Filtering by Tag: record reviews

Cabildo Quarterly online: Album Review: "Hold," by Highness



I’ve never thought of Eric Richter—he of Christie Front Drive, Antarctica, the 101 and Golden City – as a dude concerned with chops, or fidelity. It sounds like a knock, but it’s not: in the case of Christie Front Drive, easily my favorite mid/late-nineties emo band, the rudimentary…

Monday record review 6/11/2012: "Summer of Indifference" by Black Wine

Tour has its own relativity, akin to moving airport walkways. A set of guidelines which are at first unnatural become the norm, then comforting before rudely coming to a halt with that step off. On that moving walkway, you move twice as quickly as just walking, despite pulling luggage behind you. Everyone else becomes a slowpoke, trapped by their own unremarkable locomotion. Then that step where twice as fast becomes unremarkable locomotion, accentuating the previous speed, and the return to normal (whether or not you put quotes around normal).

The luggage is the car, the van, the rituals of obfuscating what seems an obvious target, with out of state plates, dead bugs no amount of gas station squeegeeing can remove from the windsheld, stickers and dashboard tchotchkes and crumpled foodbags up front. The awkward first conversation, the bonding that comes with performing, having performed. Finding a place for the sleeping bag / air mattress. Breakfast. Maybe a drive-through of the town. Then it’s off to the next place.

Until it’s over.

The mundane made even more mundane by the whole experience: whereas mere days before it was the atlas, the GPS, old friends and new ones, it’s suddenly a bunch of bullshit which doesn’t seem at all important: the smell of something funky and forgotten in the fridge, the water heater conking out pre-shower, going to the dentist for that semi-annual.

Ocean’s Skin

Black Wine understands all this. Because of the nineties—because of grunge, maybe, the invented genre to provide an explanation for a bunch of disparate bands suddenly succeeding in spite of the record industry, and said industry being like ‘oh yeah, we knew that’ even though they fucking didn’t know that—the word “indifference” has been become pejorative. So, if taken the wrong way, especially before an actual listen, Black Wine might come across as a bunch of slackers. These guys and gal, though, are anything but. These cats work. In a world of viralty and quick hits and decreased attention spans, they play shows, record, and tour, slogging it out. The titular indifference isn’t slack or ennui. It’s indifference to everything but their focus, the music and tour cycle, the mundane and humdrum day-to-day-in-one-place stuff being shed in favor of a completely different set of problems and solutions and rituals. Everything is accelerated, then it’s over. It’s hard to get out bed when it’s finished. The smell of strangers is everywhere when bands stay at the house after tour ends. It’s a reminder—like they need one—of the time when priorities shift away from the bullshit, back to the real.

Spit to See the Shame

The band is off soon in support of their forthcoming record. They’ll play all over the country (with Brick Mower, no slouches themselves) and have a great time and meet people and live the life accelerated by introductions and departures and probably not garner the notice they continue to earn with each release and show because, as the album begins, what you get and what you deserve: they are not the same. But what you get is anything but mundane.

(My buddy Mike Faloon kept a 10-day journal of listening to this record, which rules over this lame crap and can be found here)

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Monday record review 5/7/2012: "Paul's Boutique," by Beastie Boys

Is there a name for that phenomenon when a celebrity dies, and repeated instances of tribute oversaturate and threaten to desensitize? If so, there needs to be a term for more tribute in spite of the glut—by the time you read this, Monday (or after), I’m sure you will have read as many MCA tributes as you’d like. I know this. But regardless:

There’s this parlor game that my friends and I have played for years: which celebrity, when s/he dies, would cause people to spill out onto the street, weeping? It’s harder than you think. Like we didn’t get Michael Jackson.
MCA—and the Beastie Boys—are so engrained in the psyches of everyone of a certain wide-sweeping age that his contributions are barely even noticed, so fundamental are they. The Beastie Boys were always impressive to me because not only did they have depth of reference—the Bad Brains AND the Ramones were sampled into their music with a winking cool, like “if you get the joke you’re okay with us”—but breadth, too. They paid attention to pop culture so widely that their references transcended genre and social groups equally. Go out, be curious, and dig what you dig, they seemed to be saying. It’s cool. It’s all cool.

With that said, I didn’t get Paul’s Boutique at all when it was released. It didn’t sound anything like Licensed to Ill. It was in 1993, after Check Your Head came out, that I got into it. My buddy John played the record every day of our summer camp employ at Wah-Tut-Ca, it seemed, so I learned the album through his gesticulations and pantomimes of the songs.

Paul’s Boutique (Full Album)

Of course, I didn’t get the record fully then. I probably still don’t now, to be honest. Almost twenty years ago, when I first dove in, I was too punk to acknowledge that there had been a band called the Beatles, much less that they were, and are, the best band of all time. So “The Sounds of Science” went right over my head. It was only years later that I caught the references. Public Enemy? Got it. But Trouble Funk? Curtis Mayfield? Funkadelic? I found all of ‘em years apart. They recontextualized the album, again and again. I’m sure that there’s still tons that I’m missing, that scholars haven’t been able to find or decipher yet. Like the Beastie Boys themselves, Paul’s Boutique was, and is, the Rosetta Stone of effortless cool.

