Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Humming Along

Monument to No One
Monument to No One

Done in by an indifferent major label before their time, Hum were one of those Midwestern 90's bands whose memory survives to this day due to a small but rabid initial fanbase. Listening to the first track of Monument to No One's debut LP, "Planetary," it's nice to be reminded that those cherished Champaign sounds are venerated by more than just the close-knit group that constituted the Hum Mailing List back in the days when e-mail communities served the function Twitter and Facebook do now. The drop-D guitars playing complex chord voicings, three-note deadpan vocals, clean-channel guitars overdriven through old-school amps... these are good sounds.

But having only one influence would grow rather dreary. Although "Mountaineer" and "Officer Hardass" continue to exhibit a Matt Talbott fixation, vocalist Eli Slate has more tricks up his sleeve. The higher-register, adenoidal attack on "Blasting Sound" is a welcome shot of obnoxious rock attitude into the loud-but-subtle approach of the guitars. As a group, Monument to No One show excellent instincts towards harnessing their guitar chops to the larger goals of their songs; both Slate and Steve Anderson can rip it up but even during the conventional solo sections the emphasis is on the band's playing as a group rather than putting a spotlight on a single player.

Bassist Mike McKinnon's equally skilled approach is another effective element in distinguishing Monument to No One from their inspirations. He's capable of pulling out high-register flashy stuff when there's space in the song for it, but when the guitarists are churning, his parts provide the shape and support required. "Don't Tase Me, Bro" is particularly bass-driven, a welcome instrumental break from the intensity surrounding it in the middle of the album.

The drums, however, are an issue. They're half a beat behind more often than not (except, strangely, when the band plays in 6/8) and the badly-recorded cymbals are cutting out in the high end throughout and making listening to the record way more of an unpleasant chore than it ought to be. Through speakers or headphones, turning the recording up loudly enough to hear the bass properly results in a headache from the overloud, piercing cymbal sound. Hard to say whether this is the fault of the limited-budget recording or if Monument to No One are just following Downward -- Hum's drummer wasn't much of a player either.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Teatime at the Monkey House

Arboreal EP
Box of Baby Birds

Lately arrived in Austin via my original hometown of Chicago, Gary Calhoun James (along with drummer Alance Ward and a host of proficient overdubs) makes lovely music to sip tea along to whilst awaiting the change of the autumn leaves. Arboreal's five songs make show a mastery of numerous instrumental colors: accordion, piano, electric organ, spare electric guitar, skilfully arranged and performed backing vocals. "Break Little Branches" is like a satisfied sigh that lasts five whole minutes, violin and James' double-tracked vocals trading lovely melodies over a drum beat that performs the difficult task of filling in a lot of space in a very measured tempo without rushing things.

"Cardinal" and "Red Lights and Chimes" traffic in similar territory, but without the guest strings, there's just a little too much consonance and harmony for comfort's sake -- the listener is left waiting for a kind of jolt of something extroverted or aggressive just to break up all the the gentle waves-lapping-against-the-shore feel. "Folk Saints" has a slightly odd intro which mixes backward guitars and processed vocals; then it segues into a minimal acoustic guitar piece that's the least orchestrated on the EP.

"Coins, Letters, Numbers," the unexpected closer, proves that Box of Baby Birds are capable of upsetting the applecart a bit. After a first section of mandolin strumming and more sleepy prettiness, a faster tom-driven tempo and some beautifully played electric bass (James once again) finally wires the band into some caffeinated grooves. "We can't fight like they can," James sings through a bit of a filter, finally displaying some rock and roll emotion in his vocals.

Like their obvious forebears, Neutral Milk Hotel, Box of Baby Birds sound best when they mix a little dissonance in with all the waves of perfectly stacked, polite melodies. Even when "Coins" moves back into folk territory, there's a diminished chord feel to the outro that helps carry over some of the tension from the long-awaited fuzz section. Gary James has got the chops to create whatever sounds he hears in his head in the studio, and I hope he follows his muse to some weirder places still now that he's joined us down here in Texas.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Nautical-Themed Musings

Go to Sea
The Model United Nations

You have to respect a band that has managed to put out three records in three years entirely under their own steam. The Model United Nations have gotten their fair share of favorable notices elsewhere, but it's no accident or vast college radio conspiracy. Go to Sea is a rarity, a full-blown self-released rock LP that sounds like an album with varied songs, different instrumentation, changing moods, and arrangements that don't wear out the treads on the same old grooves.

