Scraping the Barrel 008
ometimes there is no telling at all. In this case, the latest batch of offerings from the Stylus bods seemed…anonymous, almost. Not completely so, but nothing was leaping out at me initially as clearly being marked by the devil. A lot of tasteful enough design and neutral presentations, a few clichés here and there but nothing to immediately scream, “Hi, we’re here to make sure that ripping your ears off as a defensive measure will come naturally for you. No need to be worried, it’s just our job.” So, hesitantly, I began.
If anything the self-titled effort by Mrs. Miller’s House, aka DJ Wally and DJ Willie Ross, would appear to be one of the most unusual defeats of expectation I’d encountered. The names suggested a mix CD or perhaps some sort of indie hip-hop noodling; listing 30 tracks on the back suggested the latter. The artwork, however, was the last thing I expected, a cross between black metal extremity and murder ballad backwoods horror. Lovecraft, Poe, The Blair Witch Project—I had to give them (and their art director Brian Olson) points for that much, my initial assumptions had pretty well been called into question. The only thing left to do was play it and…
…moody strings, muttering words of threat, then all of a sudden a strong, shuffling beat and a sample from some dude about “wicked things in my life.” It started to make a lot more sense here, actually—somewhere between Cypress Hill’s own brand of stoned macabre and the Insane Clown Posse’s dark carnival, minus the overt humor. And once I came to grips with that, then regrettably it became far less interesting. Some part of me I think secretly hoped for some kind of full-on genre trashing mindfuck, something that made nu-metal look like the cheap misfire it mostly turned out to be (I’ll grant the Deftones and Linkin Park). But it settled into a series of short, mostly instrumental collages with pretty straightforward presentation—after a few seconds you got the rest, and there’s nothing here that hadn’t been done or predicted by any number of goth-in-all-but-name producers along the way (I was soon longing for Ludacris or somebody to take all the beats somewhere else). Not bad in the end, but like I feared, kinda anonymous indie hip-hop noodling. So I hacked around on my 43places.com site until it stopped.
Hinterland’s The Picture Plane was very, very cool in appearance. All black and white photo abstraction, on the back more of the same but showing what presumably was some art exhibit somewhere (that or an unusual way of hanging acoustical tiles). I’ll be happy with early New Order ripoffs I thought to myself as I ripped off the plastic, though the lyric sheet made me think of emo and/or Interpol and I despaired. Music credits included flute, lap steel, and ‘glock,’ and it occurred to my fevered brain…Arcade Fire. Oh no. And they’re from Canada too. I sighed and put it on and crossed my fingers, metaphorically speaking (in real life I had already crossed my legs).
Within about five seconds nearly all my above guesses had been proven true. Figures. Well, maybe a slight exception, in that the Arcade Fire part was fairly minimal, while the vocalist was female. Meanwhile, the band couldn’t decide whether to be crisp or muffled when it came to the arrangements and therefore aimed for a midpoint of the two that was kinda irritating, I admit. (Then again the previous day I had been enjoying all the Cure remasters and had been expecting more of newer recording quality.) DEFINITE New Order in protofunk mood on the first guitar break, that’s for damn sure, so I can’t say I was disappointed there. And it was all kinda familiar, and for the second album in a row once a mood was established and clarified it didn’t offer any variety, and I had to sigh a little bit. Part of me doesn’t mind at all that the neo-new wave has something other than a tragic emo-boy singer, and Michaela Galloway has a nice enough voice that’s often too swamped for its own good. An album of moments and that’s about it, and when the sort-of power ballads kicked in I started getting rather bored. So back to 43places.com I went. (It’s a good site, really!)
I was starting to worry that I would be in for a round of sheer tastefulness. Nothing truly awful. Would Ray Lamontagne’s Till the Sun Turns Black, a mondo major label release on Sony, break the pattern? I was thinking that said conglomerate had gone ahead and sought out their own Conor Oberst or something based on the cover photo on the advance—a flashlight in black space—and that title. Seemed a little precious, even to my dark heart. (Oh it’s true.) And salvation! I put it on and was on familiar ground—while also aiming at the kind of professional mediocrity that had defined my day so far, it did so in the most insufferable way, with the kind of background textures and strings behind acoustic guitar and whisper-thin singing to confirm that yes!—the grim specter of Mr. Oberst, plus Dashboard Confessional, probably more than a little of Jeff (Fucking) Buckley and the miserable mulch of Coldplay, definitely a misbegotten hearing of Nick Drake, whose corpse probably had complained about being unduly fondled again, had recombined to give the world an even WORSE Dan Fogelberg! For a generation elegantly sorry for itself! I smiled and thought, Now let us hate.
