Archive for the ‘ Rock ’ Category

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+


Two Hardcore Albums: OFF! and Ceremony (Music Review)

The hardcore punk movement is pretty much gone today. But sometimes, it’s only after a sound has run its course that people can fully appreciate the ways it can be used. 2012 brought two albums that do great things with this now-nostalgic style.

OFF! cover


Hardcore supergroup OFF! has a new self-titled album to follow up their 2010 masterpiece First Four EPs. By the numbers, it’s even more terse and brutal: Sixteen songs running slightly less than sixteen minutes. What’s more important, though, is that it doesn’t just feel like the band felt pigeonholed into this pattern. These songs are just as vital as the last set.

The idea of a full “album” taking a quarter of an hour is probably more off-putting to some people than the intense music. But punk artists really are capable of fitting a full song into the space of 30 or 45 seconds. Often (though not always) with chord changes, a verse-chorus-verse structure, and as many lyrics as the average three-minute song, these aren’t necessarily a shortcut for the band.

Admittedly, I usually feel disappointed by the albums, even the classic ones, that have nothing but short songs. That’s what makes OFF! so impressive, though. The songs do consistently feel complete, as well as distinctive from each other. (It probably helps that their production is so much better than it was on most of those releases from the 1980s.) And while the songs on First Four EPs didn’t always fit together well, possibly because of the “EP” conceit, OFF! feels like a consistent album from start to end. I can even say things like “it feels sort of uninteresting for the first several songs, but then it really grabs me”, without feeling silly about the fact that those first five songs take four minutes.

If the album has one weakness compared to First Four EPs, it’s in the song themes. They cover the same angry and misanthropic territory, with a few political screeds and stories of the punk scene. (One song is titled “Feelings Are Meant To Be Hurt”, and another has the line “I’m gonna club you like a baby seal”.) But where First Four EPs had a recurring theme of depression and social anxiety, OFF!’s personal stories are references to old grudges or tales about friends. These fail to feel as interesting or revelatory – it’s not like any of the songs develop a serious depth, after all. (Admittedly, the lives of the band members are part of punk history, so they have some relevance. It’s still less interesting to me, though.) Other than that flaw, though, these songs are more sonically varied, and there are still plenty of great moments. “I Need One (I Want One)” is their catchiest song to date, and coming after the strong “503” and “Zero For Conduct”, it’s the sort of album closer that makes you want to listen again right away.

The main flaw of OFF! is simply that it wasn’t first. This release is more of the same, rather than an attention-grabbing statement. But that still is impressive; I’m not sure that many people expected them to keep the magic going for another sixteen minutes.

Grade: B+

Zoo cover

Ceremony – Zoo

In contrast to the traditionalism of OFF!, Ceremony adds a heavy dose of post-punk to their latest release, Zoo. The first two tracks make it clear that this is still a hardcore band at heart, but then “Repeating the Circle” comes on, with the melodic looping sound (and lyrics) that the title implies. Later songs mix the styles, with many creating a full droning gothic soundscape that sounds more new wave than punk. Imagine if Johnny Rotten recorded with both Sex Pistols and Public Image Ltd on the same album, and you’ll have a good impression of the stylistic variety (though not the exact sounds) found here.

Overall, this is intense music with slightly nasal shouting. Even the punkest songs have a full sound, with none of the DIY aesthetic one might expect. They have a knack for hooks, with even the tracks I didn’t quickly learn still having many memorable moments.

Lyrically, there is a consistent aura of hopelessness about civilization and finding a purpose. “Son replaces father when father dies/He eats dead things to stay alive”, goes part of fatalistic story on “Brace Yourself”. That four-minute song has four minutes worth of lyrics, but the later “Nosebleed” (which is slightly longer), has just a couple of lines no longer than that repeated over and over. There isn’t a ton of depth to the lyrics, but there is a consistent message.

With the catharsis of punk and the complexity of art rock, Ceremony have created a heady album. Here we see two different ways to use an older music style: OFF! distills the things that were best about hardcore’s past, taking advantage of the full picture that can only be seen after the fact. Meanwhile, Zoo uses it as a springboard to the future, mixing the things that worked with every other tool they have available.

Grade: B+


Two Releases from Screaming Females (Music Review)

Usually when I review multiple albums by the same artist, they all get pretty similar grades. But I was surprised by how differently I reacted to two releases by Screaming Females. I wouldn’t be surprised if at least part of this difference is unique to me, so your impressions may vary. Still I found their 2011 release to be uninteresting and their 2012 one to be great.

