Artless Critiques: Chemical Brothers, Portugal The Man, and more

Portugal The Man, Censored Colors (Equal Vision Records)

I must have known last year’s Church Mouth album from hipster-buzz-darlings Portugal the Man was merely a tease, full of melody-phobic but scruffy stoner-rock trappings, and that was why I only sort-of recommended it.  Fast-forward to now, when, vindicated by this aimless nothing of a record, I can allow this band to fade from my life in a mushroom cloud of ambivalence.  I can’t prevent PTM from going big-time, perhaps having a reunited Pavement open for them at a mid-sized not-quite-arena, but I can grouse: I hate mandals, I hate mid-thigh dog-poop-brown corduroy shorts on college girls, and I hate this band, the most fashion-sensible aural accessory to the other two things. 

Woe unto the loss of precious life-giving resources, all the fresh potable water wasted in the process of cooling the massive amounts of oil-based plastic needed to make buckloads of copies of this, a cynical, sick experiment concocted to see if Young America can be swindled by what amounts to aborted John Lennon songs drowned in Arcade Fire vibe and topped with pipsqueak falsetto vocals that you could pull off better in the shower.  “Out and In and In and Out,” the rather symphonic highlight of this album, does have a reason to live, but nothing else does, particularly the constant ripping off of “Instant Karma” (the first 2 songs and more), and then there’s “New Orleans,” where a torchy belled trumpet tries to evoke Peggy Lee’s “Fever” but instead makes one think of Minnie Ripperton on Valium.  Sure, it’s a sight better than most of what came out of the Brooklyn indie scene over the last few years, but seriously, what isn’t?

C- [release date 9/16/08]

Behrouz, Nervous Nitelife: Pure Behrouz NYC (Nervous Records)

One way for me to atone for not having written up Oscar G’s recent Nervous Records entry Innov8– stomping, organic, blissful, essential collection of tribal house that it is – was to somehow survive this nearly-as-good mix thrown together by the top-dog DJ of Pacha Ibiza, a dance club you’re instantly familiar with if you’re young and have enough money to make normal rich people hate your guts.

2 CDs here, the first one leading off with King Street Crew’s old-school “Things U Do 2 Me,” a tiresome warmup that’s only missing a voiceover describing a Florida timeshare and sleepy videotape of golfing.  Behrouz is, however, a cagey sort, and tends to throw in everything including the kitchen sink, so as the classic house sounds start to peter off (Equinox’ bigger, oddly hip-hoppish “Heavenly” is a brilliant next step after King Street) the caustic, Massive Attack-ized vocal from Manuel Tur and DPlay’s “Deviate” serves as a most logical change.  The ensuing buildup erupts at Roberto Rodriguez’ “Camera Obscura,” its finger-snap rhythm slowly turning feral under a funky but agile soft-shoe stutter-step layer.  Bingo Cache’s Jamaican-snake-god-worshipping “Dancin’” is a killer no matter who’s doing the rub, and Behrouz assigns it a rhythm that makes the seam completely invisible.

Grade: B [release date 9/9/08]

Chemical Brothers, Brotherhood (Astralwerks Records)

Cautionary verbage, including words from up-and-comer Deadmau5 in a recent DJ Mag article, is springing up all over the place predicting that the end of the superstar DJ/engineer era is at hand.  Karma’s being stubborn on this one, though – too many glorified record collectors with advanced expertise in canned software programs are making buckets of money for nothing and getting their chicks for free without ever having to learn an instrument.  Much (much) worse, a fat wallet has replaced hard-wired coolness as the signifying characteristic of the dance fan, giving rise to a whole flock of vultures waiting in the media wings to wipe all knob-twiddlers from the face of the earth.

But let us spare Chemical Tom and Ed.  Although their oeuvre has taken some missteps, this best-of is historic, divulging their true nature as a 2-man League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, innovators in the esoteric field of hip-hop-born, big-beat wind-up gadgets too cool for the gangster crowd.  “Galvanize” (the Bud commercial thing with Q-Tip on raps) and “Block Rockin’ Beats” (even you know this one) are here because they have to be, as are the better entries from last year’s We Are the Night, but former US #1 dance hit "It Began in Afrika," strangely enough, isn’t.  “Salmon Dance,” the Chemical Brothers equivalent of McCain picking a hockey mom for VP, isn’t either, but that makes a lot of sense, seeing as how this thing is party-central in a jewel case, big, loud, uplifting and stupid at the same time.  

