Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Times New Viking -- Rip It Off (2008)

Times New Viking -- Rip It Off (Matador)

The latest flyers of the low-fi flag, TNV makes its Matador Records debut, with a number of good songs and intentionally ragged production. It even says on the back cover that this album was "mixed & fucked."

Much like The Jesus & Mary Chain on Psychocandy, Times New Viking writes conventional winsome pop melodies. Then they layer on loads of distorted guitar, with some doodling organ and bashing drums. They certainly aren’t as tight as J&MC, and sometimes you have to wade through the layers of noise to pick out the tune, as on "(my head)".

Like Guided By Voices, the lack of polish gives some of the songs a dream like quality. And songs don’t wear out their welcome, many clocking in at less than 2 minutes.

I have mixed feelings about this disc. There are some winning songs here, particularly when drummer Adam Elliot and keyboardist Beth Murphy sing together. However, a lot of the extremely short songs are undernourished to begin with, and no amount of reverb and overmodulation can mask that.

When it works, it can be extremely effective. On "Faces on Fire", Jared Phillips’s gritty jangle guitar and the loud cymbal splashes make Murphy’s plea, "I can’t hear you" seem a bit more desperate. But this production approach sometimes dulls the potential power of the songs, particularly because the drums, with the exception of the cymbals, are relegated way too far in the back of the mix.

So some of the song here are fine in low-fi, a few would benefit from better production and arrangements, and it wouldn’t make a difference for the rest.

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Ray Davies -- Working Man's Cafe (2008)

Ray Davies -- Working Man’s Cafe (New West/Ammal):

The Kink-meister’s second proper solo album finds him settling into his social commentator troubadour mode much more comfortably. The question is, how appealing do you find Davies when he mixes a mid-‘70s Kinks sound with a more trad talking blues folk approach?

For me, although Davies has been a brilliant lyricist, his best lyrics have been married to some of the most resonating music in pop music history. On this collection, one mid-tempo number blurs into another, while Davies pontificates in a relaxed manner.

On some songs, there are melodies that harken back to his salad days, such as "Peace In Our Time" and "Working Man’s Cafe". However, some of these songs sound like the music came from Mark Knopfler’s cutting room floor -- lazy mellow blues that meanders. Numbers like "Vietnam Cowboys" and "The Voodoo Walk".

This meandering is consistent with lyrics that are mostly mediocre. Davies is simply not a very interesting social commentator. For the most part, he catalogs things that are wrong in this world, but he doesn’t really have any opinions about things, other than they aren’t so great right now.

This couplet from "Hymn For A New Age" typifies Davies’ inability to really say anything: "But I believe I need something to look up to/I believe I wanna pray but don’t know what to." Hey Ray, call me when you’ve figured it out.

Basically, this album is better than the worst Kinks stuff on RCA in the ‘70s, but not quite up to the standard of the Arista stuff that followed (Misfits and Sleepwalker). It sounds pleasant, and a few tracks are really nice, but this is far from Davies at his best.

Monday, April 28, 2008

The Lackloves -- Cathedral Square Park (2008)

The Lackloves -- Cathedral Square Park (Rainbow Quartz):

Mike Jarvis is back with a lean, but not mean, trio. The fourth Lackloves album is more of the same, which sometimes is a drawback, but not in this case. Jarvis has staked out such a unique piece of turf in the ‘60s-inspired pop spectrum, that every album is sure to have some swoony throwback gems.

What makes The Lackloves’ music so distinctive is that it melds the musical structures of classic 1964-era rock and roll with a jangly lightness that skirts psychedelia, with some forays into old -fashioned ‘50s rock. Back in the ‘60s, so many bands went from poppy to hippy in one fell swoop, whereas most Lackloves songs plant one foot squarely on each side of the divide. Much like Shoes, The Lackloves meld old archetypes resulting in a new one.

If anything, these guys are better than ever as creating a glistening wall of sound. On "Hallmark Stars (Take A Seat)", Jarvis’s search for meaning in life seems to solved. Just listen to the delectable chord changes in the silky chorus, the beds of strumming guitars, and the jangle perfect bridge, with superb harmony vocals and Jarvis straining his voice to the near breaking point.