My delight increased when it became clearer that the whole album would follow in the vein of its opener, immediately gratifyingly wistfully irritating. I love how the majors ever so often think that they’ve found a new Dylan or a new SOMEBODY in that vein—there are some miserable examples I still remember from the early nineties that were foisted on me—and this is the latest example. Now for all I know he’ll be a smash success, but I kinda doubt it. When the dude tried to put passion into the words “Well I’ve been to hell and back so many times” I almost laughed in delight. Music designed for someone in college who makes actual mix tapes on a tape as some sort of nonconformist rebellion against shared mp3 playlists to give to someone on a date when the next Wes Anderson ripoff film comes out. A lot of money went into it and I was happy it would never be recouped. Some songs tried to get soulfully funky in an Al Green way and I grinned in imagining death at how obvious the move was (“Quick, we’re putting everyone to sleep! Do something! Bring in horns and pretend you have soul by rasping more!” It was a fair enough rasp, granted, but then why all the other tremulous BS elsewhere?). I ate lunch contentedly and thought about how good a year Timbaland’s been having, even if I hate Justin Timberlake with the heat of a thousand suns. And so forth.
Thus returned to a state of zen balance, I considered Birdmonster’s No Midnight, which was recorded and released in 1993. It had the semi-poppy/punky/rough edged sound that wasn’t grunge but wasn’t anything else either. “Yeah, we love Buffalo Tom, who doesn’t?” It had the artwork, vaguely arty/folksy/craftsy. Credits spelled out in classic typewriter font. Songs all numbered, typical enough, but song 12, “Ball of Yarn,” had the number replaced by a representation of a BALL OF YARN, do you see? Like how there really is a bat out of hell. Production’s rough and ready and songs are quick and punchy or slow and meaningful, and there are thirteen of them, and the final one might as well be a Replacements outtake snuck in for the heck of it.
I lied about 1993. It was recorded and released last year. I do not want this revival. Nobody should. Nobody has figured out how to make this greatly entertaining instead of dully worthy yet. The return of ‘music I played in between bands I actually liked because I wanted to give some new releases a chance on my radio in my early grad school days’ music is not welcomed by me. Still, it wasn’t emo. And I thank them for that.
The band Hellogoodbye has been getting hyped around here for their new album Zombies! Aliens! Vampires! Dinosaurs! The title alone made once again contemplate elegant murder. My CD player tried to play it twice, however, and rejected it. I took it as an omen and moved on.
The cover of Nuccini!’s Matters of Love and Death shows, presumably, the punctuation-prone personage of said name with a suit and tie, a vaguely Ewan McGregorish look and a rose in his hands. Nothing else could be gathered, so I was figuring some sort of IDM techno take on Nick Cave. (Worked for Patrick Wolf, sorta.) I was close, I should have thought Portishead instead, or maybe Barry Adamson more accurately. Moody, elegant, muted horns, echoed drums, spy movie existential soundtracks…well, it starts that way, then there’s random nerd-rap about ‘selfish destruction’ and all that, and Aesop Rock has a lot to answer for, not to mention everyone’s favorite activator of testicular bravery Sage Francis, aka one of the most annoying people in existence. I’m waiting for the inevitable musical adaptation of a David Mamet play by one of these characters, so I can avoid it completely. A couple of moments of okay drama, I’ll give the dude that, but mostly I rolled my eyes and wondered how much of a masculinity crisis guys like him really have. I lasted four songs because when the annoying as fuck pseudo-kid singalong voices on “Put Me In Your Shoes” kicked in I realized my sanity would be compromised.
Six discs and I had to take a break. There were more Cure CDs to listen to instead.
My break turned out to take about five days. This was probably a good thing. Contemplating the remaining choices made me realize how enjoyable it would be to sell most of them back to Amoeba the following day, assuming they accepted them. If they didn’t, I’d probably ask them to take it anyway. Even a $1 credit allows you to find something random in their clearance bin, which is where most of this will doubtless end up.
