Friday, May 30, 2014

Oblivians/Andre Ethier - Split 7"

Oblivians/ Andre Ethier – Split 7”
Audio Visual/Vice, 2010
Acquired: Scion Garage Fest, New, 2010
Price: Free
I don’t know how it happened, but for some reason Toyota decided to hoste one of its Garage Fest events in Lawrence Fucking Kansas. Considering that bands frequently skip over the KC Metro Area, this was a bit of a shock, but not at all unwelcome. There I got to see the Clean, the Oblivians, Cloud Nothings, Hunx and His Punx, Times New Viking, Gentleman Jesse, Best Coast, and (my) beloved local heroes, the bygone Rooftop Vigilantes (fuck the Get Up Kids, they the best Lawrence band evah). Fucking weird. Fucking awesome. Sometimes big corporations do cool things. It’s rare, but it happens. Anyway, the Oblivians played right after the Clean and since I started drinking at around 3:30 that afternoon I’d developed a massive evening hangover and left early. I was bummed, but not as bummed as I would have been had I had to skip out on Oblivians frontman Greg Cartwright’s other band the Reigning Sound, who I was massively, head-over-heels in love with at the time. The Oblivian’s contribution to this 7” is a surprisingly clean sounding garage rock track titled “Oblivion” (Wryly not titled “Oblivian”?) and… it sounds like what almost all garage rock sounds like to me. Pretty good, I wouldn’t change the station if it came on the radio, but doesn’t really move me. I don’t know why the Reigning Sound does and the Oblivians don’t, this I just plain cannot explain.

Canadian singer-songwriter Andre Ethier (not to be confused with the Dodger’s outfielder. Seriously, how are there two dudes named Andre Ethier? Fun fact: Ethier sang the Canadian National Anthem in LA when the Toronto Blue Jays were in town and got the job purely based on his shared name with the aforementioned Dodger) does great work with his bluesy juke joint inspired b-side "Promising Rainbows," which plays like a b-side by the Band. He’s a kindred spirit of Kurt Vile and the War on Drugs and that ilk. You know, those folks who want to bring back rock n’ roll. 

Oblivians - "Oblivion"

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Nothing Painted Blue - The Bellyspeak EP

Nothing Painted Blue – The Bellyspeak EP
Jupa Records, 1990
Acquired: Love Garden, Used, 2010
Price: $1

This Nothing Painted Blue 7” is totally different than the other one I owned, which I wrote up just a few days ago. It’s amazing what can happen to a band in three years. On this, the group’s first single, the band spends the majority of their time sounding like fellow Southern Californians the Descendents. Maybe it’s the big bass lines that reign supreme, or maybe it’s the playfulness, but either way they sound like a punk rock band on the A Side. “K for Karnival” and “Let’s Kiss” are wonderful fun (notably, “K for Karnival” which asks the question/pays tribute to a certain record label with the repeated line “Who put the shield around the K?”). Bruno’s lyrics are as clever and quirky as ever (“I don’t know what your tarot deck says/ About this battle of the sexes”), but it’s the b-side “Foundation Slips” that steals the show. It might be my new favorite Nothing Painted Blue track. The guitars jangle the same way they do on the NPB albums I know and love, but there’s something about this one that sounds like the platonic ideal of all that jangly 90s college rock that I adore.

"K for Karnival"
"Foundation Slips"

Monday, May 26, 2014

Gut Feeling: Owen Pallett - In Conflict

Owen Pallett – In Conflict
Domino, 2014
Experimental film was a required class for film majors at the University of Kansas. Despite having the worst professor known to man who did everything he could to ruin the medium for me, I still managed to develop a deep affinity for the likes of Stan Brakhage, Maya Deren, and Bruce Conner. They became demigods in my pantheon of beloved filmmakers. One of the films we watched in that class was the Bruce Conner directed video for David Byrne and Brian Eno’s “Mea Culpa” from their groundbreaking 1981 record My Life in the Bush of Ghosts. The primitive synths, atonal vocals, and African rhythms paired with Conner’s repetitive, monochrome, occasionally flicker-based imagery was trancelike, and obviously stuck with me all these years to the point where I immediately recalled that video whilst listening to Owen Pallett’s latest masterwork In Conflict. The album features Brian Eno on guitar and synthesizers, and honestly, you could have way worse people collaborating with you than Brian Eno. In fact, Brian Eno is maybe the best person anyone could ever collaborate with. I didn’t know he was on this record, but the fact that his presence was so deeply felt speaks volumes of the man’s influence.