The thought of the Beastie Boys not happening any more is unfathomable to me. I went out onto the street myself Friday in tribute. That was part of the magic: their music, with its references, is deeply personal, yet uniting. It’s this duality which makes Paul’s Boutique so rewarding: it’s a party record with depth, always rewarding because of its sonic and referential density. I can’t imagine that there will ever be a band able to simultaneously connect and transcend ever again.

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Monday record review 4/9/2012: "Rio," by Duran Duran

That Duran Duran was my first favorite band makes sense: their emergence coincided with MTV’s. But it wasn’t just that channel: there was a local station which played nothing but music videos, and another local station which had a video show for an hour a day. Music video, for a time, was unescapable. It’s been well-documented and well-argued elsewhere that no band benefited so thoroughly from music’s shift to a visual medium as immediately as Duran Duran did (just as it’s been argued—though I can’t remember by whom, specifically— that the same shift was responsible for Christopher Cross’s untimely musical demise: he made more sense, unfortunately, as the faceless mastermind behind a flamingoed album cover than he did on television playing his music). MTV was The New Thing when I was eight and nine, and Duran Duran’s sensibilities were perfect for that age: quasi-plotless Indiana Jones-tinged adventures in exotic locales. I was a bit too young for the exotic women in the videos, but I understood that they held an appeal I wasn’t yet privy to.

Of course, I got a bunch of shit for loudly proclaiming them my favorite band to anyone who’d listen. Their ubiquity in girly pop mags like Tiger Beat didn’t help things any. Nor did their New Romantic style: ruffles will never be in, no matter what anyone says. But I soldiered gamely on, through lineup changes and side projects, until I declared Van Halen my favorite band in the eighties in an attempt to ward off predatory bullies in a new school (and this was Van Hagar—I was better off, in retrospect, with ol’ DD). Then punk found me, and it was the Sex Pistols and Dead Kennedys and all the rest.

Hold Back the Rain

I think, now, that Duran Duran are unfairly pinned to their singles. The videos remind people of a certain age of a certain time—that era of video ubiquity—and people of other ages of what they think the era was like. I have no idea what 1982 was like in the clubs so maybe things were all New Romantic. I bet, though, that New Romanticism is kinda like Electroclash: a genre that reflexively generated more buzz than substance, with caches of pre-Facebook photographs stuffed neatly under rugs, never to be seen again except ironically. What I’m saying here is that there’s a case to be made that “Rio” and “Hungry Like the Wolf” are pure kitsch. Which is a shame, because the album which spawned those tracks remains one of my favorites.

Listening to so many records causes callouses to grow, though sometimes not on the sentimental center of the brain. It’s always a drag when revisiting old stuff that meant a lot and finding it doesn’t hold up. One of the first records I ever owned, the J. Geils Band’s Freeze-Frame, is a perfect example, and one that works well in the context of this specific argument: like Duran Duran, their videos fueled their ubiquity, and point to a very specific mini-epoch for both people who were there and weren’t. Unfortunately, Freeze-Frame doesn’t hold up as an album. It sucks to realize that the only reason I was so smitten with the band was because I had listened to maybe five records to that point, but that’s the brutal reality of time passing.

Beyond Duran Duran being heartthrobs and having amazing videos, their early music manages to effectively meld synth, rock, and disco. Roger Taylor’s drum throne is planted squarely in hi-hat city throughout Rio, sizzling beats as John Taylor flexes his bass throughout. Nowhere on the album is this demonstrated as amazingly as in My Own Way, where his bass runs astound. They’re maybe a bit show-offy, but what makes them work is the fact that everyone is trying to be heard on the record (except maybe for Roger, who, hi-hat aside, always struck me as the most workmanlike member of the band—he was foundational, not flashy). Nick Rhodes harnessed the potential of his synth and keyboards in such a way as to circumvent the inherent tackiness of their potential: his parts, to this day, don’t sound as dated as other bands reliant on the instrument (Depeche Mode, I’m looking at you). Andy Taylor, on guitar, always had a knack for big, glam / arena riffage, opening up the undercarriage for nuance and subtlety, hollering without bogarting. And singer Simon LeBon, of course, always sounded good, the cocksure safari captain, somehow simultaneously macho and sensitive.

My Own Way

It’s not all just about pulsing disco beats and danceable bombast, as it is in “My Own Way” and “Hold Back the Rain.” Singles aside, there’s the slow-dance element of Rio, which manifests in synth balladry like “Lonely In Your Nightmare,” “Save a Prayer” (the one song on the record I think is heavy-handed and clunky, requisite shimmering video aside) and especially “The Chauffeur,” a song as impenetrable now as it was thirty (jeez—thirty!) years ago, with its vague lyrics and anthemically melancholy keys line (to say nothing of the odd background “found” studio noises, later prominently reprised by, among others, Talk Talk and Rodan).