Castle Talk cover

Screaming Females – Castle Talk

The band’s skill is definitely evident on Castle Talk. Marissa Paternoster, the only actual screaming female of the group, has a bold punk snarl with a hint of traditional singing to it. The band displays a wide range that gives the songs too much complexity to be described as punk. The pieces just don’t mesh, though: Paternoster spends the majority of the album projecting her voice in a flat, atonal way, and the music usually sounds hesitant while she is singing. If not for the fact that Paternoster was also lead guitar, I’d come away from this with a story about an indie-prog band trying and failing to find a way to work with a punk singer.

There are good songs here, most notably “I Don’t Mind It”. Otherwise, too many of the memorable parts of this album stick in the mind not because of their quality, but because they’re reminiscent of simple elementary school rhymes (“Laura and Marty went to a party…”) It’s notable that the band has more success when they seem to scale back their ambitions: “A New Kid” contains a simple mess of electronic guitar fuzz, rather than the more intricate music of the other songs, but at least it provides good support for the vocals.

With obvious potential, but rarely good for more than a few lines at a time, Castle Talk is a frustrating album. It was just good enough to convince me that I should also check out their newer album before writing a review. I’m glad I did, because Ugly is where the individual pieces of talent suddenly fit together.

Ugly cover

Screaming Females – Ugly

The major complaints I had about their previous album are gone in this one: The music doesn’t drop out when Paternoster sings, and she uses a much broader vocal range. Though not a classically pretty voice by any means, it rises above the bouncy, lo-fi hard rock to provide a very comfortable dissonance. Non-traditional hooks fill the album, and feel completely natural. If Castle Talk was less than the sum of its parts, Ugly finds the alchemy that makes them something greater.

The lyrics seem personal, but in an obtuse way that discourages interpretation. (Sample: “My fingers swarm the gun as blinding as the sun but I’ve got to point it to the right and fascinate the night that begs to mourn the moon…”)

The highlight of Ugly is “Doom 84”, a seven-and-a-half-minute song that feels like twelve, in a good way. Sludgy, driving rock slowly builds in tension as Paternoster sings with a release that seems to proclaim life’s secrets. That the lyrics actually seem to be about dirty, submissive sex just make the song greater. If she can find such empowering joy in “your piss on my pillow, your filth in my veins”, well then, there is hope for everyone to find what they need. The song’s end is the ultimate release, as the light, saccharine “Help Me” provides an immediate change from the heady darkness.

Screaming Females feel like a long experiment in the ways one can merge guitar with the human voice. Like all experiments, there are going to be successes and failures, but we are fortunate to have all the best results grouped into one album.

Castle Talk: C

Ugly: B+


Avengers – Avengers (Music Review)

Avengers cover

Avengers – Avengers

For years, the Avengers’ seminal debut was unavailable due to legal issues. All I knew of them was “The American In Me”, a brutal, catchy song that showcased frontwoman Penelope Houston’s charisma and presaged both the hardcore movement and the poppier punk that would come later. That self-titled debut (their only album ever) has finally been re-issued with a second disc of B-sides. Now that I can hear it, I’m finding it somewhat enjoyable, but it’s not the classic that deserves the legend it has three decades later.

The main problem is that it doesn’t feel like a cohesive album. A 1977 EP fleshed out with additional tracks recorded over the next couple years, it catches a young band figuring out what they want to be in a not-yet-defined scene. It’s especially obvious that this comes from the early days of punk with songs like “We Are The One” and “I Believe In Me”. The optimism there optimism would have been dismissed as hippie trash once punk culture was more fully defined. Just one year later, the painful street life documented in”Desperation” and “Second To None” sounded like it could have been lifted right from The Stooges or The Dead Boys. And while the impassioned cover of “Paint it Black” is one of my favorite tracks, it’s just plain difficult to categorize.

Though there are many good songs, there are unfortunately no more like “The American In Me”. “Fuck You” has the energy, and “Thin White Line” has the subversive earworms, but that just emphasizes the unfocused chaos of the release. And then there is the unfortunate “White Nigger”, which would sabotage the whole album if their definition of “nigger” weren’t too unconventional to be fully offensive.