Despite Eno’s hand caressing these songs, this is Owen Pallett’s show and Eno’s synths serve as a complement to Pallett’s incredible orchestrations and master class in songwriting. The same way Pallett’s string arrangements made Arcade Fire famous. As elegant as these songs are, the one time I saw Pallett live (8-10 years ago performing under his former moniker Final Fantasy) it was just him, his violin, a synthesizer, and an array of pedals at the dingy Bottleneck in Lawrence playing to no one. It was mindblowing watching him work. How did he keep track of all that shit? How did he fill the room with these gorgeous, fully orchestrated songs when it was just his slight frame populating the stage? I deduced that the man was clearly a wizard. He’s not alone anymore (although he might still be alone on stage, the last time I checked, he was playing “Lewis Takes His Shirt Off” in the pouring rain and it was majestic as fuck) as he is backed here by the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra and a legitimate band. It’s still a sparse record that feels like the album cover: a clean, black and white lyrics sheet marred by a big black splotch in the top right quadrant like something heavy hanging over the complex beauty of Pallett’s lyrics that teem with life, sex, and violence.

Like Pallett’s previous record—2010’s breathtaking Heartland—Pallett proves himself to be a wizard. His records feel like a gift. They’re records you chew on for days, weeks, months, years. Full of beauty and pain and, best of all, humor. Even though Pallett’s score (with Win Butler) for the Spike Jonze film Her was nominated for an Academy Award, he still seems to operate in obscurity. Either way, his albums will always be nominated for (or win) Canada’s prestigious Polaris Music Prize and continue to delight music nerds hungry for something beautifully challenging.

"Song For Five & Six"

"The Riverbed"

Friday, May 23, 2014

Gut Feeling: Conor Oberst - Upside Down Mountain

Conor Oberst – Upside Down Mountain
Nonesuch, 2014
Where Bright Eyes ends and Conor Oberst ends escapes me, but operating under his given name seems to be a form of escape for Oberst. Whatever works, especially if the tunes are up to snuff. He’s been hit or miss since 2007, but even then the misses are still enjoyable, if forgettable. The highs (“Lenders in the Temple” from the excellent eponymous Conor Oberst record and Oberst’s masterpiece, Bright Eyes’ 2011 album The People’s Key) have been very, very high, featuring the sort of songwriting that makes you lightheaded. For the latest long player released under his given name, Oberst has ditched the Mystic Valley Band (a plus) and put out a record that is…pretty goddamn good.

Which is fine. As I said, The People’s Key was an absolute triumph in my book and Oberst can go 5-10 years without releasing an album of that caliber and I’d still listen to everything he put out. Where that album was a sloppy, beautiful mess crammed full of paranoia in the modern world, gorgeously articulated thoughts on spirituality, and some just straight-up catchy ass jams, Upside Down Mountain is very pleasant and a little forgettable. It’s nice. It’s not fair to compare the two albums, as they’re technically coming from two separate projects and Conor Oberst’s Conor Oberst stuff tilts toward the alt-country tones he brought to life on I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning. It’s also not fair to say that Upside Down Mountain is a snoozer through and through. “You Are Your Mother’s Child” is Oberst’s most earnest and unflinchingly emotion-inducing since “First Day of My Life.” In the song we watch a child grow up before his father’s eyes and even though I know the new dad part of me was getting weepy at the opening lines (“I remember the day you appeared on this earth/ With eyes like the ocean, got blood on my shirt/ From my camera angle it looked like it hurt/ But your mama had a big old smile” and I never thought I’d identify with a line about parents having to take a child back to the doctor the next day because of jaundice but I do now, and goddamn if he doesn’t nail that very specific feeling of terror) but it really proves that Oberst is at his best when he isn’t trying too hard. The song just fees so easy, and the thing just feels like it wrote itself.