Because of all the associations—the radio / video hits, the reprehensible fashion choices, the eighties in general—I understand that listening to “Rio” objectively can be very difficult. It’s the album, aside from the aforementioned J. Geils slab, that I’ve owned the longest. It’s the one I’ve kept returning to. Recent remasterings have brought John’s lines to the fore—the man rivals only Mike Watt on my list of preferred bassists—and have added a depth grounded in hindsight to Nick’s keys. Seriously, get over the associations—most of ‘em are probably bogus anyway. The album stands as a monument to an era: one not of pirate shirts and blow, but of the level playing field of punk / post=punk allowing bands to take—and, in this case, succeed in—chances.

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Monday record review 4/2/2012: "Inflammable Material" by Stiff Little Fingers

Here’s the thing: I kinda like Hot Topic. In theory, anyway: jeez, if that place had been around when I was in high school, setting myself apart from the real and imagined aggressors in the hallways would have been so much easier. I would have had more time to go out and smash the state or whatever, though at that tender age “smashing the state” probably meant reading a book in a coffeehouse or hoping cops would notice my attempts to ollie curbs so I could proclaim, loudly, that I had been a victim of skate harassment.

But the cops didn’t care was the thing: I’m sure I was so bumbling in my attempts to grind they assumed—correctly—that I was harmless, if they noticed me at all. But the noticing is a key component of the formative days, whether we’re talking pre- or post-Hot Topic. No matter the era, the initial self-awareness yields some sort of reaction, an anti-matter which pushes away from what’s established and into the unknown. More than becoming a part of something, it’s a separation from the established order of things, definition by negation.

The ‘Topic is an early stage of that nowadays. So is nu-metal, so is hip hop, so is Skrillex, etc. It’s easy to get a reaction if that’s all that you’re looking for. But after a point, there’s taking things to the next step, using the initial shock as a springboard.

Alternative Ulster

The whole “punk is dead” argument comes into play more regarding the genre’s origins than the fashion and subculture it spawned. There’s a legitimate case to be made in saying that punk died around 1979, once the first wave started to dry up, break up, or move away from the initial narrow limitations. Not to say I believe any of this stuff, but I get it, and understand when first-wavers try to drive nails into that particular coffin. It happens all over music—there’s the school that says hardcore died in 1984/85, for example. Again, I get it, even if I’m not buying it.

What I am buying is the Stiff Little Fingers. They’re a recent discovery, spawned by pre-internet memories of skate magazines merging with a series of videos by ‘80s pro Jeff Grosso. Back then (and now) Thrasher was the edgy one, what with its great punk and hip-hop coverage. The skaters themselves, though, seemed like they’d make fun of me for not being _________ enough.Transworld was slicker, and accordingly the skaters therein seemed more approachable. After a time, Grosso was featured in both—he had something going on, in other words. I recently stumbled across a series of videos he’s doing, which made me think back to the interviews he did. I remember him talking about Stiff Little Fingers—after all these years!—and tracked ‘em down.

Grosso was right.

Certainly the punk “era” was rife with reasons for railing against the establishment—the socioeconomics on both sides of the pond, certainly, yielded plenty of strife—but a lot of said railing reverted to nothing but pose and aping by within a few years, part and parcel of something small becoming a movement (seriously, teenagers complaining about Reagan’s bad policies? C’mon, dudes!).

Suspect Device

Here in 2012, it’s easy to hear a barely restrained fury in Inflammable Material—the incendiary goings-on in and around Belfast drive the album, still bleeding urgency after all this time. The band’s politics are in no way kneejerk or aware of the “punk” genre—they’re responding to a time and a place in the most honest way possible in songs like “Suspect Device” and “Alternative Ulster.” This is protest music, plain and simple, speaking to the disaffected in a snarl that sounds like common parlance. But there’s joy in there, too—the sudden and unexpected means, perhaps, of self-expression coming together. The raw anger is certainly identifiable in terms of genre, as are some of the tropes—there’s reggae in here à la the Clash, for example, the influence of rockabilly, in-your-face song titles like “I Don’t Like You.”

What’s surprising is how fresh and influential much of this sounds, despite the band’s relative under-the-radar status. It’s easy to hear echoes of Crass in singer Jake Burns’ raspy croak—as well as the hoarse delivery of Frankie Stubbs of Leatherface, commonly thought of as the vocal ground zero for the seemingly endless stable of gruff melodic bands in and around Gainesville, FL. There’s Proletariat in their drums, and more syncopated stop-starts in “Suspect Device” than in any of the other early bands’ stuff. The initial wave becomes the foundation on which the band built their particular take on the time and place, using their unique vision to craft a document that acknowledges the recent past but builds on it, as well.