The band’s ability to find the greatest songs Buddy Holly never wrote is still intact. Kevin Ponec takes the lead on the splendid "Marlena", and he sounds like Phil Seymour (of the Dwight Twilley Band) while Tommy Doughterty. provides just the right shuffle beat. Right before that, Dougherty is laying down a Bo Diddley beat on the perky "Dance With Me".

Jarvis has shown an increasing talent for last dance at the prom style ballads, and he saves a great one for last. "End of the World" is simply classic songwriting. The lyrics are spare and direct, the song’s basic melody is pretty and sweet, but the song leaps into a whole another dimension as the melody ascends and all of the passion and desperation comes to a head. I’d say that they don’t write ‘em like that anymore, but thanks to Jarvis (and kindred spirits like Nick Lowe and Richard Hawley) there are a last few folks who still do.

Against Me! -- New Wave (2007)

Against Me! -- New Wave (Sire):

I saw these guys on Conan O’Brien and hearing classic anthem punk by a contemporary band turned my head. But not enough to pick up this album until April 2008. Which was my mistake.

From what I gather, Against Me! made its name playing aggressive sloganeering punk songs on acoustic guitars. On this, the band’s major label debut, Butch Vig sat in the producer’s chair and all of the songs are filled with electric guitars. This may have ticked off the purists, but music this powerful is certainly not hampered by additional amps.

The songs on this album range from good to great. Indeed, the first four songs are urgent bursts of controlled fury, with literate lyrics that inspire, declaim and empathize in equal doses. The title cut is a call to arms for something different in this cookie cutter, corporate world. "Up the Cuts", meanwhile, calls bullshit on the notion that file sharing is the sole reason music isn’t selling. The lack of originality might be at fault too.

This is followed by the moving "Thrash Unreal", about a recovering heroin addict’s struggles. There are shout along backing vocals in the chorus are reminiscent of Naked Raygun while Tom Gabel’s sore throated vocals have an emotional power that’s akin to Franklin N.W. Stubbs of Leatherface. The final of this quartet of amazing songs is "White People For Peace", an unfortunately titled song. Fueled by a large melodic riff, Gabel looks at how dissent is effectively ignored by the current government. From Gabel’s perspective, it may seem that singing "protest songs to try and stop the soldier’s gun" may seem ineffectual, but it must be done, or else we’re just giving up.

While the rage fueled anthem is Against Me’s specialty, there’s a bit of variety here. "Americans Abroad" is a bit of a rockabilly shuffle, encroaching on The Living End’s territory, "Borne On the FM Waves Of the Heart" is a relatively sweet mid-tempo song, with Tegan Quin (of Tegan and Sara) taking some of the edge off the proceedings. The band explores funkier territory on "Stop!", which hints at the influence of the Gang Of Four, though this isn’t quite so angular. This is a direction the band should pursue further, as it works very well on this track.

What impressed me most about Against Me! is that Gabel has a skill that very few artists can pull off -- taking wordy lyrics and making them work without overloading the song. Bad Religion and Ted Leo are good at this and Joe Strummer and Midnight Oil mastered this difficult skill. This allows for music of maximum intelligence without sacrificing catchiness.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Steve Barton and the Oblivian Click -- Flicker Of Time (2007)

Steve Barton and the Oblivion Click -- Flicker Of Time (Sleepless)

Barton’s latest solo album is further evidence of his career rejuvenation. A lot of what was cool about his work with Translator still sounds cool today -- from edgy rockers that are comparable to contemporaries such as Steve Wynn and Tim Lee to sparkling emotional pop songs that would have sounded as good in 1984 as they do right now.

The album breaks out of the gate with a fury, on the tense and involving “Cartoon Safe”. The song rides in on choppy guitars, with rushed clipped lead vocals, nearly heading to exhaustion before releasing with the melodic chorus (punctuated by stabbing lead guitar work). I’m not sure if he equals this song on the rest of the album, but he comes close.

Barton takes happy pills on the delirious “You Make Me Smile As Big As I Can”. This is sing-songy and silly, yet has a lot rock and roll muscle. It is followed by “Maps and Bridges”, which floats in and hooks deeply with its memorable melodic chorus, and then takes a turn for the brutally rocking, contrasting angst and beauty in a grand fashion.