Simplicity is what Upside Down Mountain strives for because it’s an album about settling down. It’s an easy record to a fault, but even though a good handful of the songs are missing the excellent songwriting I know Oberst to be capable of, I’ve been listening to the album pretty regularly for a week straight. The more I listen, the more I think that maybe the real misstep is the almost hour-long running time that feels about three songs too long. That and the best songs feel buried at the back of the record (the lively “Governor’s Ball” injects new life into the record and carries you through the home stretch and “Desert Island Questionnaire” is as intense as anything off the first Bright Eyes records). And even though the melodies feel a little under cooked on about half the songs, and even though the rhymes feel a little too easy for a master wordsmith, Oberst still finds a way to play puppeteer with my heartstrings.

"Time Forgot"

"You Are Your Mother's Child"

"Governor's Ball"

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Nothing Painted Blue - "Swivelchair" 7"

Nothing Painted Blue – “Swivelchair” 7”
Kokopop, 1992
Acquired: Love Garden, Used, 2008
Price: $.50
I became a fan of Nothing Painted Blue through frontman Franklin Bruno’s involvement with The Mountain Goats (and the Goats’ live cover of NPB’s “Houseguest”). It got weird when I found out a few of their records (including the ones I owned) were produced by my Western Civ II instructor. It was one of those spooky coincidences. So now every time I put on my Nothing Painted Blue records, I just think of how I was a fucking godawful terrible student in that Western Civ class. It was a bad time. I kept sneaking out of class for long stretches of time to have lunch with my ex-girlfriend in the basement of Wescoe Hall. It’s not like I was a freshman, either. I was a junior and I should have known better. But alas, trying to win back your ex-girlfriend is more important than Friedrich Nietzsche. To the course’s credit, I did end up writing a very stimulating paper on Freud’s searing critique on organized religion The Future of an Illusion and Chris Dick and I used to have long conversations about Rousseau’s “Man in the State of Nature” at the bar. So the class wasn’t totally lost on me.

Nothing Painted Blue’s wry college rock isn’t particularly special (that said, it’s pretty fucking great), but it is particularly enjoyable. The hooks are great, the songs are fun and clever, and when it comes to 1990s alt-rock this stuff is at worst listenable and at best earth shatteringly great. Nothing Painted Blue are in the top percentile of these alt/college rock groups because of their sense of play and a strange charm that comes through in the chorus of “Blooming, Buzzing” via Bruno’s everyman drawl morphing into a sweet little hook. That everyman mentality is what makes this kind of music such a joy. These were just dudes in their 20s, hanging out, throwing together some jams, putting out a 7”, and playing shows. With the best bands, there’s never the pretension of trying to be successful. They’re striving to make good music with what they have, and there is something very pure and very beautiful in that.

"Swivelchair" - Days after writing this entry, this song was lodged in my head to the point where I was quietly singing the line "I wanna sit in your office/ I wanna play with your office supplies" under my breath like a psychopath.

Monday, May 19, 2014

Gut Feeling: The Lawrence Arms - "Metropole"

The Lawrence Arms – Metropole
Epitaph, 2014 
I was already a fan of the Lawrence Arms when their fourth album—2003’s The Greatest Story Ever Told—was released, but the liner notes on that album made me a true believer. The lyrics were annotated with a hundred corresponding footnotes that illustrated the beautiful marriage of intelligence and lowbrow humor that has always made this band so compelling. Fart jokes next to thoughtful analysis of Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita, etc. It was wonderful.

Eleven years later the Lawrence Arms are still just as lewd and still just as smart. The tug of war between Chris McCaughan’s sensitive croon and Brendan Kelly’s gravely bark is maybe the best it has ever been and though the band’s last release was a juvenilely titled Buttsweat & Tears (brilliant), Metropole tackles growing old with grace, big city livin', mortality, drinkin’, and beautiful things. There’s also a track called “Paradise Shitty” which sounds haha but is actually the most moving track on the record. “I’m so alive/ I’m so afraid/ That I’m wasting what’s left of these days,” Brendan Kelly sings, injecting his cigarette addled whisky soaked vocal chords with more sensitivity than ever.