It’s a neat trick, sounding both familiar and fresh in the context of the day’s heavy hitters, but the Stiff Little Fingers pull it off admirably (both here and in their follow-up “Nobody’s Heroes,” the song Grosso, in his ages-old interview, used to reflect on his skating fame). Despite punk’s protestations, there’s a canon, and these cats deserve to be in it.

—Mike F.

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Monday record review 3/26/2012: Sun Kil Moon, "Ghosts of the Great Highway."

Mark Kozelek can be maddening. In his various iterations—acoustic, electric, Red House Painters, solo—there are degrees of transcendence which clash and intersect at odd angles with his whims. There’s humor and whimsy and virtuosic playing, but getting there often involves getting through. Many songs in the man’s oeuvre could stand an editor: as good as the riffs are, the sentiments, the last three minutes don’t always add to the conversation. Usually, anyway. When the listener’s mood syncs up with the music’s tone, the mopery can be glorious, the indulgence shifting in self from songwriter to fan. Other times, you might want to be able to listen to one of the recs with another human being in the room. Seemingly ironic covers are delivered deadpan; whole albums of same (like the Modest Mouse cover record) make you wonder if the joke is on you for buying.

After “disbanding” Red House Painters following Old Ramon, Kozelek started Sun Kil Moon. Their debut, Ghosts of the Great Highway is a focused display of musicianship and songwriting which ranks with the man’s best.

Glenn Tipton

The album starts with “Glenn Tipton,” which showcases both Kozelek’s pop chops and his quirky sense of humor (“some like Jim Nabors / some like Bobby Vinton / I like ‘em both”). As is often the case, though, there’s more than what lies on the surface: after ruminating, charmingly, on family and neighborhood, the narrative—which, as listeners, we’re predisposed to think is Kozelek—shifts tone, even as his voice remains steady, revealing the exploits of a serial killer (“I buried my first victim when I was nineteen / went through her bedroom and the pockets of her jeans / and found her letters that said so many things / that really hurt me bad”). It’s a neat trick, gaining our sympathy as listeners before upending our expectations, forcing us to deal with a humanized narrator who turns out to be unworthy of any sympathy.

“Salvador Sanchez,” a song about a Mexican boxer, treads on guitar territory familiar to Red House Painters enthusiasts, reprising some of the sloppy neo-Ginn skronk so prominent in Made Like Paper, RHP’s 1996 album. The guitar solo on that song, five minutes long, apocryphally got RHP kicked off of 4AD. But here, single sloppy notes are stretched to maximum clanging and squalling effect, simulating the haze of combat.

Salvador Sanchez

So yeah. It’s tough to be a fan, but when albums like this come along, the odd notes of the overlong / overthought records are forgotten–the tough albums, in other words, become a nifty analogue for Kozelek’s career. Calculated or not, the meanderings and missteps often prove interesting, especially within the context of the man’s career. But with that said, Ghosts should appeal to all, whether vinyl-hoarding fans or occasional spectators.

—Mike F.

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Monday record review 3/12/2012: Unsane, "Visqueen"

1. In a Las Vegas dive bar on Friday night, Noah and I talked to this guy wearing a Mason hat. I told the guy about my one experience with the group: Rebecca and I went to an open house, and the guy giving the tour wouldn’t look me in the eye when we shook hands.

“You didn’t go back?”

“No,” I told the guy wearing the hat.

“So you quit.”

2. After years of hearing about the man’s work, I finally made my way through some of Cormac McCarthy’s stuff last year. Notice I didn’t say “read.” That’s not the right verb. It’s not light, or, often, pleasurable. It’s a slog. Completely dispelling all ideas of myth, all thoughts and glamour by rubbing the reader’s face in a ridiculous, unsentimental body count, the codified Hollywood system of badges, and white & black horses. There’s a convincing argument to be made that, like Kenneth Patchen’s Journal of Albion Moonlight, the rough ride is inherent: if you want to live what it was like, no easy read will suffice.

Last Man Standing

3. I was so smitten with Unsane’s debut LP—one of Matador’s first handful of releases—that I hung a picture of the band in my high school locker. It wasn’t until after I graduated that I got a chance to see them, except I didn’t: the Middle East had changed their age policy from 19+ to 21+. So, despite driving down to Boston from New Hampshire, I didn’t get a chance to see Unsane play (Terry G went around the corner to TT’s, intent on seeing a show if it killed us, and caught an insane Engine Kid / Crain / Grifters / Codeine show instead). The band, miraculously, was parked in front of the club, so we went to talk to them, kinda hoping they’d invite us in. But they didn’t offer, and we didn’t ask.

4. For years, the production on Unsane albums was—what? Not lo-fi, exactly, but muted in such a way that their sound made sense. Like being covered with a blanket in the back of a car trunk being taken down a bumpy backroad. Vocals were—and are—hoarse but articulate, distant, high-pitched over the band’s no-frills riff din. So the expansion of the sound on Visiqueen, the band’s 2007 album, was a bit surprising. After all, their overall aesthetic hadn’t changed since my high school days. Their b-movie gore branded them visually, and the music fit right in with the look.