It’s ironic that the B-sides have better production and a more cohesive feel. But there are only enough new studio tracks to create another EP, and the rest is filled out by live recordings and alternate song takes. Still, it shows what an excellent band The Avengers were turning into. It’s too bad that their first album has to stand alone, rather than being the opening chapter to a great career.

Grade: B-


Catch-Up Capsule Reviews: Punk

Continuing with my catch-up reviews of older albums I bought this year, I have three punk albums that date back to the 1980s and 1990s. It’s interesting to look back at what makes them work, or not, today. I make no secret of the fact that I don’t think most works of art age well, and I rate them now by how well they work for me in modern times. I probably would have been more generous to all of these if I were looking at them when they first came out. On the other hand, this attitude makes me inclined to appreciate the punk scene, with its living-in-the-moment approach. I think two of these three still hold up fairly well today.

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Jello Biafra and The Guantanamo School of Medicine – Enhanced Methods of Questioning (Music Review)

Enhanced Methods of Questioning cover

Jello Biafra and The Guantanamo School of Medicine – Enhanced Methods of Questioning

The centerpiece of Enhanced Methods of Questioning is the 18-minute hidden track, “Metamorphosis Exploration On Deviation Street Jam”, which is basically one of Jello Biafra’s spoken word pieces put to music. The Gauntanamo School of Medicine’s meandering space-rock provides a backing for Biafra to riff off of as he gives an inspirational speech about his life as a freak. My first impression was that there would be no point in ever hearing it again, but it actually is worth returning to from time to time. Like a punk take on jazz jams, it works as both a twisted sort of background music and as a bravado performance piece.

That experimental jam actually provides a contrast to the rest of the album, which otherwise feels like the return to form that Dead Kennedys fans have been hoping Biafra would deliver for years. Don’t expect it to be exactly the same, of course – Biafra is unlikely to ever repeat himself. But the normal tracks have the hard, angry edge and vocal focus that is often missing from Biafra’s side projects. The hardcore foundation and vocal delivery is combined with a more metal sensibility, and the songs tend to go on longer with more variety.

The main problem with Enhanced Methods is that it has only five tracks. I’m told it’s an EP, but I have no idea whether to believe that: Ignoring the hidden tracks, it’s actually longer than the band’s nine-song debut album. And while the total play length sounds satisfying, the mix of punk intensity with drawn-out songs makes it feel skimpy as a whole.

The Guantanamo School of Medicine may be the stars of this, with a flexible style and thrashing delivery that sometimes has to cover up for a lack of ideas from Biafra. Songs like “Victory Stinks” (about the danger of ignored veterans snapping) and “Invasion of the Mind Snatchers” (proselytic Christians) could be pulled from any point of his thirty-year career, while the Bob Dole-takedown in “Miracle Penis Highway” is well over a decade late. (It would have been a career highlight for Biafra if it had come out on time, though. The contention that Viagra cured Dole’s politics is inspired.) “Dot Com Monte Carlo”, on the other hand, is a clearly present-day complaint about the gentrification of San Francisco. Without any clever things to say, though, it just sounds like the mean-spirited ramblings of someone who wants the kids off his lawn. The only unexpected topic is Henrietta Lacks’ story, told in “The Cells That Will Not Die”.

Yes, that’s every album track covered in one paragraph. None are perfect (unless you ignore the timing of “Miracle Penis Highway”), but Biafra’s strange charisma shines through even when his ideas sound stale. That high-pitched, sardonic voice is one of the defining features of American punk, and it’s great to hear it in this context. Enhanced Methods may feel lacking in some ways, but the potential shown is thrilling. Between the classic approach in the main tracks and the experimentation of the hidden one, this is a step in the right direction for Biafra.

Grade: B-


The Dead Milkmen – The King In Yellow (Music Review)

The King In Yellow cover

The Dead Milkmen – The King In Yellow

The Dead Milkmen were the class clowns of 80s punk, and the thought of them releasing a new album today seems both fascinating and unnecessary. The King In Yellow fills both those expectations.

As confident and unpolished as always, the songs are all over the place. Intelligent but absurd jokes sneak into the serious songs, while poignant observations can be found in the sillier ones. The bitter “Meaningless Upbeat Happy Song” is the closest to a “classic” Dead Milkmen song, but the band always featured too much variety to be pigeonholed. Contrast that song with “Fauxhemia”‘s more mature look at the life of an aging punk: They begins with the expected complaints about popular culture, but they don’t seem so proud of it now. (“I just don’t get Norah Jones, and maybe that’s why I feel so alone.”) It’s better to think of this as a collection of outtakes than a consistent album.

