Monday, March 23, 2020

Love by Amen Dunes (review)

 Back in 2014, I wrote about a dozen record reviews for a website called Buzz and Howl. It was later hacked and disappeared into the ether. This is the final post in a series intended to preserve that work, unedited. 

Amen Dunes, Love

In a way, all of the work that Damon McMahon has released under the name Amen Dunes is pretty similar sounding. But looked at another way, you could weigh each song down with as many micro-genre descriptions as ornaments hanging on a Christmas tree. This is largely a trait of the idiom in which he’s working: modern psychedelia. Having cross-pollinated with almost every genre of rock and subsumed them into a larger idea--an idea more about feeling and headspace than specifics of sound--“psychedelic” music has come to a mean everything from poppy garage-stompers to blissed-out drones to folky weirdos with acoustic guitars. Amen Dunes doesn’t really do garage stomp; all of its output falls somewhere between freaky folk and drone-out. And the newest release, Love, is ever-so-slightly less weird than what came before.

There’s a certain straight-forward prettiness to the tracks on Love that make its emotions easier to access than was possible on Amen Dunes’ previous releases. But while some of the earlier work may have been weirder and noisier and this is prettier in a more straight-forward way, it also doesn’t evoke the type of intimacy those earlier, lo-fi and often improvised, tracks did. This stuff is wide open--and “openness” is another form of intimacy. The vocals sometimes approach the epic, ‘verbed-out sweep of My Morning Jacket’s Jim James, but with just the right tinge of sourness to keep everybody honest--that old Neil Young device of reaching for a note just beyond your natural range, implying something about artistic struggle and authenticity with only the tone of your voice.

Love’s thoughtful album sequencing lets each track build on the one before it, especially useful being that these are the type of simple arrangements that make every element count. Acoustic guitar dominates “White Child,” the first track, until the last minute when a haunting organ is allowed to come to the fore. “Lonely Richard” includes some ringing electric guitar playing and the album’s most sing-along-able part: “Have yourself a good time.” But then track three is where the electric lead parts approach the cinematic. “Splits are Parted” is maybe the album’s standout track. It’s the one I’ve returned to the most often. Here the singing veers towards the parts of Marc Bolan’s early vibrato-heavy style that Devendra Banhart resurrected and made his own--without ever being quite as fey and mannered as either of those forerunners.

McMahon continues to add small touches throughout the album: “Sixteen” has a piano track and vocal that are both double-tracked with one of the takes slightly behind the other. On headphones, it has a trippy, disorienting effect; you can feel yourself getting dizzy. “I Can’t Dig It” is the track that sounds the most unlike anything else on the album. The track kicks off with a scratchy and distorted electric guitar, fast-strummed. It’s the sort of rhythm guitar track a punk band could build an anthem around, but McMahon doesn’t make that mistake; this isn’t a stylistic left-turn. It’s only a slight change of angle or perception on the types of riffs he has built the whole album on--only those were all played acoustically, with the electric reserved for leads like clear bells, each distinct note played slowly and deliberately. And soon this novel sound is dragged even further into the sound-world established through Love’s first nine tracks as he lets the riff deteriorate into a drone that gets pushed further and further back in the mix (and thus our consciousness), buried beneath that distinct vocal effect and a plinking/plonking rhythm part.

This is not a case of an artist cleaning up his act to try to make more accessible work. Instead, it’s an artist opening up and letting the listener into his world a little more, to share in the emotions informing the work. And so again the keyword is “open.” Vast expanses of desert, winding mountain roads at dusk, these are the types of images Love evokes, and these are the physical places where you could really crank it up and appreciate it.

Sunday, March 22, 2020

Cool Breeze Over the Mountains by Spaceships (review)

Back in 2014, I wrote about a dozen record reviews for a website called Buzz and Howl. It was later hacked and disappeared into the ether. This is one in a series of posts intended to preserve that work, unedited. 

Spaceships, Cool Breeze Over the Mountains 

“We play bedroom-garage style rock and roll for the kids,” proclaims the Bandcamp page of L.A. boy/girl duo Spaceships and--despite its seeming simplicity and the generally insipid nature of most band-related copy--quite a lot about their approach is revealed in this short statement. There is a knowing wink being tossed out by the phrase “bedroom-garage” that shows Jessie Waite and Kevin LaRose have a wry relationship with rock history. Garage rock, which is unmistakably what they play, was named for a somewhat derogatory term for the type of band that originally played it--“garage bands”--who were in turn named for the actual location where it was played. The idea being, of course, that a garage band practiced in the garage and was probably never going to play outside of the garage. Spaceships call their music “bedroom-garage” because they play garage rock, but they play it in a bedroom--or at least in an apartment.

