Archive for the ‘ Music ’ Category

Spinnerette (Music Review)

Spinnerette cover

Spinnerette - Spinnerette

As the frontwoman for The Distillers, Brody Dalle was one of the most important figures in early 21st century punk. I’m probably in the minority here, but I would list their Sing Sing Death House among the best albums of the past decade. By the time of their third full-length, though, it was obvious that Dalle was ready to take a new direction, and so it isn’t surprising to see her reappear several years later as the leader of a new band.

With Spinnerette’s self-titled debut, Dalle trades her hard punk sound in for, surprisingly, something more reminiscent of louder ’90s alternative songs. It stands out from most of the current ’90s retreads, though, who are making a calculated decision to use a well-defined, 20-year-old style. Instead, Spinnerette has the desperation of a band that is truly from that era, immersed in a sound that is too fresh to examine objectively, and eager to experiment with different ways to express themselves, even though their creations will be embarrassing as often as they succeed.

Dalle frequently lists Courtney Love as an influence, and that can be heard here. The songs are more complex, though, especially the convoluted lyrics. They rarely follow a verse-chorus-verse structure, and Dalle isn’t simply shouting her emotions with the straightforwardness of Love or her old punk self. This is Hole after a few years in art school, perhaps.

As much as I respect their sloppy, wild experimentation, the results are disappointing. Had Spinnerette existed in the ’90s, I imagine that they would have gotten minor radio play for a couple songs (the catchy “Baptized By Fire”, and maybe the hard-driving “Ghetto Love”), developed a minor fanbase that poured over their lyrics with a fine-tooth comb, and faded from mainstream attention almost immediately. The songs may not be bad, but they rarely stand out, either.

The lyrics themselves are also reminiscent of Hole, but come from a more nihilistic source. In the opening track, “Ghetto Love”, Dalle describes herself as “just a girl out looking for love”. Though love may be dead, she asserts, she is never going to give in. Most of the songs that follow alternately describe heartbreak and longing, seemingly backing up this theme. But the album closes with “A Prescription for Mankind”, which seems to come around to the “love is dead” viewpoint that Dalle fought against at first. “I do believe Hell is on Earth”, Dalle declares, rejecting the faith-based prescription promised in the song’s title.

Spinnerette is at its most compelling when Dalle’s lyrics are straightforward, or at least delivered as comprehensible earworms. The opening track’s declaration “I’m Joan of Arc on a mission: Avenge love’s death” is catchy and memorable, and “Rebellious Palpitations” compares love to drugs with to the simplicity of her punk roots (“White lines on the table look /like a road/ like a road/ like a road/ Then there’s the message that we’re hooked/ dominoes/ dominoes/ dominoes”). Part of the reason they stand out is that they are surrounded by lines with much more obscured deliveries and meanings. Though the band has a ’90s hard rock style down pat, their sound isn’t compelling enough to listen to when the lyrics don’t take center stage. There is some potential for greatness in this band, but Dalle will need to go through another radical reinvention of herself if it is going to be realized.

Grade: C-

The Witmark Demos (Music Review)

The Witmark Demos cover

The Witmark Demos

The latest in Bob Dylan’s official “bootleg series”, The Witmark Demos showcases the demos he recorded at the start of his career. The catch is that, when these were recorded, not even he suspected that this was the first chapter of a folksinging life; instead, Dylan was hoping for success behind the scenes, and was simply recording these so that professional singers would buy them.

This appears to be a new trend for aging singer-songwriters. The Witmark Demos was released only a few months after Kris Kristofferson’s own collection of demos, Please Don’t Tell Me How the Story Ends. A cynic might claim that they are now scraping the bottom of the barrel in their search for nostalgic material to package up and sell. In reality, these releases have a lot of value to people who are interested in the stories behind the songs. The idea of professional singers writing their own material was relatively new in the 1960’s, and the liner notes to Dylan’s release talk extensively about how he was at the forefront of this change.

If you just want to enjoy the songs, you’ll find it uneven. As if in warning, the first disc opens with “Man On The Street”, which Dylan stops abruptly because “I lost the verses”. Other songs are also incomplete (“Do you want this? It’s a drag”) or are interrupted so that Dylan can correct his lyrics. These aren’t necessarily songs that you’ll play over and over.

