 2011

Jaguar Love – Hologram Jams (Music Review)

Hologram Jams cover

Jaguar Love - Hologram Jams

Spinning out of art-punk bands Blood Brothers and Pretty Girls Make Graves, Jaguar Love seemed to be an attempt to bring a more accessible element to their distinctive sound. Given that it took me a full year to hear that they had released a second album, though, they apparently fell short of any popular appeal. On Hologram Jams, the band is reduced to just ex-Blood Brothers members, with Jay Clark replaced by a drum machine. Most of the Blood Brothers’ original spark is gone, as well.

Hologram Jams ups the ante on both the accessible and off-putting parts of Jaguar Love’s debut, opening up with a heavily electronic beat and a disco bombast. The Blood Brothers’ distinctively aggressive, stream of consciousness lyrics are largely replaced with simple celebrations of partying and youth. If these are meant to be parodies of vapid dance music, the band rarely lets on. A joke played straight for too long can cease to be a joke.

This approach shows some potential on the surprising “Cherry Soda”, which builds up through Whitney’s yowling “jaguar” vocals to a sudden white-guy-club rap: “Sugar-coated cherry soda/puking on the lawn./It’s six AM the party’s over./Everybody’s gone./Rode a motherfucking mastodon to my highschool prom/It’s on it’s on it’s on it’s on like Immigrant Song.” That glorious celebration of ridiculousness in a perversion of mainstream music is the album’s highlight, inviting the listener to laugh at and with the band at the same time. Otherwise, though, the album mainly features high-pitched yowling vocals on top of uninspired drum machine-and-synthesizer compositions.

Towards the end, the focus shifts to a couple slow, angsty songs, which are as embarrassing as the names (“Sad Parade” and “A Prostitute An Angel”) imply. These are the kinds of poems that most highschoolers have the sense to throw away a few years later. What possessed artists who used to be known for their challenging, non-traditional lyrics to publish this stuff? (Fans desperate for a Blood Brothers fix will find some relief in “Up All Night”, “Jaguar Warriors”, and “Evaline”, but they’ll need to pretend that those are just the throwaway tracks from a better album.)

Hologram Jams is dominated by obstinate attempts to insist that Jaguar Love and their music are awesome, despite all evidence to the contrary. The rare times that the curtain is lifted and we see beyond that shallow surface, nothing is there.

Grade: D

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Noise (Book Review)

Noise Cover

Noise

Darin Bradley’s Noise tells of the chaos that follows a complete social and economic collapse in the near future. It is the story of a young man named Hiram who follows a movement called “Salvage”, which was dedicated to preparing for just such a collapse. Specifically, Salvage advocates forming a tight-knit tribe (Group) of people to take what they need and kill anyone in their way.

On the surface, Noise appears to be a ridiculous wish-fulfillment fantasy: The main characters encounter little serious resistance in their amoral path, and just happen to have all the training and luck they need to succeed. The “Event” that precipitated this new anarchy is never explained, but seems suspiciously convenient as an excuse for “one day I woke up and had to start killing people”. And the conceit behind Salvage is hard to believe, as well: This community communicates in nothing but obscure broadcasts over unused television frequencies. It has so many rabid followers that the small town of the novel has at least ten warring Groups, and yet it never became mainstream enough to move to the Internet or attract government intervention.

Despite these problems, the novel works. Part of it is the dense, chaotic prose, which can jump without warning between the present and the past, or even multiple events that are occurring simultaneously. Hiram’s backstory is filled out piecemeal as he draws parallels between his childhood and his present, as if he’s trying to justify all his violent actions as pre-ordained or generate a creation myth for his new Group. The writing style provides a glimpse into the narrator’s damaged psyche and ensures that the reader is always questioning him. If this violent story is someone’s wish-fulfillment fantasy, it’s obviously not the author’s.

