November 30, 2006

If you have an opinion on Placebo, it’s probably a strong one. The multinational, UK-based rockers have been dividing opinion for over a decade now, mainly through Brian Molko’s (cough) unique vocal style and his angst-filled, hedonistic lyrics.

In a way, Placebo’s high-glam, emotive style presaged a lot of the teen-baiting emo-influenced modern rock of today. The younger sibling of the late 90s Placebo fan is today’s My Chemical Romance and, well, Placebo fan. There’s a fantastic drama and accessibility to this kind of music for the poorly-adjusted teenager. But obviously it can really grate on people who fancy themselves a bit above it all.

Strangely enough, despite my own teenage love for the exaggerated histrionics of Placebo, my favorite songs were the expansive instrumental hidden tracks from their first two albums (their third, Black Market Blood, also had a hidden track, but it was more a standard b-side). While the immediacy of a song like “Every You, Every Me” was its strength, “Hong Kong Farewell” and “Evil Dildo” are interesting in less obvious ways.

For one thing, they’re subtle. And if there is only one thing Placebo aren’t, it’s subtle. Maybe it’s the absence of vocals and lyrics. After all, a rhyming couplet about “spunk and bestiality” might be just your thing, but it’s a single entendre at best. Take away Molko’s confrontational verbiage and you’re left with the complex instrumental interplay of their best moments without the diversions.

“Hong Kong Farewell,” from the self-titled first album, is driven along by a chiming single-chord strum overlaid with pretty reverbed piano and brushed drums. The effect sits somewhere near the post-rock of Silver Ray or Mogwai’s mellower moments—not obvious touchstones for a band that thrives on the punchy and the obvious.

Similar in its use of instrumentation and evolution by degrees but considerably more ferocious, “Evil Dildo” materializes out of a discordant Sonic Youth-style guitar line into a clamor of drums and guitar slashes. The pornographic, abusive answering machine message playing in the background mines similar territory to your standard Placebo song with its references to cannibalistic castration, but it’s so low in the mix, it doesn’t detract.

As time goes by, a lot of Placebo fans get fed up with the lack of musical progression and move on to more complex soil. I’m definitely in that camp, but tracks such as these are serving me well after many years and deserve some recognition.

If you’re someone who can’t sit through forty minutes of Placebo, let alone minutes of silence on the way to even more Placebo, then here’s some of what you’ve been missing.

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David Pullar | 12:00 am | Comments (3)

November 29, 2006

Glenn Danzig is best known for his campy, B-movie lyrics, laced with over-the-top violent imagery. In The Misfits, he sang these songs in his “Evil Elvis” like voice, backed by furious punk thrashing. The band has been covered by numerous punk and metal bands, both good and bad—Metallica, Guns N’ Roses, AFI, to name a few. But somewhere along the way, a few troubadours decided that their teenage punk hero’s lyrics worked just as well with just a voice and acoustic guitar.

David Pajo (Zwan, Slint) recorded a version of “Last Caress” under his Papa M (a.k.a. Aerial M, or just M) moniker. This version, with its lightly picked guitar, plaintive vocals and the distinct sound of tape hiss, has more in common with an early Simon & Garfunkel demo than with any musician sporting the Devilock. There are even some sound effects of birds singing in the mix. Sure, there’s a creepiness to lines like, “I killed your baby today /And it doesn’t matter much to me as long as it’s dead,” but then there’s the strangely affecting line “Sweet lovely death / I am waiting for your breath / Sweet lovely death / One last caress,” which makes this version sound more like an old-timey murder ballad—confessions of a self-loathing killer—than the hysterical slasher-fest of the original.

The Lemonheads have a similar approach with their version of the classic “Skulls.” But there’s something even stranger about this one—it sounds just like any Lemonheads song. The song’s arrangement is so similar to any one of his acoustic pop songs that you might not even realize Evan Dando is saying things like, “Hack the heads off little girls and / Put them on my wall.” In fact, as a little experiment, place this one on the next mixtape you give to a lover (maybe sandwiched between “Into Your Arms” and “Confetti”) and see if they say anything—chances are they won’t notice Danzig’s incredibly vivid serial killer lyrics beneath Dando’s honeyed vocals.