The mood is more constant on the lovely piano ballad “Under a Broken Sky”, which has a quality that reminds me of Joe Jackson. Meanwhile, Barton takes a trip to Tin Pan Alley on the classicist pop lark “Thrill”.

With two fine solo discs under his belt, it’s safe to say that Barton is making music as good as he did two decades ago.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Dappled Cities -- Granddance (2007)

Dappled Cities -- Granddance (Dangerbird)

This Australian band is a revelation. On their second album, they bring back a lot of memories of what was good about indie rock towards the second half of the ‘80s.

The songs shimmer like The Pale Saints or the most elegant work of The Chills, but there is an undercurrent of oddball folk-pop a la early James or Hellfire Sermons. Yet there is a quality to their music that allows them to stand with Coldplay and Keane, neither of whom share the Cities’ various quirks. And at times they build up the passion to levels on par with The Arcade Fire. Yes, there is something special here.

Singles don’t get much better than the band’s signature track, “Fire Fire Fire”. The song fades in with some jangling, reverbed guitar. Then the drums kick in, with some ringing guitar noises filling the gap between beats. The melody threads through these elegant and driving elements, Dave Rennick ruing a missed opportunity, at first in a low key manner, and becoming increasingly regretful and passionate. The song is sad and anthemic in an unusual and striking manner.

The title cut has even more sweeping grandeur, with Tim Derricourt’s wobbly and enduring vocal style. The opener “Holy Chord” attacks in a different way. Derricourt sings over some odd sort of folk-waltz thing, reaching up to his falsetto to intone the title phrase. This slightly dissonant music finally resolves itself when the guitars kick in. But the passion doesn’t abate. It’s stirring.

As is “The Eve The Girl”, which sounds like the great lost Verlaines song, with inventive twists of melody and dynamics, and cutting lines like “your siblings had no kin worth dying/or fighting for.” This is big music from guys who aim high and hit the mark pretty much every time.

Vocoder -- It Should Have Been So Easy (2007)

Vocoder -- It Should Have Been So Easy (Rock-o-tronic!)

This New Zealand band fulfills a great deal of the promise it showed on its debut EP. They are a rocking outfit with a lot of good ideas, evoking The Saints, Wire, The Replacements, and ‘60s garage rock at various points.

Some of their material is just back-to-basics rocking, as on the title cut. Other tracks show off some sophistication underneath the rock. “Biting My Tongue” is rough hewn rock with an underlying structure that reminds me of a Lou Reed or Velvet Underground song. The dirty guitars mix with a roller rink keyboard, while lead singer Jamie exclaims that he keeps “fucking up” while his two band mates chime in “every time I look at you.”

The band moves into New York Dolls territory on the playful “Vanilla”, mixed with instrumental breaks that bounce in a manner reminiscent of The Swingers (if any of you remember “Counting the Beat”). The song goes from one approach to the other flawlessly.

The band’s use of dynamics on “Collapsed Stars” works very well. The slinky blues rock riff that keys the verses keeps you going, and the song explodes in the middle, with plenty of sore throated shouting. When it gets back to its mellower mode, momentarily, the band finds some nice variations on this musical motif.

This is one of those albums where the stand out tracks really stand out, while the others are still pretty good. If Vocoder can up the number of top notch tracks by just a couple, they’ll have a really great album on their hands.

Friday, April 18, 2008

Bettye Lavette -- The Scene Of The Crime (2007)

Bettye Lavette -- The Scene Of The Crime (Anti)

I was one of the few people who wasn’t blown away by Lavette’s first album for Anti. I thought that Joe Henry’s production was part of the problem -- unlike his work with Solomon Burke, Henry seemed to treat Lavette like a museum piece, and her vocals had to compete with too respectful backing.

This new plate is more like it. Patterson Hood and his Drive-By Truckers mates team up with some vintage Muscle Shoals sidemen (Hood’s dad is one of them) and they get the right groove going for Bettye.

Her gravelly voice is defiant but it also sounds like every wound she’s received is still raw. If she wasn’t so good, this style might get wearing. But she’s more than good.