Don’t worry, though. Most of the songs are complete. They are still simple, with no production and little music other than Dylan’s own guitar and harmonica (after all, they were just recorded to help potential buyers imagine how they would sound), but Dylan doesn’t sound bad in a no-frills environment. Additionally, it’s impressive to hear how many of his future hits were fleshed out even at that early age. (Note that many are still structured as simple, traditional songs, such as “Rambling, Gambling Willie”. If you only like Dylan at his most complex, and don’t care for folk traditions, this isn’t for you.) Of the 47 tracks on these two discs, about two-thirds of them deserve to be in a Dylan obsessive’s regular rotation, even if they aren’t necessarily as good as the later versions. In fact, fifteen of these songs never made it into any official Dylan release, so they will be exciting to even more casual fans.

Personally, I am one of those casual fans. For me, the collection would have been much more interesting if it focused on those fifteen new songs, and then padded out the rest with other, better outtakes from Dylan’s early years. The collection as a whole is worth listening to a few times for its novelty, but isn’t something I’ll return to. Fortunately, I found the perfect way for someone like me to appreciate this set: I bought it for my brother, a true Dylan completist, and had a few weeks to enjoy it before I passed it on. I highly recommend that you do something similar.

Grade: B-


Eyelid Movies (Music Review)

Eyelid Movies cover

Phantogram - Eyelid Movies

Phantogram distinguishes itself from the electro-pop field with its simplicity. Instead of complex arrangements cutting in and out of epic songs, they are content to weave a few simple strands together. This is both a blessing and a curse on Eyelid Movies: On one hand, these songs are compelling and occasionally even hooky in a way that that very little electronic music manages. On the other hand, once the novelty of the songs wear off, they don’t offer a lot of depth.

The two band members trade off vocal duties throughout the album. Sarah Barthel has a smooth, ethereal voice that grabs the listener’s attention, but never portrays much emotion. They make the right choice to subsume her vocals with the music, making her more of a lead instrument than a singer with a message. Josh Carter’s voice, unfortunately, is much more bland. He only sounds interesting when heavily distorted, as on “Running From the Cops”.

Since vocals are only an intermittent draw in these songs, it doesn’t seem out of place for the lyrics to feel like an afterthought. They are generic but serviceable, never embarrassing the band but also never adding more than an occasional trippy phrase that rises above the mellow sound. In fact, I was surprised when I discovered that they had bothered to print the lyrics in the album.

Like the lyrics and vocals, most of the music is also at its best when it is simple and mesmerizing. These songs would be in danger of being nothing more than well-crafted lullabies if it weren’t for the drum tracks. Rising above the rest of the sounds in a way that neither the singers nor other instruments do, the hip-hop influenced beats give the songs a solid structure. When played loud, they sound confident and interesting; when played soft, this harsh backbone melts away and the result can be enjoyed as simple background music. Fans of Portishead should take note of this band.

A few songs are stunning and memorable. Most notably, the openers “Mouthful of Diamonds” and “When I’m Small” have unique soundscapes and arresting refrains. “Running From the Cops” is similarly original and manages to provide an exception to the rule of uninteresting lyrics. If Phantogram could have brought that level of craft to this entire album, it would be a classic. Unfortunately, they contented themselves mostly with songs that are only interesting as long as they are new. Once the initial novelty has faded away, most of the album is a little too simple and repetitive to be played loud. At the quiet background-music level, it still works, but that’s hardly a notable accomplishment. I suspect that its qualities (mesmerizing sound, trippy lyrics, and a structure that is fascinating as long as it seems new) make it perfect stoner music, but again, that’s an already-crowded field.

Eyelid Movies is a solid performance from a new band, and I’m curious about where they will go next. I worry that they will take the normal route for a “maturing” electronic band and mix in too many elements that drown out their simple style. If they can focus on the unique sounds that made their best songs such stand-outs, though, they could go far.

Grade: B-


Teenage & Torture (Music Review)

Teenage & Torture

Shilpa Ray and Her Happy Hookers - Teenage & Torture

Because I work on this blog in my spare time, and I spend some time figuring out what I think of something new, the earliest I can usually hope to review something is couple months after it is first released. But I managed to get my hands on a promo copy of the new album by Shilpa Ray And Her Happy Hookers, so I have the pleasure of reviewing it early. Teenage & Torture is released today (January 18), but I can tell you now: This will be one of the standout albums of 2011.
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New Albums, Old Sounds (Music Review)

This article continues my review of Alt Country CDs I bought in a recent Bloodshot Records sale. This time, I look at three albums that all call back to styles of the past in different ways.

