Archive for the ‘ Rock ’ Category

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+


Cult of Youth – Cult of Youth (Music Review)

Cult of Youth cover

Cult of Youth – Cult of Youth

Cult of Youth can write some pretty good songs when they put their mind to it. Just listen to “New West”, the first track on their self-titled debut. Between Sean Ragon’s charismatic pronouncements and the purposeful, driven music, this sounds like the theme for a gothic Sergio Leone feature. In fact, the goodwill from that song carried me through the rest of the album the the first time I heard it. It took me several listens to accept that they didn’t have much to offer after that track ended.

The lyrics of “New West” play perfectly to Ragon’s own limitations. Its vaguely-defined protagonist and lack of resolution paint a picture of some archetypal Man With No Name striding through the frontier. But in the other songs, it’s just frustrating that the ideas lack a firm grounding and then fail to go anywhere. (For example, “Monsters” is some sort of parable about a man who is warned there are monsters in the world, but is then killed by them anyways. “Weary” describes a wandering woman cast out from society, but the refrain contradicts that by claiming “we are not weary” for no obvious reason.) In fact, I spent some time trying to figure out if this whole album was tied together by a theme that “New West” introduced. Everything may have the same cinematic bombast and slippery lack of meaning, but they turn out to have no connection beyond that.

The other problem is that the band doesn’t always seem to be trying very hard. They have the goth-folk formula down pat, with as much reverb as possible applied to semi-acoustic music, and a deep-voiced man soulfully but forcefully singing about the pains of the world. At times, it works well. Other times, it sounds like they barely showed up to the studio with a full song, and just assumed that their producer would turn up the bass and slather angst over everything for them.

It’s frustrating, because Cult of Youth has a sound that works for them and occasionally finds songs worthy of it. But for every compelling line, there are several that sound like they were grabbed at random from an angry high-schooler’s book of poems, and the band only comes up with a few interesting arrangements throughout the album. Cult of Youth could be pared down to create a good EP, but there’s no indication that those highlights define the direction the band wants to go in. They sound pretty comfortable on the songs that don’t go anywhere.

Grade: C


Dropkick Murphys – Signed and Sealed In Blood (Music Review)

Signed and Sealed In Blood cover

Dropkick Murphys – Signed and Sealed In Blood

Maybe the best way to summarize Signed and Sealed In Blood is with “Jimmy Collins’ Wake”. A fun, life-affirming track that mixes the Dropkick Murphys’ love of Boston, punk, Irish culture, and sports, it’s definitely a good song. If you’d never heard the band before, you would probably be very impressed. But if you are already familiar with them, you’d know that they already have a couple superior songs about wakes, and at least one better one about baseball. That feeling persists throughout the album. In some ways, it’s to the band’s credit that their sound is so familiar now, but it’s still undeniable that Signed and Sealed is a consistently good album that just can’t escape the shadow of earlier songs.

It’s possible for the Murphys to escape this curse. 2011’s Going Out In Style was a rousing success, presenting punk as an inseparable part of their community-centered Irish roots. Signed and Sealed takes a turn to harder music, with less sincerity and more comfortable formulas. They have several compelling songs about hard drinking and fighting for what’s right, but their lifestyle seems less well-rounded without the expected ballads and traditional songs.

There are several high points: “Rose Tattoo” could have been the album’s slow ballad, but with the band unwilling to slow down, it becomes something new and surprising. “Out On The Town” experiments with a rawer punk sound than the Murphys have used in years, and “The Battle Rages On” is their most spirited call to battle since “The Gauntlet”. On the other hand, the gimmicky, mean-spirited Christmas song “The Season’s Upon Us” is a rare misfire from the band.

Don’t expect Signed and Sealed In Blood to be another Going Out In Style, but this band can’t fail to make good songs. Just ask yourself whether you’re excited about the prospect of hearing the Dropkick Murphys’ third-best song about a wake. If you are, and there’s nothing wrong with that, then you’ll enjoy this. If you’re not sure what I’m talking about, though, there are better albums to start with.

