Saturday, December 31, 2011

Dirty Wings - 30th Avenue Heartache (2011)

Any band that titles a song "Scott Walker, Motherfucker" is on my good side right from the get-go. That song, a grim pro-union anthem curdled in righteous anger amongst the recent Republican machinations in Wisconsin, grinds along with the earnestness of an old folk song powered by punk instrumentation. And really, the entire album has the same feel. It's like Springsteen without the arena rock aspirations, or the Gaslight Anthem minus the mall punk mannerisms, or like the Constantines with a slightly more populist sense of melody. Or, to call a spade a spade, it's the Harry Smith Folk Anthology run through a Marshall stack. There isn't a great deal of hooks, humor, or dynamic variation here, although if the band picks its political rallies wisely they'll be getting the intended audience singalongs regardless.

Dirty Wings on Amazon

Friday, December 30, 2011

Daniel Tashian - Arthur (2011)

Daniel Tashian is perhaps better known for his work with the Silver Seas, whose Chateau Revenge made my top 20 last year. Like that album, this solo joint is sleek modern pop, although considerably more mellow and self-reflective. The level of songcraft on display here is extremely high, with each song building to its chorus in a way that's always effective yet never obvious. A few reviews have deemed this '70s AM pop, which is accurate enough as long as you filter out the novelty tunes and unctuous, pandering pap from whichever '70s AM pop universe that description might suggest. Personally, I hope Tashian isn't finished with the Silver Seas, because I miss the uptempo energy the band brings to his compositions, but for what this album is (which seems to be some kind of unofficial companion piece to the movie of the same name) it works better than anything Christopher Cross might have imagined.

Ryan Allen - Ryan Allen and His Extra Arms (2011)

This is something of a one man band effort, with Ryan Allen playing most of the guitars, piano, and drums. The credits also include a small army of collaborators, however, so this isn't quite the insular, introspective affair one might initially fear when faced with that dreaded "one man band" phrase. So instead of Emitt Rhodes, this is more Devin Davis. And, like Devin Davis, Allen isn't afraid to rock while he's sitting by himself in a studio. In fact, a lot of this release conjures up what the Replacements might have sounded like if Tommy Stinson had been their main singer and songwriter: 3 minute (or less) constructs of melodic power pop shot through with a little punk buzz, fortified by a classic rock foundation, and topped off with witty, self-deprecating lyrics. "Heart String Soul" and "Headache Nights", in particular, are gonna spark up many future mixes. And not just mine.

Ryan Allen on bandcamp

Marvelous Darlings - Single Life (2011)

Guitarist Ben Cook takes a working holiday from his gig in Fucked Up, and the end result is this riotous collision of punk noise and pop hooks. Single Life collects a run of eight singles (A sides and B sides), adds a smattering of demos - 21 tracks in all - and might make more than a few people forget all about Cook's main band. Each song is such an over-amped, balls-to-the-wall blast of energy that it's almost exhausting to listen to the album in a single sitting. Imagine a rock encyclopedia's worth of guitar riffs duking it out with a snotty vocalist in some bad drug version of a '50s sock hop - now imagine that whole scenario again as produced by Iggy Pop while nodding off on the same skag that threatened to ruin the Raw Power sessions. It's an absolute mess, but it's the kind of deliriously fun mess that makes you ponder why the word "mess" ever got such negative connotations in the first place.

Marvelous Darlings on Amazon

Saturday, December 17, 2011

The Barreracudas - Nocturnal Missions (2011)

As far as I know, these are the men of Gentlemen Jesse & His Men, and the years of honing Jesse's willful collision between Jesus of Cool-era Nick Lowe and Twin Tone-era Replacements have paid off with this adrenalized blast of punky power pop that gets over on its sheer abundance of energy and hooks. Sonically, there's not much here that will surprise anyone, other than just how awesome it is. The first track "Numbers" sounds kinda like Cheap Trick mated with the Dolls, and if that coupling sounds like heaven to you (and, really, how could it not?) then dig in - there's 11 more songs riding that same template. This album won't change the world, but the Barreracudas aren't trying to change the world - they're just making it a better place. Mission accomplished.