But better production values help the band. There’s more space to hear everything that’s happening. Vocally, Chris Spencer is still as pissed off and hoarse as he’s ever been, but his lyrics are more discernible throughout. Everything’s a bit crisper, but still sludgy and chunky.

Against the Grain

5. I didn’t check in with Unsane for years, so, in catching up on their back catalogue, I was surprised to hear slide guitar and harmonica in their work. But, like the enhanced production, it made sense: the band has been doing their thing, visually and musically, for a long time. They’re not interested in jumping trends or kowtowing in any way. The addition of odd, seemingly non-brutal instrumentation is both a “fuck you” to fans who think they have the band pigeonholed, and an extension of their aesthetic: they sing about the miseries of everyday life in the city—heavy a la the best stuff on AmRep, toe to toe with their ‘90s pigfuck peers. What is this kind of music if not an irksome howl? It’s no stretch to call this stuff, with its occasional Western swing, the blues.

6. I buy way too many tee-shirts. Ask my wife: my dresser drawers bulge under the weight of all these shirts I don’t have the days to wear. But even though Unsane’s designs should be right in my wheelhouse—black, sparse—I won’t wear a lot of their designs. Like their new one, in the ubiquitous album release bundle: a meat cleaver. Can I wear a shirt with a cleaver that says Unsane above it? I’m not sure I can pull it off. The Masonic one, though, definitely.

—Mike F.

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Monday record review 3/5/2012: 1.6 Band's self-titled LP

The most intense part of any moving day is inevitably couch-related: this familiar object, one whose multiple functions revolve almost solely around relaxation, becomes a monument to futility as its arms and feet transform into hindrances as a bunch of poor, exhausted saps try in vain to stuff the damn thing up (at least) one flight of stairs, muscles straining under both weight and unnatural angles. Then the process is forgotten until the next move. But afterwards, the requisite pizza and beer are awesome because the calories have been earned lugging and hefting and haggling and positioning—carbs be damned!

Legacies are like that: ultimately rewarding, but heavy, and largely divorced from process. Rather than concentrating on the process, how the current destination was reached, there’s a tendency to sit still, ignoring the twists and turns inherent in any stylistic trajectory.

1.6 Band doesn’t have a huge legacy—this LP, a few singles (including the excellent “The Checkered Past of All Things Present,” released in tandem with some recent shows [all of which I missed, dammit!]) —but what they left is indicative of this love of process and positioning. The music they play is instantly identifiable as hardcore punk, but that identification carries with it some stagnant signifiers: it’s a genre largely more interested in the post-move relaxation than getting the couch up the stairs. The tropes can be heavy and obvious.

Adult Hitler

What 1.6 Band does on their lone LP is take the hardcore signifiers and twist them in such a manner than their music, though familiar, becomes entirely their own. The most “traditional” member of the band is Kevin Egan, whose shouts throughout are strong and sustained. His lyrics, though, are much more sparse / way less didactic than the average Youth. Crew offering, leaving listeners enough space to plug in their own concerns over the provided framework. It’s impossible to discern what he’s talking about, specifically, when he sings, in “Plastic Bags” “who planted the seed? / inside my brain? / It’s gonna take a lifetime / I didn’t have to feel all this pain,” but that’s the point—specificity dictates, and dictation dates. Egan’s lyrics, because of their open-endedness, manage to evolve over time, maintaining relevance through their open-endedness.

There’s a subsect of folks who don’t listen to heavy music for the lyrics, granted. Luckily, everyone in the band is great musically. There isn’t a simple way to explain the band’s music because there’s no one blueprint that they follow. Guitarist Mike Yanicelli often leads with atonal stutters and bends, hiccups full of purposefully placed wrong notes, shrill harmonics. On “Threads,” his quick three-note progression sounds almost metal in delivery before yielding to a more traditional power-chord chorus before the bridge slows and groans under its own weight. Meanwhile, virtuoso drummer Vin Novara (who later played with some ex-Hoover dudes in the underappreciated Crownhate Ruin) puts on a clinic of 32nd notes, fills and rolls which expertly spackle the space left by bass player Lance Jaeger, whose gymnastic playing sometimes drives the song forward and sometimes adds color. Again, there’s no set pattern: at the onset, “Keeping Me From Killing You” is Jaeger’s bass’s show, just as “Threads” was Yanicelli’s. But songs like these, in which one guy seems to be driving, there are shifts—no bogarts here!—and spaces for argument.

The songs are largely in four or eight, but are sufficiently mathy to tilt heads in the pit and, after a few listens, induce new rhythms. In other words, the 1.6 Band wants listeners to be aware of the twists and turns in their heaviness before settling into them. In other words, get ready to do some work before you eat your pizza.

—Mike F.