Some songs are surprisingly weird, and give the impression that you’re witnessing an inside joke. “Hangman”, for example, is a straight-faced story of condemned criminals staking their lives on a word game. Other songs are painfully literal, such as “Commodify Your Dissent”‘s complaint about corporations appropriating underground music. (Though you’re pretty much required to enjoy any song with the line “Johnny Cash died for you!”) There are also songs that seem to be closer to fragments than fleshed-out ideas: “Or Maybe It Is” ends immediately after bringing up the idea that a “horse race sniper” might not be committing any crimes. When all the elements come together, you get a clever deconstruction of modern life like “Solvents (For Home And Industry)”, and when they don’t, you get the unfulfilled plot ideas of “Quality of Death”. Imagine watching Monty Python for the first time, and you’ll have an idea of how it feels to listen to The King In Yellow.

In addition to everything else, there are enough songs about murder that even I, a big fan of murder ballads, feel a little weird about it. (The detailed fantasy of the stalker in “Some Young Guy” has a lot to do with it.) In fact, the title song is a (punchy, very fun) cover of an Irish folk song about a man killing his wife.

Intelligent and aimless, the modern Dead Milkmen are much the same as ever. Whether that is a good thing or not is a personal decision: Even the catchy songs are grating, and the lyrics are sporadically brilliant. Are you able to approach a Dead Milkmen album the same way you did decades ago, or would that just seem off-putting today? You may have to buy the album to find out.

Grade: B-


Amanda Palmer and The Grand Theft Orchestra – Theatre Is Evil (Music Review)

Theatre Is Evil cover

Amanda Palmer and The Grand Theft Orchestra – Theatre Is Evil

It’s easy to describe the music of Amanda Palmer and The Grand Theft Orchestra: It’s an amalgamation of goth and synth influences from the 1980s and 1990s, combined with heart-on-sleeve lyrics and performed with a theatrical flair. In fact, the album title Theatre Is Evil is as much of a joke as the sugary pink cover: Palmer’s real life is too intertwined with her art to ever separate her from her “theatre”, and her songs are frequently self-aware about that. (“I couldn’t do that, it is wrong/But I can say it in a song,” she explains in one refrain.)

The impact of her songs is much stronger than one would expect from that description, though. The styles may be openly derivative, and actually so varied that I wouldn’t expect the album to fit together coherently, especially since they were written over a period of several years. However, Palmer’s persona is the glue that makes it all work. Everything, from the Siouxsie to the Bowie to “Melody Dean” (which references “Love the One You’re With” over the riff to “My Sharona”) feels to be uniquely Palmer’s style.

With backing from The Grand Theft Orchestra, many songs take on an energetic sound that could fill arenas, but they somehow feel more personal than they ever did in her previous band: the stripped-down, thoroughly theatrical Dresden Dolls. “Want It Back” and “Olly Olly Oxen Free” are perfect examples of glammy pop-rock, while “Massachusetts Avenue” has a punk simplicity that approaches punk execution at the shouted crescendo. “Do It With A Rockstar”, possibly the highlight of the album, is a self-loathing pickup song packed with jokes, encapsulating the self-aware theme of “theatre is evil”.

Palmer and her band do slower songs, too. “Trout Heart Replica” is the sort of beautiful poetry that high school goths yearn to write, but it will be years before they have the life experience to examine relationships like “Grown Man Cry” does. “The Bed Song” does away with all the electronics, but its simple piano performance may be the emotional core of the album. And my other favorite song, “Bottomfeeder”, has the angstful but inscrutable lyrics that would have made it a hit on 90s’ radio. Theatre Is Evil has a variety that makes it incredibly satisfying as an album in addition to successes of the individual songs. (The only place the variety disappears is in the atmosphere. Even the fun, upbeat songs are uniformly depressing. “Melody Dean” and “Lost” are the only arguably happy songs. The former is a justification of an affair, and the second is an assurance that lost things can return.)

I wouldn’t expect to call a goth-pop throwback album a masterpiece, but Theatre Is Evil qualifies. My favorite songs are mind-blowing, and my least favorites obviously deserve to be loved by people with different taste. Nothing here is filler, so even those lesser songs feel like part of an experience. And for Palmer’s theater-meets-life attitude, it’s hard to come up with a better compliment than “this music is an experience”.

