Friday, May 29, 2009

The Slits: Typical Girls

This was in my head this morning and I figured it would end the week on a classic note.

Letters From A Tapehead

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

“Our Present Was Empty/Our History A Mess:” Pop Punk at an Evolutionary and Devolutionary Level

The Thermals
Now We Can See
Kill Rock Stars
Released: 4.7.09

Rating: 8.25 out of 10

Sometimes I don't mind “fun” being injected into music. Like everything, it just has to be done right. The anthemic joyfulness that pervades Now We Can See, fourth album from Portland pop punk trio, The Thermals, is undeniably infectious, catchy to the point of necessary and involuntary physical movement. With no conscious effort on your part, your foot taps, your head nods, your fingers drum… you just can’t help it.

Though typically and vehemently opposed to anything remotely pop punk, (feigning distrust of government, authority and conformity while sounding as controversial or dangerous as a clean napkin), I can get behind The Thermals, specifically because they don’t disguise what they do with any hint of rebellion, unless you consider the album’s evolutionary bent a blasphemous smiting of your possible creationist belief system. As singer Hutch Harris loses his spine in order to turn fishlike and water dwelling for the track “When I Died,” it’s difficult for me to remember any other time in my life when I rocked out to a song like this, an almost “Rockaway Beach” excitement applied to the survival based instinct of a newly aquatic organism: “The Earth was too hot/The air was too thin/I took off my clothes/I took off my skin/I crawled to the sea that was calling for me/So I could swim... Yeah, so I could swim!”

Kevin Costner grew gills, Michael Phelps won a shitload of gold medals… maybe this is where we’re headed: ocean bound, our skin meant to melt back into its primordial state, a gelatinous civilization underwater, struggling to develop its legs and feet and learn again its fundamental need to communicate and invent; a veritable bubble wrap field of once-human jellyfish, pulsating functionally and waiting to start all over again.

Playing up the death/reincarnation/evolution/devolution scenarios like some fucked up Stephen Hawking meets Stanley Kubrick interpretation of General Hospital, The Thermals express their thematic content with a full and polished energy, low end and percussion gloriously ringing out a clarity that resembles Steve Albini’s un-produced results. The album’s song titles read memoir-like and instructional, (“I Let It Go,” “When We Were Alive,” “You Dissolve”), Harris and one-woman rhythm section Kathy Foster, (drummer Westin Glass joined soon after recording was finalized), communicating with a barrage of loud melody that brims with sufficient post-grunge mud to keep the mix from sounding TOO clean.

Now We Can See’s make-up is mostly the same throughout: quick and free of embellishment; the power trio relying on the sum of its own parts. The Thermals manage to sound mostly uniform whether they’re fast (“When We Were Alive”), or slow (“At the Bottom of the Sea”), up until their successive double shot deviations to dorkdom, “Liquid In, Liquid Out” and “How We Fade,” both of which seemingly owe something to a possible diet of Rivers Cuomo and Ben Folds.

If I could pick a singular moment where Now We Can See pulls me in, it would be the second Foster’s low end kicks up the volume in “I Called Out Your Name.” A slinky thud of a bass line, Spector-ized and thick, the song begs you to drown in its groove, standing out in an album that’s already very attentive to rhythm and hook and simplified enough to focus on its attack.

The Thermals do “basic” very well and give “catchy” music some credibility. As strange as it reads on paper: a band harmoniously belting out fist pumping pop anthems about bacteria (“We Were Sick”) or the beginnings of mankind (“Now We Can See”), it sounds good on wax.

Letters From A Tapehead

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Beastie Boys w/ The Roots: So What'cha Want

The Beastie Boys were the guests on Jimmy Fallon's show last night, promoting their upcoming new album, Hot Sauce Committee, and their latest reissue of Check Your Head.

As a musical segment, the Beasties got to jam on "So What'cha Want" with The Roots. Works for me:

Letters From A Tapehead

Saturday, May 23, 2009

No Ripcord: Cryptacize

Asthmatic Kitty
Released: 4.21.09

No Ripcord review

Letters From A Tapehead

Friday, May 15, 2009

What I Heard This Morning: BATTLEHOOCH

So, admittedly, there is an absolute shopping list of comparables and influences here, (most notably Mark Mothersbaugh, Captain Beefheart, David Bryne, James Chance & The Contortions), but San Francisco's BATTLEHOOCH have an exuberant immediacy and somewhat off-the-wall appeal that I find endearing. Bypassing bars, clubs and venues, BATTLEHOOCH takes their show to the SF streets, treating any passerby to their brand of chaos.

