Archive for the ‘ Rock ’ Category

Transplants – In a Warzone (Music Review)

In a Warzone cover

Transplants – In a Warzone

The Transplants’ debut album has aged much better than most of its pop punk contemporaries, more for its samples, dance hall sounds, and other experimentation than for the rap fusion that dominated it. A decade later, though, their third album is coming out in a very different world. If the envelope-pushing sounds and tough stories of street life were a reaction to the cookie-cutter pop punk of 2002, today the band is apparently reacting to the complete lack of punk culture with a much more straightforward album. In a Warzone is mostly standard songs, calling back to past sounds instead of trying out new ones. The rap rock is still there, though.

It’s amazing how often this album sounds like Rancid lite, with Tim Armstrong being the one member not noticeably weakened by the past decade. A few could easily be Rancid outtakes, right down to the shouts of “Go!” over opening guitar riffs. But while that may sound like an insult, even lesser Rancid albums are pretty great. (Admittedly, I’m a big fan of Armstrong, but I’m trying to ensure my review and grade takes out the less rational part of my fandom.) This album has some fun punk songs like “Back To You” and “Exit The Wasteland”. At first, I thought “Any of Them” was obnoxious and lazy, with its flat, repeated refrain of “No I don’t give a fuck about you or any of them”, but I’ve come to really appreciate the way it is stitched together with varied verses.

There are definitely times that I wish that the full Rancid band were performing a song, and some of the tough stories of street life sound posed and awkward coming from these middle-aged men (“I’ve seen the blood drain through the cracks in the sidewalk”). But the Transplants still let Armstrong try things that he couldn’t do in Rancid, including a wider range of guest artists. Rapper Paul Wall’s turn on “It’s A Problem” sounds as different as the band’s debut album.

It’s hard to say what the Transplants should be in 2013, and In a Warzone is easiest to appreciate if you don’t compare it to their other work. Considered on its own, though, it’s a strong album put out by veterans who know what they’re doing.

Grade: B-


Savages – Silence Yourself (Music Review)

Silence Yourself cover

Savages – Silence Yourself

The term “post-punk” is supposed to imply that bands are merging the brashness, honesty, and non-conformity of punk with a musical growth that DIY screamers couldn’t manage. But too often, the music seems to be all “post” and no “punk”, with meandering, barely emotional songs that sound like the musicians want nothing to do with their namesake. On Silence Yourself, Savages show what post-punk is supposed to be, with intense, emotional songs that also have an art-school reserve and depth.

Loud all-female groups are rare, but Savages don’t push too hard to exploit that. The best songs, actually, take sideways looks at the female experience. “Husbands” is a nerve-wracking song about a confused reaction to domestic bliss, and “Hit Me” is a brutal challenge to the world. But most tracks are human, slightly obscured in meaning, and don’t obviously apply to one gender when the lyrics are looked at in isolation. If the ironic feminism of “Husbands” and “Hit Me” doesn’t appeal to you, there is also “Strife”, a heartfelt song about a relationship that is strong specifically because of the hardships. “Strife” perfectly captures an awkward but real topic that few song address.

Silence Yourself is far from perfect. The middle fades into that forgettable drone that reminds me of standard disappointing post-punk. In fact, I had probably listened to it a dozen times before I realized that “Dead Nature” was an instrumental; That part of the album is just one long muddy delay before “She Will” kicks off the incredible second half. For an album meant to be loud and in-your-face, it’s unfortunate that the band loses their way like that. But the high points are some of the year’s best. Savages have established themselves as a vital band.

Grade: B+


Jello Biafra and The Guantanamo School of Medicine – White People and the Damage Done (Music Review)

White People and the Damage Done cover

Jello Biafra and The Guantanamo School of Medicine – White People and the Damage Done

It’s strange that I summarized Jello Biafra and The Guantanamo School of Medicine’s last album by saying that the band’s creativity covered up Biafra’s dated lyrics. In their new release White People and the Damage Done, it’s an energetic Biafra driving the project. The musicians are versatile for a punk act, but they’re mainly content to back up the star lead. Their accomplishment here is that the Guantanamo School appear at first glance to be a straightforward band, because their variations mimic Biafra’s own flights of fancy so well.

All that said, White People gives you exactly what you’d expect from a Jello Biafra album. His nasal voice and prankster attitude provide everything from intellectual arguments and ad hominem attacks, usually in service of political screeds but sometimes just for shock value. Biafra’s recent career in spoken word performances comes through for better and worse in “Shock-U-Py!”. At its best, the song is an inspirational speech set to music. Other times, though, his attempts at catchy verbal hooks fall flat: Lines like “to all of those who Occupy, and feel the spirit of Shockupy” are earnest but cringe-worthy.