The collaboration between Danzig’s lyrics and a troubadour never got better than on Johnny Cash’s “Thirteen,” a song written specifically for the Man in Black, that tells the story of a cursed man, who is (naturally) a cold-blooded killer so loathed he wasn’t given a name at birth, but was instead branded with the unluckiest of numbers. Though the song isn’t quite as gory as the Misfits tunes, it’s probably twice as dark and foreboding, and Cash, as always, makes it his own, sounding believable as the wicked man doomed to earth to do the devil’s work.

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Stephen Belden | 12:00 am | Comments (2)

November 28, 2006

In this newly connected age, where the old institutions such as Rolling Stone and the NME are being usurped by the deadly immediacy of Stylus, Pitchfork, and the blogocracy, it doesn’t take much for a band to get its music heard and written about. If The Beatles emerged today, they might’ve been rejected by Decca once more, but not without a torrent of forum posts and blog entries decrying the move. Artists have always claimed that “It’s about the music, maaan” and 21st century technology has reinvigorated this timeless adage.

A demo can go a long way—just ask The Strokes, The Vines, Jet et al. A few roughly hewn numbers from the bedroom recording studio are enough to send the internet hype machine into overdrive and get besuited record company suitors in a tizzy. The jostling that goes on to sign the latest act, often on very little musical evidence, shows that we’ve definitely lost our sense of decorum.

It’s about fucking time too. Good music deserves to be heard. Even if the music isn’t quite there, any promising ideas need to be shared. Innovation is frustratingly rare.

New Estate are one such band aiming for the stars. They definitely don’t reach the stars and it is arguable whether they land somewhere else altogether. Nonetheless, their attempt is commendable. The results are a set of songs on EP, essentially a demo with very nice packaging. The songs were recorded on a four-track and it shows. Vocals are off-key and arrangements are ramshackle. This CD does not sound good.

At first, the wilful distortion of sound is jarring at best. At other times, the deliberate discordant vocals will be almost unbearable. The atmospheric opener “New Start” is particularly sabotaged, with the harmonies at times grating. As for the lower end, the mix is all over the shop: the drums have the presence of a Casio toy, whilst the swampy bass makes you think you’ve got something in your ear (and it ain’t sweet music).

However, amidst the tape hiss and loose performance, some genuine melodic ideas emerge. There’s a subversive spirit to what New Estate do—the tunes are there, it’s just that they’ve been obscured by a wall of Sonic Youth noise and an Exile on Main Street haze. “Defences Down” is all Jagger-esque drawl and narcotic influence. The grooves and power chords of “After It’s All Over” would ordinarily lead to uninspired guitar rock. Instead, New Estate tarnish the sound and unhinge the vocals.

New Estate are prepping their second album for release. I can only hope it sounds as bad as this demo.

[buy stuff here]

Michael Tran | 12:00 am | Comments (0)

November 27, 2006

I’m uncertain how often I actually consider song structure. Sure, it crops up here and there—some artists are even kind enough to provide thorough details (“the fourth, the fifth, the minor fall, the major lift”)—but upon first listens it’s about the music, right? Not the way the music is organized. Sometimes, though, one can’t help but bask in a song’s arrangement, especially if that arrangement is as simple and beautiful as Adam Green and Kimya Dawson’s “Goodbye Song.”

The track repeats its sole riff for 2:13. While that number doesn’t hold a candle to Yo La Tengo’s similarly-natured 10-minute-long behemoth “Pass the Hatchet,” the Moldy Peaches’ equipment list is significantly shorter: a guitar and two voices. Two voices, might I add, that started the previous track with, believe it or not, laughter, which leads me to question where in the world this song came from. Didn’t they just sing their garage-grit version of “Little Bunny Foo Foo” less than 10 minutes beforehand? Now, and quite suddenly, they’re both prime examples of the word “dispassionate.” The ride’s done; the thrill is gone; the party’s over and they’re stuck with their own lousy company, no transportation or a dime. But even the aforementioned can’t warrant such utter detachment from the world and, more importantly, from one another.