Battlehooch - The Special Place (Live @ 18th and Castro, San Francisco) from Battlehooch on Vimeo.

Their self-released debut, Pieceshow, will be available on June 16th. It's available for pre-order on their website.

BATTLEHOOCH: "The Special Place"

I'm intrigued.

Letters From A Tapehead

EDIT: The rather obvious typo was brought to my attention. The album is entitled Piecechow, (as you can see by the very large and easily read album cover) and not Pieceshow as I typed. Apologies.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Vivian Girls: Tell The World

The Vivian Girls were one of the many bands I missed last year. Flat note noise pop with grooves aplenty, I've really been enjoying their debut since acquiring it about a month ago. "Tell The World," for me, is the album's gem.

Letters From A Tapehead

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

What I Heard This Morning: Black Lips featuring GZA

In light of a surprise onstage collaboration at this year's South By Southwest festival between garage rockers Black Lips and the only reason to give a fuck about Wu-Tang anymore, GZA/Genius, the band has released an online EP featuring their remix of "The Drop I Hold" which features the Wu-Tang liquid swordsman. The EP is only available through iTunes, which is kind of a drag if you're into quality.

Though typically put off by the weak publicity and spectacle that follows hip-hop/indie collaborations, not to mention their often over-hyped byproduct, this one I can get behind. I like the fact that Black Lips at least attempt to maintain their sound while creating a suitable foundation for GZA to flow atop, which is something that really hasn't been done well since the Judgment Night soundtrack. THIS sounds like a genuine collaboration, despite being a remix, and not just a song with some dead air for a rapper to fill up with some half-assed mediocre "cat rhymes with hat, here's a 'bitch' and a 'motherfucker' for good measure" bullshit, though GZA's usually better than that.

Black Lips feat. GZA/Genius: "The Drop I Hold"

The video and the track were sourced from Vice Records.

Letters From A Tapehead

Monday, May 11, 2009

“Radiant” is the Word…

Wavering Radiant
Ipecac Recordings
Released: 5.5.09

Rating: 9 out of 10

When Mastodon’s Blood Mountain reached my ears a couple years ago, the album’s potential for crossover appeal was very clear. Even in spite of its complexity and time signature heft, Blood Mountain had riffs for rock fans, speed for punk fans, mathematics for prog fans and balls behind it all. With Wavering Radiant, fifth album from post-metal progenitors, ISIS, the potential for crossover runs similarly prevalent, but only within the context or category of “music fan.”

As snobbish as that may sound, you have to lose yourself in Wavering Radiant to hear and feel the big picture. There are elements at play that suggest and recall past eras of musical exploration and attention to detail in terms of rock, metal or progressive genres, not in a “jam” sense but in a very tight and careful sculpting of the material. ISIS immerses themselves in either concentrated crescendos or prolonged demonstrations of six-string articulation, which is common as far as progressive music is typically concerned. But, sensitivity takes precedence over mathematics and ISIS knows how to convey said sensitivity while maintaining a degree of power.

Wavering Radiant, in the simplest of explanations, breathes fire at the screaming villagers and mourns the death of every casualty.

With producer Joe Barresi (Tool, Melvins, Queens of the Stone Age) at the knobs, there is a refined glow about each instrument, a discernible orchestra of precise-yet-restive energy. As “Hall of the Dead” couples its disciplined initial attack with vocalist Aaron Turner’s guttural howls, Tool guitarist Adam Jones adding depth, a midway meltdown ensues and is followed by a softened almost-interlude whose presence basically carries the song in another direction. It feels sort of contradictory, though it ably transitions to the next song, “Ghost Key,” an isolated and spatial intro giving way to calamitous outbursts.

One of Wavering Radiant’s fairly consistent characteristics is its tendency to follow rage with relative calm. “Ghost Key” works itself into a layered intermingling of reverberating guitars whose notes sort of float around each other. Turner’s harsh delivery returns before the song finishes, but does nothing to diminish the song’s splendorous musical interactions.