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Monday record review 2/27/2012: "Four Cornered Night" by Jets to Brazil

Punk dropped. Like fell, from a plane screaming overhead, and when it detonated, the mushroom cloud of sneering attitude blocked out the sun and all its light. Sometimes this was beneficial—the symbolic destruction of everything that came beforehand allowed for a plain, flat playing field, at least for the first little while—but after a point the ground-zero dismissal of everything before D-Day (wherever you place it; whichever side of the argument / ocean you’re on) is just plain ignorant.

I was guilty of it for a time; other people in “the scene” were, too. It’s all part of the process, the rebellion against the foundations and rudiments which gain value upon returning to them.

So maybe, kids of yore, it’s time to return to Jets to Brazil’s Four Cornered Night, a record unfairly maligned by obsessives and fan-boys / gals for not sounding like __________: like singer Blake Schwartzenbach’s late lamented trio Jawbreaker, like the debut JTB rec Orange Rhyming Dictionary.

More than anything in the Schwartzenbach catalogue / canon, the record is maligned for what it’s not, rather than discussed because of what it is. This is due based in large part in his shift from guitar to keys. Lyrically, the same smart, clever ‘tude steeped in nostalgia is apparent throughout. “In the Summer, You Really Know” is indicative of this non/change: balladry masquerading as emo (or is it the other way around), with heartstring-tugging lyrics and gentle arrangements building to a sensitive crescendo. Had the song been guitar-based, it would’ve appeared as the last track of hundreds, if not thousands, of mix tapes.

Pale New Dawn

If the album can be said to suffer, it’s because of its sequencing: the aforementioned “In the Summer” bleeds into the tame, quiet “Empty Picture Frame,” glutting up and bogging down what’s otherwise an up-tempo record. But “Little Light” quickly sets the record straight, with its rimshot beat and pleasant melody—initially, anyway, it feels like a Mentos commercial before the chorus, which is not so heavy as much as it is arranged.

This is the real reason for the shift—and the real reason why “4CN” initially went over so many heads. With the possible exception of “Dear You,” which was more of an overdub record than one concerned with arrangement; Four Cornered Night was, up to that point, the most complex display of Blake Schwartzenbach’s songwriting chops. In the past (and even recently, with Thorns of Life and Forgetters), the loud-soft bombast was a common trope of Jawbreaker / Jets songs—a good trick, one Blake made work countless times. The added emphasis on piano—and on guitar in the background—caused a shift of both songwriting and production style.

Little Light

J. Robbins was, and is, an excellent producer, up to the task of using the studio as an instrument (what was the name of that band that did that? You know, before Year Zero? What were they called again? I can’t remember, man). Take “Pale New Dawn” as an example: sure, there’s bombast in the back, during the chorus, but in previous incarnations—“rock band” instead of “songwriter,” say—there would have been nothing but. Nor would the bass during the bridge be so prominent: they give you a food stamp for the air-sucking wound in your chest. Nor strings after that part, before the emphasis shifts back to the guitar before the outro, where backing vocals are added to the song’s weird drawly Dylan rip (pre-Year Zero, sorry).

This isn’t the only song on the album which does this—far from it—but it’s the most egregious, the one which teaches you, three tracks in, how to listen to the rest of the record. So get (back) to it: dig the bleed of “Mid-Day Anonymous” into the creepy chorused “*******,” the call-and-response of “Milk and Apples.” It’s the same stuff you loved before, just, you know, different. Especially now that you’re allowed to get around that Year Zero bullshit and admit that the Beatles existed

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Monday record review 2/20/2012: "Moustache Eye Patch" by Great Western Plain

It used to be that part of the apprenticeship process—whether it was writing, painting, or playing music—was plain aping: finding something you liked, then trying, often vainly, to reproduce it as accurately as possible. Ninety-nine percent of what emerged, of course, was complete shit—that’s why they call it process—and then on to the next influence.

There are several artists that have gone a great way towards ruining this practice: Bukowski and Pavement spring immediately to mind. There’s plenty to ape in both cases, but what gets lost is the discipline. It sounds odd, I know, but bear with me: Bukowski was a guy who got bombed every night, who blacked out and cranked through fifteen poems he wouldn’t remember writing the next morning every day for forty years. The ones that we read are a tiny slice of what he produced: of the crap he produced, to play percentages / be brutally honest. And Pavement made legions of notebook-slinging, Pynchon-reading kids think that it was easy to fart out nonsequitors genius in their disjointedness, missing the point that the band worked hard throughout. Look to Gary Young’s dismissal, if nothing else: if they were really as slack as the press spun ‘em, they would not have kicked out a guy who lived in a tree and did acid every day for a goddamn year, dig? The problem was that the imitators, in both cases, swiped the poses without reflecting on the process or substance.