And the material is great, whether she’s seething about “Jealousy” (a fine Frankie Miller tune), or lamenting on Willie Nelson’s heartbreaking “Somebody Pick Up My Pieces”, Lavette is in tune with the central emotions of the song.

The album builds to a climax with a shattering tour-de-force performance of Elton John’s “Talking Old Soldiers”, where Lavette evokes every last drop of hurt and regret found in Bernie Taupin’s lyrics. This is followed by a rare self-composed tune (initially written by Hood and then transformed by Lavette). “Before the Money Came (The Battle of Bettye Lavette)” is sassy and triumphant, as Lavette’s own story is as compelling as the songs she interprets. To call this deep soul might be selling it short.

Office -- A Night At The Ritz (2007)

Office -- A Night At The Ritz (New Line)

This talented Chicago band finally gets national distribution. This album is primarily comprised of slightly tarted up (i.e., remixed, not rerecorded) tracks from their artistic breakthrough Q & A. On that late 2005 release, frontman Scott Masson’s sly pop sensibility reached its full potential, while he also found a permanent band.

If you aren’t familiar with Office, they trade in smooth pulsing pop songs that make them sound like lost geniuses of the early-‘80s New Wave era. Yet they do this without any of the cheesiness that dates some of the prime pop of that era. The best Office songs touch on attributes of everything from the studied cool of The Cars, to R & B laced pop (a la Hall & Oates), and the romantic melodicism of Roxy Music and their acolytes (such as ABC and Talk Talk).

Masson tops his concoctions off with smart, witty lyrics. Ever since he started Office as solo project, some of his lyrics take the band’s name to heart, focusing on work/office related themes. This is splendidly illustrated on one of the four new songs on the collection, “Company Calls”, which gets its title from this wonderful line: “I’m not going to waste your precious time my love/so I’ll build you an office right in my apartment/so I can watch you take each company call.” On the herky-jerk “The Ritz” (another new tune), he trades in clipped memorable phrases (my favorite: “girls with assassin lips”), the choppy chords blooming into a lush melody.

The biggest quibble, I suppose, is that some great Q & A tunes have been left off of this album, which is a shame, since Q & A is out-of-print. But if you are new to Office, you get the chance to hear perfect pop songs like “Wound Up”, “Big Bang Jump!”, and “Possibilities”. And if you already know the old stuff, you can check out the four new songs, which are all top drawer, and a holdover from the second Office album, “+/- Fairytale”, which was an early clue to the cool direction that this band is now taking. The worst part about this album is that it may be a couple more years before there’s new dozen or so songs from Masson and crew.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

The New Pornographers -- Challengers (2007)

This is an example of an review where I slowly (very slowly) warmed up to the album the more I listened to it. I think this is pretty common with artists I really love -- it takes more for them to impress me the fourth, fifth or twentieth time around. (This may also explain my problems in long term relationships, but I digress)

The New Pornographers -- Challengers (Matador)

The fourth New Pornos album is a challenge -- how can A.C. Newman grow as a composer while maintaining the happy pop quotient that has made this band so beloved? And is it even tougher to do so when he had to incorporate the other talents in the band. This night not seem to be such a chore, but it might divide his attention.

Is it blasphemy to say that Newman doesn’t need Neko Case? I don't want to knock Neko, but the slower material on this record sounds a bit overstuffed at times, unlike the sparer and more direct backing found on Newman’s solo platter from a few years ago. I wonder if some of the songs here would be better served by that approach. I also wonder if Newman’s opaque lyrics are yielding diminishing returns, as the emotional pull of the music is scuttled somewhat when it’s hard to figure what the hell he’s singing about.

With all of these gripes, I have really come to like this record a lot, to the point that I’ll ultimately rescind my complaint that things sound overstuffed.

And I should shut up about Neko. Her reading of the stately title cut is a reminder that she’s not merely a powerhouse singer, but she brings so much nuance and feeling to what she does.

Sometimes the emotoins are conveyed by Newman's gentle vocals and the building of the New Pornographers’ equivalent of a wall of sound, as shown on the epic “Unguided”. This is master craftsmanship, with the slow verses melting into the more urgent bridges, leading to the release in the chorus. Beautiful.