"Iowa City" is an excellent entry point, typifying singer Warren Mills' tour-diary like geographical lyrics, poignant melodies, and guitars that circle around and enhance the vocals rather than drowning them out. What really sets the Model UN apart is their understanding of song structure. After the main body of "Iowa City," which itself has some well-thought-out soft-to-loud shifts, there's a breakdown with some unusual chord changes and then a coda where the band revs up under Mills' repeated pleas of "Call off your dogs!" Every song doesn't have to break the mold of verse-chorus-verse-chorus-bridge, but the Model UN's ability to sense when it's the right time to try something a little different reflects a busy period of writing songs, perfecting them, and writing more songs still.

"Summer of Wolves," the opener, rocks out in a manner I wish the album returned to more frequently later. There's also a blast of fuzzy keyboard that further highlights their attention to detail and a great hook: "If you get tired of yourself, there's always me." "Knives (Berlin)" adds acoustic guitar to their sound, with Mills' vocals and the solid drumming keeping it recognizably the work of the same band. There's different guitar colors and feels from the bassist and drummer on all the tracks, really.

But you'd have to listen closely to tell. Model UN's songwriting and group performances are very well-developed, but they need to be less fussy. Sure, there's a lot of different types of songs on this record, but all of them except for "Wolves" would fit in just fine with what Death Cab for Cutie has been up to the last few years (including the occasionally dance-aware basslines) and frankly, Death Cab for Cutie are annoying the way they never rock out even though they're completely capable of it. It's wonderful that Model UN's guitar players have gone past the point where they want to just chug rhythm chords all the time. But simple rocking out is another tool in the songwriter's palette that they'd do well to rediscover.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Birth to Death and Back Again in 18 Andy Partridge Songs

My single favorite recording to be released in the 2000's wasn't created during this barren decade, but slightly before the end of the millennium. Originally conceived and recorded as a triumphant double-LP return, XTC's masterful display of brute songwriting force, Apple Venus, was pointlessly broken up into two separate CD's (Apple Venus, Part One and Wasp Star: Apple Venus, Part Two) by an evil and shortsighted record company. A few years later, singer/guitarist/genius Andy Partridge issued a boxed set of all the songs from the two records (and three others) on 13 45's through his personal Idea label. This is a truly wonderful way to present the material, because the listener can follow his whims and go in different directions each time he chooses to take the Apple Vinyls out of the box.

I've written and have been working in the last year on a rock opera, a set of fifteen songs (some of which are themselves constructed from bits and pieces of smaller tunes) and thinking about the best way to order and present those songs has led me back to Apple Venus once again. Was Partridge really trying to write a gigantic song cycle? The first volume half-suggests it, but the musical variety and self-contained songs of Wasp Star were universally received as "the songs that didn't fit the first one." Trying by myself to tell a linear story by playing Partridge's tunes from the seven-inches in a totally new order, I think I've come up with a version that's just as much a concept album as Quadrophenia or Zen Arcade.

Two notes: I didn't use any of Colin Moulding's songs from the Apple Venus project, but not because they're poor or of lesser quality than Partridge's. XTC's bassist and second songwriter from the beginning, Moulding is a totally different composer qualitatively from his bandmate and always has been. They've been able to work in tandem for 30 years because each has qualities the other doesn't and they recognize and profit from that. I tried at first to use all of Moulding's tunes but I realized that they're all from the perspective of a middle-aged man. There's nothing wrong with that ("Boarded Up" is one of the highlights of the whole set) but Partridge, whether he had a specific running order in mind or not, was consciously writing tunes set all throughout a life's intellectual and spiritual development. Moulding's stuff would all have to come in a row two-thirds of the way through and that would totally wreck the flow (although it has long been XTC practice to give Colin a chunk of a side here and there and Partridge the rest of the space). I also didn't know what the heck to do with "Standing in for Joe," which is a good song but a totally self-contained story, a one-act play if you like.

And also: There is a ton of XTC analysis out there on the web if you go looking for it; they're a band that invites obsession. However, all of these interpretations are my own. The only references I used for this project were the allmusic pages for Volume One and Volume Two, and other sites of its ilk, and one article from XTC's MySpace blog which I scanned only to properly credit a guest musician, not for analysis.