Barreracudas on Facebook

Saturday, December 10, 2011

The Rationales - The Distance In Between (2011)

The Rationales singer/songwriter David Mirabella may be in a permanently depressed state, but fortunately he's managed to keep it a secret from his band, who prop up his introspective songs with the sturdy Americana of Tom Petty's Heartbreakers and the chiming jangle of early REM. The resulting hybrid - a rootsy, melancholic power pop - sounds so immediately familiar that it could be easy for some listeners to overlook if they don't take the time to appreciate the finer details in the band's arrangements. Whether it's a contrapuntal keyboard figure in opening track "Real Life" or the arpeggiated lead in the pop perfection of "Jaded", the Rationales aren't afraid to disrupt their own smooth surfaces by forcing the instruments to spar for attention, and it's exactly that aspect that sets this Boston band apart from so many like-minded ultra-melodic moody popsters, from the Gin Blossoms to patron saints Buffalo Tom. Give The Distance In Between some time to sink in, and you'll be rewarded with a magic beyond its obvious hooks - and hey, those hooks by themselves should be strong enough for an army of positive reviews, it's just that there's much more going on here than a casual first listen might suggest.  

The Rationales on Bandcamp
The Rationales on Amazon

Saturday, December 3, 2011

The Van Buren Boys - Up All Night (2011)

Very much part of the power pop glam punk whatever-you-wanna-call-it resurgence that's going on out there right now, the Van Buren Boys hit the ground running with "Turn It Up Loud" and never bother to pause for breath. Throughout this album the Exploding Hearts sit like angels on the band's shoulders, probably nodding in encouragement as their cherished day-glo '77 punkophilia meets twangy '50s boogie in a supercharged rush. I probably shouldn't like this as much as I do, but I probably shouldn't drink so much or eat red meat either. But I will. And I do.

The Breakdowns - The Kids Don't Wanna Bop Anymore (2011)

The title track is a thoughtful, introspective elegy to the Ramones, and even though Joey, Johnny, Dee Dee, and Tommy lend a distinct influence to the proceedings this is a much sweeter proposition than one would expect after the armies of one dimensional pop punk bands that have buzzsawed their way to obscurity in the wake of the Brooklyn bruddahs. In the Breakdowns I hear a lot of late '70s power pop, specifically the Plimsouls, as well as occasional girl group harmonies and shards of modern punk, all mated to that timeless Ramones sense of bubblegum melody, and the end result is an album of surprising depth and staying power. In some alternate universe - a better universe, where the Ramones, the Dolls, and the Replacements are all living in luxury and Radiohead never happened - the Breakdowns are about to have thirteen awesome singles hit the top of the charts.

Breakdowns on Amazon

Meyerman - Who Do You Think You Are (2011)

I'm not sure exactly why the smart guys are attracted to power pop, but it's always seemed to be a haven for wise-ass skeptics with an uncontrollable urge to rock. The irony is that these bands are wise enough to be in on the joke right from the get-go: they know their brand of melodic guitar-based teenage-symphonies-to-god is commercially doomed - I mean, there's undeniable historical precedent here - and yet they can't help themselves. And Meyerman, god bless 'em, jump right into the tradition, melding witty lyrics to guitar jangle 'n' fuzz while offering a smart aleck wink to that very specific audience that lives for this stuff (count me in). So amid all the hooks and handclaps - and there's tons of hooks and handclaps - the songs themselves joyfully acknowledge the absurdity of the enterprise. Theo Meyer's vocals recall Nick Cope of the Candyskins, which is an appropriate touchstone if you remember the pre-Oasis brit-pop of the Candyskins, And, yeah, the fact that's such an obscure reference pretty much proves my original point about the commercial prospects for this kind of brainy pop. Therein lies the problem. And the glory.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

The Far West - The Far West (2011)