While the maturity of the band is apparent from the deft use of orchestration on songs like “All the Old Showstoppers”, they still find the time for the fizzy, breezy pop tunes upon which they built their reputation. “All the Things That Go to Make Heaven and Earth” gallops at a fast pace, led by frenzied multiple piano parts. “Mutiny, I Promise You” is less frenetic, but no less peppy.

Meanwhile, Dan Bejar’s tunes are, as per usual, initially unimpressive, but more enjoyable after a few spins. Bejar follows Newman’s lead in building from the spartan to a full bore chorus on the swell “Myriad Harbour”, whilst “The Spirit of Giving” is a great closing track, particularly the lovely string-and-horn instrumental break that leads to a handclapping gospel finale.

I’ve certainly overcome any initial disappointment.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Nick Lowe -- At My Age (2007)

Nick Lowe -- At My Age (Yep Roc)

Lowe’s approach since 1994's The Impossible Bird is verging on formula. But when the result is records as good as this one, I have no problem with formula.

Lowe mixes ‘50s rock balladeering, countrypolitan pop, and ‘60s R & B, while alternating some straightforward songs with his usual wink-and-a-nod cleverness. This fits his crooning vocals. And Lowe doesn’t waste notes. Each song gets enough time to work its magic and then moves on for the next swell track.

There are nine originals and three covers here, and without looking at the credits, I’d defy you to tell which songs are Nick’s. Heartbreak is the main topic here. Sometimes it leads to defiance, as illustrated by the blues “I Trained Her to Love Me”, where the Nickster brags about dating women, building them up, and then dumping them. The old “do onto others before they can do it to you” thing. Usually it leads to disappointment, but misery loves company, as Lowe invites everyone along to join “The Club”. This is a great piece of slow rockabilly with a killer bridge.

Lowe glosses up on “Love’s Got a Lot to Answer For”, with it’s melancholy horn accompaniment and one of Nick’s most soulful vocals. Speed this up a bit, it probably has a Sam Cooke lilt, but it works better slower. The wallowing is all the more sublime.

The horns are also on hand for the perfect ‘60s soul of “Hope For Us All” (as in “even if I can find someone/there’s hope for us all.”). But no matter how beaten down Lowe has been, he dusts himself off and tries again.

His scheming is endearing on “Rome Wasn’t Built in a Day”. Endearing is really a good word to describe this whole album. Lowe is making perhaps the best music of his career, by going back to the basics, retaining his personality and adding a lot of heart.

M.I.A. -- Kala (2007)

Here's another record that made my Top 20 of 2007:

M.I.A. -- Kala (XL/Interscope)

I read another review of this record which invoked the spirit of The Clash, and, in particular, Joe Strummer with regard to M.I.A.’s mix-and-match cultural aesthetics (I think this observation was made by Robert Christgau). I totally agree with that point.

This is not the album that M.I.A. initially planned to make, but being forced to criss-cross the globe expanded her already large musical palette. The textured rhythm tracks are still insinuating and gain resonance with each spin. The mix of various third world music styles with hip-hop and Anglo pop convention is stellar. And it’s turned on its head with M.I.A.’s straightforward rendition of “Jimmy”, a disco song from a Bollywood movie.

While the percussive single “Boyz” shows that she can craft a simple hook, some of the best songs are the ones that aren’t easily accessible. “Hussel” is, with the exception of the chorus, driven entirely by tribal drums and other rhythm accents. Rapper Afrikan Boy only adds to the atmosphere.

Even better is how M.I.A. takes the pre-existing raps of the kiddie Wilcannia Mob (Australian aborigines) and adds to them on “Mango Pickle Down River”. Here, the concerns and thoughts of people half a world away are couched in sounds both authentic (the didgeridoo plays throughout the track) and familiar (the classic rap cadence).