How composed they both sound is haunting. We’re trained to fear threats, a gun to the head or a serial killer, not their absence. I shudder at the duo’s impassiveness. Adam sounds impervious to any further damage except when it comes to the fall of the word “off” which is riddled with regret. Nevertheless, he’s “smelling himself to make sure [he’s] still there.” Kimya says she’s alone everywhere, and yet (& yet), I can hear last night’s cigarettes at the back of her throat, and I wonder whether she’s teary or hungover, the former over the latter, the latter because of the former, or if both are a constant state of existence for the pair and it’s for the best their relationship is ending.

When the only thing two people can agree upon is that they’re on their own, it’s probably time to write a song like the “Goodbye Song.” He’ll have the first word and she the last, and they’ll down a drink, have a smoke, and go back to “Downloading Porn with Davo.”

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Rahawa Haile | 12:00 am | Comments (1)

November 22, 2006

Any song with handclaps deserves a thumbs-up. There are too many bands who create precious, overwrought, music—the kind of art weighed-down by its own self-importance. In a live setting, there’s a preoccupation with self-indulgent improvisation over actual entertainment. And let’s not even get started about the shoegazing—if the band can’t get off on their own music, I’m not gonna be keen for it either.

Amidst the stress of university exam period and compounding deadlines at work, I’m not enthused about listening to a mopey song. If it should be anything at all, music should be a form of pleasure. Thankfully, with “I Don’t Know What To Do Any More,” Brisbane trio Screamfeeder inform their music with joyousness and the result is, dare I say it, fun. In a little over four minutes, the soul is reinvigorated by this pop/rock.

Dean Schwereb’s snare drum has a crispness of sound that propels the song, whilst Tim Steward’s vocal is commendably enthusiastic, possessing a sneer reminiscent of Liam Gallagher, minus the buffoonery. And, yes, the handclaps are fantastic. Granted, “I Don’t Know What to Do Any More” does falter into obviousness lyrically and musically. The build-up to the final chorus is as clichéd as it is exciting. And Dean, we get it, you just don’t know what to do any more. However, Screamfeeder’s performance is so effervescent that they get away with it. Passion will take you far.

The rumble and tumble of ringing chords and rollicking drum fills all point to the freshness of the music. Even more than any compositional element or musical technique, there’s an undeniable spirit in the song. At its core, “I Don’t Know What to Do Any More” reveals that even at the worst of times, there’s always a tune to make you feel better, a crash cymbal to release the anger, or a chord change to ease the pain. Sometimes, it’s all you’ve got.

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Michael Tran | 12:00 am | Comments (2)

November 21, 2006

You’ve listened to a lot of music, I can tell. I know your kind—people who read music zines, mp3 blogs etc. Music devourers the lot. So you’ll know what I mean when I talk about musical déjà vu—the feeling that comes when a new song reminds you so eerily of music from your past. It’s a little like the sense-memory that means you’re walking through a hotel and suddenly remember a drunken night out from your teenage years. You may not be able to identify the exact reason, but the feeling is powerful.

I shouldn’t be surprised that this year’s album by Gotye (pronounced like Gaultier) produces this reaction in me. After all, the evil genius behind Like Drawing Blood is around my age, lives in my old hometown and has probably listened to a lot of similar music to me over the years.

Wally De Backer’s little-album-that-could is garnering some impressive notices for its collage of obscure samples and heartfelt and delicate vocals. Eclecticism is the order of the day—soul, AM pop, trip-hop, indie rock, porn-soundtrack funk—but it never devolves into messiness and disorder. In the same way that ten years ago DJ Shadow’s Endtroducing spliced up an entire record store worth of bargain-bin sounds yet felt cohesive, Gotye has created a sound of his own.

Except it all feels so familiar, I’m sure there’s barely a note that hasn’t embedded itself in my subconscious before.