Album highlight “Hand of the Host,” being the longest and most tangent prone song of the album, still feels as though it’s confined to an underlying blueprint. Waves of undulating sound transition into the title track and then into “Stone to Wake a Serpent,” whose rhythm at times feels complimentary to “Hall of the Dead,” A shrieking and dissonant guitar momentarily brings the band into transcendental territory before the sinister bass line of “20 Minutes/40 Years” introduces seven minutes of hyper-percussive and sweet brutality.

“Threshold Of Transformation” ends the album boldly, a riff-heavy power jam leading into a wailing wall of noise before light strings close it out.

As compelling a listen as Wavering Radiant is, it’s also the type of album that will alienate anyone that seeks immediate gratification. Consider it as a whole, or not at all. Without a bullet to boast, or an accessible enticement for magnetizing the uninitiated, Wavering Radiant is the exploratory result of a band whose ALBUM is the focus, which is something “music fans” really appreciate these days.

Letters From A Tapehead

Thursday, May 07, 2009

What I Heard This Morning: Iggy Pop

So, after having lost fellow Stooge Ron Asheton earlier this year, Iggy Pop, citing his dissatisfaction with "idiot thugs with guitars banging out crappy music," is putting out a French-centric jazz album entitled, Preliminaires.

Explaining his inspiration in a trailer for the album, Pop discusses New Orleans jazz and novelist Michel Houellebecq.

Preliminaires is expected to release in the States in early June. In the meantime, news on the album is being tracked at a specialized blog. You can also hear some songs on the attached widget.

Like anything else Iggy does, it could be either remarkable or disastrous, but in light of the last Stooges album, I'm inclined to feel as though an absence of rock n' roll in Iggy's album might be beneficial. I'm slated to review the album for No Ripcord.

Letters From A Tapehead

Wednesday, May 06, 2009

Interview: The Show Is The Rainbow

Orbit to Leslie
The Show Is The Rainbow
Beep Beep
Johnny Brenda’s
Philadelphia, PA

Photo courtesy of Terrorbird Media

Before he began performing his song “Mother And Son,” Darren Keen, (a.k.a. The Show Is The Rainbow), explained to the evening’s crowd the song’s autobiographical significance. Apparently, back when fetal Keen was a mere presence in his mother’s womb, his face would get routinely pummeled by an endless number of strange dicks from the men she would bring home.

“That’s physically impossible,” said one of a group of females by the soundboard, either missing the joke or just wanting her position heard.

Soon after the intro, a faint unease surging through the audience, The Show Is The Rainbow began thrashing about off stage, shrieking into the microphone as his laptop carried out the tune. A projected animation depicted a crudely rendered cock aiming for a psychedelic Kubrick-ian vagina, which quickly switched to a malformed scribbled baby with an umbilical cord wrapped around it like a pink tentacle being fed to its mother’s smiling saw-toothed belly. All I could think at that moment was, “Now THAT’s physically impossible.”

“I talk a lot, like maybe half my show is me talking without me playing music,” noted Keen earlier that evening. “I love explaining what my songs are about because I think they’re pretty funny, and uh… I gotta really like… every night just talking about what the songs are about, watching people’s reactions because the songs are about some weird shit, just seeing people like, light up, because I think there’s so much pretension and like weirdness in like, music right now.

Live video projection for the song "Gothic Cajun" from 2007's Gymnasia

“People are just so serious and stuff,” he continued. “I’m serious in a way but I think like, I’m serious about what I think is honestly just me being honest about being a weird acid head dude. It’s just been cool just seeing reactions to my explanations of the songs.”

I met Lincoln, Nebraska native Darren Keen the night of April 13th at Johnny Brenda’s. Following two local Philadelphia bands, Orbit To Leslie and Instamatic, Keen was playing double duty, carrying out his own solo performance and playing bass for the headliner, Omaha band Beep Beep. When I’d arrived at Johnny Brenda’s, I left him a message on his cell phone. He called maybe two minutes later, explaining that he’d been in sound-check and then described who I would be looking for:

“I have really long hair and I’m wearing a shirt that says ‘Fuck It.’”

When he appeared at the bar, indeed he had, and indeed he was.