I’m sure they’re also well-aware that the term “bedroom” itself has been applied to a certain mopey style of whispered indie music. And this ain’t that. Jessie Waite’s guitar turns out churning riffs. Her nasally vocals mostly map the limited terrain between cheerfully snotty and snottily cheerful; either way they’re pushed with a ton of gain and occasionally distorting out of intelligibility. That’s where the phrase “for the kids” from that brief descriptive statement (that the band almost certainly wrote for themselves) comes in. The vocals can be childlike, and when the melodies and lyrical themes seem to match that mood and tone, that’s when Spaceships first full-length Cool Breeze Over the Mountains is at its best. “I had a dream, I had a wand like magic/I was so rich and pretty…” goes the infectious opening verse of “Dreams.” I’m less taken with the duo’s attempts at sludgy metal riffs, like “Cowboy Beach” or “Snow Mountain,” but to be fair they do evoke a different sort of childhood experience. Instead of the jumping-on-the-bed rowdy cheerfulness found elsewhere on the album, we get bad kid sulking, the supposed power of the big riffs actually evoking a certain impotence. “Don’t tell me I’m bad, when I’m not bad,” Waite repeats on “Snow Mountain.” “Don’t tell me I’m wrong, when I’m not wrong.”

The compositions on Cool Breeze... are sometimes afflicted with that problem where the intros are weird, or catchy and fun--and way more interesting than the tune the song settles into. Back-to-back mid-album tracks “Ghost” and “Gandalf” are both like that. The title track has a different problem. It begins with, and uses as its chorus, a surf-rock riff so familiar I couldn’t help but conjuring regional TV commercials for a nearby boardwalk from my youth. It sounds great, and it’s not even the most catchy thing about the song, the verses of which are like a sing-songy schoolyard chant you can’t quite get out of your head.

This is a danger for a band working in what is, after all, a somewhat retro idiom. But it’s also a strength. Because here I am blasting “Cool Breeze Over the Mountains” again, awash in yet another shade of childhood: those long summer afternoons spent watching TV, wishing you could get away to anywhere else, have some real fun like the kids running from the waves and walking the beach boardwalk in the commercial.

Saturday, March 21, 2020

Eyes & No Eyes, self-titled album (review)

Back in 2014, I wrote about a dozen record reviews for a website called Buzz and Howl. It was later hacked and disappeared into the ether. This is one in a series of posts intended to preserve that work, unedited.

Eyes & No Eyes, S/T

Post-rock quartet Eyes & No Eyes deliver a sound that is both beautiful and muscular on their self-titled debut. The album doesn’t rely on the cello playing of Becca Mears for its beauty, nor on the rhythm section of Thomas Heather (drums) and Marcus Hamblett (bass) for its muscle--it truly is the interplay between all of these parts, as well as Tristram Bawtree’s guitar, that allows for such effective richness. Bawtree’s singing is pleasant, and there is in all likelihood a good deal going on in the lyrics, but Eyes & No Eyes feel like a music first type of band, with the parts worked out as a group and the vocals added later. The only song here that could be considered troubadour-worthy, and possibly written as a guitar-and-vocal piece before being brought to the band, is the uncharacteristically short “Old Crow.”

The density of high-brow, or perhaps merely obscure, references--song titles taken from J.G. Ballard, the band name itself from a musical by W.S. Gilbert (of Gilbert & Sullivan)--belie the fact that the foursome met at art school in Brighton and originally formed under the flag of improvisation. And yet the music doesn’t collapse under the weight of such pretension, although it does occasionally seem to hold them down. Case in point is the album’s opening, and as such our first impression of Eyes & No Eyes. This is not a record that starts off with a bang. We are treated to almost two full minutes of experimental-band-warm-up futzing before anything like a melody emerges. And then another minute and a half before the beat kicks in. But when it does, it rocks, and you can visualize a crowd at one of their shows held in rapt attention before the tension breaks and everyone begins to sway and move together.

The second track, “Autocrat,” has some fascinating things happening on the drum kit that makes the fact that the band have a Matmos-influenced EP in the works unsurprising. In fact, the drums throughout the record are just as interesting as the rest of the instruments. This is not a band where the string section improvises over an unchanging and steady, repetitive beat, despite the promotional material mentioning their shared love for “driving motorik beats.” The quartet share the load, swapping roles throughout. Sometimes the cello is a drone gluing everything together, and at other times it’s used for strange, noise-based accents. The guitar might throw out some fuzzy lightning strikes, but is more likely to keep things moving forward with a notey loop.

Often young bands with young members don’t fully understand their own personality, and end up describing themselves in terms of things they’ve loved. An artist can never truly know what their own influences are. So when their bio describes Eyes & No Eyes as “walking the fine line between noise and pop drawn up by Sonic Youth and Liars,” I’m tempted to call bullshit. If these are their influences, it’s more in spirit than in sound--no one would accuse them of being a No Wave band, and Bawtree’s singing is prettier than anything you’re likely to find on either of those bands’ records. There is a Sonic similarity to some of my favorite Youth records--that mid-to-late-period of Murray Street, A Thousand Leaves, and Sonic Nurse--with pretty guitar riffs, mid-tempo but driving drums, and very tastefully deployed snatches of noise. But comparisons sell Eyes & No Eyes short. Whether they realize it or not, they’ve already built their own playground, and I can see them hanging around on it for a good while to come.

Friday, March 20, 2020

Sunbathing Animal by Parquet Courts (review)

 Back in 2014, I wrote about a dozen record reviews for a website called Buzz and Howl. It was later hacked and disappeared into the ether. This is one in a series of posts intended to preserve that work, unedited.