0. "Spiral"
One of the three songs that doesn't appear on the CD versions, the only one of those rarities that isn't a Colin Moulding throwaway. Sort of a palate-cleanser, it's a very straightforward Andy Partridge song about the pleasures of 7" singles. Unlike nearly all of the other songs in the project, it doesn't have a phases-of-life theme. So I'll put it first as a kind of overture, the first song as a celebration of the very act of beginning to listen to a record. "Every day I play my favorite 45's, [they] help me to climb."

1. "Playground"
Pretty obviously a song about childhood, and the opening track on Wasp Star. Partridge isn't writing about actual children here, but how the terror of being constantly judged and never completely in control follows us our whole lives. Most of his other songs from the project (and many of Moulding's) discuss various coping strategies for this paranoia. "Never stop rehearsing for the big square world."

2. "Knights in Shining Karma"
This is a pretty abstract lyric, but if you're operating on the assumption that there is a Seven Ages of Man concept at work here, you could take this as a vastly mellower "Chartered Trips," or "She's Leaving Home," if you like. The "knights" are parents/authority figures, who make life easier for a time but ultimately defeat self-realization. "Poach your dreams to ash."

3. "Greenman"
I'm vaguely following the sequence of Part One here, but that record always seemed like an incomplete concept album anyway. "Greenman" posits an organizing principle outside that of the nuclear family: specifically, that of environmentalism/earth goddess-worship. One lyric in particular really helps it flow out of the last two: "You know for millions of years he has been your father." Note the way the "Greenman" ranks our putative main character's literal father in seniority. This song relates just as much to freshman year as J Church's great "Ivy League College."

4. "River of Orchids"
The opening piece to Part One, but I think it was placed there because it's the most stark departure from XTC's oeuvre and not necessarily because it's the beginning of the story. After the mystical revelation of "Greenman," our protagonist feels the call to action, but not really in a realistic or constructive way. It's an anti-technology rant, something Partridge does four times a record at minimum, but its cyclical melody and puzzle-box lyrics (which sometimes even undermine the narrator: "Just like a mad dog you're chasing your tail in a circle") suggest the inchoate fury of college-aged activism. And also there's the curious suggestion of a deeper revelation being buried in the noise and anger: "I had a dream where a chorus reduced to a faucet."

5. "I'd Like That"
Also follows "River of Orchids" on the original CD sequence. Enter the love interest! This song has a totally different subtext if you carry over the environmental awareness theme from "Greenman" and "River of Orchids," because of the way Andy sings "Each flame would make me grow up really high, like a really high thing." I never really thought of it as a pot reference before, and I still don't know if it's intentional, but it fits.

6. "My Brown Guitar"
The love affair develops. "We can play at being lovers." Hippie college guy writes a song for his lady!

7. "Easter Theatre"
Another very, very abstract composition, but I think that looking for overall order here has given me a new insight into what it was Partridge was on about for this song. If we assume our young hero's romantic interest shares his political conviction ("I'd Like That" with its pastoral imagery suggests it), we can easily imagine his consciousness expanding to embrace one more viewpoint than his own -- and his self-definition evolving from accomplishing his grand plans for global change on his own to doing it in partnership. I don't think "Easter Theatre" is at all about first love, it's less eros and more of the acknowledgement of the possibility of assuring one's own intellectual immortality by finding an ideological partner and imposing your shared views on your offspring. This is a flawed idea, of course, given that the hero has only just rejected the direction of his own parents, but the ability to hold two contradictory ideas at once with conviction is what young adulthood is all about. "Now the son has died, the father can be born."

8. "Stupidly Happy"
One of the nods on Part Two to XTC's herky-jerky origins, except with a lyric that recalls the Dukes of Stratosphear side project in Partridge's efforts to write a song in a certain style rather than following his own weird instincts. It's a much deeper song coming in this sequence, because rather than a pretty shallow pop exercise, it represents the narrator losing sight of his original fierce political stance to selfishly wallow in the company of his lover. This also explains why Partridge is clumsier and less specific in his word choices, something that has to be deliberate because Andy Partridge never does anything by accident. In isolation, the song is an apology for intellectual laziness. As part of a song cycle, it's a turning point. "Stupidly happy like the words to that song."

9. "Wounded Horse"
Pretty straightforward cheatin' woman song. Fits here especially well because the singer isn't self-aware enough to imagine the possibility of his perfect relationship ever breaking down, and Partridge delivers it in a woozy voice like a kid drunk and sobbing. It doesn't have anything to do with the concept album idea, but I love the clip-clopping percussion on this song completely out of proportion to its very minor cleverness. I also like the way that the narrator loses his center and his confidence in his other beliefs: "I bit out my own tongue like a wounded horse when I found out you'd been writing another man." And the way Moulding's second vocal part functions like a supportive chorus of drinking buddies.