[release date 9/2/08]

Amber Dust, Good Things Bad Timing (self-released)

On to the hopeless little burg of Sandown, NH for the new EP from alt-folk techies Amber Dust, now a duo with the amiable departure of keyboard player Mike Harvey (you know you’re dealing with a cultish act when the remaining members refuse to hire a replacement and leave the spot open for the old guy). 

These guys are bold, a little reckless even, and will absolutely get a nice record deal if they choose to pursue one.  Within this 7-song EP there is both reverence for your Jack Johnsons and a refreshingly youthful cynicism that prevents any writing off of the band as a bunch of ho-hum understimulated townies.  How dare the little brats kick off the record with what sounds like a live set at a local joint, but wait, it’s not a live recording, it’s a hit of rusted-pickup sort-of-bluegrass/sort-of-Burt Bacharach with a scratched-record effect throughout.  And just like that, the gauntlet is thrown – they’re certainly not unaware of what’s going on in the darkest dungeons of indie-rock.  The bacon-and-egg effects continue into the first part of “The Boat,” in which singer Jesse Nickerson emulates a punch-drunk Neil Young, but the fog suddenly clears and they’re doing a glossy cross between Eastmountainsouth and a cab-driver-radio 70s thing from Eagles or America.  The Americana genre isn’t overflowing with bands, signed or unsigned, like this, willing to throw the sound under a microscope and tinker with it until it’s undeniably relevant and refreshing.  Download the EP for free at

[release date 9/2/08]

Common Market, Tobacco Road (Hyena Records)

Getting there is always the fun part, like here, where RA Scion gleefully expends terawatts of energy trying to put the Seattle hiphop scene on the map.  Um, unless he’s trying to keep it all on the down-low, that is; traditional call-outs (and admitting that there’s a hiphop scene in Seattle in the first place) are frowned upon out there, so everything Scion goes on about is couched in agricultural metaphors wrapped in riddles inside of enigmas that only a few hundred people actually grok.  With the help of Blue Scholar beat guy Sabzi whittling out rinky-dink gospel/blues/jazz samples and whatnot, Scion, in his shoulder-shrugging Lupe Fiasco voice and baseball-card-in-the-bike-spokes flow, gives an opaque shout-out to the Virginia Tech killer, scolds his townie brethren in code, then bawls for his lost Kentucky boyhood, not necessarily in that order of sequence or importance.  In closing I’m inclined to say that it’s well-produced, high-end 90s rap, nowadays known as cutting-edge underground hiphop, and a good number of people think it’s way groovy, and your mileage in regard to the latter may vary widely, like Grand Canyon-widely.

[street date 9/9/08]

Abney Park, Lost Horizons (Post-Apocalypse Records)

Born to run with the ren-fair set, Abney Park will also appeal to the niche that’s a bit worn out with Rammstein’s recent suicidal flirtings with pop but also thinks Laibach needs to drop the anarchy routine.  This act’s forte is "steampunk," a term that does tend to conjure images of the captain of the Titanic fronting a zooted-up Time Bandits band, but ’tis more a yo-ho-ho pirate trip they appear to be on in the main; moderately grindy industrial with fiddle and a Loreena McKennitt chick doing the enchanted fairy thing (while we’re at this, am I the only one who’s never walked in a "misty forest"?).  For you pedants out there wondering where the "punk" part of their categorization comes in, it’s really in only one place, closing track "Post Apocalypse Punk," funnily enough the most interesting slice of this pie with its layer of steam-engine clatter and whatever other appropriate samples they could drum up.  "The Secret Life of Dr. Calgari" is the brooding prototype of the atmosphere they want to suck folks into.

[street date 3/1/08]

Civet, Hell Hath No Fury (Hellcat Records)

Blindly accepting the mission of writing up an all-girl rock band has traditionally spelled an opportunity for male rock critics to advertise that they’d like some sex, as if there’d ever been a pop-culture writer born who hadn’t taken on these thankless tasks out of a warped need to post huge-ass personal ads for free while hoping in vain that their readers couldn’t see through every stunted metaphor. 