Parquet Courts, Sunbathing Animal

I’ve been listening to Parquet Courts’ new record Sunbathing Animal for a few weeks now, and every time I do, a particular scene from a thirty year old movie keeps floating around in my brain. In Repo Man, the main character Otto starts out as a punk but soon suits up to perform the titular profession. At one point he runs into some of his old punk friends at a sleazy lounge and finds that he can’t identify with them at all anymore. In the background, the Circle Jerks are performing a slow, acoustic version of their song “When the Shit Hits the Fan,” and at one point Otto looks over and says, “I can’t believe I used to like these guys.”

Now that might sound like I mean it as an insult, but I definitely don’t. It’s not that Otto realizes that the band sucks--it’s that he has become such a different person that he doesn’t recognize the guy who used to listen to them. When a work of art so perfectly captures for the listener a moment in time and a feeling about that moment, it becomes forever wedded to it, and to the version of you that experienced it, a you that is now gone. I’ll never be able to hear Sublime’s weird Gershwin redux “Doin’ Time” without feeling my teenaged self lying on my back on a hot trampoline, t-shirt soaked from a rampaging water-fight, and thinking about all those lost friends I experienced that moment with. I haven’t seen any of those people since that summer, and I haven’t been that version of me since then either.

In precisely the same way, I don’t think I’ll be able to hear Sunbathing Animal ten years from now without thinking about my first summer in New York, with the humidity of the subway at three AM lulling me to sleep, then getting back on the train bleary-eyed a few hours later to get to work, Parquet Courts in the earbuds the only thing keeping me awake. And I wonder if, thinking back from this hypothetical future, I’ll recognize this younger, stupider version of me. Or will I think, as I certainly do of Sublime now, “I can’t believe I used to like these guys”?

I’m not saying you have to be young to appreciate this record--hell, I ain’t as young as I used to be, I’ve got five years on PC’s frontman Andrew Savage--but it helps to be in a period of your life that feels legendary, that you’re somehow already feeling nostalgic for. My favorite track on the record is the one about a mysterious lady that you can’t quite pin down, “Dear Ramona.” Small details perfectly capture that mid-twenties, free-floating social milieu that just about all the world’s indie bands exist in: “This daughter’s saving up commissions from acting/but no one’s ever seen her play/She fixes breakfast for two in the morning/and drinks dark coffee at night/whoever she might be goin’ to bed with/you can read about that in her Moleskin.” The tired-of-touring lament “Always Back in Town” similarly describes a recognizable part of life at that age, in that scene: “...always making amends/always staying clean… always feed my cat/And I’m always packing my bags/I’m always back in town (according to you).”

The comparisons to Pavement I’ve been hearing about Parquet Courts make a lot of sense: smart and sloppy, playful but not unserious. If you were there when they were around, you could grow up with Pavement, maturing along with each new release. And I think it could come to pass for Parquet Courts that they will have the same kind of trajectory. So maybe their fans won’t be looking back ten years from now and thinking, “I can’t believe I ever liked these guys,” but instead thinking, “I can’t believe these are the same guys.” Because they’ll be different, and we’ll be different.

Thursday, March 19, 2020

Dalliance by Gold-Bears (review)

Back in 2014, I wrote about a dozen record reviews for a website called Buzz and Howl. It was later hacked and disappeared into the ether. This is one in a series of posts intended to preserve that work, unedited. 

Gold-Bears, Dalliance 

Gold-Bears are a band that seem all-but-engineered, or maybe just destined, to be on Slumberland Records. The contemporaries to whom they are most often compared are current labelmates the Pains of Being Pure at Heart, and Jeremy Underwood--who pretty much is Gold-Bears--claims Boyracer as one of the two bands he couldn’t live without. Pam Berry, from Slumberland founder Mike Schulman’s band (and my favorite on their roster) Black Tambourine, shows up to bless the proceedings on one of the many highlights of Gold-Bears new LP, Dalliance. That track, “From Tallahassee to Gainesville,” seems to be at least partially about those long conversations you sometimes have on roadtrips; smart conversations with smart people that end up making you feel dumb. These types of golden invocations of bittersweet memories is what Dalliance is all about. On the surface it’s all exuberance, and then you listen closer and realize they’re singing about pain and regret.

Although Underwood apparently assembled an entirely different band between the release of this record and the first, Gold-Bears pick up right where they left off on Are You Falling In Love?--literally, with a song called “Yeah, Tonight.” And then they explode into “Chest,” which is adorned with some beautifully simple “bah-bah-bah” backing vocals that arrive at exactly the right moment, in this case at about two-thirds of the way through the song. We’re shy of five minutes total running time when the third tune comes crashing in just as insistently. And then (again, at exactly the right moment) comes “I Hope They’re Right,” a much-needed breather in terms of album sequencing, giving us exactly the sonic space to regroup after three breakneck opening tunes. It’s beautiful in its own right, layering great swaths of My Bloody Valentine-style noise tracks deep in the mix behind pretty acoustic guitar and prettier vocals.

Underwood is able to pack a whole lot of feeling, sentiment, and lyrical detail into one-to-one-and-a-half-minute tunes like “Memo” or “Punk Song No. 15,” the latter of which, especially, is designed to be listened to over and over, and is destined to be the kickoff track of many a future mixtape. But you don’t mind when the songs stick around a little longer, either, as with the more modestly paced “Hey, Sophie.” (And let’s face it, 2014 needed an indie-pop song called “Hey, Sophie,” so check that one off the list.) In another great bit of sequencing--clearly one of Underwood’s strengths--the sweetness of that track, reportedly about his daughter, is washed away by the sour bite of “For You,” which starts out with an addled voice hollering, “Your mistake!” and continues to detail bitterness and regret. But, as ever, the music here pulls against the lyrics, endlessly complicating its emotional impact. Call it the Smiths’ effect.