10. "Your Dictionary"
Rock bottom! This is just about the most vicious song Andy Partridge has ever written, and that's saying something. It sticks out like a sore thumb on Apple Venus Part One because it's so unshaded; the other tunes on that CD are hardly optimistic but they're not without nuance. In my reconstituted running order, "Your Dictionary" has a totally different resonance, because it's not just a personal attack, it serves additionally as a rejection of the ideals that brought our couple together to begin with. "Black on black, a guidebook for the blind. Now that I can't see, my eyes won't weep. Now that I can hear, your song sounds cheap." The way "Your Dictionary" suddenly changes for a lushly harmonized coda never made sense before, but rather than an ironic punchline, I can hear it now as the beginning of the healing process and the first step towards a more mature worldview.

11. "I'm the Man Who Murdered Love"
Not a simple song by any means, despite its hooks. "I'm the Man" works on many levels all by itself, but it has a sweet duality as the first song of the second act of this imaginary rock opera. Partridge could be saying that love is a lie and there's just no point to it, but he also might be suggesting that what his character's real problem is is that he's just never experienced real love, being too self-centered and too concerned with seeing his own worldview reflected back to him in his partners. He's absolutely suggesting that modern society makes real love incredibly difficult if not impossible. "If you never ever use it, you know you're going to lose it."

12. "The Wheel and the Maypole"
An almost totally impenetrable song, really a medley of two numbers (a common concept album device). I had to read the lyrics over for quite some time tonight, and I've listened to this song in its place in the original running order many, many times over. What threw me for a time is the fact that Partridge sings "if the pot won't hold our love," as if he's singing to a lover, but that's not what he's on about at all. He's singing to the land. After the chorus, he adds: "Goes the wheel." His protagonist has abandoned society (as the "Man Who Murdered Love," what choice did he have?) and he's imagining that his plow is singing to him, probably after working out in the sun for too long. Contemplating his very tiny place in the overall scheme of things, the "Maypole" section has the singer reconsidering his lost relationship: "What made me think we'd last forever? Was I so naive?" The song ends with Moulding reprising the chorus from "The Wheel" in a round with Partridge singing "Maypole, the ties that bind you will unwind to free me one day." What does this mean? My guess is that the singer feels imprisoned between his connection to the earth and the compromises he must make in order to reintegrate into civilized society. No so long ago he was screaming "Push your car from the road." But he feels to get married, get a real job instead of subsistence farming, to do what's necessary to be a modern human, is beyond his reach. The maypole, a manmade device constructed solely for the purpose of celebrating nature, is a metaphor for the balance we must strike between living in harmony with the planet and existing in a technological society.

13. "Church of Women"
First let me mention that I adore this song; it's my favorite on the whole Apple Venus set which means it's in the running for my favorite XTC song ever. Just ridiculous melodies, and Andy's kind of jokey, warbled singing on the verses only serves to make the monster chorus and perfect trumpet and electric guitar overdubs all the more cathartic. In the grander scheme of things, our protagonist is beginning to mature enough to see a way to return to the fold. It's not all humans he has such a problem with, it's the destructive and selfish tendencies of men. Partridge has long had a kind of disgusted attitude towards his own gender, sometimes embarrassingly so ("Pink Thing") but although "Church of Women" could be misread as longing for a sex change I think his heart's in the right place, and in this running order any stirring of positive feeling for others counts as narrative progress. "Let's put things right, let's multiply the loves and kisses 'til we have enough to love and eat together."

14. "Harvest Festival"
We're heading into the homestretch now. The rest of the story is already set up: Having accepted in theory the possibility of loving again, the narrator has to actually meet somebody. First he must find closure from the failed relationship that led him to excuse himself from society in the first place. This is the most straightforward non-Moulding song on either of the original albums. I don't need to break it down because all Partridge does is tell the story: "We all grew and we got screwed and cut and nailed, then out of nowhere invitation in gold pen.... See that you two got married and I wish you well.... What was best of all was the longing look you gave me, more than enough to keep me fed all year."