Sometimes the parallel is obvious. “A Distinctive Sound” screams out Wicked Beat Soundsystem or the Avalanches, with its cut ‘n’ paste, dubby quirks. “Heart’s a Mess” is Clue To Kalo, minus some of the glitches and bleeps. Other tracks like “Night Drive,” with its delicate bass harmonics and tender heart, could be any of a dozen songs, but never exactly like any of them. All that really seems familiar is the curious warmth I feel when I hear it.

In the end, it’s not the individual notes and sounds or virtuosity that makes great music truly memorable. It’s the entire package—the ‘feel’ of things, the cover art, what you were doing when you first heard the song, the friend who lent you their favorite album that one time. How can you separate out and isolate the reason why you care?

Gotye has it all, it seems. While I’ve only owned the album for a few months, it feels like a part of me. It’s managed to piggyback on a lifetime of music loving and the soundtrack to a thousand moments—right into the very substance of my life.

[buy stuff here]

David Pullar | 12:00 am | Comments (2)

November 20, 2006

Bassists are underrated—it’s the nature of the profession. Most people just don’t realize the skill that goes into creating a bassline—probably because there are so many bassists out there that get away with just playing the root notes of whatever the rhythm guitar is playing.

If you’re Paul McCartney you overcome this by playing other instruments—sometimes better than the other members of the band (ahem, Ringo)—and writing half the songs. But that’s not always possible—if you have an egomaniac (or just a songwriting genius) as a front man, you have to wait for your solo album for a chance at greatness.

Bash & Pop – “Friday Night (Is Killing Me)”

Friday Night Is Killing Me was the debut album of The Replacements’ (and now Guns N’ Roses member) Tommy Stinson; the group’s bassist and younger brother of late guitarist Bob Stinson. Stinson, a young teen when he joined the group, never seemed to earn the respect of Paul Westerberg, and although he did contribute some songwriting on the later albums, he never earned the respect of the critics either. His solo project, Bash & Pop, didn’t seem to change things—although the sound was not far removed from The Replacements sound, it added a bit more classic rock, mostly Faces and Stones, and a pinch of ‘90s alternative rock (which Stinson, in part, helped create), leading many critics to write it off with the overused phrase “bar-band rock.” That just begs one question, what the hell kind of a bar are these critics going to and how can I get in?

The Rentals – “Please Let That Be You”

Weezer bassist Matt Sharp’s solo-project The Rentals (which also featured Weezer drummer Pat Wilson) was a bit more controversial. Though it started out as an album of straight pop-rock songs, not unlike Weezer or That Dog—whose band members he borrowed for the project—Sharp became enchanted by the Moog synthesizers that Weezer front man Rivers Cuomo was using on his demos for Weezer’s second album, which, at the time was tentatively titled Songs from the Black Hole. Sharp decided to go back through his album and add layers of the analog synths, giving his pop songs a new wave, retro feel, which became a big part of the album’s success. However, despite the fact that Cuomo felt Sharp stole his thunder, and many reviews at the time concentrated on the Gary Numan-like feel of the album, Sharp’s songwriting is the real reason for the success of this album. Each song on the album Return of the Rentals managed to be just as good as anything Cuomo had written, although Sharp’s compositions were admittedly less complex and musically accomplished.

Wilco – “Too Far Apart”

Probably the most famous of this group—Tweedy wasn’t even bassist by the time Uncle Tupelo broke up (John Striatt was handling those duties), and he was co-writing (with Jay Farrar) most all of the songs and performing a good portion of them—but he still wasn’t getting the respect he yearned for. Tweedy took the entire line-up of the final incarnation of Uncle Tupelo with him to his new band, Wilco. Still, the expectations for Tweedy’s first album, A.M., were lower than those of Farrar’s new band Son Volt. The general consensus seemed to be that Tweedy’s songs had never been up to the standard of Farrar’s; this caused many people to make up their minds before they’d even given A.M. a chance.

