Feat: The Ting Tings, Radiohead, Candlebox

The Ting Tings, We Started Nothing (Columbia Records)

Dance-punk isn’t dance-punk anymore; it’s a sea of 1- and 2-man operations doing as much (or more) with their laptops during the commercial breaks of Will & Grace reruns as full power-trios used to accomplish in six months.  The fact that this Brit girl-boy duo sounds just as fabulously sexy-bratty as No Doubt (and the No-Nos and Transvision Vamp and every other pre- and post- and present-riot grrrls) should be a wake-up call to musicians whose dreams don’t get more adventurous than low-slung guitars and drug-overdosing drummers: rock is deader than ever, but its Dawn of the Dead corpse is packing an Uzi.

Fine, be that way.  At least the Ting Tings admit that they’ve Started Nothing, leaving them gleefully free to fill various cultural voids without looking over their shoulders at stupid music critics.  And jeez-Louise, you gotta know that all these corporate-bovine, text-geeking, horrible-awful 20somethings could sure use them some Toni Basil-style cheerleader-punk (“That’s Not My Name”) and a warping back to the days when Gwen Stefani wasn’t a weird, paparazzi-fearing cipher (“Traffic Light”).  Then again, maybe Generation whatever-letter has gotten too much of that stuff, and if that’s your view, the Ting Tings have got your back, because they want to shut everyone else down and be the only thing on radio. This monstrously infectious album argues that they could pull off just that.

Radiohead, Best of Radiohead  (Capitol Records)
Coldplay, Viva La Vida (Capitol Records)

Best of Radiohead came in nearly 2 months ago, and I really only bring it up to mention that it’s the closest match to the new Coldplay to be found in my most recently filled milk crates, being that both are deeply immersive commuter experiences.  The depth of Radiohead’s most user-friendly tuneage (all the gloomy-Gus, oh-shut-up-already filler taken out of the equation through the blessed magic of best-of-ness) can be remarkable, a mash of trippy stuff pattern-matched to the twists and turns of normal-people life, a pulsing, shifting microcosm of something not so much fascinating but similar to the weird-stupid movie you physically can’t bring yourself to remote-control yourself away from. 

Same for Viva La Vida, kind of, though one gets the immediate impression that while Radiohead were reading Wuthering Heights the Coldplay bums were watching Gilligan’s Island with pop radio playing in the background and a chick on the phone.  Of course, heh heh, fans of either band aren’t wrong in digging them, you likes what you likes, and Coldplay does a lot of people-pleasing this time with their Siamese-twin song “structures” – the chunk of shoegaze that comes surging out of a Beck-like exercise (“Yes”); the John Lennon piano that turns into Muse doing 70s pop (“42”); the inspiring Arcade Fire saloon-piano drum-your-thighs-along whose other half resembles a mid-career Radiohead bum-out (“Lovers in Japan/Reign of Love” — at least those two particular separate songs got a piece of delimiting punctuation), and the U2-into-Bollywood kick-asser (“Cemeteries of London”).  Beatles thievery is a Where’s Waldo throughout, which may or may not have been intentional but is quite telling either way; Viva La Vida definitely, madly doesn’t break any new ground, but it’s adequate escapism.

Candlebox, Into the Sun (ILG Records)

Candlebox are nu-metal’s ultimate working band, blue collar guys with white collar brains, stacked with more than enough talent and chops to knock one out of the park, even if it’s usually the same hunk of horsehide.  From the record’s onset, the band’s bets are all on 7s and 11s: “Stand” creeps in with only the slightest of variations on the busy-beetle guitar doodle that opened “You” from their eponymous 1993 debut, after which it proceeds directly to their other staple shtick, which could be summarized as Van Hagar Goes To Hell Wearing Papa Roach Tee Shirts.  Thing with these guys is that they’re so bubbling over with technical ability that their thievery often goes undetected, as when they rook from both Rush and Jimmy Page on the same tune (“Miss You”) or smuggle Zep’s “The Ocean” through the great rock n roll scam detector by adding a white-guy-blues vocal effort straight out of Black Crowes (“Breathe Me In”).  Fellow early 90s curiosity Live gets vibe-checked in the weirdo-love rocker “Lover Come Back to Me.”

