RANDOM STABBINGS & ARTLESS CRITIQUE – June 2007
Art Brut, It’s a Bit Complicated (Downtown Records)
Picking up where they left off in Bang Bang Rock & Roll, the weird little punk-rock experiment that is Art Brut moves into its next level of maturity. You’ll recall the cockney narrator exulting over seeing his Brand New Girlfriend naked, twice, which had the world roaring in its seat at the naiveté of it all, but here we begin with “Pump Up the Volume,” in which having a brand new girlfriend isn’t so brand new anymore, and he finds his mind wandering to the volume knob on the radio – is it a bad thing, focusing his attention away from sex for a second, to Turn Up The Pop Song? These guys are a Norman Rockwell impression of punk life, and, like their spazzy first-person protagonist, they’re growing up, eking out a little technical wizardry (this guitar solo will end the Iraq war!) while maintaining a constant attitude of Sex Pistols gone Rainman. Like Bang Bang, IABC isn’t simply some hipster flavor of the month but a tribute to that one-of-a-kind friend everybody adopts at some point in life, the lad/ladette who’s nervously blissful in their art-illiterate simplicity and hence somehow smarter than us all.
Tesla, Real to Reel (Tesla Electric Co. Records)
How the mighty have fallen and stuff. 80s idols Tesla had a huge piece of the LA-art-metal pie back in the day, but the thrashers ruined everything for the spandex patrol, leaving them to busker for nickels in weird little “superstar” touring bands and cover acts. Tesla takes the latter route here, doing covers of Zeppelin’s “Thank You,” Deep Purple’s “Space Truckin,” and totally off-the-wall biker-pig-roast shit like Robin Trower’s “Day of the Eagle.” Their practiced LA panache comes in handy for most of the material, which is a surprise, being that the oft-cloned sound of all the deceased Skid Rows and whatnot of You Know, That Decade is usually cause for self-mutilation. No screamy antics, really, just reverence for the tuneage; an honest effort.
Stamen & Pistils, Towns (Echelon Productions)
Second album from tech-art-folkers Stamen & Pistils, displaying many familiar signs of rich-kid ennu in the songwriting department but not as bad as so many that darken the doors here. Tidal flows of laptop glitching merge nicely enough with acoustic guitar strumming, making for a sound worth exploring, but all concentration goes into the teen-hormone lyrical obsessions, sacrificing hook opportunities as though on purpose; it’s clear that the music was built around the verbage and not vice versa. Aside from some (intentional? and who cares?) clumsiness during the vocal multitracking, Raul Zahir De Leon has good control of his unwhiny, if slightly unwound, almost McCartney-like tenor, which fits the music’s aesthetic (which in turn somehow fits with the Rococo approach of the insert art) as finely as it deserves. On the whole this would be put to best use as indie-film soundtracking; anything past that would require a tightening of the whole shtick.
Various Artists, Le Pop 4 (Le Pop Musik/Caroline)
In France, indie distribution methodologies are fusing with New Chic classiness, resulting in an overabundance of staid but earnest music product. A good percentage of the stuff sounds like cutting-room-floor leftovers from the Goldfinger soundtrack (Pierre LaPointe opens this fourth collection with “Qu’en est-il de la Chance,” running the same orchestral pop engine with which he closed out Le Pop 3), but the dam has now officially burst, leaving the field wide open for all manner of sounds both alternative and long-dead. The surname-less Austine wanders around contemplating her navel for “Rhume,” her whispery voice escorted only by a faux-baroque acoustic guitar for half the tune until full-band Calexico rhythms take over. Befittingly, Vincent Delerm’s “Sepia plein les doigts” winds itself around a drab, understated beatnik vibe which could have been just as easily borrowed from Sufjan Stevens as Moe Chavalier. Jeanne Cherhal’s “Voila” is the bedroom-chill slammer, instantly conjuring a month up at the lake.
