Archive for the ‘ Rock ’ Category

Obits – Beds & Bugs

Beds & Bugs cover

Obits – Beds & Bugs

The tricky thing about reviewing Obits’ Beds & Bugs is that it’s difficult to avoid repeating my review of Moody, Standard and Poor. They have a solid, blues-based garage rock sound that blew me away the first time I heard it, but every album since then has felt like a faint echo of their debut, I Blame You. I want to like it: The Obits are the current band of Hot Snakes’ Rick Froberg, and after three consistent albums it seems like they’re in this for the long haul, but it also seems like it’s maybe a little too consistent.

The music is melodic, but with a mild distortion that makes the vocals difficult to focus on. This is a good balance between accessibility and comforting obscurity. More importantly, it puts the focus on the music rather than the lyrics. The band sings about things like making sure your pets will be cared for in your will (“Pet Trust”) or a detailed explanation of a birth gone wrong (“Malpractice”). These topics are presented in such a straightforward way that it’s difficult to tell whether they are intended to be an absurdist comment on modern culture, a Dadaist parody of songwriting, or true-life topics that actually resonate with the songwriter. This isn’t a major problem since the music is the important thing here. But while it was easy to enjoy mildly amusing topics like “Two-Headed Coin” in their first album, this is less hook-filled and doesn’t offer too much that’s new.

It’s difficult to pinpoint a reason that these songs don’t grab me. Some of it is probably familiarity from the last albums. The only real difference I hear between their best songs and the other ones is that I Blame You really seemed driven by the drums. Drummer Alex Fleisig has left the band since this album was released, so I’m not sure if there’s a story there. Either way, the drumming here is good but feels like it’s mainly following the guitar. The music retains its distinctiveness, and it’s always a little interesting, but it’s never vital.

The Obits are a good band, and this album doesn’t change that. Beds & Bugs does suffer from the standard they set in the past, though, and with none of the songs being worth hearing for the lyrics, it’s too easy to make these unflattering comparisons.

Grade: C+

 

JD Wilkes & The Dirt Daubers – Wild Moon (Music Review)

Wild Moon cover

JD Wilkes & The Dirt Daubers – Wild Moon

The Dirt Daubers released Wild Moon under the name JD Wilkes & The Dirt Daubers, but this album may have deserved a more drastic name change. People only familiar with Wilkes from his other Dirt Daubers albums are in for a surprise: The raw roots country and stripped-down sound have been replaced by raw roots blues and a full rock sound. The change does feel more understandable if you’re familiar with Wilkes’ old band, The Legendary Shack-Shakers, as this basically provides a lot of what the Dirt Daubers’ previous albums had dropped from the Shack-Shakers. At the point, it appears that Wilkes doesn’t intend to stray that far from his old band. The defining aspects of the Dirt Daubers now appear to be that Wilkes has discarded his jester image for a slightly more serious one, and of course that half of the songs are fronted by Jessica Wilkes.

Jessica’s confident, brassy voice makes a good fit for these proto-jazz (white person blues?) songs. She still doesn’t have quite the range to carry an album on her own, but it’s hardly noticeable for her half. However, this means she is best suited for songs that showcase the Wilkes family’s quirky personality. Her “Apples and Oranges” is the album’s highlight, a swinging, rebellious song structured around an old nursery rhyme and playful lyrics. Otherwise, the songs she leads sound like blues standards about love and loss. They’re perfectly fine, but something that you could generally find in other bands’ catalogs.

JD is similarly restrained. I understand his seriousness about southern culture and his desire not to turn it into a joke, and that inclination is what always made his crazier songs so solid. Here we get Southern standards of the “creek-is-risin’-and-my-dead-baby’s-in-Heaven” variety (themes that appear multiple times), but his wit and fervor only make minor appearances. JD’s standout moments are the ones that recall the Shack Shakers: The out-of-nowhere proclamation that “it’s all a SNAFU, let’s go AWOL, you get FUGAZI and I’ll get FUBAR” in “Let It Fly”, or the electric acid-country of “Hidey-Hole”.

I feel bad saying that The Dirt Daubers sound best when they echo The Shack-Shakers, because in last year’s review I was very excited about the new life they breathed into traditional styles. But at least this time, the new band is definitely in the old one’s shadow. That’s not to say this isn’t good, and I like the energetic performances that bring a lot more fun than some of their genre contemporaries. I do hope that more of the personality from Wake Up Sinners shows up next time, though.