The highlight is the blistering “Mid-East Peace Process”, a song that rivals “Holiday in Cambodia” in its ability to actually shock and unsettle the listener. The first verse is a violently noisy depiction of a strike on Palestine, while the second is slow, paranoid story of Israelis wondering who around them could be a suicide bomber. So potent that it should come with a trigger warning for anyone who’s lived through the past decade of fear, it will grab anyone’s sympathy by the time Biafra is screaming “I don’t want to live in a world like this, you don’t want to live in a world like this… No one should have to live in a world like this!”

It’s a sign of the album’s weakness that that song is followed up by the lackluster “Hollywood Goof Disease”. Biafra has nothing new to say about people’s obsession with celebrities, and his complaints (“what in the world is a Kardashian?”) are the opposite of “Mid-East Peace Process”‘ insightful commentary.

There are too many weak songs like that. “Crapture” takes easy shots at fundamentalist beliefs and makes an unsuccessful attempt at slowing down the music, while “Burgers of Wrath” is virtually unchanged from the version Biafra recorded twenty years ago. Other than “Mid-East Peace Process”, Biafra is at his best when he sticks to focused political rage that preaches to the choir. His distinctive voice and off-kilter views still keep that fairly interesting, but it doesn’t feel like he’s taking chances any more.

The album needs more songs like the remix of “The Brown Lipstick Parade” that appears at the end. The original is one of the good-but-unsurprising tracks on the album, but the bonus version replaces most of the guitar riffs with a brass band, to great effect. It’s still punk, but with an absurd carnival atmosphere that fits Biafra’s voice and jokes. If he’s going to turn out the occasional gem and fill the rest of the album with familiar repeats, then the goal should be unexpected twists like that.

Grade: B-


King Tuff – King Tuff (Music Review)

King Tuff cover

King Tuff – King Tuff

I have a soft spot for fuzzed-out garage rock, but I don’t always think of it as a distinct genre. Instead, it’s a filter that other styles can be run through, usually based on pop and rock sounds of past generations. Like adding spice to food, it can’t save something that doesn’t have a good taste to begin with, but it can add another dimension to something that’s already enjoyable.

As King Tuff demonstrates on last year’s self-titled release, personality also plays a strange role in this. While garage rock used to signal a DIY ethos, in this era of high-tech recording it’s always a conscious choice. Was the rest of their image calculated as well?

With a slightly forced falsetto that belies the care and control behind the performance, King Tuff bounces through four different personas in the first four tracks: “Anthem” is a lite-metal ode to music, with random mentions of gore, while “Alone & Stoned” captures the Blue Album-era Weezer aesthetic of the introverted geek. “Keep on Movin'” heads in the opposite direction, providing a sidewise look at 1960s dance hits. Featuring a smooth, sleazy groove and silly dance moves (“I do the creepy crawl/Crazy legs like Daddy Long”), it’s a fun joke that reveals nothing about the actual band. But then “Unusual World” slows things down, with a spacey sound and sensitive lyrics. It seems at first that there’s no common ground to the band’s approach.

Each song stands out on its own as a catchy, off-kilter work, though, and a more consistent personality develops by the end. The partying (“everybody dancin’ in the dirty club”) and occasionally monstrous imagery (“now I’m going rotten/I’m turning green”) work as youthful fantasies of rock stardom, which would make the minor-key ballads part of the emotion and angst of that age. It’s consistent once the songs are familiar, though none of them feel like they’re repeating each other. Even with that variety, every one deserves a place on the album.

It’s also worth noting that in place of a booklet, the CD comes with individual cards for each song. The only track listing is in the order of those inserts, giving it a flippant non-commercial air. But each one also features additional artwork, adding to the personality of the album. It’s fun, and the effort is appreciated. Maybe more than anything else, extra touches like that are a reminder that even when musical styles are calculated, they can still be labors of love.

Grade: B


Gentleman Jesse & His Men – Gentleman Jesse & His Men (Music Review)

Gentlemen Jesse & His Men cover

Gentlemen Jesse & His Men – Gentlemen Jesse & His Men

Jesse Smith, aka Gentleman Jesse, sings simple, slightly tinny garage rock. It almost takes a conscious effort today to create a sloppy DIY sound, and like many of bands who make that choice, he is actually influenced by classic pop sounds. As much Brian Wilson as The Ramones, Gentlemen Jesse & His Men filled their self-titled album with catchy, hook-filled songs. The themes are unchallenging: love (“All I Need Tonight (Is You)”), hate (“If I Can See You (You’re Too Close)”), and slacking off (“The Rest Of My Days”), and the song structures aren’t very complex either. But these songs are pure, energetic, and have a naive charm. At their best, these fuzzy-sounding tracks are great examples of alternative pop.

The constant energy level gets a little dull, though, and Smith’s slightly flat performance doesn’t help when things start to drag. While some songs have an authentic air, others feel like Smith is faking an upbeat attitude because he isn’t sure how else to perform. The most ironic example of this is “I Get So Excited”, which features Smith failing at any hint of true enthusiasm as he plods through a chorus about how excited he is. That song comes right at the two-thirds mark, and it definitely feels like the tipping point between fun pop and a boring exercise. At less than 35 minutes, the album still feels way too long.