But anyway—In Flight Radio, who are a trio who play that rock and roll stuff. Somehow this screams 1992 at me, just so. Even the cover photo—from 1971, featuring a smiling jet age stewardess posed in an engine—seems less like it was actually from that time and more like it was posed to recreate that time so it could be recontextualized and reused for an album that would then be referred to to create this album. I’m sorry, I’m losing myself in meta again. But on playing the disc I find myself thinking, again—“Oh. Well, that’s nice then.” Because that’s what it is, and the relentless parade of the amiably midrange that seems to be the hallmark of this column continues onward, leaving me to wonder a bit.
It’s actually not without merit, this album—lead singer Peira’s got a nice voice, and retro-retro-fetishism aside it’s not grunge, thank heavens. But it’s little more than agreeably good, touching on a number of strands from groups like the Moon Seven Times and 10,000 Maniacs (maybe even the Cranberries…oh dear, maybe this IS a 1992 era album after all). There’s the occasional touch of strings, lots of quieter parts that swell into louder volumes rather than ye olde soft/loud/soft constructs, bits of classic rock thanks to the organ here and there. I can’t hate, I could even recommend, but I just can’t love—the type of album with songs that sound perfectly dramatic, even striking, while they play and that I instantly forget about when it is over. One song sounds like it could have been an alternate theme song for Friends, and that alone is enough to give me cause for concern. (Also, should there be a next time, don’t print the lyric sheet. Speaking, indeed, as a friend. And the guy should only sing backup, not lead. I have no further advice to suggest.)
Thankfully the hate soon returned in full, with a far better target. The Channel’s album is actually two albums, Tales From the Two-Hill Heart and Sibylline Machine. I had a bad feeling. This was not helped by the post-Elephant 6/Arcade Fire/Animal Collective sweet/scrawl/primitive/watercolor/crayon art. I heard sighing vocals like the Association and then I heard something like harpsichord. Oh no. It actually kinda puzzles me while I’m so annoyed—no, scratch that, downright pissed off—with this strand of music these days. I have nothing against it per se. But it’s SO DEAD. Even more so than ossified blues-rock bands and snoreworthy jazz combos that act as if the 1950s onward somehow never happened. It’s this mind-meltingly willfully self-limited techno-fear that sometimes can still work in spite of itself, but otherwise is the swathed, swaddling tastefulness of a world that seems to think that the only band worth talking about is, again, once more, Neutral Milk Hotel. ENOUGH! Do you have any idea how OBVIOUS you people sound? At ALL?
I was vaguely more tolerant of the parts that sounded a bit like early Lambchop. Songs like “Wages and Death” are no “All Smiles and Mariachi,” I should note, but as I said, I was vaguely more tolerant. But otherwise there were dead-on-arrival slacker rave-ups and ever so tasteful songs with sighing in them about things and mournful blahs about a pseudodreamscape lost America (probably, for all I know it was actually about a dead puppy doll in the street or not getting enough raisins in a scone) and oh it went on. I could be wrong, but I swore one lyric went “snakes on a plane,” and even if it didn’t I could see them doing that, just because. I started skipping around randomly to see if anything would surprise me and, of course, it didn’t—in fact I started to grow utterly resentful of the drowsy/wistful/reflective/‘meaningful’ vocals, split between the mumbling guy and the whining guy (the latter of whom has the appeal of Mike Love when he really started to get full of himself—just what the world needs), and when this one incredibly lazy as fuck song started with an indifferently plucked banjo and a keyboard that sounds like it’s having the life choked out of it, followed by a groan about railroad engineers, I wanted to go back in time and find the Band and beat the living snot out of them (I want to do this anyway but it’s always nice to have an excuse). The one nice point is that, in fact, both albums were quite short. In fact they could have fit on a single CD with twenty minutes to spare. I guess they wanted to make an art statement by having the mumbling guy vocals on one disc and the Mike Love guy on the other. I can’t wait for CDs to finally die so this kind of art statement becomes impossible to do properly.