Grade: B-

Oblivians – Desperation (Music Review)

Desperation cover

Oblivians – Desperation

Nostalgia being what it is, I’m not surprised that so many ’90s bands have reformed in the past couple years. What does surprise me is how good some of these reunions have been. It helps that most of these bands weren’t superstars hoping to make a fortune with teir comeback. They were critical darlings like The Pixies who only became widely appreciated in recent years, or cult favorites like The Oblivians. The Oblivians’ new album, Desperation, shows just how some age and perspective can strengthen a band. They’re the same dirty garage punks as ever, and they haven’t lost that immature edge, but their topics are deeper and more varied. Unexpected covers (like Paul Butterfield’s “Lovin’ Cup” and Stephanie McDee’s “Call the Police“) mix with songs about girls, music, and pinball.

The band bills themselves as “Greg Oblivian”, “Eric Oblivian”, and “Jack Oblivian”, and each member is credited with”guitar, drums, and vocals”. The names are an affectation, but the credits aren’t. All three members do switch between instruments and singing throughout the album. The lo-fi production helps obscure some of the differences between their performances, creating the continuity that makes it sound like all songs come from the same band. There are still obvious differences, but in the end it works to make Desperation a varied but coherent album. You get the thrashing “Run for Cover” and soul-influenced “Em” in one album, and it feels like they belong together.

Unfortunately, some of the most noticeable differences are in skill. Some songs have decently complex guitar or drums (by garage punk standards, at least), while others are simple and plodding. Songs like “Pinball King” have powerful vocals that really sell their combination of wild youth and knowing music veteran, while a couple like “Woke Up In A Police Car” feel more like the singer is sleepwalking through the performance.

Don’t let that discourage you, though. The best tracks are great. “Call the Police” (a cover of a zydeco party standby) and “Pinball King” (an unapologetic song about spending your life doing what you love) are my favorite simple dumb rock songs of the year. (Not that good “simple dumb rock songs” are ever as simple or dumb as they act.) Though they’re 90s punks, there’s a lot of Ramones or Dead Boys in their style, with strange choices of phrasing like “Little War Child” or “Fire Detector” that give the impression that they’re defining their own path rather than following a scene’s expectations. And “I’ll Be Gone” is a great opener for a comeback album, about their love of music and disdain for selling out or chasing trends.

I hope Desperation is the start of a great second career. It taps into the primal power of rock and roll, crossing generations and mixing wit with straightforward honesty. Even its less good songs feel appropriate. After all, rock as good as this should be messy and imperfect, right?

Grade: B+

 

Hank3’s 2013 Releases (Music Review)

Two years ago, Hank3 released four albums from very different genres. Some were much better than others. Now he’s back with two albums (one a double) that total almost two and a half hours of playtime. It’s not surprising that one of them is country (Brothers of the 4×4) and the other punk (A Fiendish Threat), but it is interesting to see that neither is very similar to what he was doing in 2011. Love him or hate him, it’s obvious that he’s always pushing himself and unwilling to play it safe.

A Fiendish Threat cover

Hank3 – A Fiendish Threat

Let’s get the bad news out of the way first: The punk album is disappointing. It’s not bad, but it rarely feels like his heart is in it, either. It became obvious with his last crop of releases that Hank3 has only a passing interest in lyrics and mostly focuses on constructing soundscapes. But punk has to be a lot more about the lyrics and less about the “construction”, so it mainly sounds like an imitation of a genre he’s interested in. Some songs use sped-up country instruments and rhythms, which add a unique twist, but otherwise this doesn’t stand out. Hank3 needs to find a producer and editor he can trust, rather than running everything himself, because someone else would have made this leaner and shorter. More importantly, Hank3 needs to figure out what he wants to say when he does this. It’s a good sound, but it’s not compelling punk.

Brothers of the 4x4 cover

Hank3 – Brothers of the 4×4

Brothers of the 4×4, on the other hand, is one of his best albums. He obviously isn’t beholden to the over-the-top rebellion he pioneered in the last decade, but he isn’t necessarily interested in returning to his early traditional music, either. That rebel is still part of him, but he doesn’t feel the need to press the issue. Songs here are more likely to be about complex relationships or his love of nature as partying and fighting. In fact, “Farthest Away” is a surprisingly introspective song about a relationship growing cold, and in “The Outdoor Plan” he sounds more excited about finding bear tracks than he used to be about drugs. He even talks about wanting to find a woman to settle down with. There’s no doubt that this is an honest slice of life from someone who refuses to be pigeonholed by anything in his past.

The songs are long, though. Almost half of them cross the six-minute mark, and album-opener “Nearly Gone” is eight and a half. The first time I listened to it, I was saying “this sounds good, but it’s a bit long” by four minutes. Long, repetitive refrains and instrumental breaks are used in almost every song.