Grade: B-


Slug Guts – Playin’ in Time With the Deadbeat (Music Review)

Playin' in Time With the Deadbeat cover

Slug Guts – Playin’ in Time With the Deadbeat

Slug Guts performs sinister, testosterone-laden Australian post-punk in the vein of The Birthday Party. All their songs on Playin’ in Time With the Deadbeat are deep and echoey, as if it were recorded from the far side of a cellar. Or maybe a better description of the sound is that of a man yelling across an alley, while an advancing gang of thugs tries to get you to leave by brandishing musical instruments at you.

The vocals sometimes recall early, self-destructive Iggy Pop as much as The Birthday Party, and the lyrics are decipherable with a little effort. However, it doesn’t take much time to realize that those details aren’t very important. Just take the impression given by the song’s name (such as “Stranglin’ You Too”, “Order of Death”, or “Glory Holes”) and let that guide your interpretation of the loud, bass-heavy wall of sound that washes over you.

That’s not to say that the production is haphazard or low-budget, though. I think that Slug Guts captured the songs exactly as they wanted here, with a very rich sound that has a slightly overwhelming impact on the listener. It’s enjoyable, if a bit of an acquired taste. With the vocals obscured, don’t expect to distinguish the songs by their lyrics. The tracks are legitimately different, with no skimping on the songwriting, but that feeling they give off just doesn’t vary. The first few times you listen to this, you’ll wonder why they didn’t just save some time by writing two songs and repeating them over and over.

Fortunately, those differences in the songs do matter eventually. This is a solid, consistent (if maybe too consistent) album. Slug Guts can be a hard band to listen to, both figuratively (that dark, oppressive atmosphere) and literally (they actually hurt my ears if I’m not careful), but the more I listen, the more interested I am. I’m not going to say that Deadbeat is a completely successful album, but it’s an impressive showcase for this band’s potential. I hope they decide on a better way to present the vocals in the future, but the talent and confidence is already there.

Grade: B-


Bloodshot Records Capsule Reviews

As with the past couple years, I like to take some time in January to review the albums I bought at Bloodshot Records’ holiday sale. (As of today, the sale is still going on, though their site doesn’t say how long it will last.)

I don’t know if I will keep doing this, though. I don’t want to wait until January to review the brand new albums (I went ahead and reviewed Justin Townes Earle’s latest right away, for example), and I may have reached my limit for older items from the Bloodshot catalog. This time, I found myself scrolling through the list of sale CDs, asking myself if I really needed another Wayne Hancock or Waco Brothers album. So I don’t know what I’ll decide next time.

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Japandroids – Celebration Rock (Music Review)

Celebration Rock cover

Japandroids – Celebration Rock

How did I somehow miss out on Japandroids until a few months ago? I was sure that I’d sampled them and found their electronic experiments lacking. Their name must have led me to mix them up with someone else, because this band is pure American flesh and blood bar-rock. (Yes, even though they’re actually Canadian.) Celebration Rock, their second release, is an uplifting album seemingly designed for shouting along with new best friends after a night of hard drinking.

The most impressive trick of Celebration Rock is that it does feel like a celebration of life, but not with the facile, blindly positive material that name might imply. The subjects are complex and varied. Far from a Pollyanna attitude, their clear view is that life is worth it despite, if not even because of, the struggles. Of course, you’ll want to have a group of friends to sing along with when the chorus gets to the loud “Whoa-oh” parts. Expect some realistic downer lyrics, though, as well as a cover of The Gun Club’s “For the Love of Ivy”. It’s those portions that make the life-affirming songs relatable.

The standout track, and a great example of the band’s strengths in general, is “The House That Heaven Built”. An honest, clear-eyed assessment after the end of a long-term relationship, the song focuses on the bond the two will always have. “When they love you (and they will) tell them all they’ll love in my shadow”, sings the band. Rather than sounding creepy or controlling, it ends up being a testimonial to emotional growth. The next lines are, “And if they try to slow you down, tell them all to go to hell”.

