Scraping the Barrel
Scraping the Barrel 009

i admit I looked at the pile for this installment with a certain grim fascination—namely, that there had never been so much of it. I had to be concerned and I was, duly. Quick flipping through some of the titles disgorged nonentities undreamed of by even my darkest nightmare-inducing parts of my psyche. But needs must.

Setting aside a few things I’d reviewed elsewhere—Heller Mason eh, Spires That in the Sunset Rise excellent, etc.—I settled for something on Kranky. Now I still hold a particular regard for much of that label even if some of their more recent choices are less ‘yay!’ and more ‘eh?’ Yet even this had to give me pause—Boduf SongsLion Devours the Sun, packaged in such a murky 19th-century backwoods collection of horror stories to be read while the frontier wolves howled closer in a starvation-driven winter (as it turns out there’s even a lyric about a ‘cabin in the pines’ so I wasn’t far off) that I was expecting the musician’s name to be Obadiah or the like. I read in the credits that it was one Mathew Sweet and then I was truly terrified.

Thankfully it’s not that other Sweet, whose work would have gone straight into the microwave. It was, though, all very tense and low-key and whisper/sung and acoustic driven and murky background textures and soothing blissout zone and random samples of noise and conversational snippets and dank and the kind of things that aren’t per se considered ‘freak folk’—the amount of control I needed to exude to keep from ripping my hands off after typing that phrase was quite something, I should say—because ‘freak folk’ is supposed to be whimsy/weird/happy/melancholy rather than “I have seen your death and plan on serving you out on the table—but very carefully.” And yet there are song titles like “That Angel Was Pretty Lame.” (Then again there are titles like “Great Wolf of No Tracks” and “27th Raven’s Head (Darkness Showing Through the Head of the Raven,” and somewhere Nick Cave is cursing himself for not thinking of those song titles.) I approve, sleepily.

There’s liner notes on the back of The Remote IslandsSmother Party. The curse of McSweeney’s style overexplication of everything hangs heavy in this our modern world, and I’m slightly convinced the reason of mp3 popularity is a simple one—you don’t have to read nonsense like this while staring at the album cover (instead you read it on websites). Whatever the deal with this Boston area band is, or even if it’s a band (there’s one guy credited with everything except the things he didn’t play, which about sums up it up), they are constantly tripping back and forth over the line between “Oh neat” and “Oh no.”

See, sometimes there are loud science fiction noises and old beatboxes and weird zoneouts and everything feels like it’s about to take off to some mysterious new realm. But then the lead dude—who I’m convinced keeps wanting to just give up and front a Beatles/power-pop act and probably owns everything that even smells of the words ‘Elephant 6’—comes in and either sorta sighs or else does the little singalongcutesily thing that just makes me want to go back in time and drown Rolling Stone at its birth, and maybe the Village Voice too. Every time I hear stuff like this I have this same fit, what I can say? The extra special touch here appears to be the weird compression/metallic echo on everything, which might be the idea of doing some kind of distancing effect or modern world approach but ultimately just leads me to think that the mixer might have been wearing earmuffs. I don’t blame him or her. Also, there are song titles like “Pop and Circumcision.” Right on up there with “Mike Miller at Your Cervix,” that one.

The cover for Saso’s The Middle Ages made me think, “Hm, arty emo.” The band photo on the inside made me wince a bit—scruffed-up emo garage rock for Wes Anderson fans (or Gondry, maybe). The album credits, bizarrely, included various references to Police album titles. (Also one song is called “Waking Life”—BAD IDEA.) The chill cold grip of failure was clearly out to strangle me. Beatboxes started things a bit and it was as if the previous album had continued in a way, but then things started feeling more melancholy and atmospheric and…oh no, post-punk. Oops. (And I LOVE post-punk, but these days, I fear a bit.)

Yet I’ll admit, somehow despite these various strikes against them, Saso’s album wasn’t so bad after all. Not uniquely great, don’t get me wrong—more than once the dread disease that is Coldplayitis kicks in and really, they need to cut that out. But in its own compromised fashion, The Middle Ages aims to stake out a place that calls to mind a number of different acts over the years that aren’t so much out to make rock and roll as much as an elegantly dark mood music on rock instruments (most especially due to the prominence of the piano and keyboards throughout). I kept thinking of American shoegazers like Bethany Curve and the Autumns for some reason—Saso doesn’t sound like them at all (much) but there’s a similar embrace of the attractively dank, plus a deft way around nervous tension here and there (so maybe early Strangelove is a better choice, but slowed down to a funereal crawl here and there).

I knew just from looking at the sad clear-sleeve promo copy of The VillebilliesExplicit Album that someone was going to have to take a beating. And this was on Universal Motown—so the Motown name has finally, inevitably, come to this. (Apparently the band’s own label is called Rhythm and Booze. Yes, it would be.) Reading over the band’s website for more information was a blast of pain (the individual bios alone…just, no, you are not badasses, musical or otherwise, no matter what hats you wear). Now, on the one hand, it’s great to see sign 34,315,454 that hip-hop is such a perfect musical vernacular for everyone—anyone who doesn’t get that can and should get out. And some of the beats aren’t bad. But it’s so…trapped in its own rut, for lack of a better turn, so comfortably unadventurous. And, again, like every other album I’ve heard over the past year for this column, there’s a piano-led song or two that audibly suffers from THE CURSE OF COLDPLAY. Jay-Z, ya dink, what the hell were you thinking namechecking Chris Martin, much less appearing on stage with him? Anyway, the Villebillies: the modern Lynyrd Skynyrd still does not exist.