It’s a raw bunch of songs, in the emotional sense, and without the melodies sweetening the bitter into the bittersweet, we might not be able to take it all in one sitting. But, instead, after playing Gold-Bears’ latest all the way through, we feel exhilarated. We hit play again, knowing that in another half-hour we’ll have felt all these things all over again. And it’s in this way that Dalliance demonstrates one of the things that makes pop music great, something so fundamental that we occasionally need reminding of it: good pop makes pain catchy.

Wednesday, March 18, 2020

Mosaics within Mosaics by Circulatory System (review)

Back in 2014, I wrote about a dozen record reviews for a website called Buzz and Howl. It was later hacked and disappeared into the ether. This is one in a series of posts intended to preserve that work, unedited. 

Circulatory System, Mosaics within Mosaics

There was a time, not too terribly long ago, when instant access to all the world’s information wasn’t something a person could reasonably expect. These small dark spots of not-knowing in the fabric of your working daily knowledge allowed a powerful force to seep through. We called this force mystery.

I first heard the words “Elephant 6” the winter I turned 20. Although it had been released three years previously, it seemed to me that everybody in the music press was suddenly talking about In the Aeroplane Over the Sea; it almost felt like Kid A’s only competition for Album of the Year. I listened to it, experienced the personal epiphanies and obsessional tendencies typically attendant to one’s first encounter with Neutral Milk Hotel, and then asked my cooler friends if they knew anything about this band.

They knew it was somebody named “Jeff Magnum”--back then everybody mispronounced it “Magnum”--and that he was somehow related to this Elephant 6 thing, which may have been a record label or a production company, but could have been an old timey street gang for all we knew. I was handed a stack of records, many of which didn’t feature the names of the albums, or even the bands. I remember being shown the Frosted Ambassador album and told, “We know this is the same people because it sounds like Olivia Tremor Control, and the cover art is obviously in the same hand as all this other stuff.” But we didn’t know who that artist might have been. The mystery was half of our fascination with these guys--and the mystery extended to the music itself. We imagined the sounds were being piped in from some otherworldly carnival decades ago, and sometimes didn’t even know what kind of instrument was creating the sounds we were hearing.

A decade and a half later and I know that the artist whose hand we were recognizing in all those painted album covers was Will Cullen Hart, I know that he was in Olivia Tremor Control, and I know that he formed Circulatory System when they broke up. Mystery is in short supply these days, but it still clings to the Elephant 6 guys. Nothing in this world is mysterious, but at least they used to be. Circulatory System have always held special esteem for me because their self-titled debut was the first Elephant 6 record that I was there for. I saw it at the record store (Amoeba on Telegraph in Berkeley), recognized it for what it was, took it home, put it on the turntable, and was baffled by it. Which was only fitting.

Circulatory Systems new album, Mosaics Within Mosaics, reminds me of that first one. Melodies recur across tracks like operatic leitmotifs, causing us to remember earlier portions of the record even while still listening to later parts of the record. It echoes across itself, disrupting our sense of time. It’s thirty-one tracks sometimes seem to last far longer than the hour it actually takes to listen to them, and at other listens you are shocked to realize how much they fit into this relatively short running time. Sixty minutes isn’t long in our current era--no longer even dictated by the length of a CD anymore, artists can go on as long as they want, but Mosaics Within Mosaics wouldn’t fit on the two sides of a record, and we used to call that a “double album.” For Hart’s idols, The Beach Boys, this would’ve been an epic.

Many of the tracks fit the under-two-minute-experimental-sketch format, but there are some actual songs, too. Strangely, these don’t often go on for too much longer than two minutes either, and are sonically very similar. This sonic consistency also serves to leave the listener in a state of temporal confusion; as songs fade out and strange little sketches fade in we’re apt to lose track of where we are in this rushing river of sound. Best just to turn off our minds, relax, and float downstream: as the title to one track has it, “There is No Time But Now.” One of the standout song-songs is “Over Dinner the Cardinal Spoke,” a classic example of Elephant 6 lyricism, with its title (and title character) giving off a whiff of the old-timey, and its whimsical references to an “April Fool’s joke” and “things your mother never told you.”

There are eight, sequentially numbered tracks called “Mosaic” sprinkled throughout the album (in addition to the title track, “Mosaics Within Mosaics”). These mostly serve to remind us why Will Cullen Hart was considered the “experimental” half of Olivia Tremor Control’s central songwriting partnership, with his sadly deceased old friend Bill Doss representing the “pop” side of the equation. But the final in the series, “Mosaic #8,” is pretty as hell and charged with forward momentum. Despite being a two-minute instrumental, it’s my favorite “song” on the record. In true Elephant 6 fashion, much of what is here is bafflingly beautiful, but what is most exciting about the release from a long-term fan’s standpoint, is that much of it is simply... beautiful.

Thursday, March 5, 2020

Cassette by Viet Cong (review)

Back in 2014, I wrote about a dozen record reviews for a website called Buzz and Howl. It was later hacked and disappeared into the ether. This is one in a series of posts intended to preserve that work, unedited. 