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Jon Langford and The Waco Brothers (Music Review)

One of my favorite December traditions is the annual Bloodshot Records Christmas sale. They always provide a good, inexpensive variety of their albums from their 15 years of history. Over the next couple weeks, I’ll be discussing some of the CDs I picked up from last month’s sale. They aren’t recent releases, but as long as they’re new to me, they’re fair game for reviews!

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Grinderman 2 (Music Review)

Album cover: Grinderman 2 by Grinderman

Grinderman - Grinderman 2

When Nick Cave released 2008’s Dig, Lazarus, Dig! under his own name only a few months after debuting the Grinderman side project, it was easy to wonder if there was a difference between his two bands. While Grinderman sounded distinct from the albums previously released as “Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds”, most of the new sound showed up again on Lazarus. Was Grinderman a separate band in its own right, or just a byproduct of Nick Cave’s evolution?

Now that Grinderman 2 has been released, it’s easier to see what makes this band distinct. While this may be a fairly straightforward refinement of the debut album’s sound, I would argue that this is the first true Grinderman album.

Grinderman is at its heart a low-budget garage band. Its angry, sludgy rock is a sharp contrast to the self-aware 1970’s and 1980’s retreads that dominate modern rock. Interestingly, the music frequently even threatens to overwhelm the vocals. In fact, on my first listen, I found myself wondering whether someone else would actually be a better singer for this album.  A thought like that would be heretical on a Nick Cave album, where every song feels intensely personal, and The Bad Seeds exist solely to emphasize the vision of the lyrics. Nick Cave may take on unique personas in different songs, but it’s obvious that there is a consistent person behind them all, using songwriting as a way to examine and then exorcise his personal demons.

With Grinderman, it seems almost as if Cave has created a separate persona to act as the song-writer. Song after song clearly comes from a bitter, directionless man whose mid-life crisis has gone unresolved and metastasized. With no way to deal with this angst, he just rails about the state of the world and demands that women sleep with him. The cover image, a snarling wolf stalking through a clean suburban home, is an unsubtle metaphor for the narrator’s self-image. However, it may be even more apt than the narrator intends: Just as the wolf is going to be limited by its lack of intelligence and opposable thumbs, so this unnamed “grinderman” is blinded by his anger and selfishness. Consider these lyrics from “Kitchenette”:

What’s this husband of yours ever given to you?
Oprah Winfrey on a plasma screen
And a brood of jug-eared buck-toothed imbeciles
The ugliest fucking kids I’ve ever seen!
Oh baby, I want you.

Whether or not this is an accurate criticism of modern life, it’s about the worst pick-up line imaginable. Yet it’s positively subtle after the previous song, “Evil”, in which the singer tells a woman to leave her children to be discarded and pay attention to him, while deranged back-up singers repeatedly shout the song title.

But as ridiculous as this protagonist may be, he can write excellent songs. Growling guitars and a primal drum beat drive the listener through every track, inescapably building to some promised climax. Whether it’s the calm threat of apocalypse on “Heathen Child” or the screamed ending of the title track (so strange and cathartic that it justifies the name “Mickey Mouse and the Goodbye Man”), that climax turns out to be less of a release than a prelude to another mesmerizing build-up. Where The Bad Seeds drew their songs’ power from Nick Cave’s demons, Grinderman finds just as much potential in rock music itself.

At least, all of this is true for the first 7 songs on this 9-track album. Possibly hedging its bets, Grinderman 2 closed with a return to the feel of a typical Nick Cave album. “Palaces of Montezuma” is a crooning ballad, in which Cave promises extravagant gifts and undying love to his woman, with a tenderness that would be foreign in the other Grinderman songs. Even the lyrical structure, listing items that range from the mundane to the fantastical, is a familiar tool of Cave’s. The final song, “Bellringer Blues”, could arguably fit with either Grinderman or The Bad Seeds. The wave of noise is comfortable in this album, but the way that it elevates Cave’s voice to the forefront of our attention is reminiscent of The Bad Seeds. I would argue that the lyrics (which seem to be rejecting the Bible as a comforting but ultimately damaging choice) fit in better with the conscience that Nick Cave displays under his own name – but since the first Grinderman album ended on the same theme, time could prove me wrong on this.

Regardless, those last two songs are both excellent (especially “Palaces of Montezuma”), and they do add variety to the album. I hope to see future Grinderman albums take the final steps to establish this band as separate from Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds, but there’s no denying that this is an outstanding album on its own. If this exercise helps to focus Cave on making great, distinct music with two separate bands, then that’s just an added bonus.

Grade: A