After a quick cell phone call to his girlfriend and mandatory drink order, I brought up his new album, Wet Fist, noting the album’s mostly agreed upon comparisons to Frank Zappa, Squarepusher and Beck. He responded, “Those are probably my three favorite musicians.” I asked him if he’d grown up in a musical household.

“Well, I wasn’t like trained,” he began. “My parents weren’t musical, my parents were both big music fans. Like, my dad… this is actually really funny… I realized this about a month or two ago: One of my first music memories were these mix tapes my dad would make and, like, my dad would have these like, mix tapes we would listen to in the car and one side would be, like, Nina Hagen and Black Flag, and the other side would be like Irish bagpipe music. So, I guess it was just like the sounds of conflicting music being together, it doesn’t seem unnatural to me in any way.”

In high school, Keen admits to being a fan of nü metal, (“I wish that shit wasn't true but it is.”), though he gained favor amongst the art crowd. “… I remember there were these… the kids I thought were the ‘cool’ kids, like, the ‘weirdo’ art kids, um, for some reason they liked me…”

The art kids brought Keen to see the band, Her Flyaway Manner and his perspective was almost immediately rethought.

“I went there with an Incubus t-shirt on and my hair in liberty spikes, no joke, and I went to the show and I like, saw this band and I was just like, ‘Oh my God, they’re like aggressive and heavy but not dreadlocked with seven-string guitars’ and like my whole fuckin’… Within a month of that show I quit the shitty high school band I was in and I was just like… I was in a whole new mindset, y’know? It was how I found out about punk.

“Lincoln, Nebraska is not a big ‘punk’ city,” Keen explained, “and I don’t have any older brothers or anything, so it took me a little longer. I was, like, 17 probably and uh, when I found out about punk or whatever I consider ‘punk’ it just like… it was a great day, it was cool.”

Performing "Roar Means Run" in Florida in 2008: The visual is unfortunately too dark to see what's going on, but the banter is worthwhile.

Though it was a relatively empty Monday evening at Johnny Brenda’s, Keen held nothing back in terms of performance. Shirtless and frantic, The Show Is The Rainbow felt more like a performance piece than a traditional set, Keen’s “band” a pre-recorded file pumped through the venue’s sound system and the aforementioned projections a visual aid to his madness. At points, Keen would pick up a guitar and play along with the computer, confirming his actual abilities as a musician in the face of any potential criticism he might get for relying so heavily on software. Consider this the “band” factor.

“The way I work, I don't use a ton of software, actually.”

Wet Fist is a marriage of technology and humanity, Keen’s live show the essential yardstick by which his album should be measured. TSITR exhibits the warmth of musicianship but makes no attempts to hide the mechanism that allows him to recreate his one-man vision for an audience.

“I use Pro-Tools and record most of the instruments,” Keen explained, “Like I record the guitars, and drums, and bass and stuff and, um, and live keyboards and I use the laptop just live like karaoke. But, um, I’m really into technology, as you said, I love that you figured that out about me, I'm very into the way technology and humans collaborate in every aspect of life. This is a big thing I’m interested in and I think with music it’s super important.”

As laptops become a commonality in live performances, powering more and more bands and acts with pre-programmed ease, with music-generating software also readily available to any non-musician with a PC, one might think an influx of mediocrity would befall all genres, talent and vision sacrificed at the hands of manufactured homogenization. Is technology leveling the playing field?

“…My studio set-up is a $400 M-Box and that’s it. I have shit that pretty much any kid could work a job and save up for a month and buy and, like, I think it’s more about creativity and how much time and how much of your brain and heart you’re going to put into your music that’s real important.”

Keen continued, “So, I think home recording software and laptops leveling the playing field is great because now no one has any excuse to be like, you can’t be like: ‘Oh, I can’t do this because I can’t afford the equipment those guys have’ or ‘I can’t afford all the synthesizers The Faint has’ or whatever, it’s like well, don’t get me wrong: The Faint is one of my favorite bands, but my record sounds pretty much as good as their album and that’s cocky of me to say but like… I’m just saying like, it’s just because I spent a fuck ton of time working on it, y’know? I think it’s great. It speaks so highly of a person’s creativity in my opinion if they can get great shit out of terrible equipment, y’know?”

The Show Is The Rainbow was recently featured in this year’s South By Southwest Festival just as Keen was beginning his tour with Beep Beep.