They sound good, though, and I enjoy it now that I’m over the initial shock. Hank3 has written good songs, and he takes the time to play with each one’s sound. I wouldn’t quite call this his “jam band album”, but if I wanted to convince someone from that scene to try country music, this wouldn’t be a bad album to start with. Each song does have a distinct sound, from the electric riffs in “Hurtin For Certin” to the clawhammer banjo in “Possum In A Tree”.

The lyrics are still sometimes weak. I can ignore the repeated “Losing like a loser who’s got nothing to lose” in the otherwise-good “Deep Scars”, but “Held Up” is nothing but bad repetitive rhymes about visiting each southern state. (“Ain’t nothin’ like the feel of Virginia’s vagine.” Seriously?) Hank3 isn’t stuck in the trap of repeating themes from old albums, though, as he seemed to be in 2011, and so they are almost always new and interesting enough to carry the songs.

The 89-minute running time gives me plenty of chances to enjoy it and then to get bored. As with A Fiendish Threat, it wouldn’t hurt to have someone else to force Hank3 to pare this down sometimes. However, most of it is very good, and I think that almost every song on here will be someone’s favorite. Personally, I keep coming back to the catchy “Hurtin for Certin”, the freewheeling groove of “Dread Full Drive” and “Toothpickin”, and the depressed, human groove of “Deep Scars” and “Farthest Away”. “Looky Yonder Commin” is also a great song full of personality and confidence, which surprised me because the odes to his coon-hunting dog were the weakest part of his last country albums.

A lot of baggage and expectations always come along with Hank3’s new albums, but if you set all that aside and just look at the music, Brothers of the 4×4 may be his strongest country effort ever. He’s confident and experienced, and that rebel energy that could have driven him to an early grave has instead been harnessed to keep him experimenting with new sounds. This one has a couple songs that just need to go, and several more that should have been cut back, but there’s still more than one full album of great stuff here.

A Fiendish Threat: C

Brothers of the 4×4: B+

 

Future of the Left – Human Death (Music Review)

Human Death cover

Future of the Left – Human Death

As a quick follow-up to last week’s Future of the Left review, I want to mention that in addition to How To Stop Your Brain In an Accident and Love Songs for Our Husbands, they released an additional “sessions EP” to people who backed their crowdfunding project. Human Death shows that the band definitely has a firm grasp on its strengths; This is twenty minutes of perfectly fine songs that, with one exception, would never have any chance of making it to a full album.

That’s not to say it’s bad. In some ways, there’s something very relaxing about listening to B-sides from a band you like and knowing that none of them need to very good. Future of the Left’s albums always distract me with worries about whether the band is living up to my expectations. For a side project like this, I don’t have any expectations.

This also seems like it was a place to put songs that didn’t sound quite like the rest of them. Where the band usually relies on heavy percussion to underscore Falco’s staccato delivery, these songs are softer and actually more melodic. It’s a nice change of pace, and I’m not sure what to make of the decision to keep songs like this out of the way. Not that these tracks specifically should have gone on another album – the lyrics don’t live up to the standards of the A-sides – but I hope to hear more like this from the band in the future.

As a good sessions EP should have, there’s one standout track that fans need to track down. “Not Entirely Present” is a catchy, off-kilter pop song that features a simple folk-rock backing while Falco spits out inscrutable lines.

That one track doesn’t make me recommend the EP. Human Death is a pleasant but definitely inessential companion to Future of the Left’s main release this year. I’m strangely happy with it, thanks to the way it manages expectations, and I hope that this experimentation leads the band down new paths in the future, but I don’t have any illusions about the actual quality of it either.

Grade: C+

 

Future of the Left – How To Stop Your Brain In An Accident (Music Review)

How To Stop Your Brain In An Accident cover

Future of the Left – How To Stop Your Brain In An Accident

I guess I didn’t have to worry about Future of the Left after all. Last year’s The Plot Against Common Sense was musically strong but lyrically weak, and I wasn’t sure what to make of that. Falco’s brilliant sarcasm was wasted on its easy targets, and it lacked the truly weird choices of words that define this band and Mclusky before it. This year, the band shook off the traditional record industry connections and crowdfunded a crazy, wide-ranging album that finally lives up to my expectations. How To Stop Your Brain In An Accident, which is officially released today, is what I want from post-hardcore absurdism.