OceanLab, Sirens of the Sea (Ultra Records)

Talk about a no-brainer.  With their past DJ compilations and original work, progressive trance dudes Above & Beyond have quietly set the dance-sexy bar higher than Kylie Minogue could have ever dreamed of, weaving miles of subtle, classy chill into their stuff.  Accessorize this with session singer Justina Suissa, whose minor Sarah McLachlan likeness and fetish for Enya has made her a go-to voice for Armin van Buuren and Chicane, then dump the whole thing into an Ibiza recording studio and it’s, well, almost too much magic at times – they don’t need to tell us what it’s like to have a few shekels in their pockets while strolling the acres of hot Greek bodies on the beach, but they insist, leaving “On the Beach” as the lone phone-in on their second album (2004’s Satellite yielded a top international dance hit or two, instantly propping them up as the next Delerium). 

And so ends the bad news, pretty much.  Suissa has a firm grasp of Enya’s way with multi-tracking her voice, leveraging it to best effect in “Just Listen” and the title song, both of which could be massive club hits.  The Above & Beyond fellas lay a trail of slow, medium and medium-fast synth arpeggio percolation that Suissa follows, hypnotized, into an undersea-scape of techno bliss that will, no idle promise, improve your summer experience.

Grand Magus, Iron Will (Rise Above Records)

I’m not completely baffled as to why Swedish street-metal threesome Grand Magus haven’t taken over the world yet, since their material can come off as one-dimensional.  But within that lone dimension is an embarrassment of riches – Soundgarden’s Chris Cornell fronting British Steel-era Judas Priest or first-album Maiden for a vibe, a patch of knurled mahogany peering through metal’s endless plywood-paneled expanse of thrash “experimentalists,” ie all those guys who are nowadays fastening their lamprey lips to Meshuggah’s bulk en masse while steering clear of any ingredients that could actually help jolt a pulse into indie metal (same old thingie, 2008 version: metal band wears tee shirts of drum ‘n’ bass/Celtic-metal/whatever band, never thinks to incorporate same into their refried death/black/math metal, lasts one album, flops on deck gasping as their local fans drift away, get old and find real jobs).

Virtually every metal CD that hits this desk – literally hundreds per year – is full of old news that the band can’t wait to holler from the mountaintop.  Usually they’re either math-screeching cookie-monsters with fast-forward riffing, egocentric knobs who may as well start the Ronnie James Sabbath tribute band they sound like, or what-the-hell-was-thats who somehow manage to expand the very physical boundaries of suckage.  But come on, a Cornell soundalike doing intelligently written, hard, war-dancing, werewolves-on-Harleys NWOBHM?  You’re seriously, seriously not the least bit curious?

Thriving Ivory, Thriving Ivory (Wind-up Records)

As it is in NASCAR, stickers on CD jewel cases are signs of legitimacy.  When a CD shows up here with all sorts of colored stickers on its cover – this one’s got screaming-yellow and dog-doody-brown stickers from VH1 and Best Buy, the latter blocking my view of the cover chick’s hot feet – overeducated newbie CD reviewers must feel like weasels trapped in corners.  “This isn’t something nobody’s going to buy, little CD reviewer,” the stickers say, “and all your base are belong to us.  Surrender and maybe we won’t geld you.”

Luckily for your wallet I detest kids, so to the wind with all caution. Singer Clayton Stroope sounds like Axl Rose, which goes to show that some vocal coach someplace still knows how to teach the long-lost falsetto swindle, which may eventually lead to no more Scott Stapps, the thought of which couldn’t be more rapturous.  No “Welcome to the Jungle” or anything like that here, though; the songs are all – every single one – flighty, blustering adult-emo power ballads that force Stroppe to make like a male Bonnie Tyler with nothing for grub but Total Eclipses of the Heart, albeit with a good-enough amount of polite power-chording around to keep him from belly-flopping off a skyscraper.  Like most nu-AOR albums, the experience to which it’s most similar is one of those bad first dates where you end up sleeping together out of self-hatred while wishing you were playing Nintendo.  I never thought I’d say this in seriousness, but: Come on guys!  Rock out!
[street date 7/15/08]

Crack Nation, Artifacts II: 1989-1994 (Cracknation Records)

House and trance music for horror fans was the stock-in-trade of early Acumen, now Acumen Nation and its spinoff project DJ Acucrack.  This bundle of the Chicago crew’s earliest industrial-dance experiments differs hugely from their 2005 comp, What the F**k: 10 Years of Audio Warfare, a chronicling of their growth into the psychotic-sounding ruination machine they are now.  From 1989 to 1994 they were almost wholly dependent on Skinny Puppy to lead the way; these songs could all have been out-takes from the Pups’ Too Dark Park and Vivisect VI albums, which, either way, automatically tops what newer techie-doomers are pumping out in mass volume in the 2000s; this isn’t third-hand Puppy but one of their few real competitors back when all music wasn’t razor-sliced for marketing niches.  Rollout track “Carthage Six” was most likely one of the first things Acumen ever committed to a cassette, angelic chicks cooing heavenly doo-doo-doos before the rolling and crunching begins.  Fans of KMFDM, Rammstein and all that jazz will find permanent places in their cars for this. 