As surely as the Far West conjure up some authentic sour mash Americana on this debut, they do so with a subtle originality that lifts them above any usual expectations of the genre. So while banjo and fiddle twang under the high lonesome whine of the pedal steel, and almost every song is devoted to cry-in-yer-PBR loserdom, the entire enterprise is steered away from straight country by the laid-back drive of the band and the vocals of  Lee Briante. Briante possesses a voice that pleasantly echoes John Prine, although he replaces Prine's wise-ass twang with a jaded L.A. drawl that suits the proceedings perfectly. For sonic touchstones, consider the country side of Exile-era Stones or, to get even more specific, imagine "Far Away Eyes" if Gram Parsons had stuck around long enough to kneel on Jagger's chest until he promised to sing the song like he meant it, without the wink of condescension and the fake accent. Overall, the album might suffer slightly from a sameness of tempo, but stand-out tracks like "Bound to Lose", "Bitter, Drunk, & Cold", and "Best Company Misery Ever Had" sound nothing less than timeless. An impressively strong first album that makes me excited to hear how much further west the Far West are gonna go.

Sons of Freedom - Sons of Freedom (1988)

Superimposed over a snarling dog on this album's cover are the words "never retract, never retreat, never apologize, just get the thing done and let them howl", and it's as much a statement of purpose for the band as advice to the listener. At the time of its release, Sons of Freedom's thick, oppressive rock was heavier than metal, yet cleaner than the grunge revolution it preceded by mere months. Jim Newton's borderline whine stood in front of guitarist Don Harrison's bullying wall of volume and the sledgehammer throb of the rhythm section, all made even more intimidating by Matt Wallace's big league production. The spectacularly neanderthal opener "Super Cool Wagon" is followed by the pounding "The Criminal", and from there on in the album doesn't let up until the six minute plus closing sludgefest of "Alice Henderson". A lost, minor classic.

The Saints - (I'm) Stranded (1977)

Sure, it sounds like it was recorded on a RadioShack C-120 cassette in an aluminum shack during a hailstorm with the treble turned up to ten, but what a buzz this album still delivers! The cranked momentum of the manic title song amazingly leads into more dementia, stopping for a breather only during the six-minute stomp of "Messin' With the Kid" and the (comparatively) Dylanesque "Story of Love", and then racing to the finish line with the mind-melting Stooges-style riff-insanity of "Nights in Venice". Ed Kuepper's lead guitar is all fuzz and treble throughout, spinning flashy solos where punks weren't supposed to do such things, and Chris Bailey's gruff howl attains a tuneful charisma seemingly through the force of will. It was a jawdropping surprise in '77; it sounds even more surprising now.

The Replacements - Let It Be (1984)

The Replacements' crowning glory and the album before they started hitting their collective heads against the indifference of major labels. This is also the album when Paul Westerberg first comes into his own as a songwriter, and he seems ready to try his hand at everything, from pure pop to punk to metal to heart-on-the-sleeve balladry - but it's his band, that bunch of miscreants he played with, that keep these songs grounded and sonically related. Quite simply, the Mats rocked like few others have ever rocked, and they accomplished the feat of simultaneously not taking themselves seriously while making every tiny gesture sound like a full-on heroic stand against every injustice ever perpetrated against humanity. And yeah, it really is that good, if you want to hear it.

Dom Mariani - Popsided Guitar: Anthology 1984-2004 (2005)

This two disc anthology certainly makes the case that Dom Mariani is one of the most unjustly ignored rockers of the past two decades. He's been the main songwriter/singer/ guitarist for (by my count) six different bands in that time, three of which are responsible for stone cold classics (the Stems' debut At First Light... Violets Are Blue, the Someloves' only full-length Something Or Other, and the DM3's Road To Rome and One Time Two Times Three Red Light). Of course, none of of those albums have made the tiniest ripple in North American charts, so I can only hope Mariani sells truckloads in his native Australia. After all, there's gotta be some kind of justice in this world, doesn't there?