The other thing that makes this story succeed is the system of rituals and psychological tools that inform Hiram’s interpretation of Salvage. Some are simple (“Hiram” is a new name that he chooses for his post-Event life), but others are complex and surprising. When possible, murders are performed by one member of the Group ordering another to do it, and they provide absolution for the act afterwards by making eye contact and announcing “What you did was right”. The dynamics of the Group have a control that borders on the fascist, but with a shifting, communal leadership that emphasizes the common good over any one person’s. And the fervor with which these people quote the “Book” they’ve created and hunger for new broadcasts from their favorite sources makes it clear that this is more a religion than a survival plan.

Most of all, Noise works because the author doesn’t stoop to any simple answers or feel the need to explain where he disagrees with Hiram. The plot may be straightforward once you’ve pierced the schizophrenic ramblings of Hiram’s narration, but there are only glimpses of a “true story” behind it. Hiram doesn’t realize how selectively his actions pick from the plan in his Book, and doesn’t seem to think about how the Group dynamics will work (or not) once they have settled down and started a new community. The obvious, Fight Club-like hunger for identity through this violence belies the idea that this is simply for survival. Given the choice, Hiram wants¬†attempts to restore law and order to fail. Though the novel never says this, I strongly suspect that the “Event” which led to this post-apocalyptic situation was nothing more than a self-fulfilling prophecy by a critical mass of Salvage participants who had decided that the end was nigh.

Noise is not for everyone. It espouses a gruesome morality, but comes from a literate, deconstructionist source that will turn off people looking for a visceral thrill. It asks plenty of questions, but never raises them explicitly. Yet for all that, it clearly positions itself as a “low art” thriller that doesn’t have to mean anything, rather than aiming for weighty significance. If you can stomach that combination, you’ll find a novel that is sometimes exciting, sometimes disturbing, and always thought-provoking.

Grade: B+

Old 97’s – The Grand Theatre, Volume One (Music Review)

The Grand Theatre, Volume One cover

Old 97's - The Grand Theatre, Volume One

I have to admit that I’ve only paid attention to the Old 97’s sporadically. While Wreck Your Life is one of the classic albums of the alt-country era (it’s one of the first CDs I’ll point someone to if they’re curious about what country offers beyond the radio), most of their output is a lot more hit-and-miss. I’ve learned that a typical Old 97’s album has one or two great songs and a bunch of throwaway fluff. But I’m glad I decided to check out their 2010 album, The Grand Theatre, Volume One.

Grand Theatre finds the band with a much broader range than they did in their Bloodshot Records days. A couple of excellent country songs are found in the middle, and honestly, they’re still the highlight. Many of the tracks focus much more on the rock side of their “country-rock” formula, with mixed results. Overall, they have a Wilco-meets-Fountains of Wayne simplicity that speaks of older men confidently stepping into territory normally reserved for the young. When they focus on more complex musical arrangements that show off their country roots, such as the last half of “The Magician”, they give a rarely-heard depth to pop-rock. When the music takes a backstage to the sometimes pointless singing, such as the first half of “The Magician”, the only saving grace is that frontman Rhett Miller seems to be in a hurry to get the song over with.

Both for good and ill, those aren’t the only styles that the Old 97’s experiment with. A couple songs slip almost into a stoner vibe, but from very different directions: “You Were Born To Be In Battle” features Miller singing over a smooth, dark country groove, while the slow-building “Please Hold On While the Train Is Moving” could almost be a trippy Cracker outtake. Both are good, but per the usual Old 97’s rule, the country song is the memorable one.

The only complete failures on the album are the two attempts at smooth ballads, which are as insipid as their names imply (“Love Is What You Are” and “The Beauty Marks”). But the highlights are worth waiting for. “A State Of Texas” demonstrates just what the band was aiming for through the country-rock songs on the album, and succeeds enough to justify any missteps elsewhere. And “Champaign, Illinois” puts a brash, confident twist on the music from “Desolation Row” but provides completely new lyrics which, while maybe not Dylan-level, are still good enough to justify that bold move.

It appears that any Old 97’s album will be marked by highs and lows. However, The Grand Theatre’s highs are especially memorable, and most of the lesser tracks are still strong enough to add to the experience. This isn’t the sort of classic that I used to want from each Old 97’s release, but it’s a polished work from a band that sounds like they could keep doing this forever. After this album, I’ve accepted that that’s still a good thing.

Grade: B