Every time I start playing Gentlemen Jesse & His Men, I wonder why I had been disappointed by it in the past. It’s unoriginal, but offers exactly the sort of simple, familiar thrill that should be a staple in any music collection. I remember before long, though, when I find myself bored before the short playthrough is over. I’ll put it aside and repeat that cycle a while later. It’s never satisfying, but there are enough good songs for me not to regret it either.

Grade: C+


Death Grips – The Money Store (Music Review)

The Money Store cover

Death Grips – The Money Store

Glitch-rap band Death Grips provides a heady, challenging experience. Frantic beats and musical loops mix with aggressive vocals that are repeated, aborted, and stuttered in a way that would just barely be singable without sampling. It’s a daring, but very successful marriage of modern musical styles: The technical, abstract atmosphere of electronics meet the fervent personal declarations of rap. This mixed lineage makes The Money Store an incredible album.

Stefan Burnett’s rapid-fire lyrics can be difficult to follow even if you’re reading them. The album opens with the staccato chant “Get get get get got got got got blood rush to my head lit hot lock poppin off the fuckin block knot clockin wrist slit watch bent through bot.” Though the song’s theme (a car accident) eventually becomes clear, it’s more because of the vocabulary than from coherent sentences. What personality comes through is dark and violent, with the language of street life exaggerated into songs about killing everyone. It’s distasteful, but works because the entire package is so gonzo that over-the-top rants feel entirely appropriate. Even when reveling in the worst of human nature and using studio tricks that usually feel impersonal to me, the result feels intense, exhilarating, and in a strange way to be a futuristic declaration of human potential.

For all its psychopathic raving, there is also a wicked streak of humor and intelligence here. Modern slang mixes with mythological references, and mentions of basilisks and Warhol sound just as natural as scatology. “Hacker” is a thrilling example of the band’s abilities: Complex layers of music and electro-tribal beats create an energy that feels too trapped to dissipate, while Burnett throws off clever stream-of-consciousness one-liners (“Make your water break in the Apple Store… My existence is a momentary lapse of reason… Now backstroke through your k-hole…”). It’s an amazing technical feat that treats the foundations of rap as something to run through a studio computer, and I don’t know of any other songs like it.

With its aggressive nihilism leavened only by post-modern meaninglessness, The Money Store is too dark to listen to for long. But it’s also difficult to stop listening to. Bold, intelligent, and intense, it’s exactly the sort of thing I hope to find when I search through new music. I don’t know that it would survive familiarity or imitations, but I’m glad to have it.

Grade: B+


The Coup – Sorry To Bother You (Music Review)

Sorry To Bother You cover

The Coup – Sorry To Bother You

Radical political rap group The Coup has had a lot of unlucky timing in their career. The cover picture planned for their 2001 album Party Music seemed innocent enough at the time, but September turned out to be a horrible month to release a mocked-up image of a destroyed World Trade Center. And now, a six-year gap in albums found them missing the chance to jump on the rise and fall of the Occupy Wall Street movement. In fact, Sorry to Bother You hardly references Occupy at all.  (An essay included with the liner notes does go into some detail about it, though.) Even though it would have been nice to have this a year or two earlier, though, Sorry to Bother You is as welcome as the rest of their albums.

Even without overt references to Occupy, the movement may have influenced the approach of this album quite a bit. Instead of being a vehicle for speeches from Boots Riley, it sounds like a community celebration. With background singers shouting along and guests artists frequently taking the lead, this comes across as a community celebration. The block party that kicks off the revolution, perhaps.

This is both good and bad. Riley’s flow and charisma are frequently obscured by all the people running around the studio, so nothing reaches highs like Pick A Bigger Weapon’s “Laugh Love Fuck” or “We Are the Ones”. On the other hand, Riley is an intelligent songwriter, and this album freed him to experiment with consistently good results. Many songs recall the funky early days of rap, while songs like “Strange Arithmetic” sound inspired by his side project with Tom Morello. (Though it would probably be even better with backing from a talent like Morello, the song is much stronger than anything Street Sweeper Social Club wrote together.) And “You Are Not A Riot (An RSVP from David Siqueiros to Andy Warhol)” is an angry piece of spoken-word poetry in a genre of its own.

“You Are Not A Riot” is also a perfect example of The Coup’s powerful message. Tearing apart Andy Warhol as a distraction (“the aesthetic of rebellion”), Riley proclaims that art is indistinguishable from real-world meaning. (“My painting isn’t finished till it kills you/and it makes you feel more powerful than pills do!”) Elsewhere, he takes on the celebrations of excess found in mainstream rap with the sarcastic, kazoo-driven “Your Parents’ Cocaine”. And through it all, he remains incredibly quotable.

You don’t have to agree with Riley’s entire philosophy to find his message powerful and relatable. And Sorry To Bother You is a brilliant example of his range and creativity. I may miss the sound that got put aside to make this album, but it’s still a standout album.

Grade: B+