One thing that's immediately impressive throughout the entirety of this set is Mariani's consistency. Whether in the context of the garage/psyche revivalism of the Stems, or the sweet pop of the Someloves, or the more muscular power pop of the DM3, his emphasis is always on indelible hooks. He's also an ace guitarist, as evidenced by the blistering solo at the end of the DM3's "One Times Two Times Devastated" as well as the three instrumental tracks by the Majestic Kelp (on which Mariani sounds like the direct descendant of the Ventures and the Raybeats). And to give a little hope for Mariani's future, his most recent combo the Stoneage Hearts clock in with the pounding "Rock And Roll Boys (Rock And Roll Girls)", which zips by at a Ramones-like pace while Mariani sings lines like "I wanna hang with Mick and Keith, and play my guitar with my teeth."

It's almost hard to believe that someone so good can be ignored for so long. If you're a fan of Big Star, Badfinger, the Hoodoo Gurus - or any ultra-melodic pop/punk band of the last twenty years - then this collection is guaranteed to amaze you.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Spoon - Gimme Fiction (2005)

When band leader Britt Daniel attempted to describe the direction he was taking on Gimme Fiction as "Marvin Gaye meets Wire" he came close to hitting the bullseye. Like early Wire, this is taut guitar rock that traffics in tension more than release; and like Marvin Gaye, it's brimming with soul and groove. But as far as sonic antecedents go, I'd also add John Lennon's Plastic Ono Band in there, mostly due to Britt's vocal similarities, but also because of the confident and deliberate use of space to cushion each near-majestic chime of the keyboard. When Britt hits the chorus on opening song "The Beast And Dragon, Adored" he sounds like he's channeling the very soul of Lennon himself and, fittingly, he does so while declaring his rediscovered belief in rock and roll.

Britt's songwriting has always been effortlessly melodic, but here there's melodies upon melodies, more unfolding with each new listen - which almost has to count as a magic trick, because on first blush everything sounds so straightforward you'd expect to tire of it after a second play. On their previous release (Kill The Moonlight) Spoon had pulled the same trick while stripping their sound down to its barest essentials. This time out they've allowed themselves a logical progression to a wider sonic palette, and the results are simply astounding. You may need to invest some time before the slowburn of "The Delicate Place" actually singes, or before the seemingly obvious stomp of "The Infinite Pet" gives way to the dynamics lying just under its skin. Likewise, the jangly pure pop bliss of both "Two Sides of Monsieur Valentine" and "Sister Jack" is immediately accessible, but don't make the mistake of assuming that's all they've got to offer.

On Kill The Moonlight's opener "Small Stakes", Britt Daniel declared that his ambition lay well beyond the constricting walls of indie rock. Gimme Fiction razes those walls to rubble.

Friday, November 4, 2011

Reigning Sound - Time Bomb High School (2002)

Time Bomb High School opens with "Stormy Weather", and Reigning Sound attack that old Doo Wop chestnut with abandon, making it twist and shout where it once only strolled. It's like they snuck their grampa's old Edsel out of the garage and fuel-injected the crate, replacing polite melancholy with desperate vocals, distorted guitar jangle, a roller-rink organ swirling in the mix. And this souped-up jalopy is held together with tape and glue and hormones, threatening to break apart in a fiery crash before it gets anywhere near Dead Man's Curve. A total thrill ride, in other words.

That opening shot is no mistake. Ex-Oblivians auteur Greg Cartwright's new combo is hellbent on bashing out punk rock like the last 25 years of punk never happened. They gnaw on the same roots that formed bands like the Standells and the Sonics; they dip in to the same melting pot of American music that later forged the Velvet Underground, the Modern Lovers, and the Ramones. Cartwright's original compositions match the structure and melody of his influences. Songs like "Reptile Style" and "Brown Paper Sack" sound like immediate classics from a parallel 1950s universe, churning with an adrenalized rush of Memphis soul and garage punk. Some heart-on-the-sleeve ballads help pace the album, but there's never a fear that this sock hop will end with a waltz.