Based on the cover art, to one extent or another—silhouettes of animals, dark grey skies and landscapes—Tobias Froberg’s Somewhere in the City surely had to be some sort of IDM/ambient thing. Hell, maybe it was even art-metal—I’d be fine with that, even if I think the shysters are starting to proliferate there in droves. Somewhat encouraged, I checked the liner notes and discovered that Poptones was thanked. I despaired. The first thing I heard were bongos and acoustic guitar and WHAT THE FUCK WAS THAT MISERABLE BACKING VOCAL PART? Sorry, you have no idea how whiningly obnoxious it was. So Mr. Froberg apparently uses those electronic beats here and there only to show how down he is with the kids, but the priority is always songs with titles like “When the Night Turns Cold” and “Someone” and “Oh My Love.” No, wrong. Bad. No biscuit. May all your Ikea furniture mysteriously fall apart in the night. No funky jams either please.
There’s that “I’m neither James Taylor nor Chris Martin but I play one on TV oh god why can’t I be Thom Yorke WHY CAN’T I BE THOM YORKE?” vocal quality on display again here too. You know, slogging through all the obvious stuff here in this world pleases me greatly, because you do get to understand just how corrosive the monoculture is sometimes. At least he’s not trying to be James Blunt, but that’s because this was all already recorded before that guy got famous, I’m sure. A year’s delay might have proved otherwise, who knows? I tuned out pretty rapidly and let all the noise dribble out of the speakers while I wrote a long letter to a friend, and somehow its very inoffensiveness was perfect for such a thing—I wasn’t distracted at all while I typed.
Monotract’s Xprmntl Lvrs is on Ecstatic Peace, has cut up and scrawled down artwork and credits and sounded almost exactly like I was expecting—loud, clattering, No Wave meets hooks of a sort, do the non-danceable art dance! This actually isn’t a criticism per se but like nearly every approach that aims at threat, this felt more almost like cuddly comfort—they would sound like this, wouldn’t they? Beats and static-laden bursts and distorted vocals and whizzes and crunches and all that. So, there you go. Again, a release that set expectations and flatly met them. Hmm. Rumbling drums at one point! Stuttering demisortamaybe glitch hooks generated from effects pedals, as portrayed in the photos on the back! It’s just all…yeah. Great. It’ll go over well in a number of corners. I sold this back. Last song was all right.
Ad Astra Per Aspera is not the group of almost the same name that was a pretty good neo-psych act from Philadelphia. Instead Catapult Calypso began with some sort of whining noise among other instruments, and then became post-punk emo, and then became quirk-dork noise that indicated where all those neo-ska fans went to, and then there were soothing female vocals and then there were strangled semi-fey male screams and then there were tempo changes and garage rock keyboards and then there were ear-piercing solos and then there was some sort of hip-swinging stuff and then there was a full-on gang shout chorus about asking for subsistence and then the song sorta began to repeat itself. Then I checked and I realized I was listening to the Dillinger Escape Plan, then I checked again and I realized I wasn’t.
But I kid the quintet, who apparently have been doing this for a couple of years now. It’s actually a lot better than most of what I’ve been talking about because I couldn’t peg it down from either the cover art or the PR guff, and because the songs were kinda not sounding like each other time and again, always a distinct plus. But the general ‘we are everything all at once’ feeling was the same, and so it kinda turned into one of those albums where you don’t concentrate on the songs all that much as you do the experience. And that’s fine, because at points it suggested what would have happened if early Possum Dixon and early Trumans Water decided to jam together for the hell of it, and if that revolts most of known humanity it makes me happy enough, so there. Actually some parts were really kinda beautiful in their own way, and after all the shower of obviousness that I had been dealing with in this shipment it was nice to hear something actually pretty cool—Cossack beats turned into thrash metal, that kinda thing. The final song is totally perfect, an epic album closer. If they ever ended up opening for System of a Down I wouldn’t be surprised, and I’d want that to be a good big break for ‘em.
So thank you them, and thank you The Husbands, who have a new album on Swami called There’s Nothing I’d Like More Than to See You Dead, which accurately describes the sentiments I regularly feel to some of the slop that I deal with here. This is a cleansing, beautiful album, reminding me not only why garage rock is good but by pissed-off and dramatic and trashy and snotty garage rock by a female trio is even better. Spending time on this would take away from the joy, it’s just good, you should get it, this latest entry’s over, and life is a beautiful thing. (Did I mention it’s Friday afternoon?)
By: Ned Raggett
Published on: 2006-08-30