Archive for the ‘ Rock ’ Category

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

 

Howler – America Give Up (Music Review)

America Give Up cover

Howler – America Give Up

America Give Up, Howler’s full-length debut, has gotten a lot of attention this year. I can sort of see why, though it hasn’t thrilled me the same way. Bouncy surf-rock with a constant fuzzy drone and hooky riffs, this is the bubblegum pop version of garage rock. It’s a style I like, but partly for the substance that often goes with it. In Howler’s case, they don’t have the variety of Black Lips or the lyrical depth of Goodnight Loving. The catchy sound can take them far, admittedly.

The band comes across as youthful and optimistic, in a complete contrast to their album title. In fact, it’s almost hard to notice that the songs cover the half-angry, half-stoned territory common to garage rock: I usually come away from the album feeling vaguely like I’d just heard some eager, lo-fi Beach Boys covers. In reality, they sing things like “A shotgun wedding at a quarter to five/I shot the husband and I sleep with the bride” and “You think we’re Bonnie and Clyde/But both of them fucking died”. Nothing too offensive, of course. If anything, I probably get that feeling because of how carefully calculated it sounds. At least, when I hear Howler sing “I hate myself more than I hate you”, it seems to have little more meaning than “La la la” would.

The group’s catchiness fails it only twice: Once in “Too Much Blood”, when they slow their sound down and seem to reveal the lack of any substance behind them, and conversely on “Black Lagoon”, when the attempt at a more aggressive song just comes out wrong and feels irritating. (Being the last song on the album, its annoying anti-hooks are a real problem.) Otherwise, America Give Up is a fun, upbeat album. It’s just immediately forgettable afterwards, except for a few lines from “Black Lagoon” that I’m trying to forget.

Grade: C+