This is the sort of archeological dig that rock bands often get lost in, returning to the surface with nothing to show but an academic dissertation and a whiteface of lime chalk. But Reigning Sound seem to have dug deeper than most, with less respect and a clumsy exuberance, unafraid of shattering a few fossils, and in the process they've uncovered something new and exciting.

The New York Dolls - Too Much Too Soon (1974)

The New York Dolls precocious first album justifiably gets all the credit as the groundbreaker, but their second (and officially last) album Too Much Too Soon, might be a truer picture of an oft-misunderstood band.

For one thing, the deep rhythm'n'blues roots of the Dolls are laid bare here in the covers of "Don't Start Me Talkin'", "(There's Gonna Be a) Showdown", and "Stranded in the Jungle". That love of old Stax/Volt r'n'b suggests that maybe the Dolls weren't so much a second generation threat to the status quo of the industry as just a good ol' hormone 'n' drug-fueled white boy version of Wilson Pickett.

The r'n'b roots also offer evidence of what a great band they were. The covers didn't come across as bar band bland, nor did they sound like overly reverent studies in musical theory. Instead, the Dolls made them their own, rebuilt them from the ground up starting with the drumming perfection of Jerry Nolan and the guitar and bass rhythm section of Sylvain Sylvain and Arther Kane, respectively.  The icing on the cake was the lead guitar insanity of Johnny Thunders, whose guitar tone alone launched a thousand punk bands.

And while among the original songs here there may be nothing as immediately striking as the debut's "Personality Crisis",  there's still no way to discount a song like Thunders' "Chatterbox" as anything other than classic. As well, in "Human Being" the Dolls muster up a genuine anthem, an apology for weakness of character that is belied by David Johansen's sneering, insolent vocals and by the frenzied stomp of the band. It's five minutes of glorious rock'n'roll transcendence, bolstered by their utter belief in the power of the music and proof positive that, while the Dolls may say they're sorry for their sins, they sure as hell don't mean it.

Which is, in other words, as perfect an encapsulation of rock 'n' roll attitude as you'll ever find.

The Leaving Trains - The Lump In My Forehead (1992)

By the mid '80s the anarchic Leaving Trains had already been banned from playing every club in Los Angeles and, in regards to their own toxic levels of inebriation and insanity, they would have been well advised to go in any direction other than deeper. But they weren't finished with plumbing the depths by a long shot, and The Lump In My Forehead, released in '92, proved that the Trains were the genuine article when it came to unhinged punk obnoxiousness. The fact the album opens with the vitriolic, contemptuous name-checking of "Bob Hope" should give fair warning that no cows are sacred in the Leaving Trains universe, and songs like "She's Got Bugs", "Gas, Grass, Or Ass", and "Women Are Evil" further illustrate the band's uncanny ability to locate the boundary lines of accepted behavior and urinate all over them. The antisocial fun reaches its apex in "I'm O.K.", a six-minute story-song that details a suburban dad's murderous wig-out and subsequent societal redemption thanks to the miracle of modern meds. It's both disturbing and hilarious, oozing equal amounts of bloodshot depravity and clear-eyed satire, and if there's any genius in the Leaving Trains it's that they balance both those extremes so often and so effortlessly. If the music itself was just a little more inspired these guys would've been truly dangerous.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Dum Dum Girls - Only in Dreams (2011)

As much as the guitar fuzz and surf beat point to the band's roots in 60s garage, this album is a strangely luminescent rumination on mortality that digs much deeper than any of its aural antecedents might first suggest. It all seems to emanate from vocalist Dee Dee (aka Kristen Gundred), whose voice has taken on a slight hint of the young Chrissie Hynde and whose lyrics confront heartbreak in a way that's as direct as it is free of cheap sentimentality. On almost every song she transforms pop songs into pop drama, turning her own tragedy into high art. "Heartbeat", for example, initially gets by due to the effectiveness of its melodic hook, until you realize the "take it away" chorus refers to overwhelming sorrow. "Coming Down" builds to a climax in which Dee Dee repeats "here I go" as if she's incapable of stopping the descent.  Behind her the band creates a jangly, fuzzy sonic swirl that mixes the Ronettes, the Jesus and Mary Chain, Mazzy Star, and most of the Nuggets box set into something that at times still seems to be trying to find itself - but there's very little doubt that we're seeing the birth of a true star here.