The Lawrence Arms continue to stay true to their Midwestern roots, which makes Metropole sound both humble and huge at once. There’s a landlocked charm that haunts these songs. There’s also a song called “Drunken Tweets” where Brendan Kelly extols the virtues of the phrase “FUCK YOU” (which provides stark contrast to  the aforementioned sensitive jam “Paradise Shitty”). The Larry Arms haven’t made any great strides in their overall sound over the year, but album after album they seem to mature a little bit more. Get better with age. Metropole is their tightest album to date and manages to sound accomplished without sacrificing the childlike joy (and straight up childishness) that makes the group such a joy to imbibe.

"Beautiful Things"
"Paradise Shitty"

Friday, May 16, 2014

Gut Feeling: Cheap Girls - Famous Graves

Cheap Girls – Famous Graves
Xtra Mile, 2014
Fuck. How is this this bands FOURTH album and I’ve never heard of them til now? So it goes. Better late than never. These Michiganders play the sort of 90s alt-rock inspired indie rock that fuels my days. Their sound can actually be deduced from the bands they’ve spent time touring with (The Hold Steady Against Me!, Bouncing Souls, Lemuria, and Andrew Jackson Jihad) with a handful of J. Mascis vocals thrown in and the amps pushed past their breaking point to the point where everything sounds like a messy stew of power chords, fuzzy bass, and crashing drums. Somehow these guys manage to sound glossy (read: Gin Blossoms) and gritty (read: Dinosaur Jr.) at the same time, which I love, which I cherish, which I adore. Famous Graves is one of those rare albums that builds into a back half that is stronger than the front. So much so that “7-8 Years” is touted as a “Bonus Track” and it’s my favorite track on the album. There are guitar heroics, no jumping through flaming hoops. This is just good old fashioned earnest dude rock. Famous Graves is remarkably consistent and a statue built to those who have been mourning the death of the big guitar in modern music.

RIYL: Ola Podrida, a less grizzled the Reigning Sound, Ultimate Fakebook, the bands listed within this review.

Stream the album in its entirety here.

"Man in Question"

Monday, May 12, 2014

NOFX - "Pods and Gods" 7"

NOFX – “Pods and Gods” 7”
Fat Wreck Chords, 2000
Acquired: Fat Wreck Chords Mail Order, 2003
Price: $4
“Climb aboard the spaceship of nostalgia and explore the Cosmos of your 16-year old self.” I often think of my musical tastes in a Darwinian sense. When I was a little kid, I just listened to whatever my parents listened to but somewhere around 12 or so I got REALLY into oldies. It made me a primitive music lover and laid the groundwork for my affinity for hooks and catchy tunes. From there I retreated into the pond scum of nu metal only to emerge a couple years later in the blissful world of pop punk. I was pulled from the goo by Blink-182 and went from there. And then onto hardcore, and then onward and outward from there.

Pop Punk is routinely dismissed by many capital S Serious music aficionados but I never really stopped loving it. There’s something so delicious about that brattiness and the fun that is undeniably enjoyable. NOFX had a huge effect on me when I was 16. Their 18-minute long screed against modern America, The Decline, helped to shape my nascent political views in the brand new post-911 world. That coupled with a healthy dose of Jello Biafra spoken word caused the American Flag patch sewn to my hoodie to flip itself upside down. It’s all very dramatic, and kind of lame, but that’s how it really happened. It’s funny when people act like they’re born with good taste or sound political values, and it’s comforting to know that everyone was a dumb little asshole at some point.

ANYWAY, NOFX are old dudes now and they’re still acting like teenagers, which is wonderful. “Pods and Gods” is one of NOFX’s myriad excellent B-sides. It’s a solid, goofy jam that packs in a sneaky critique of religion that made my recovering Catholic teenage self do a little dance. “It’s not that I don’t believe in Jesus Christ/ It’s just I really don’t care,” Fat Mike sings. Totally. I ID. B-side “What’s the Matter With Parents Today” was one of my favorite tracks from Pump Up the Valuum. It chronicles the perils of a young person with frustratingly hip parents. “It’s absurd, you’re singing every word/ You’re not supposed to like my band/ Things I like you don’t understand!” It’s goofball rock, but the tune is catchy and well-written enough to avoid joke rock territory. Are NOFX joke rock? Who knows! And frankly, who cares if the group’s promotion of social justice and left wing politics converts some young idiots trapped in the pond scum.