Falco will never stop having things to say, but this time around he manages to convey a general disdain for society and popular culture without dumbing it down to make specific statements. Compare this album’s “Singing of the Bonesaws” to the last one’s “Robocop 4 – Fuck Off Robocop”. Both are bitter, semi-spoken word complaints about the entertainment industry, but last year’s take was more like a comedy routine worth listening to once. “Bonesaws” is a legitimate song, and possibly the high point of the album, with a hard-to-follow logic that makes it worth returning to over and over. Halfway through, it becomes a shaggy dog tale about his family being killed by the psychic blow of wasted lives on MTV. It’s catchy and quirky enough to feel nothing like a lecture, and it has the weirdest verbal hook you’ll hear all year. (“It bursts from the screen and into their eyes and their hearts and their minds and their tits and their pits”.)

There are some weak points. Songs like “Things To Say To Friendly Policemen” and “Future Child Embarrassment Matrix” feel like lists without much inspiration behind them (though “Policemen” has the best electro-rock riffs of the album”), and there are a few spots like the opening of “How To Spot A Record Company” where both the music and vocals feel too fractured for me to care. But the more I listen to it, the harder it is for me to find parts to complain about. Initially boring songs like “French Lessons” turn out to have interesting messages. In fact, Future of the Left is becoming more adept at a wide variety of sounds, with that and “Why Aren’t I Going To Hell?” filling out the “tender” side of the equation. Falco is probably tired of hearing his new band compared to Mclusky, but with this album I think it’s fair to say that Future of the Left is a multi-faceted band with their “post-Mclusky” sound being only part of their charm. They haven’t hit Mclusky’s high points yet, but they’re still making great music.

Backers of their crowd-funding effort also received the EP Love Songs for Our Husbands, and it focuses the things I most want from this band into four short, brutal tracks. True, it’s only nine minutes long, and one of the songs (“The Male Gaze”) is also on How To Stop Your Brain, so it’s hard to call this essential. But this is the band unhinged, free to turn up the volume and yell out inanities. I really wish “The Bisexuality of Distance” were on the main album, with its unrelenting guitars and unhinged lyrics that are too clever to have been written as quickly as they seem. They follow that up with “An Idiot’s Idea of Ireland”, which is one of their most successful efforts at making a point without watering down the song (“I’ve been there twice/once in a dream state that lasted for most of my youth/Two years ago/we stopped off in Dublin/and wondered if Warsaw had moved”).

I still approach every Future of the Left album with unfair expectations, and I’m always disappointed that they have to include some filler. But How To Stop Your Brain moves closer to my hope of what this band can be.

How To Stop Your Brain in an Accident: B+

Love Songs For Our Husbands: A-

 

Gogol Bordello – Pura Vida Conspiracy (Music Review)

Pura Vida Conspiracy cover

Gogol Bordello – Pura Vida Conspiracy

“Gypsy punk” band Gogol Bordello is back with Pura Vida Conspiracy, their first album in three years. Once again, they celebrate their own culture with a world-spanning fusion that owes as much to New York City as to their actual roots. It’s  a powerful and liberating sound, though, jumping from raw folk to melodic punk as needed. Sometimes they cover both extremes in one song, as in “Malandrino”. That track demonstrates how a good, simple, heartfelt song can be used in so many ways.

The band is slowly incorporating more wide-ranging styles, especially from Latin America, but the music here is mostly comparable to 2010’s Trans-Continental Hustle. The band is slower and more thoughtful than in their early days, with time for storytelling and long diversions, but the wild heart is not gone. The band has always walked a thin line between parties and lectures, and while their more “mature” style may put them in danger of crossing that line someday, that hasn’t happened yet.

Gogol Bordello also usually strikes a balance between celebrating life and facing down tragedies. That’s where Conspiracy differs the most from Hustle. While the last album was aggressively angry and depressed, even going as far as to call most of their fanbase racist, this one is almost exclusively optimistic. Frontman Eugene Hütz spouts a lot of mystical feel-good lines (“every lifetime, we meet same circle of souls”). The impression is of an enlightened foreigner filled with the Zen-like secrets to a happy life. Of course, the very title of “Pura Vida Conspiracy” undercuts that literal reading, and Hütz is too adept at tweaking the settled mainstream audience that he is performing for. It’s hard to tell what to make of that, but it’s easy enough just to enjoy his charisma and good mood. If Hütz likes to tease you from time to time, that’s just the price of admission to his party.

Pura Vida Conspiracy continues the string of hits for Gogol Bordello. I find some of the mystical-but-not-actionable advice to be silly, but this makes a good counterbalance to some of the darker, more grounded, parts of their catalog. This band shows that it is possible to mature, and even soften your sound, without losing your edge.

Grade: B