Glasvegas - Glasvegas (2008)

There's not a lot of variation here, but variation is a crutch for the uncommitted, right? Just ask the Ramones. Or Sousa. Or the republican base. Thing is, what these guys do may be limited, but they do it like the next three minutes are the most important 179 seconds in the universe. Almost every song seems to rise out of a morose static drone that bleeds between tracks, and when the embellishments arrive  - a nervous acoustic strum, 60s girl group beat, the constant threat of guitar violence - they're just faintly familiar enough that they cradle everything in the comfort of nostalgia. And the cherry on top of all that is the voice - an untrained working class Scot burr that doesn't so much confess sins as declare them. The end result shimmers with a luminous melancholy that contains a fair amount of magic. Definitely a mood piece, but it's a mood that most of us are eventually committed to whether we like it or not.

Yep - Once (2011)

The gameplan for the debut album by Yep seems straightforward enough. Al Chan (of the Rubinoos) and Mark Caputo (of Belleville) teamed up and cherry-picked some of their favorite songs from all over the pop continuum. They demonstrated great taste and impressive record collections in the process, creating a songwriters' universe in which Don Everly, Ray Davies, Woody Guthrie, and Elton John stand shoulder to shoulder with Joe Pernice, Justin Currie, Teitur Lassen, Richard Buckner and Alan Wauters. The songs (ten covers and one Caputo original) are presented in rich, uncluttered arrangements. Around them guitars twang and jangle, occasionally kick up some distortion but never enough to kill the mellow buzz. Producer John Cuniberti finds the exact right balance between technologically pristine and organically natural.

And then those voices enter the picture, and suddenly nothing seems straightforward anymore. The vocals of Chan and Caputo wind around each other in such stunning harmony that they invoke a sense of utter timelessness. It's like the Everly Brothers smashcut into a new millennium. And that's not to suggest an old-fashioned approach. There's no rose-tinted grasp at the past here, just as there's no auto-tuned plasticity begging for mainstream approval; this is a simple, unadorned flexing of talent that should intimidate other singers and delight everyone else.

Some music just seems to stand outside of time, completely impervious to passing trends and fleeting style. It makes its own rules, defines its own sense of cool. A pantheon of greats already inhabits such rarefied air. Is it possible that Chan and Caputo have joined them? Yep. Yep. A thousand times Yep.

Yep on Amazon

Watts - On The Dial (2011)

Whenever I start to lament the demise of modern music, a band like this will show up and kick my ass. Watts somehow wedge their tough rock 'n' roll in the same space between punk and power pop that once made the Replacements seem so necessary. Each song on On The Dial comes armed with at least a couple barbed hooks, and the band backs them up with the cool swagger of a 50s street gang. Singer Dan Kopko's rasp holds a similarity to Social Distortion's Mike Ness (but with a more advanced sense of both melody and humor), while guitarist John Blout's muscular, dramatic leads are concise and tuneful, and underneath it all the rhythm section of Craig Lapointe and John Lynch pushes every bar forward with a lurching, inevitable momentum. The band may be named after Rolling Stones drummer Charlie, but I'm going out on a limb and claiming they're paying similar homage to Mott the Hoople bassist Overend, because as much as these songs chug along with the Chuck Berryisms of a punked-up Stones they also revel in the hard-bitten romantic fatalism of the best moments of Mott (and now that I think of it, I may have to start a campaign to get these guys to cover either "Jerkin' Crocus" or "One of the Boys" - it might be a perfect fit). Smart enough to title a song "Sweetheart of the Radio", cool enough to cover Angel City (aka the Angels), and, godbless'em, brave enough to even try at all - Watts is a band after my own heart.

Watts on Amazon