"Pods and Gods"

Friday, May 9, 2014

Gut Feeling: Andrew Jackson Jihad - Christmas Island

Andrew Jackson Jihad – Christmas Island
Side One Dummy, 2014

Sean Bonnette is a gifted songwriter who just keeps getting better and better album after album. Even though the lyrics on Christmas Island read like free association half the time, it’s Andrew Jackson Jihad’s truest, most emotionally devastating, strangest, and most wonderful album yet. It knocked me on my ass and I feel like I’m still sitting on my ass in the dirt and enjoying the rare sensation of having the rug pulled out from under me. It’s one thing to expect to enjoy an album, it’s another to realized you’re probably listening to an album you’re going to listen to 100 times and is probably going to be your favorite album of the year.

There’s just something about the contrast of these bright, upbeat folk-punk jams and the often incredibly dark, apocalyptic, and ugly yarns Bonnette spins over the album’s perfect 28-minute run-time (long enough to feel meaty, short enough to make me want more and skip back to track 1) that makes my heart sing. I mean, the album opens with the line “Open up your murder eyes and see the ugly world that spat you out.” That’s some metal shit. Throughout we have children eating angel hearts, a cult leader with music in his heart, a coffin full of orphans, a moving adaptation of the methodology of Temple Grandin, and an even more moving and absolutely devastating depiction of Bonnette losing his shit at a video installation of Linda Ronstadt. There are also numerous apocalypses (apocalypii?), a mention of the Slap Chop (and a callback to the Salad Glove!), the cruelty of little children, the horribly disgusting yet spot on line “with eyes as red as a dog’s asshole when you see it shitting,” and TWO FUCKING REFERENCES to Werner Herzog’s Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans. It’s one of the most visually stimulating albums I’ve ever had the pleasure of listening to.

The thing that makes Christmas Island so profoundly great is that it is TRUE. Just so fucking true it hurts. Every word is felt and meant and through all of the darkness, there’s a whole lot of hope and humor. And though the lyrics are the backbone of this album, it shouldn’t go unnoted that it was produced band whisperer John Congleton who once again worked some serious fucking magic. With amplified acoustic guitars, upright bass, and a cello that lends the album a certain elegance, the newly beefed-up band adds a depth to does these songs a lot of favors. The group’s 2011 effort Knife Man explored new sonics outside of the DIY realm, and while there were some big, beautiful songs on that record (“Big Bird” in particular capitalized on the newfound orchestral elements is maybe the group’s greatest achievement) ultimately the record felt spotty and overstuffed. Christmas Island on the other hand is both sonically and lyrically cohesive and this combination really helps you feel all the feely feelings.

What it really comes down to is that Andrew Jackson Jihad are just normal dudes. There is no artifice or pretension to anything they do and that is what makes me believe everything they’re saying. It’s what makes me want to listen to the stories they are telling. I have spent years and years listening to music and on Christmas Island I finally pinned down “Honesty” as the most important thing to me. Not big ornate guitar riffs or atmospheric breakdowns or du jour genre mash-ups but good old-fashioned earnestness and a willingness to let me in to see the real shit no matter how ugly or fucked up it may be.