So, Civet, where have you tattooed, inappropriate babes been all my life, anyway?  You have to hand it to these girls for avoiding "punk ballads" like the plague; there’s little danger of their ever indulging in something as monstrous as a duet with Ozzy, as they’re more simpatico with Joan Jett, and, arguably, blessed with a better gift of hook, which has thus far paid for apartments in LA if nothing else.  Every song is a four-chord wonder as heavy, loud and aggressive as Powerman 5000 but deeply rooted in what made the Ramones and Runaways tick — think Motorhead with Joan Jett in front and she’s really pissed.

[street date 9/9/08]

David Sanborn, Here & Gone (Decca Records)

If you like pina coladas and getting snowed in with a TV that only gets the channel with Leno, David Sanborn’s is your jazz.  At this point he’s got more Grammys on his mantel than fingers on one hand, and since the Academy doesn’t really care about jazz, this LP is a shoo-in to represent this year.  What his sound most forcefully evokes is the incidental bounciness that appears between skits on Saturday Night Live, the show where he got his start in 1979 as their house-band alto sax player, and so the LP begins in true-to-form manner with a vivid, buzzy slice of SNL-ready chill-down, Sanborn following along with Gil Goldstein’s hazy arrangement of "St. Louis Blues."  Upon this, the big-shot cameos start trickling in, first with Derek Trucks’ guitar dabbling in a New Orleans-tinted "Brother Ray," later Eric Clapton sleep-mumbling through "I’m Gonna Move to the Outskirts of Town" and finally Joss Stone sunning herself in "I Believe to My Soul."  Despite all the commercial trappings, Sanborn does have a unique touch, or should I say grip; he doesn’t so much push or pull out his notes as bend the instrument itself to his will as if it were a two-dollar harmonica.

[street date 6/4/08]

Austrian Death Machine, Total Brutal (Metal Blade Records)

And you thought this generation of thrash-metal weenies didn’t have a good joke album in them.  Flash back to the 80s and you may recall over-the-top racist/misogynist thrash outfit Stormtroopers of Death, a joke project nearsightedly conceived by most of Anthrax supporting near-universally mocked oi-blabberer Billy Milano (while we’re here, the foursome released an LP in 2007, for reasons completely opaque).  Deathklok, the one-off from Adult Swim’s Metalocalypse people, is this generation’s answer to that, walking a fine line between grubbing for death-metal fanboy dollars and kidding around, in turn leaving a void that’s nicely filled here through ADM’s slapstick lunge at the softest of targets, Arnold Shwarzennegger.  ADM is a one-man op run by As I lay Dying’s Tim Lambesis, who works his comedy-club-worthy Arnie impression between every one of these guitar-pureed speed-metal half-thoughts, most of whose lyrics key off famous Arnie movie lines ("Get to the Choppa," "Here is Subzero, Now Plain Zero").  Juvenile and dumb, you are correct, but if it helps just one person remember the days of straight-edgers singing 30-second tunes about their moms’ ham sandwiches, the hour Lambesis spent throwing the whole package together was worth it.

[street date 7/22/08]

McCarthy Trenching, Calamity Drenching (Team Love Records)

I’d rather dunk my head in a tub of earwigs than listen to indie-folk-pop, but I sort of love this junk.  As a potential savior of post-Dylan Kumbaya-down-tempo itself, singer Dan McCarthy looks less ready for that than taking on a bit part reprising the shrimpier of the two bug experts in Silence of the Lambs.  Like a Napoleon Dynamite who accidentally walked onstage during open-mike night, his lyrics are intimate, albeit not the sort of intimate that intimates that the singer thinks of nothing but hir own needs, weaknesses and/or warped notion of utopia.  McCarthy’s ever-present, mischievous mike puts you right there with him as he stumbles over a chair trying to get to his banjo or Ovation, whatever he feels like hiding behind while delivering his super-shlub smart-aleck poems in that shaky Willie Nelson Does Bob Dylan warble of his.

He’ll never get groupie girls with lyrics this smart either (try the snippet "an eye for annihilation" for one), but it’s all good, being that he’s given up on both Catholicism and romantic love.  Which spells freedom, the freedom to write droopy, awesome, intimate little ditties about what really matters: horse racing, lousy weather, and fast-fading memories of piano lessons.  Oh, and the importance of removing the tab from your can of Pabst so your ‘stache hairs don’t get stuck.  Anything past that is More Than We Wanted to Know, isn’t it?  

[street date 9/23/08] 

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

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