Viet Cong, Cassette 

Out of the ashes of Calgary's beloved Women, who broke up back in 2010--two months after releasing their second album and right at the beginning of a tour to support it--rises this more scrappy and lively phoenix. Viet Cong’s debut has been kicking around for a little while now, though you’d be forgiven for having missed it, as it was originally sold only at their live shows--and only on cassette. But now is the the time to catch up with this great EP, as the band have already recorded their follow-up full-length and plan to release it later this year.

Cassette opens with “Throw It Away,” a Magazine-esque pairing of jagged jangle on guitar with an occasionally squiggling synth. The vocals have a bit of that anthemic Buzzcocks vibe and the whole thing kinda reminds of Wire, actually, keeping us squarely in the late-70’s UK scene. The next track, “Unconscious Melody,” keeps the jangling guitars but pins them to the back of a thick bassline and trades up the vocals to the 80s--the Psychedelic Furs or Echo and the Bunnymen, perhaps. “Oxygen Feed,” the third track, rambles along like a Deerhunter outtake with a shambling prettiness due to the conflict between the parts-as-played and the lo-fi production techniques. “Static Wall” builds on this subtle psych approach, sounding like a slightly more clear-eyed Sic Alps.

I don’t mean to suggest that Viet Cong are wholly derivative of cool sounds of the past, or their contemporaries (Women, who had the same rhythm section as Viet Cong, once toured with Deerhunter). This EP does what the debut, short-form release of a new band should do: it explores a number of possible musical directions--and it has some fun. Covers are a good way for a group of musicians to figure out where their Venn diagrams of musical taste overlap, and Viet Cong throw in what--judging by the authentically small crowd noise at the start of the track--sounds like a live one with Bauhaus’s “Dark Entries.”

Coming after “Structureless Design,” the most abrasive and dark song Cassette has to offer, the cover gives some context to the seeming left-turn of the earlier track’s deep vocals and sudden shreds of screeching noise. The closing track, “Select Your Drone,” deploys some of that screeching noise within the body of the song, which, with its rumbling/rolling drums and tribal shouts, is full-on early-Can kosmiche, and a wonder to behold. Starting off with two minutes of low-and-slow prettiness and ending, after a bit of silence, with some Blade Runner-ish synth, “Select Your Drone” is a microcosm of the EP’s eclecticism, and goes a long way towards binding it all together.

In seven tracks, Viet Cong throw a lot at the wall; happily, much of it sticks. But every release can’t be this eclectic or a group of musicians, no matter how great the individual tracks they make together, has a hard time forming an identity as a band that captures the imagination of listeners who are anticipating that next release because they both can and can’t picture what exactly it will be. At this early point in the story of Viet Cong, I’m very excited to find out what pieces of Cassette they chose to polish and hone into the sound of their first full-length.

Monday, March 2, 2020

Liberation! by Peter Matthew Bauer (review)

 Back in 2014, I wrote about a dozen album reviews for a website called Buzz and Howl, which was subsequently hacked and disappeared into the ether. This is the third in a series of posts intended to preserve that work, unedited.

Peter Matthew Bauer, Liberation!

After a decade and a half as a sideman in the Walkmen, Peter Matthew Bauer has released his solo debut, trading his bass and organ for a guitar and a microphone. Just reading through the track titles gives you an indication of the world- and culture-hopping exoticism Bauer hopes to impart with the album. “Philadelphia Raga,” “Istanbul Field Recording,” and “Irish Wake in Varanasi” are the three most blatant place-name dropping titles. But almost every other title here gestures towards the elements of Eastern religion associated with psychedelic rock ever since Brian Jones picked up a sitar and the Beatles spent a few months meditating with the Maharishi: “I Was Born in an Ashram,” “Shiva the Destroyer,” the Hare Krishna-taunting “Shaved Heads & Pony Tails.” Even “Fortune Tellers,” “Scientology Airplane Conversations,” and “You are the Chapel” are titles that deploy signifiers of spiritual alternatives to Western organized religion. And the album is called Liberation!.

The title track has a wide-eyed and exuberant Paul Simon-y vibe. If it had been recorded thirty years ago, it probably already would have made it onto a Wes Anderson soundtrack. Paul Simon and Wes Anderson are two white American guys that have been accused of exploiting foreign cultures to bring a little something exotic into their art. Simon’s album Graceland, which he recorded in South Africa, was controversial for many political reasons related to Apartheid and the cultural boycott surrounding it, but it also struck some people as distasteful that he had written new lyrics to the melody of a traditional Zulu wedding song and, in one instance, sang right over the top of a local band’s instrumental (The Boyoyo Boys, “Gumboots”). And Wes Anderson seemed unaware that his film The Darjeeling Limited was a portrait of Ugly Americans running roughshod through India. The film itself seems uncritical of the way its characters appropriate surface aspects of local religious practices without attempting to understand their meanings.

 To my ears, Liberation! avoids any such ethical complications. It is, instead, one man’s attempt to reckon with the legacy of the spiritual culture he was raised in and the world he now finds himself in. And maybe how the two relate. Bauer sings, “You’ve got a lot to answer for,” and later, with repetition and emphasis, “Let’s leave it behind!” on the opening track, “I Was Born in Ashram.” He has said that the lyrics are about teenage summers spent living in an ashram: “...[A] lot of unsavory business rose up around the ashram, so some of the songs relate to that… all this negative stuff arises, and yet, so many of these people are having these very strange, authentic spiritual experiences.”