I know the members of Great Western Plain. They understand it ain’t worth a hill of beans if there’s no substance underneath. That’s why they have intensely studied the idioms which inform their own listening choices, managing to capture the golden one percent the apprenticeship process begets as their tastes and interests shift. They work, dammit, pounding away at ideas as they come without worrying about a “core audience” or an image or a brand or how to most effectively utilize their Twitter feed /Facebook / whatever to harness the most listeners or any of that non-music bullshit that music has devolved into. And as much as the Internet has made the way we listen to and record music more immediate, the band simply cannot keep up with its steady string of evolving ideas. By the time you see them live, they’re likely to be playing a new batch of stuff. Hüsker Dü was famous for this sort of incessant progression in the ‘80s; so wasBlack Flag. Great Western Plain’s perpetual musical curiosity and intense vetting process make their live sets exciting: get familiar with a record and you can hear what comes next right away. For Great Western Plain, the future is now.

Moustache Eye Patch, their sophomore effort, picks up where 2011’s Noise left off. “Intricate Textures,” the album’s debut track (and first single), acts as a harbinger of what’s to come: a blast of feedback-drenched distorto drone followed by acoustic strumming. Throughout the album, the band walks easily between both extremes, seamlessly mixing and matching bits and pieces from their ever-increasing quiver of tricks with ease. “A Guthrie Tune” would’ve been at home with the best of melodic indie rock circa: mid-‘90s—think Superchunk, Versus, Helium—with rhythmic propulsion driving pure infectious pop chords. “Greenwich” finds the band pushing boundaries, with bassist Mike Powers affecting a drawl over a heavy pop that fragments and rearranges itself into a more jagged and discordant dialect, à la Thinking Fellers Union Local 282 or Polvo. Powers is also at the helm for “Photosynthesis,” in which the band’s patois shifts heavily to Massachusetts as chords dissolve into shards that would make Mission of Burma proud, and his drawl shifts to a Mascisian slur.

Elian Gonzalez

Great Western Plain is just as adept at rumination as they are at pogoing. “Three Four,” with guitarist Tim Berrigan on vocal duties, takes a wistful, mournful verse and drenches it in echo and treble before erupting into sheets of feedback so adroit at amplifying both—the wist and the mourn—that the song becomes a puzzle whose unraveling happily bears repeated listens. All the while, Tony Bitetti drums away with power and precision, riding what sounds to be about eight cymbals with as many arms. He’s no slouch at vocals, either: on “Elian Gonzalez” he croons an ode to the onetime Cuban child refugee as he generals the band through an offtime bridge with characteristic ease.

Of course, the band, despite the release of Moustache Eye Patch, is already beyond the album musically. That doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t check it out, though. Quite the contrary: Great Western Plain’s blueprint of their immediate past becomes a document of how far and fast they travel from record to record—sometimes from show to show. Their ceaseless apprenticeships at a variety of musical altars, musical chops and willingness to take chances in the name of self-betterment, all with a sense of humor, make them a crucial act, both live and on record. My favorite album of 2012 thus far.

—Mike F.

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Monday record review 2/13/12: "First Four EPs," by Off!

I got home last night at five—less than 48 hours after leaving for New York—and was stunned to see the detritus of my trip planning scattered around the office: book boxes open, drawers, spindles of CDs yet to be burned. It wasn’t the mess that surprised me as much as what comprised it: again, less than two days before I had been prepping for my trip by packing my courier bag full of stuff. And I was back to see the remnants of my post-work haste scattered about as I had left them.

It seemed much longer than two days was the thing.

Sure, I had only spent two nights away, on a couch in a Greenpoint loft which offered an amazing view of the city and a cache of fanzines, of both the paper and VHS varieties. But the relatively glacial pace of the pastoral blurs the time and the perception of it. In the two days, the frantic race to see everyone and do everything taxed me with its pace. Okay: gotta hit all these spots, visit x number of people—and not just hey how’s it going, but like spend quality time—and get from place to place with a minimum of fuss and /or getting lost. Which I feel, largely, was a success, even though a) I completely understand why everyone in the city had an iPhone now—to maximize effectiveness / minimize inefficiency, because efficiency and effectiveness are the dual nature of the beast, even if there’s no art or project of any kind at stake, no career-minded networking, active or passive, and b) the perpetual juggling of priorities and engagements is enormously taxing and takes up a great deal of energy and headspace, despite the fact that everyone around shrugged when I mentioned it and was like “well, that’s how it is.” There was an innate sense of pace, of timing, from my friends in town: a thorough investment with an immediacy dictated by the demands of the calendar: we’ve got two hours, so step on the goddamn gas, man, and fast! There’s ground to be covered before the next engagement!

It’s an immediacy I appreciate, but one that takes a bit of time getting used to.

Which is why I’ve been listening to Off! since my return home.