Grade: A


Deer Tick – Divine Providence (Music Review)

Divine Providence cover

Deer Tick – Divine Providence

Divine Providence demonstrates that Deer Tick is a one-trick band, but it’s an excellent trick: Boisterous cock rock sung with a sloppy abandon. The stripped-down music perfectly emulates a lush arena rock band that’s too drunk for the subtleties they’d normally employ, and the lyrics have just enough of a self-conscious wink to win over people who might normally be put off by the frat boy personas. Despite that, it’s best appreciated without any irony. (The liner notes open with “You should play this fucker as loud as possible”, and that’s maybe a more accurate description than this entire review.)

The problem, though, is that they don’t fully appreciate that they should stay within the bounds of that one trick. Half the songs are slower, and, frankly, uninteresting. They actually aren’t bad, with solid hooks and a good variety, but songs that are merely tolerable become harder to wait out when the album is supposed to be a non-stop adrenaline rush. One or two might make an interesting break from the full-throated energy: “Chevy Express” has a bored tension that brings to mind an unsatisfying day waiting for the party to start, and “Now It’s Your Turn” has the weariness of the next morning’s hangover. But with a few more songs like them thrown into the mix, the album just feels watered down.

Deer Tick is excellent when they put their mind to it. You’ll be hard-pressed to find better anthems to the id than “Let’s All Go To The Bar” or “Something To Brag About”, but you’ll have to wade through a lot of filler to get to them. Fortunately, it’s easy to keep returning to those best few songs. I know I’ll be doing that a lot in the future, and honestly, that means more than my complaints about the skippable songs. But as an album, it’s hard to escape the feeling that this was a missed opportunity.

Grade: B


Social Distortion – Hard Times and Nursery Rhymes (Music Review)

Hard Times and Nursery Rhymes cover

Social Distortion - Hard Times and Nursery Rhymes

Though Hard Times and Nursery Rhymes is Social Distortion’s first album in seven years, Mike Ness seems to be one of the few punk rock frontmen capable of aging gracefully. He was pulling in country influences years before “punk gone country” became a trend, and always focused on slightly slower songs about life. He was never afraid to admit that life changes sometimes, and by now his fanbase has had time to come around to his point of view on songs like “I Was Wrong”. It’s time for Ness and his band to bring that same honesty to middle-aged life.

For the most part, he succeeds. Ness may not betray his age (he was 49 at the time of this release), but this obviously isn’t the work of wild kids either. Hard Times is a collection of confident songs with nothing to prove. They may be the best-produced of any Social Distortion songs yet, and Ness’ gravelly voice is one that he wears more naturally with every passing year. This may be white-trash blues rock, but it’s smooth and soulful under the rough edges.

Recent trends haven’t made the band veer towards country, but the influence is still there. Their rendition of “Alone and Forsaken” won’t attract as much attention as their old “Ring of Fire” cover did, but in reality, Hank Williams’ work was much more in need of a modern update than Johnny Cash’s. Intense and respectful, “Alone and Forsaken” could pass as a modern song if not for a few archaic turns of phrase. Social Distortion does Williams a great service by demonstrating the excellent songwriting at the core of his songs. Country lyrics seem to creep into many of the original tracks, most notably on the album standout “Can’t Take It With You”. Announcing that he has “never seen a hearse with a luggage rack”, Ness warns the listeners away from material greed with lines that would do a wholesome country singer proud.

The band experiments with a few new things, some better than others. The gospel-tinged backup singers that appear in a few songs are a great addition, but the slow, bluesy ballad “Bakersfield” doesn’t play to the strengths of Ness’ voice or the band’s instrumentation. Similarly, the 1930’s gangsters of “Machine Gun Blues” don’t seem to draw from the more personal sources of inspiration that usually drive Ness’ songs. It’s obvious that the band does best when staying close to their comfort level. That’s fine for now, since it means even the filler songs are part of the album’s core appeal, but it may be a problem in the future. Perhaps that explains the seven-year wait for this one.

Regardless of that, Hard Times and Nursery Rhymes is a consistently solid album that every fan of Social Distortion should own. Usually, I consider claims that a rock singer has “matured” to be more of an insult than a compliment. In Ness’ case, though, maturation is not a gimmick or betrayal of his past. It’s simply part of the process that he has chronicled since the beginning.

Grade: B