Other tracks simply reflect the world-hopping a longtime member of a touring rock band is likely to have done. “Istanbul Field Recording” very well may be one: as a lo-fi presentation of a solo piano piece, it sounds unlike anything else on the record, giving us a nice resting place for a few minutes before the last leg of the record launches into being with another big, optimistic tune. It also reflects back to another meditative moment, earlier in the record. “Philadelphia Raga” begins with over a minute and a half of quiet, solo acoustic guitar, before a song, driven by a strummed acoustic, fades almost imperceptibly into being. The album is full of nice musical touches like this, and--along with the depth of experience being worked through lyrically--makes it a set of songs you’ll be continue to be surprised and enriched by each time you revisit them. Buy this record: it makes you feel good to listen to it.

Thursday, February 27, 2020

Double Review: Ty Segall's Manipulator and White Fence's For the Recently Found Innocent

Back in 2014, I wrote about a dozen album reviews for a website called Buzz and Howl, which was subsequently hacked and disappeared into the ether. This double review of related records is part of a series of posts intended to preserve that work, unedited. 

Ty Segall, Manipulator 

Much like the album he recently produced for his pal Tim Presley (White Fence’s For the Recently Found Innocent), Ty Segall’s Manipulator seems like a conscious attempt at making a bigger, bolder statement than his previous records. Segall has always seemed perfectly content to dash off ten or twelve songs in a particular mood or style. Last year saw the mostly acoustic Sleeper, while 2012’s three full-length releases each depicted a particular mode--fun retro times in the studio with a like-minded buddy on the White Fence collaboration Hair, balls-out fuzz with his touring band on Slaughterhouse, and the self-described “Satan in space” vibe of Twins. But Manipulator is something different: a double-album chocked full with seventeen tracks that display the full stylistic spectrum of Segall’s talents.

The track that immediately jumped out at me upon first listening to the album, as can sometimes happen, is the one that sounds least similar to the rest. Although it begins with the drums and then slowly introduces the rest of the instruments--a device Segall uses perhaps too often-- “Mister Main” relies on a groove-y bassline to carry it. The guitar, in opposition to the riffin’ and shreddin’ Segall typically employs, is mostly content to match that bass groove, until, at just under the two-minute mark (and right after the vocals have pushed from the already high register of the body of the song into a true falsetto) a strangely wimpy and experimental guitar solo begins, and then continues through the final chorus to the end of the track. Most of Segall’s solos hit like a ton of bricks dropped on your head, but this one is more like having a brick scraped slowly across your face, letting you feel its weight and grit right up close and personal, and is incredibly effective for that.

Segall has often been called a “psych-” or “garage-rocker,” but his largest debt is to the early 70s proto-metal of bands like Hawkwind, Blue Cheer, and the grandaddy of them all, Black Sabbath. That heavy blues stomp from before metal was codified and then split into a thousand sub-genres. A track like “Feel” reveals these influences very clearly. It’s over four minutes of pure guitar shreddage, only interrupted by a forty-second long drum solo. And when was the last time you heard an actual, hand-to-God, drum solo in a contemporary rock n roll song?

Other songs that stand out for their introduction of sonic elements beyond the typical guitar-bass-drums arrangement are “The Clock,” with its tastefully non-melodramatic string section, the title and opening track’s three-chord organ riff, and “The Hand,” one of several tracks to employ an acoustic guitar in its driving glam-mode, rather than as the quiet, soft instrument you might expect. “Don’t You Want To Know (Sue)” starts out acoustic in that quiet, soft way, and could be a Tyrannosaurus Rex-era Marc Bolan demo for the first forty-five seconds, before shifting into something a little more rockin’. But it also shows that Segall was thinking of Manipulator as an “album,” if not quite a concept album, coming as it does on the heels of a song called “Susie Thumb.” In a recent interview with Entertainment Weekly, Segall mentioned that he had the sequencing ready before going into the studio to actually track the record, and small moments like this carry us through what could be an exhausting hour of rock n roll. Manipulator is not my favorite Ty Segall album thus far, but in the forethought that went into its writing and construction, and the meticulousness of its production, it is certainly a step forward in his artistry. I have a feeling that the greatest of Ty Segall albums is still yet to come.

White Fence, For the Recently Found Innocent

White Fence’s Tim Presley seems to be making a conscious effort at getting out of the home-recording ghetto and into the world on his latest release, For the Recently Found Innocent. It’s the first album under the White Fence moniker to have a producer and be recorded in a studio--even if that producer is fellow psych-revivalist Ty Segall and that studio is Segall’s garage, equipped with an 8-track tape machine. So it’s not as if Presley has abandoned his scene and made a million-dollar major label album (although Drag City, who put out this album, is certainly a label with a higher profile than Woodsist, who put out the previous ones).