“This year I did way less shit,” Keen replied when I’d asked him how the festival had gone. “Last year I did seven shows in three days, actually two and a half days, and this year I did three shows in four days. It was kind of chill. Last year, I was one of the invited bands. I didn’t sign up, they asked me to play, which was really cool. And I got thrown out of my own showcase last year, so… this year I didn’t even get into the festival or anything. I just played some parties and Beep Beep played the Saddle Creek (Independent record label co-founded by Omaha native Conor Oberst) showcase, which was pretty cool.”

An altercation at last year’s SXSW earned Keen a write-up in Spin magazine and helped TSITR gain some attention.

“… It was a venue that doesn’t normally do concerts and they had a weird sound guy who was not cool and, uh, he said I broke a mic while I was playing and I picked it up and tapped it and it was on still, y’know, I was like, ‘Not broken.’ And he’s like, ‘Well, you swingin’ that mic around is gonna make it break early. You owe me $75.’ So, I crumpled up a dollar bill and I threw it on the ground and that was that.”

Before the Internet, when promotion was solely based on ‘zine write-ups, college radio and live shows, indie bands would tour relentlessly to spread their music, channels being very few and information less accessible. While Myspace and YouTube have become necessary tools for free promotion, and while Keen utilizes both, much of his reputation has been built using the traditional indie approach, having toured excessively since TSITR’s inception in 2002. “I think actually I’m kinda getting to the point where I might start settling down my touring a little bit because… it’s just been like, I feel like any reward, not monetarily, but just any personal reward or any notoriety reward I could get for touring I’ve already gotten.”

A slight emergence of mental exhaustion seemed to hang in the air as he continued, “Like, I’ve been just really busting my ass. I’ve done like over 800 shows in 6 years and it’s just like, it’s been really cool and I’ve seen the world and when I started touring I was a sober kid who lived with my parents and now I’m this like, totally different dude and I grew up, I became a man on tour as fucking weird as that is to say and it’s badass and I fucking love being on tour but, um, I think I’m just getting to the point now where I’m just like… I’m wanting to do a little bit different things with my band and I’m wanting my band to be, serve a different purpose in my life, I want to start using my band as an excuse to just do fun, cool shit that makes me really happy and I don’t want to sweat it out anymore.”

“I got the Retard Disco logo tattooed, that’s the label that put out the album. Isn’t that nerdy?”: Lifted from Keen's Myspace page. (Hope that's cool.)

As Keen’s hero Frank Zappa transitioned from group dynamics to solo work, citing the benefits of self-reliance, Keen’s thinking of taking the opposite approach. Having toured with a live band, I asked him if that is something he’d like to take another stab at. He lit up, “I want to record with a band. I have guest people come play shit. Eric from Beep Beep, he played all the guitars in Gymnasia, the album before Wet Fist. Usually I play all the instruments but, um, I really want to put together a completely live Show Is The Rainbow line-up.

Inspired, he continued, “And, I want to start doing the thing like… I toured with John Vanderslice a little and he does this thing where every tour he just has a different line-up, y’know and like, they just interpret the songs the best they can. Sometimes it’s five people; sometimes it’s three, y’know. And you know, Beck does that, too, now. I got kind of inspired thinking about that, the idea that like, I think it’d be really fucking cool to just like put together like, sometimes have a smaller line-up and just try to like, play the songs the way it sounds when those people are playing it, you know what I mean? And sometimes have the computer playing, too and sometimes, don’t. I’m interested in just trying to uh… Basically, after six years I need to do some new shit to keep myself interested and I think live musicians is the way I’m going to go and not in the writing process, I still to write it all myself ‘cause I’m a weird, crazy dude and I think my vision is pretty special and I want to keep following it but, uh, I would love to try to interpret it with some people on it, yeah.”

Midway through his set, Keen decided to give the computer a break. He picked up his guitar and strummed a melancholy little ode to working retail. Though it wasn’t energized or designed with the intent to unsettle the crowd, people were attentive and quiet, engaged with the “weird, crazy dude” that wasn’t being weird or crazy.

A quick “thanks” followed once the song was finished, and it was back to The Show Is The Rainbow.