15. "I Can't Own Her"
We're skipping way ahead here, I guess, because this song is sung from the perspective of the richest man in town. Maybe our Thoreau-esque main character found oil on his beet farm or something. More likely, he came back to society to be nearer his unavailable but still longed-for old lover and made something out of himself, having had time to perfect his plowing techniques and work ethic during his hermit years. This song's bittersweet mood suits the autumnal point in life from which our hero must be speaking by now. There's also another undercurrent that's subtle but the theme of the entire piece, not "I Can't Own Her" but the whole song cycle. Only in realizing that he can't possess another person, only share space with them, has our eternal teenager reached the level of emotional maturity necessary for genuine lasting love. The song shows him still struggling with the concept: "And when I say I can't own her I don't mean to buy her, it's nothing at all to do with money. I simply want her in my arms forever more, is that an odd request?" But by the end he's getting the picture: "I may as well wish for the moon in hand."

16. "You and the Clouds Will Still Be Beautiful"
Another classic song, one that deserves a cover sung by a male singer with a great falsetto (maybe me!) and one that has completely different meaning coming where I've put it in the running order. Having resigned himself to the fact that his lost love will never again be his, our storyteller resolves to be the best friend to her that he can. Then her husband leaves. Or dies! Partridge's male character having done all the thinking and growing he has in the intervening years, the possibility of full reconciliation is finally at hand. But it's a process! "We see flying saucers, flying cups, and flying plates, and as we trip down lovers' lane we sometimes bump into the gate. And I know thunder in your head can still reverberate. But no matter what the weather, you and the clouds will still be beautiful. So let it rain." The rain is just a nonspecific image in the song as it appears on Wasp Star, but in this context it's the departure of the intervening spouse. The ninth that Moulding sings in the harmony at the end of this tune ("so let it... rain") bowls me over every time.

17. "We're All Light"
The big finale, lovers reunited at last! "We're All Light" is the only song from Apple Venus that discusses mature, stable love, if somewhat glibly in its original setting. As the payoff to a long journey, it achieves a new luster, Partridge's gleeful good humor well-earned after an epic spiritual quest. And importantly, it shows the hero reconciling his place in society with his place in the universe (even if he cribbed his philosophy from "a bumper sticker someplace"). Hero and heroine are still obligated to bend to outside influences at times ("they're paging you in reception," which is perhaps a reference to the birth of a grandchild) but they're happy after their own fashion ("I won't take from you what you can't take from me"). Influenced by pragmatism and perhaps a bit of eastern religion, Partridge no longer feels guilty about seeing to his own happiness while being unable to mend all suffering elsewhere. "Don't you know in this new dark age, we're all light."

18. "The Last Balloon"
And this one's about death. Fantastic mournful trumpet solo on this song (by Guy Barker) that reminds me of Chet Baker's solo on Elvis Costello's "Shipbuilding." Baker was near death at that point, as the kind of terrifying photo of him in the otherwise high new wave Punch the Clock liners exhibits. Kind of an odd note to end on, as Partridge is envisioning all of the women and children of the world leaving for another plane of existence, as the men are too weighed down by their petty concerns to take flight. After the triumph of the last several songs I'm not sure whether I like it here or not. But I can't imagine where else to put it; before I even started thinking about what the first track would be I knew "Last Balloon" would have to be at the end. Does it mean that ultimately the narrator fell short of the final stage of maturity and watched his lost-and-then-found-again wife die with no hope in his heart that he would see her again? Well, Partridge is an avowed atheist so I'm not sure that intention would ever enter into his mind. I think it's more of an eastern thing -- the lover moves on to the next emanation, but the male protagonist must die, be born again, and live another life more closely in tune with the ethos of the "Church of Women" before their energy patterns will converge again. That's sad and beautiful and hopeful all at once, like Apple Venus as a whole.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Demo Sweat #2

I'm feeling like everything I hear today has some spark to it, even though I'm usually pretty hard to impress. Perhaps it's because so many kind folks have written to compliment my writing (even some of the ones to whom I wasn't quite so generous). Perhaps it's the leftover buzz from discovering Buttercup last night. Quite likely it's the fact that very early this morning I finally took a break from streaming digital files and listened to Genesis Live and The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway on vinyl, with headphones, in the dark. Genesis like Costello, the Beatles, and the Stones are my musical comfort food; I'm been listening to them all my life and wherever it may be that I'm calling my address, as soon as I put Exile or Trust on I'm home. Got to be vinyl, though. Bands: Send me vinyl.