The Race, Ice Station (Flameshovel Records)
In the absence of any new studio material from Wire, this Chicago troupe does the trick in a more historically correct manner than Franz Ferdinand and their bootlicker army, not that The Race are at all eager to take Wire’s place at the top of the list of Tragically Overlooked Mope-Alt Bands. Solemn but bewildered synth lines strut down corridors lined with guitars that honk and bubble while singer Craig Klein explores New Order baritones and status quo indie-rock falsettos. These guys are rock-star-minded enough to know that a dib of Smashing Pumpkins (“Evil Dove”) and a dab of Skinny Puppy (“Odessa”) are the right things to steal if one wants to blow up large, but in all fairness those could have come entirely by accident; if anything should raise a music geek’s eyebrow it’s the B-52s-vs-Echo and the Bunnymen phone-in “Ice Station.” Of course, you could ignore what the geeks are going to say and simply enjoy this LP, but if you must, at least keep them in fond memory; remember how they steered your wallet right about Badly Drawn Boy and Au Revoir Simone? [sound of canned laughter]
Spooky, Open (Spooky Records)
Spooky’s first LP since 1996 tilts toward the Massive Attack end of the techno-meter, several nice, jivey things to be found. Sadly, there are also some things that only tedious actor-singer culture-zombies could come up with, vacillations that are a little more old-school R&B (hence somewhat embarrassing within this context) than what Tricky and crew have gotten caught doing in their more open-hearted moments. Thither’s the facts, like ‘em or don’t; “New Light” is to an old Irene Cara B-side what opening track “Belong” and its Annie Lennox-as-house-diva fabulousness is to a between-DJs confection in an Ibiza hotspot (Spooky have collaborated with super-DJ Sasha in the past). Taken as a whole, then, Open will cut it both with drinking-agers who’ve grown out of their Danity Kane pajamas and properly smug rich-daddy-hating PETA activists. There are two discs here, the second being a set of remixes, which translates to a nice financial break for those who find themselves really digging the core product.<a h
Blue Scholars, Bayani (Rawkus Records)
Not all hip-hop old-schoolers squander entire albums (and comeback attempts) talking backpacker smack about the genre’s descent into worthlessness. Filipino/Iranian-American duo Blue Scholars have found themselves opening for such big-shots as Mos Def and Kanye West, not just because MC Geologic so easily articulates his well-grounded sense of community, but also owing to a Blackalicious-level realness that’s all too rare. Forget bling; Geologic’s just happy about finally having a comma in his bank balance (“Ordinary Guys”) and the opportunity to sound off about the difficulties of immigrants – no, working stiffs in general – a cause the pair riff about in the title track, DJ Sabzi paving the way for Geologic’s rhymes with a tiptoeing steel drum-like synth line. This ain’t what you want blasting out the car window when you’re trying to make the Hampton Beach honeys think you’ve got an Uzi under your seat instead of your ma’s birthday card, but it’s perfectly suited for when you’re up for a chill ride with, oh, say Fresh Prince by way of Large Professor.
Test Your Reflex, The Burning Hour (RCA Records)
Storm-lashed quasi-emo with Cure signature moves, pensively mature breakup music that knows there are things in life beyond missing your lust-object’s impeccable taste in umbrella drinks. After hearing it from the horse’s mouth I can report that the songs are influenced by U2, Depeche Mode and Peter Gabriel, and they do sound like that if you throw in some overproduced Snow Patrol, thus there’s no signal loss when compared to the modernity of My Chemical Romance. “I’m Not Sorry” is the one you want in your car when (s)he’s being supermegabitch and there’s still time to hit the bar, a tune perhaps Socialburn might come up with if they thought the metal kids weren’t looking. “Thinking of You” slides equal props to nu-mod and Squeeze, there are some great Killers knockoffs to be found, and the one low point, “I Am Alive”’s totally unnecessary vicking of John Cougar, is tempered with enough INXS to make it palatable.
Dntel, Dumb Luck (Sub Pop Records)
Catatonic headphone-techno reminiscent of Sigur Ros’s debut and all the bands whose leaders battled each other with wet mackerels for the right to contribute to this, ie Beachwood Sparks, Grizzly Bear, Figurine (this is a Jimmy Tamborello thingamajig, as it were) and so on. Stubborn mainstream ears need not apply; to those, this will be inexplicable, discomfiting cheese straight from the spray can, but trust me when I say this is Vacherin Mont-d’Or compared to the rancid Postal Service-wannabe limburger that stinks its way into this office on a monthly basis. Thanks in large part to Tamborello’s way with bliss-outs, feedback and pure melody, one becomes idly fascinated with what his glitch-pocked fugues are going to morph into next, but, to sharpen the point, listeners have to prep for woozy noise as well as beauty. “To a Fault” alone is comprised of a dozen or so incongruous parts: Keith Moon drums over minimalist Atari bloopage, a genial Arcade Fire-like tangent, Jack Johnson patter besieged with warped-record effects, etc.
VNV Nation, Judgement (Metropolis Records) NOTE: That’s their misspelling
It’s a true-blue bummer to witness futurepop kings VNV Nation’s resigned annoyance with mankind, into whom they’ve tried to instill positive motivation for the past 12 years, but times are tough, especially if the acronym half of your trademark is something troop-hating like Victory Not Vengeance. Where 2005’s Matter+Form saw Ronan Harris and Mark Johnson hammering at the doors of pop radio, Judgement (sic) is of an even darker shade than Empires, though unlike the last few albums Harris’ smoky, welcoming baritone is in nearly every song this time, not playing Where’s Waldo against a landscape of all-instrumentals. Harris has a knack for bringing on the goosebumps, accomplished this time in “Testament” by throwing a few laser-guided anti-war observations around before settling on the line “It’s just you and me now against the world” whilst a hopeful, heart-tugging synth arpeggio works itself into a tizzy. They still prefer Reaktor software over ProTools, which adds to their rattled-sheet-metal uniqueness, but there’s absolutely no ramp-up time required for listeners who appreciate, you know, great songs and stuff.
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