You can listen to the album in its entirety on YouTube, but here are the highlights:

"Temple Grandin"

"Kokopelli Face Tattoo"

"Linda Ronstadt"

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

The Noble Gases - "Whitewash" 7"

The Noble Gases – “Whitewash” 7”
Paintcan Chandelier Records, 1999
Acquired: Half Price Books, Used, 2010
Price: $1
For a buck, I’m almost always willing to take a chance on something if it looks even remotely cool. Sometimes things work out and the record is a hidden gem, but even if the tracks are shoddy, repetitive post-punk that sounds like it was recorded in a closet it’s hard to regret taking a flyer on a record that costs less than a bottle of Coke. To the Noble Gases’ credit, the b-side “Father’s Day,” is totally fucking weird. It’s not good weird, but it beats the trudging a-side by a mile. I also can’t knock the record sounding like garbage too much because in 1999 they were probably just recording into a four-track (note: records sounding like garbage is often an artistic choice, and while I’m sure these guys are making the most of their dour recording circumstances and hiding behind the “sounds like shit but that’s the point” method, at the end of the day this is just an ugly sounding 7”). I am assuming the band is from Austin based on the address for the record label and a mention in the Austin Chronicle when the group’s name was subjected to a quick Google search. I should also note that the band’s name is printed in Comic Sans on the label, which may have led to an unfair dismissal of the band outright.

The Noble Gases NO CAN HAS WEB PRESENCE, as this was released in the years before myspace and selfies. Hence, I can't find an example of their music. 

Monday, May 5, 2014

No Age - "Eraser" 7"

No Age – “Eraser” 7”
Sub Pop, 2008
Acquired: Love Garden, New, 2008
Price: $4
I can’t think of another band from the back half of the 00s who had more fun just tearing shit up for the hell of it. No Age take great pleasure in deconstructing punk, fusing it with noise rock, blending the results, and somehow churning out tracks that are occasionally infectious. Not all of their songs are as catchy and just balls-out ass-kicking as “Eraser,” but with a song this good who needs other songs? The album from which this track was culled—2008’s Nouns—is a fine record but every other song rotates around this one. The build-up and release is pure noisy bliss. Covers of songs by Nate Denver’s Neck, The Urinals, and the Nerves populate the b-side. It was the No Age cover of the Nerves’ “When You Find Out” that led me to seek out their magnificent and tragically brief self-titled four-song EP from 1976, which I promptly played on repeat and on KJHK for months. It’s funny, because No Age’s cover of “When You Find Out” isn’t a cover at all; it’s an instrumental sound collage. Which is heartbreaking because you just know No Age would have tore that song up.

"Eraser" - Still one of my favorite music videos ever!

Friday, May 2, 2014

Gut Feeling: The Pains of Being Pure at Heart - Days of Abandon

The Pains of Being Pure at Heart – Days of Abandon
Slumberland, 2014
There were a couple golden weeks in 2009 where the Pains of Being Pure at Heart’s eponymous debut was my favorite thing in the world. And then reality set in and I realized that the reason I loved the album so much was because it reminded me of bands I already loved. I recognized that the band did little to differentiate themselves from their obvious influences and though enjoyable, the music was hollow. Same goes for the group’s sophomore effort, Belong, which added a beefier sonics but ultimately ended up sounding like Smashing Pumpkins half the time (and with Silversun Pickups having cornered the market on bands that sound like Smashing Pumpkins, it was an easy pass). The music is TOTALLY FINE. It’s really nice. I just can’t get past how this band manages to stay so obnoxiously derivative.

Still, despite the pains in my heart, I bit at Days of Abandon. Naturally, it’s the same old shit and I might as well be listening to the Field Mice or Adorable or any of the dreamy mope-pop greats from the late 80s/early 90s. It wouldn’t be totally hopeless if the songwriting was strong or personal, or if singer Kip Berman relied on anything but bland platitudes in his lyrics, but nope. There’s nothing here to set the Pains apart. Worst of all, in the band’s eternal sideways growth they’ve let the shoegaze elements bloat their songs into oblivion. The first three minutes of “Beautiful You” are some of the record’s strongest, but then the song doubles itself and calls attention to the repetition.

It’s all very good and nice, but for a band that wears its heart in its name, their music is all form and no substance. No heart. No soul. Just pretty ethereal guitars, sensitive Sarah Records vocals, and a bunch of songs that sound like they would rather be in England 30 years ago than live in the present. It’s a shame, because it’s a gross waste of talent. I keep coming back to the Pains of Being Pure at Heart because I know these guys have the skill to make a great record but they just can’t figure out how to mature and move past their influences to make something of their own.

"Simple and Sure"