That’s a shame because A.M. is actually a pretty great album, and you’ll find more than one Wilco fan who will say the group never improved on their debut—a country rock album in the tradition Neil Young and The Band. It wasn’t going for poignancy like Son Volt—it simply set out to be a set of great songs. The Young influence is especially prevalent on “Too Far Apart,” with a classic Shakey riff and the rest of the band busting it out, reckless and loose, like vintage Crazy Horse.

[buy stuff here / here / here]

Stephen Belden | 12:00 am | Comments (0)

November 17, 2006

No one really seems to have a good working definition for power-pop; it’s become a generic term to describe catchy, guitar-driven, three-minute pop songs. When you look at Wikipedia’s “list of power-pop artists” a lot more music than even the current Wikipedia definition suggests are present: “power pop” seems to include everything from alt. country to new wave and glam to garage.

But one thing’s for certain, people know power-pop when they hear it. Here are three songs that might be totally unrepresentative of the genre, but will surely fill your ears with catchy, bubblegum rock goodness.

20/20 – Remember the Lightning

Along with the Plimsouls, these Tulsa, Oklahoma natives started an exceptionally brief power-pop boom on the L.A. scene in the late 70s and got signed to a major label. Sounding like a British version of an early Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, 20/20 made a couple of great albums in the late 70s/early 80s that never caught on with the general public.

Never was that Petty influence more obvious than on “Remember the Lightning,” a song which the band admitted was a blatant homage/rip-off of Petty’s “American Girl” as viewed through a Beatles sycophant’s eyes. The song has virtually the same structure as “American Girl” but with its searing (but subtle) use of synthesizers, crunching guitars, and the best use of Brit accented vocals from a non-Brit this side of Guided by Voices’ Robert Pollard.

The Raspberries – Overnight Sensation (Hit Record)

One of the constants of power pop, despite how catchy and commercial the songs might sound, is that the genre hardly ever gets radio play. Sure, there’s the breakout songs like Fountains of Wayne’s “Stacy’s Mom” or Fastball’s “The Way,” but for the most part, power-pop only appeals to cultists.

This seems to be the idea behind “Overnight Sensation (Hit Record)” by Mentor, Ohio’s The Raspberries—a band that managed to out-Who The Who. Listening to “Overnight Sensation” with its driving, all-over-the-place drums, the catchy, three-chord riffing, immaculate production, and impeccable vocals courtesy of Eric Carmen, it’s clear The Raspberries not only wanted to be The Who, but that they managed to make songs that Pete Townshend would probably be jealous he couldn’t call his own. While the band only scored minor hits in their heyday, “Overnight Sensation” suggests that in an alternate universe, these men were already rock gods.

Sweet – Teenage Rampage

Like The Raspberries, Sweet seemed to consider themselves arena rock gods straight out of the gates. Although their image is more often associated with glam rock, the Sweet were unabashed bubblegum pop; falsetto harmonies lifted from the Hollies, drums and guitars snatched directly from The Who (Townshend was often named as an influence and counted himself a fan of the group), and songs that would fit easily alongside such bubblegum pop luminaries as the Archies. They were as scary looking as Judas Priest, but as harmless as the Monkees.

“Teenage Rampage” opens with a crowd cheering, “we want Sweet!” before the band explodes into the ultimate anthem for teenage rebellion—a call to arms for teens everywhere to start an uprising, “come join the revolution / Get yourself a constitution / Recognize your age / It’s a teenage rampage.” Although it may come off as a bit silly in today’s climate, it’s also charming and exciting in the same way as Alice Cooper’s “School’s Out” and I’ll be damned if one doesn’t feel like acting out a few scenes from Lindsay Anderson’s If… after hearing this.

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Stephen Belden | 12:00 am | Comments (2)

November 16, 2006

My friend texted me yesterday. “It’s over,” she said. “He doesn’t like Daft Punk.”

Fair call, I say. When you’re a music obsessive, these things become too important to trifle with.

Now, I’m someone who’s gone so far as to develop a list of non-negotiables on music taste for prospective partners. This is your basic “I could never love someone who doesn’t love Saint Etienne” kind of proposition. It’s mostly tongue-in-cheek and I can’t say I’ve kept to it very well, but it’s nice to tell yourself you have standards. Especially when all other evidence is to the contrary.