Perhaps he turned to Segall after, as he told SPIN, the first attempts at the songs “didn’t move me in the same way other home recordings did. I knew they were good but they just weren’t working for me in that capacity.” Or maybe he just had so much fun making 2012’s let-it-all-hang-out collabo Hair with Segall that he couldn’t wait to work with him again. Either way, with Segall’s retro-pop sensibility influencing Presley from behind the boards, and Thee Oh Sees drummer Nick Murray sitting behind the kit, For the Recently Found Innocent is a definitive new beginning, a new plateau reached in White Fence’s recorded output.

The first, pseudo-title, track is a one-minute fragment that seems to abruptly dissipate to make room for the album to start on a more upbeat note with, “Anger! Who Keeps You Under?” Whether this abrupt transition is a statement or not is hard to know. On the one hand, it could be saying, “cut this, the rest of the record’s gonna be a lot more worked-out and worked-up.” But on the other hand, it doesn’t sound all that dissimilar from how any other White Fence album has begun. By track three, though, we’re definitely in well-crafted pop territory. With “Like That,” the creative team seems to have aimed for Syd Barrett and landed on the Lilys--which is no way a bad thing. Following this is “Sandra (When the Earth Dies),” which captures some of that slightly woozy, carnivalesque atmosphere of White Fence’s home-recorded masterpieces, delivering lines like, “All the junkies left to cry all the junkies wave goodbye laugh and cry […] when the earth dies we’ll wish we died” to a jaunty organ tune. Other standouts are “Wolf Gets Red-Faced,” which is excellently, patiently arranged and paced, and “Afraid of What It’s Worth.” The latter track hits that sweet spot where Brian Jonestown Massacre sounded like they could’ve maybe been recording in the 80s, and is also one of the few White Fence tracks that makes you go, “Oh yeah, Tim Presley is the guy from Darker My Love.”

For the Recently Found Innocent is the first White Fence record that I would recommend to people outside of the cult of four-tracker weirdos. Any psych-pop enthusiast would dig it, and certainly any Ty Segall fan made curious by Hair could jump on board here and be well-satisfied. Tim Presley has managed to grow while still making a record that sits in perfect comfort on the shelf beside all the previous White Fence releases. Well done.

Wednesday, February 26, 2020

Black Moon Spell by King Tuff (review)

Back in 2014 I wrote about a dozen album reviews for a website called Buzz&Howl, which was subsequently hacked and disappeared into the ether. This is the first in a series of posts intended to preserve that work, unedited. 

King Tuff, Black Moon Spell

“King Tuff is my name/I got madness in my brain/Pleased to meetcha/I’m gonna eatcha--cuz I’m batshit insane.” This charming introduction comes halfway through Black Moon Spell, but by all rights it should have been put right up front, because the track (“Madness”) encapsulates both themes running like twin engines through the record. One is the tongue-in-cheek embrace of craziness/darkness; the other is a depiction of a special sort of punk rock love. This song, like many of the others on the record, is a love song from one young nutso to another. The bridge spells it out like this: “I always fall for the rock&roll’a, Coca-Cola, make me wanna lose control-a girls.” And the chorus furthers the theme: “Now I want you to see, all the madness in me/So open your eyes, and show me all your madness tonight.”

On his latest record--Black Moon Spell is his third-ish studio album--King Tuff has perfected a mode I’ll call tough-guy-gets-sweet. The guitars rarely stop wailing, but the vocals are all sung, never screamed, and only occasionally approaching a shout. There are real emotions being played with here, but it is almost always playful. The weirdly sugary delivery of “dark” lyrics is the norm. Take “Headbanger,” with the lines: “Running free in ecstasy in chains and leather jackets/shaking off our clothes on the grave where rock & roll was buried/makin’ out you make me shout in the back of the cemetery.” This is an artist that believes in the primordial elements of a kick-ass rock & roll song and is willing to construct track after track filled to the brim with simple, and simply hooky, parts.

Occasionally the lyrics veer too far into novelty-song territory, missing the target of that special tough-but-sweet, playful and nostalgic aesthetic area King Tuff carves out throughout the rest of the record and ending up, well, kinda lame. I could do without, for instance, “Black Holes in Stereo,” with lines like, “Girls and boys come from outer space and so does music, too.” But if you don’t have a soft spot for at least a little bit of this kinda stuff, King Tuff just ain’t for you. I’m guessing each listener will have their own skippables among the more lightweight songs, and that not everyone will be as into “I Love You Ugly” as I am--it is, after all, a one minute lo-fi scraper climaxing with the lines “you’re the opposite of cute/you look like shit and I’m telling you the truth/and that’s exactly why I wanna say that I love you.”

Black Moon Spell paints a picture of happy little punks in love--in love with rock & roll, in love with living, and in love with each other. It climaxes with a character portrait of a loveable loser called “Eddie’s Song,” upping the ante on the wistfulness introduced in later album tracks “Eyes of the Muse” and “Staircase of Diamonds.” It’s the type of song you want to keep playing over and over, sometimes dancing around the room, sometimes crying your eyes out, and always singing along to the chorus at the top of your lungs: “Forever young/But forever’s not very long/So I just keep on singing Eddie’s Song.” May rock & roll this simple, this endearing, and this special always continue to be made.

Sunday, May 25, 2014

24 Words Per Film (#103)

The sudden, ambiguous indie film ending has become a cliche, but disarmingly natural acting and dialogue never will. Wonderfully subtle shadings of emotional complexity.

Your Sister’s Sister (2011); dir. Lynn Shelton; starring Rosemarie DeWitt, Emily Blunt, Mark Duplass, Mike Birbiglia.