Panick Attack

Scene fans rejoiced when the band started playing: Keith Morris—Black Flag’s original singer, the frontman of the Circle Jerks—has never had time for bullshit or idiocy. The form—raw, stripped of all pretense and fat—has always been a perfect vehicle for his bilious attacks. And his musical compatriots, no slouches themselves, have only been too happy to provide a musical background for the man’s aggressions. Off!’s stuff has been released incrementally on 7”, the perfect medium for such bombast. The perfection of the medium is emphasized by the collected work, which doesn’t sound like it’s going to be much—under a half-hour—but is: In the same way that my two days were so packed that it feels like I’ve been away for longer, the honesty and anger that shines so intensely in each of the band’s songs, when listened to as a lump sum, makes the appreciation of the band the more remarkable. In addition to feeling all this, and recording all this, Off!, live plays all this, night after night. They sustain their incredibly potent and direct attack, without devices or effects to aid them: incredibly honest, forceful and in-your-face, a rewarding but exhausting experience that feels much longer than it is in the best way possible because so much is packed into so little time. Morris has been at it for longer than many of his fans have been alive, and remains one a touchstone of how it’s done. He sure as hell doesn’t need an iPhone, that’s for sure.

—Mike F.

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Monday record review 2/6/2012: Rudimentary Peni, "Death Church" (1983)

Rudimentary Peni: “Death Church” (1983)

The irony of appreciating crust punk academically is not lost on me. Here, after all, are a bunch of bands striving to smash the state and put the power back in the hands of the people, minus an overarching system…. and the cycle of criticism which we use to comment on and critique their work is that system they’re railing against. But honestly, the example set by Crass, the most significant of those bands, resonates through punk, whether or not you agree with their politics or even like their music. There’s a direct line to be traced from Crass’s ideology—do-it-yourselfers to the extent that they lived in a commune and grew their own food, f’r chrissake—and Fugazi’s, meaning that any number of acolyte post-punks, with their low door prices, benefit shows, and anti-big business record / CD prices, have made the stances and attitudes their own. It’s funny to think that some of those bands did so only because it was hip or trendy or whatever—the blind belief in any system, even one with such good intentions, was and is anathema to the original notion.

Not that, you know, I spend a lot of time listening to Crass. Again, my appreciation for them was, and largely is, academic: those records are hard to listen to. Which I suppose is part of the point: their album Yes Sir, I Will., for example, is a deeply rewarding listen—a concept record expressing their outrage at the way Margaret Thatcher handled the Falkland Islands in the ‘80s. There would be little point in putting out an anti-war record which was easy to listen to. Like Kenneth Patchen’s Journal of Albion Moonlight, the record is both a commentary on the atrocities of a war and a dare: you’re not anti-war? Get through this simulation of one. It extends beyond the war-related specifics to the work at large: Wanna be part of an alternate system? It’s going to be way harder to deal with than what you’re used to, as evidenced by our _________.

So with all this said about the genre and its form-as-function applications, it’s nice to have recently stumbled across Rudimentary Peni, a band whose feet are solidly in the same political ring as Crass and the rest, but whose music manages to transcend some of the arena’s staid musical conventions.

¼ Dead

Sure, a lot of Death Church is ugly—again with form following function—but in addition to the standard sheets of metal-on-metal guitar and cymbals dissolving into a trebly morass, Death Church is driven by the bass playing of Grant Matthews. His lines cuts through the noise and give RP’s music a structure which is often absent in the music of other crust / anarcho- bands. By 1983, San Pedro’s Minutemen were close to their apex—part of their sound, in the words of singer / guitarist D. Boon, was a “political” decision to separate his trebly guitar from bass player Mike Watt’s low end. I don’t know whether or not the Peni folks were aware of the Minutemen, but the modus operandi is similar: by allowing both bass and guitar to be heard on their own, a sort of pocket is formed, in which the vocals are audible, and perhaps more effective as a result.

Crass and their ilk are instantly recognizable visually: their stencils, whether on album covers or subway walls, were effective branding. Similarly, Nick Blinko’s intricate artwork give the band a visual brand, connected to but not exclusively crust / anarcho-by-numbers. The same goes for his lyrics and vocals: he rails against rock stardom and the meat industry—standard stuff, to be sure—but also discusses the schizoaffective disorder which drives his visual and lyrical work.

Vampire State Building

Take “Vampire State Building” as an example. Blinko sings, in his tortured yowl, “What’s that fumbling grotesque over there in a wheelchair / stifled in a straitjacket /self-inflicted safety pin wounds /is it punkoid? / devoid? / schizoid? / mumbling? Vampire state building is crumbling.” As he does so, another voice—more basso, seemingly saner—repeats the shouts. These self-professed “delusions” make the record a challenge: as listeners, aware of his condition, the question of validity comes to the fore: how much of Blinko’s anger is based in reality? How much, then, isn’t? His self-awareness and paranoia become a critique of the genre at large, an invitation implied throughout: we should be questioning rather than simply accepting them. Whether or not the forum is “appropriate,” Rudimentary Peni, like the best art, invites questions and critique, rife with contradictions, pushing you away as they hug you and pull you into their pocket.

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