Letters From A Tapehead

Friday, May 01, 2009

A Woman A Man Walked By Noticed…

PJ Harvey & John Parish
A Woman A Man Walked By
Island Records
Released: 3.31.09

Rating: 9.75 out of 10

“Who would suspect me of this rapture?/And who but my black hearted love?”

The first go-round of “Black Hearted Love,” PJ Harvey’s long-time producer/musical contributor John Parish stretches his six-string out of line with the rest of the melody like he’s attempting to sing at an octave higher than he’s capable. He reels it back before Polly Jean delivers her first few verses, a wash of seriousness dramatically intensifying what could otherwise be considered MOR. As the tonality finds its stride, Polly Jean romances the music with an impassioned magnetism that grows slowly until the song gently fades to completion.

As much as I can admit that I’ve heard objectively better albums this year, none of them have felt as alive as A Woman A Man Walked By, the second collaboration between Parish and Harvey since 1996’s Dance Hall At Louise Point. Flawed? Perhaps. Unfocused? Sure, but that’s the nature of this album, its experimental and unpolished construct lifeblood for Polly Jean’s interchangeable persona. And, likewise for Parish, whose music grows electrifying once her words find melody.

As 2007’s White Chalk opened up opportunity for the little-girl-lost Polly Jean to expand as a songwriter, having learned piano because… well, that’s what she wanted to do, A Woman A Man Walked By takes some of the pressure off her thin shoulders, content her main preoccupation and singing her task. Parish’s songwriting ambitions get the best of him, but to no extent so out of hand that Polly Jean can’t oblige.

Led Zeppelin’s “Battle Of Evermore” possibly its inspiration, “Sixteen, Fifteen, Fourteen” has Polly Jean bellowing over a folk-ish walls of acoustic strings, an eerie round of hide-n-seek in play as reverberating Link Wray chords slice through the backdrop. Schizophrenically layered chants of “There is no laughter in the garden” follow Polly Jean’s throaty vocal.

Video for “Black Hearted Love”

The often ghostly and nervous aspects of the album seem its common denominator, Polly Jean’s emotion still firmly tied to White Chalk’s wonder and sadness, (something she revisits waltz-like with “Leaving California” and with folk dirge “The Soldier”), but her maturity and world-weary voice unwavering in its observations. The most remarkable two minutes, thirty seconds of the album is the hyper-odd “The Chair,” its near techno percussion a rush of clatter amidst echoing piano chords. Polly Jean lengthily undulates over the song’s erratic backdrop, interludes of graceful swells momentarily breaking the cycle. Organ strangler “April” follows as Polly Jean chokes her best Billie Holiday, a hesitant delivery that strikes full blast for a moment of emotional realization. The pairing of “ghostly” and “nervous” is perfectly exemplified in the coupling of these two songs, almost medley-like in their song-to-song transition, somehow feeling like a continued thought.

But, as Polly Jean’s flair for the dramatic captivates, the abrupt inclusions of “A Woman A Man Walked By” and “Pig Will Not” grab your attention by the “chicken liver balls,” the latter more of an abrasive indie rock variation on Steve Albini’s recording treatment of 1993’s Rid Of Me. Her trucker tongue laced with vitriol and salt water, “A Woman A Man Walked By” is notable if for nothing other than PJ’s spewed reiterations of “I WANT HIS FUCKING ASS!” though its transition into instrumental “The Crow Knows Where All The Little Children Go” softens the blow. “Pig Will Not” carries screeching PJ into an almost Arabic tom-frenzy, the chaos mostly disappearing underneath a lonely piano number for the song’s last twenty-something seconds.

“Passionless, Pointless” slips a little bit, acting as the album’s most formulaic composition. Or, acting as the album’s Radiohead moment.

Polly Jean closes out the album whispering over church processional “Cracks In The Canvas,” mortality being its final theme. As PJ Harvey’s iconic presence still draws interest and possibly skepticism from more of the critical base, A Woman A Man Walked By stands as confirmation of where she’s been and where she may go. With Parish having been there for most of her career, it only makes sense that he’d know how to take her.

PJ Harvey’s final lines say the most:

”Cracks in the canvas/
Look like roads/
That never end

Letters From A Tapehead

No Ripcord: Tropical Fuck Storm

Tropical Fuck Storm A Laughing Death in Meatspace Joyful Noise Recordings Released:  10.26.18 No Ripcord review. Sincere...