At the Spine, Vita (Global Seepej Records)

It’s everyone’s civic duty to help save At the Spine bandleader Mike Toschi from himself: please buy this album.  In 2006, as the Seattle band was just beginning to generate some exuberant reviews in the semi-big press, Toschi decided that America was too corrupt and conservative, so he took a six-month work visa to London, where he was promptly jumped and beaten by 5 guys who claimed to be Iraqis.  Things got even better: homelessness, moronic love affairs, being forced to take part-time schoolteaching gigs where the kids mocked him even worse than his old South Bronx students.  Eventually he realized that England sucked, so now it’s welcome back, Kotter, to the same old place where bands like Pinehurst Kids and Shiner can get worshipped for doing things half-cocked, except they sort of can’t anymore because indie rock is big business.  Luckily for Toschi, his band’s fourth album is only half-half-cocked, planting its flag in Pixies territory at its beginning and end points and filling the middle with (safely) innovative crud: a Janes Addiction/Flaming Lips flail-around (“Transylvania”); some AOR-emo Jan & Dean surf-bop (“Spanish Anarchy”) and a fusing of Radiohead to Creedence (“Dine”).  Toschi either has to get more techie-weirdy or more aggressive, and I shall have no further words on this man until one of those two things happens.

Peter Bradley Adams, Leavetaking (Sarathan Records)

If people were plants, the open-hearted American folk of former Eastmountainsouth multi-instrumentalist Peter Bradley Adams would be Extra-Strength Ortho Gro.  The LA gloss with which he brushes his stuff isn’t as frowned upon by indie-rockers as it used to be, being that most one-man acts can nowadays get big-league engineering out of a few faders and switches on widgets plugged into laptops, such as what Adams accomplished in his previous album Gather Up

More so than any other critic in the country to my knowledge, I rained buckets of praise over Gather Up, and after several run-throughs of this one I’m willing to be the shunned idiot shaking the big pom-poms on Adams’ behalf again.  Very little departure from his previous formula here as Adams stays the course, expounding with further gauzy Technicolor frankness on his touchy-feely subjects, his smoky, breathy tenor never – I mean ever – landing on a questionable note.  The album is melancholy but never mawkish: "Song for Viola" explores that instrument’s ability to weep, while "Always" guarantees to wipe the stoicism off the manliest man who ever tried building a mystery while living with some poor woman who actually gave half a damn about him.  Banjos become metropolitan, lonely piano notes plink into still water a la Road to Perdition’s soundtrack, and open-string guitars rule the roost, all squaring with an overall esthetic that’d be ideal for high-anxiety coming-of-age-at-any-age melodramas like Once and Again, things like that. 

Melvins, Nude With Boots (Ipecac Recordings)

Melvins have worn a few hats during their 25 years of living in the nappiest slum in the alt-metal ghetto: de facto gods of mud, punk rabble-rousers, Sabbath-heads, industrial dabblers.  Surprisingly low on the mud scale, Nude With Boots is a ticket to a Warner-Bros-cartoon netherworld with Flaming Lips, old Zeppelin, Queens of the Stone Age and Black Flag standing as its four horsemen; on the whole, the album’s awash in the sort of kooky what-the-hell-ness that once signified the quaint combination of Butthole Surfers and microdot.  “The Kicking Machine” is as much Pixies as it is System of a Down, and in fact almost seems to be a poke in the latter’s ribs, to overdraw a conclusion from the serious-joke vocal.  One sorta cute thing is their continued obsession with building a better “Filth Pig,” the Ministry tune that inspired a good fifth of 2006’s Senile Animal as well as this album’s “Dog Island.”  Okay, it’s really two sorta cute things, the second being a peek-a-boo to the C-student metal-up-yer-tuckus fans who enable the band to buy groceries, this accomplished by covering the foreboding opening theme to The Shining (“Die Iraea”).

Outraged ranting, indie label release news and spaghetti sauce recipes are always welcome.  Email [email protected]

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