On the second half of the album, other than “Come Around”, which features a mediocre Timbaland cameo, M.I.A. shows that she has more songs on par with “Bucky Done Gun” and “Galang”. “XR2" has a high energy rhythm track that is chock full of percussion and whiny synthesized horns, contrasted with M.I.A. rapping in a low, insinuating voice. Meanwhile, “Paper Planes” brilliantly grounds itself in a sample from The Clash’s “Straight to Hell”, with M.I.A. sing-songing along, before the hyper catchy chorus which cleverly incorporates gunshot and cash register sounds: “All I want to do is BLAM BLAM BLAM and CLICK, CA-CHING and take your money.” This might be my favorite song of the year. And this is one of the best discs of the year.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Mannequin Men -- Fresh Rot (2007)

Here's a review I wrote of one of my favorite CDs of 2007. It's a local band that I first saw opening for Office at Double Door in 2006. They impressed the hell out of me then and the album lived up to that promise. (I need to learn how to post part of it with a READ MORE thing -- this apparently involves HTML and the instructions I find on blogger assume that the reader has much more knowledge than I have -- like, where's my style sheet?)

Mannequin Men -- Fresh Rot (Flameshovel)

This is filthy, greasy garage rock with a twist. On some songs, Mannequin Men mix in the pop smarts and guitar dexterity of Television with a slash and burn style. On other songs, the band builds up a head of steam that brings to mind fellow Chicagoans Eleventh Dream Day. It’s all pulled together by frontman Kevin Richards, whose sings with equal amounts attitude and desperation. Rock and roll still lives, kids.

In keeping with the ugly cover art, the Men like to wallow in the sleaze. This is an affectation rather than authentic, but when the music is so greasy and dirty, it's best that the lyrics fit that scheme. Richards is the perfect singer to whine lyrics like “you were a pretty girl/when you were six/you must have given all boys/their first kiss,” in a voice that’s part Tom Verlaine and part Black Francis, while Seth Bohn shuffles a syncopated beat and Richards and Ethan D’Ercole play guitar leads that spin out webs of notes that creep and crawl. Yep, this is “Grapefruit”, which makes me want to take a shower after I listen to it. Every time.

The album starts off with a wicked one-two punch. “Private School”, much like “Grapefruit”, is a fucked up come on: “Baby, when you first saw me/tell me what did you think/did you know I had a/long story and couple of girlfriends behind me.” Richards isn’t sexy, but sex hangs all over this track. On this song, the Men show how well they can go from a mid-tempo swagger to driving guitar rock in the chorus.

“We Are Invisible” announces itself with a majestic riff, then dials it down for more of Richards making like Greg Dulli or some other creepy lothario. This song pulses, the guitars riffing up and down waiting for an explosion. The explosion comes when Richards and his mates tear into the refrain, Bohn’s drum fills providing an exclamation point.

Two bits of good news -- the Men did not shoot their wad after these two powerful tracks. Moreover, the tough guy stance is not the only pose on this album. There is fun to be had here.

How can anyone do anything but love a band trying to start a dance craze? Even if it’s a dance
called the “Pigpen”. This song moves into Strokes territory, as Richards explains how you got to dance because that’s “the only way the girls will romance [you].” However, this track isn’t as light hearted as “The Twist”, that’s for sure. In fact, they really don’t describe the dance, only how vitally important it is to do the Pigpen. This track shows a playful side without sacrificing the band’s rock power.

Another track that shows depth is “22nd Century”. This is a melody driven number, with the lead guitar parts glistening. This is romantic fatalism at its best, with the leads interlocking again, in a composition that Television could have done 30 years ago. “Maybe if we get away/somewhere by the ocean/I can make you drink my blood/and it will be a potion/that will make us go to sleep/’til the 22nd Century” -- how sweet and sick. It makes sense, in its own way.

There is so much more here, from the breathless closer “We Are Free” (fans of Tangiers will dig this) to the slinky “Mattress” and the slow Seeds-y garage rock of “Sewers” (with a great lead vocal from D’Ercole). This is one of the few really great rock albums of 2007.

A Place For My Stuff

Hi, I'm Mike Bennett. For a number of years, I've been writing for But the website has been on an extended hiatus. And I'd like to post some reviews and other stuff from time to time. So I've decided to start this blog.

For now, it will be a stop gap. Later on, it might be something more. Or less. We'll see.

To kick things off, I'll dig up an unpublished review of an album from last year. And the fun will begin.