Japandroids have a huge buzz, and their simple human rock is usually just what I want from my music. Despite that, I don’t enjoy this as much as you’d expect. The songs are powerful, and obviously meant for a live communal experience. (In fact, their live performances are a big part of their buzz.) The album doesn’t quite capture that, though. This is the sort of music that needs a producer like Steve Albini, and as it is the raw energy sounds packaged instead of natural. The recording is just slightly too muddy, and the joyous community they represent sounds like it’s on the wrong side of the security barrier from the listener.

All that makes Celebration Rock good instead of great. It’s still a group of powerful songs occupying a unique place in the modern music scene. Japandroids have convinced me that they deserve the hype, and I just hope the next album lives up to it.

Grade: B-


Future of the Left – The Plot Against Common Sense (Music Review)

The Plot Against Common Sense cover

Future of the Left – The Plot Against Common Sense

Future of the Left, like Mclusky before it, is a vehicle for Andrew “Falco” Falkous’ absurdist rants. Whether doing a flat spoken-word delivery, staccato post-hardcore chants, or full-on electro-punk screaming, his sarcastic Welsh voice is a perfect match for the humorous, sometimes almost stream-of-consciousness, lyrics. The Plot Against Common Sense, Future of the Left’s latest release, is more of the same in many good ways. Musically, it is their strongest yet, especially if you liked Mclusky’s intense songs narrated by faux-tough guys. However, over this band’s three albums they have become increasingly serious, and their intended messages just aren’t as fun as the tongue-in-cheek nonsense they used to spew.

It isn’t necessarily bad to mix music with a message, but the two goals often conflict with each other. Whether the results work is a matter of personal opinion, and you can’t always predict whether I’ll like the result based on whether I agree with the point of view. In this case, there are some successes. I particularly like “Sheena Is A T-Shirt Salesman”, partly because the music industry always seems like fair game for musicians to criticize, and also because Falco’s blistering delivery doesn’t slow down to make sure you get the point. Other than a hilariously apt message at the end (“This song is dedicated to the merchandise manufacturers who made it possible”), it’s just two minutes of clever wordplay and verbal hooks (“autistic autistic autistic radio/artistic license (celebrate a bus pass!)”)

“Sorry Dad, I Was Late For The Riots” is the complete opposite of that. The theme (trust-fund kids who aren’t really devoted to their causes) is also a frequent target for punk rockers, but this just feels painfully strident. The only clever part is the inversion of children caring less than their parents. (Ok, excusing his absence with “I’m sure that Chumbawumba will understand” is pretty funny, too.) Otherwise, it feels generally boring and a little preachy.

Most other songs fall somewhere in between those two. Surprisingly, the band chooses a lot of easy targets, such as unnecessary movie sequels and idiotic advice in Cosmopolitan. These songs have Falco’s typically-clever delivery: “Robocop 4 – Fuck Off Robocop” includes an on-the-nose description of Pirates of the Caribbean 47’s plot, and he responds to Cosmo’s fear of aging by foretelling a future in which “everyone is slightly older”. But his songs work best when he presents gripping but hard-to-follow visions (“This is a song about breaking bread with enemies of fantasy”), and finding an obviously-mundane message in it ruins the message.

Fortunately, not all the songs on Common Sense are derailed by meaning. “I Am the Least of Your Problems” is cheeky, hard-rocking fun, “Beneath the Waves an Ocean” has more self-referential jokes (“Three men walk into a cafe, take a corner booth, and wait for context”), and “Polymers Are Forever” is just my favorite name for a song since Falco formed this band. Future of the Left is still improving in many ways, and they are sometimes figuring out how to handle political and cultural statements. Those statements still get in the way more often than on past albums, though. On balance, it’s definitely a worthwhile effort, though I can’t tell whether they are getting better or worse.

Grade: B