Friday, May 23, 2014

Playing in a Bigger Sandbox: Cold In July


It’s one thing to make a film that plays within the sandbox of a certain genre; it is quite another to play with the idea of genre itself. With his fourth film, Cold in July (opening today), Jim Mickle has climbed out of the horror genre sandbox and moved towards a more restless investigation of genre itself. His first three films form a trilogy, each part of which sits squarely within the micro-genre of vampire, cannibal, or post-apocalyptic zombie, respectively. This is not to say that they are not playful or interesting, only that each one inhabits a specific genre.  

Last year’s We Are What We Are, in particular, was a beautiful and restrained entry into the Stephen King style of religious-hysteria-gone-horrific thriller, and also contained a whiff of historically treated cannibalism that might remind one of Ravenous (1999)--or the Donner Party. The new wrinkle presented by Cold in July is that it doesn’t content itself with one genre or another. It moves effortlessly between modes, and in retrospect can feel like three distinct chapters in this certain part of the protagonist’s life. These distinct and discrete parts, though, always maintain the momentum from scene-to-scene and feel absolutely connected and part of the same story.  

Once again collaborating on the screenplay with his key actor, Nick Damici (who once again plays a potentially shady sheriff, but a different one than in We Are What We Are), Cold in July finds Mickle for the first time adapting a work from another medium. The novel is by Joe R. Lansdale, perhaps best known to genre film fans as the writer on whose work Don Coscarelli’s Bubba Ho-Tep (2002) was based. Mickle and Damici make the crucial and brilliant choice of not updating the novel’s setting, contemporary to its release, of 1989--instead they use it as a period. A twist that propels the story into its third act is contingent upon 80s era tech, but the period choice provides more than just that narrative device or the mullet-and-huge-mobile-phones jokes. It provides the broader genre sandbox that Mickle is playing in with Cold in July: the 80s thriller, specifically the type you would have found late night on HBO (or direct-to-video). 

Right from the opening title, we’re given a clue to the game we’re playing, as it’s written in the font and color styles of an 80s thriller. The reference is unmistakable, but not as on-the-nose as, say, the hot pink cursive used by Nicolas Winding Refn for Drive (2011). We’re in the realm of Tarantino’s half of Grindhouse (2007)--authentic exploitation recreation, with a wink--rather than Rodriguez’s more parodic take in his own half of Grindhouse. The score functions the same way, referencing John Carpenter’s synth work for the original Halloween (1978)--and the myriad of 80s film scores it influenced--while remaining its own thing. The point is proven when, at a climactic point near the end of the film, the synth disappears and is replaced by an acoustic piano. It’s the same acoustic piano sound from the same composer (Jeff Grace) that you’ll find in Mickle’s other films. This sort of personal transformation of a filmic reference is used in an even more straightforward manner when Mickle telegraphs a plot point by showing the characters watching a scene from Night of the Living Dead (1968) with the seemingly random line of dialogue, “Persons who are really deceased have been coming back to life.” 

In the first third of the film, Mickle plays up the horror elements. At that point, Cold in July is essentially a monster movie, with Sam Shepard playing the monster. The shot of a dark, seemingly empty room wherein a lightning strike suddenly reveals a hulking monster filling up its space is a standard horror movie trick. Other moments throughout this early portion of the film bring to mind Max Cady creepily watching Sam Bowden and his family, intimidating them through his mere presence, in Cape Fear (1962 or 1991, take your pick). But then, wonderfully, all of this suspenseful moodiness is allowed to dissipate, and we’re given the opportunity to relax and have some fun with the arrival of Don Johnson, playing a beloved recurring character of Lansdale’s called Jim Bob Luke.

Johnson/Jim Bob is given a hell of an entrance, and the tone palpably changes as soon as his red Cadillac pulls into the frame. A certain comedic jocularity overcomes the proceedings, and even some violence is played for laughs. Cold in July becomes the buddy movie Elmore Leonard would’ve written if he was from Texas. But then the introduction of that most 80s of technological relics--a videotape--syncs up the motivation of the ostensible protagonist, played by Michael C. Hall, with those of the other two principals, Sam Shepard and Don Johnson, and the film moves towards an inevitable showdown. Things turn dark again, but without the horror film trappings of earlier on. Now we’re in a low-budget shoot-em-up, but one where the emotional stakes are very real, especially for the Sam Shepard character, who is given a roundedness that utterly belies the monster he had been portraying earlier on.

Cold in July has a playful complexity that reveals itself more in retrospect than it does in the moment, when you’re too busy enjoying the constituent parts to start examining how intricate the scaffolding is that holds it all together. Maybe the same can also be said for Jim Mickle’s growing filmography.  

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

24 Words Per Film (#102)

Either I’m a rube, or the family-film recreations in Stories We Tell are incredible. Either way, the evoked nostalgia is palpable and emotionally affecting.  

Stories We Tell (2012); dir. Sarah Polley. Documentary.

Sunday, May 4, 2014

24 Words Per Film (#101)

This intimate two-hander seems to mark the return of the old, Malick-influenced Green after his bizarre turn to a slew of straightforward comedies.

Prince Avalanche (2013); dir. David Gordon Green; starring Paul Rudd, Judd Hirsch.