But this being the real world, it’s hard enough to find someone who is compatible enough that you can agree on a restaurant for your first date. So how can I be so choosy as to place demands on something as idiosyncratic as music taste? And, surely, I don’t want someone who is an exact clone of me? True on both counts. So, this is where it gets complicated.

You can’t really get it down to a base set of demands. Is a disagreement on your favourite band cancelled out by a shared love of the outdoors? Can they hate Camera Obscura if they at least like The Roots? Would you really break up with someone because of their music taste, all other things being equal? Is anyone so geeky they actually try and break things down to a dozen binary trade-offs?

Probably not, I’ll grant, but all things are seldom equal. We human being are fickle creatures at the best of times and minor things can play major parts. Most of my big life decisions have been little more than coin tosses with a veneer of deep consideration. It’s what makes Generation Y so infuriating to employers, parents, and each other. If you don’t know what life holds in five years or five minutes time, then a fight over the radio dial can be sufficient cause to move on.

In the end it tends to be less a matter of someone conforming to an exact list of bands and sub-sub-genres (“I’ve found someone who likes Broken Social Scene and post-1990 Detroit techno!”) than a shared basic philosophy of music. There are plenty of people in this world who outsource their musical taste-making to Clear Channel or AusStereo or BBC One. A lack of curiosity or adventure can be more troubling than differing personal preferences. The uncurious person’s taste may not be so different to the hipster, but blandness is an unforgiveable sin in most music fan’s books.

Sweden’s The Radio Dept are a band that will probably not feature in terribly many break-ups, but they have at least provided a soundtrack to anyone trapped in the dilemma. The new album Pet Grief sounds a lot like New Order’s “Regret” played really softly after complaints from the neighbors (a good thing) and it has a song called “The Worst Taste In Music.” Play it to your boyfriend and check whether you’ll go the distance.

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David Pullar | 12:00 am | Comments (0)

November 15, 2006

“Was tripping in a nudist camp / Got busted ‘cause I wore my clothes.”

William Penn Fyve - Swami

It takes quite a bit of nerve to title an album Hopelessly Obscure 60’s Psych when so much of the period’s music has already been lost to time. Ironically, I can’t seem to find the source that spawned this album. Nevertheless, upon acquisition, the songs at least seemed promising. After an initial listen, though, my gut reaction was to admit there was indeed a reason for the songs’ obscurity. They’re not terrible—they just haven’t aged particularly well.

Unless there’s a four-on-the-floor beat driving them, this isn’t a time for songs about free love. OK, perhaps that’s not true, but the trancelike drone of an organ shouldn’t be accompanied with caveats about alcoholism. Not in 2006. We’ve got real addictions, maaan. This is a time of DDR and World of Warcraft! And that’s not to make light of alcoholism nor to understate the importance of lyrics such as “Will this hypocritical society we fear come to pass?”, but these songs were meant for a moment. I’ll be the first to admit, however: they sure are a lot of fun.

Spontaneous Corruption – Freaky Girl

In fact, not only are they entertaining, but this song specifically is one of the most enjoyable tracks I’ve heard all year. Not sure why, honestly: it could be the familiar grittiness that had me hooked on garage-rock for a number of years, or the fact that someone thought it worthwhile to write a song about “freaky girls.”

These songs weren’t written for me, and while it’s unjust to suggest heavy drug usage is a prerequisite to taking pleasure in psychedelia, especially considering how many non-psychedelic artists compose under the influence, I can’t help but feel regrettably distanced from the genre.

I want to enjoy music without necessarily having to interact or empathize with it. I don’t want to be a snob who thinks something only has value if it’s written for when and where they happen to be in their life. This year “Freaky Girl” helped me jump that hurdle. I still look for that bond in the music I love. The only difference is that, now, it’s a perk instead of an ultimatum.

Rahawa Haile | 12:00 am | Comments (1)

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