The cover of Tap Tap’s Lanzafame features an old painting or engraving of an elephant. It could be a sign. The credits say that one Sir Thomas Sanders, bastard English heir to the chicken fortune, is Tap Tap. Ah, here we go, familiar ground indeed. But I had to give the album this much, it wasn’t quite what I was expecting in the end, though I had no exact idea what that was. Neo lo-fi or something like that. Instead there was actual tension in the arrangement, a nervous squall in the singing that wasn’t whiny, a bit of minimal delivery in the banjo or acoustic guitar or autoharp or whatever it was that started off the whole thing—maybe way early Talking Heads crossed with way early Violent Femmes? It isn’t everything going on in this one but it’s a starting point—every song is pretty short and yet nothing about the album feels abbreviated, so maybe early Wire and the Minutemen belong in the influences pool too. Just unexpected enough to my ears that I ended up listening to the whole thing.

The Hard-Ons will never not make a loud three-chord punk-pop album with occasional bursts of genius amid the more regular efforts, so I knew what to think about Most People Are a Waste of Time going in and was not disappointed. Gotta say though that this is a louder and more righteously great variant on the formula than I’ve heard from them in a while (Ray’s bass playing sounds tremendous) so credit for that, as well as some of the song titles—“What Would Stiv Bators Do,” “There Goes One of the Creeps That Hassled My Girlfriend,” “I’ll Get Thrush or Something,” “But Officer I Was Just Doing My Job.” Kudos, as an Internet savant once said.

The Subhumans (the Canadian one) have their own three-chord etc. album out, New Dark Age Parade, but the emphasis here as has been the case throughout the band’s own off-on existence all these years is on the righteous fight against the evil bastards out there right now doing bullshit in the name of the government, etc.. All of which I agree with but since I do—and since I’ve heard a slew of songs do this pretty much the same way—I’m not sure I need this. You might. I’m not insisting, I’m just saying. The Winston Smith knockoff art is funny enough, but then again this is on Alternative Tentacles so there you go.

One of the last songs on the Subhumans’ album is called “Blood, Sweet and Beers.” The title of The Towers of London album is Blood, Sweat and Towers. I took this synchronicity as a sign and sacrificed a mulleted posing craptastic fuxor to the god of bad ideas (his name is, I believe, Larry). The Towers of London are surely the world’s only band to be ‘inspired’ by the Darkness, which is such a fantastically wrong idea that I salute them for their stupidity. In the inner CD tray art is among other detritus a ticket from a recent Judas Priest show and I immediately realized how much more entertaining that would be. This album is loud and well-produced and absolutely NOTHING on it is worth hearing more than once, if that, unless your logic is that tribute bands are somehow false because they at least have the courage to openly perform nothing but covers rather than pretending otherwise. Metal Skool is a better option.

At least the Manic Street Preachers, whatever else their numerous sins, somehow pulled it all together and, after simultaneously celebrating and critiquing their particular approach, delivered one of the most angry, frustrated albums ever in The Holy Bible—that they couldn’t maintain it (and probably wouldn’t anyway without Richey Edwards) is no surprise. The Towers of London have song titles like “Air Guitar,” “Kill the Pop Scene,” “How Rude She Was” and “Fuck it Up (Acoustic Version).” To say they haven’t even reached the “Motorcycle Emptiness” stage puts it mildly. I’ll grant them the sublimely drunken orchestral idiocy of “King” precisely because it IS sublimely drunken orchestral idiocy but otherwise I have heard Generation X, Def Leppard, AC/DC, the Damned, and Pretty Boy Floyd even. I have also heard Bad News, the mock glam metal band that the characters behind The Young Ones did, and that was over twenty years ago and they’re still better than this. If you are too lazy to seek those folks out and make an mp3 playlist, please buy this record and hate yourself.

There’s more—much more—to review, but I have to call it quits somewhere for now, and will think about the rest at another time. Therefore I leave you with the album that I knew would make me the happiest out of all of them just from the cover, Trevor Justice’s Live Without Fear. I have no idea who Trevor Justice is but he would appear to be a spiritual cousin of that “America We Stand As One” dip, which thrills my craven soul. He’s pictured in his long-haired and well-trimmed mustache and beard glory on the front cover (hey, I have long hair but I know my limits) reaching out to both sides against a Photoshopped-background red sunset sky, eyes closed, dressed in white, as if to say, “Here I am, world! Destroy me!

I would not hesitate in fulfilling his wish. Anyone who thanks the BMI Musical Theatre Workshop so prominently in the credits is truly someone who is not of this world as I understand it, and I must hate that which I do not understand. (I am cruel.) The album is mellow smooth vaguely country here semi-pseudofunky there new age loverman stuff everywhere spiked with occasional references to issues and deep thoughts—WITH the unmistakable edge of ProTools application in his vocals, I should note, or else he’s unfortunate enough just to have that voice in general. You know. The one that makes John Mayer seem like Lemmy and Jason Mraz like Kevin Shields. Hell, he makes Dave Matthews sound like Jimi Hendrix. Compared to him, Jamiroquai really IS Stevie Wonder. Here is finally someone that Damon Albarn can point and laugh at. The pose he strikes against a piano in the inside art, nervous lip-biting grin and wide red-lapelled shirt carefully unbuttoned, makes me understand now that yes, Dan Fogelberg was the John Holmes of his scene in comparison. There’s a jaw-dropping environmental anthem called “Who Will Rescue the Earth and Sky” that, had it been a parody on South Park, would have been judged Parker and Stone’s funniest effort yet.

Someone called Sasha Butterfly sang some backing vocals. I’m really not sure who was slumming more in the end.

By: Ned Raggett
Published on: 2006-10-09
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