Let's start the roll call today with a couple of veterans. Big Steve Dotolo is a lifer with a motor that won't quit; in addition to his solo work he plays with Diggin Up Grandpa (I love that band name). Big Steve plays bass, writes songs, and sings. Can you imagine that? A singer/songwriter who doesn't play rhythm guitar? It used to happen all the time in a place called the 70's, where I wish I lived a lot of the time: Nick Lowe, Richard Hell, Colin Moulding, the lefty guy from the Beatles, Sting if you like.... Let's all agree to a new rule. If you've posted an ad with the exact same wording in the craigslist Austin musicians section more than four times this month and no one has responded the last three times, you have to trade in all of your effects pedals and your e-bow for a P-Bass. No more playing with anyone until you can play at least the first two sides of Double Nickels on the Dime without either wrist cramping up. Anyway, Big Steve favors the no-BS approach of the good old days, with a singer shouting bawdy lyrics hoarsely and the band bringing it as a group. Can't wait to see this true believer tear the roof off of some unsuspecting joints.

Even more forceful, Dead Earth Politics play unfashionable, no-shortcuts metal, but with arrangements that have room for syncopated drums in addition to double-kick bludgeon, bits of humor, deceptively melodic doom croaking, and instrumental hooks all over the place. These guys have sick chops, the kind that emerge from listening to and absorbing way more music than just Sabbath through Slayer. Back in the day we saw musicians who could play brutal with their day jobs and jam out with John Zorn or an acoustic jazz quintet on the side. Nowadays, a lot of so-called metal acts only play in one key (and not all that well). Dead Earth Politics are not like that. Even at music's extreme fringes, arrangements with curveballs and nods to unexpected influences make all the difference between disappearing without a trace and being the standard bearers for everything that doesn't suck about your chosen genre in your home city.

Amanda Lepre is newer to Austin but most unlikely to remain obscure for too long; she's got real-deal heavy rock chops but also an expansive musical curiosity that takes in video game soundtracks, English folk, and the poppier hard rock of the 70's and 80's. Big voice, a distinctive guitar vocabulary that remains identifiable whether she's thrashing a flying V or strumming an acoustic, and I haven't caught her repeating herself even once so far. I could say a lot more about Amanda here but I know she's got a CD coming my way and I want to save some of my praise for that review.

The Daniel Adams Band are still in the very early stages of their musical development, as the low fidelity of their available recordings suggests. But I think they've got a real spark to them that's worth developing. Many of the same criticisms I've leveled against other beginner bar bands could apply here: the drum patterns on every song are the same, there's no dynamic changes, all the guitars just kind of strum away in unison. But all of those things can be improved. What can't be faked is original musical ideas, and although they're trafficking in an Americana area that's been much mined before (particularly in this region of the country) they can take the song themes and chord changes that fans expect to hear and create something out of them that's their own. What matters most at this point is that their instinctive songwriting sounds fresher than a lot of people who have been playing longer and the group sound is unified and tight (I might mention here that there is in fact no "Daniel Adams" in the band). Now they just need to work even harder to nourish their spark into a flame.

Perhaps a good starting point for TDAB might be checking out the music of Bus to Brooklyn, a band confident enough to play their music the way they hear it and not fussing over genre labels. After the first few bars of "Oh Serpent," you might think you have them pigeonholed, but then out of nowhere the drummer pulls out a thudding tom-tom beat that Danny Carey wouldn't sneeze at and you start hearing the chiming guitars and Jesse Felder's powerful vocals in a totally different light. Felder's got a great instrument, but I'd like to hear him apply more shading to his singing, as he does in parts on the ballad "Sorrow Song." Additional instrumentation on a few of their tracks shows that the band knows how to work with a producer without allowing him to overwhelm their core sound, an invaluable skill. It's a little bit earnest and broad at points, and Felder's tone is usually more expressive than his lyric choices, but this is radio-friendly modern rock that displays far more musicianship and originality than anything I've heard on modern radio lately.

Six Easy Pieces, a presently dormant project that Jeremy Miller's guitarist Sonny asked me to check out, ought to wake up and get back out on the boards. Their combination of technically dazzling, "commercial"-ish female vocals and surprisingly daring, innovative, and aggressive guitar playing is one that's all too rare. I mean, it's not as if there's no template for superstar bands where the singer is a beast and the guitar player is really idiosyncratic -- U2 have sold a few records in their time. Eugene Christopher are really far out, blending folk, at times nonstandard instrumentation, and thoroughly musical post-indie rocking out. The thing I like best about them is the vocals, which are delivered in an offbeat, sort of reggae-toasting (almost) style that's totally unexpected and quite brilliant. I wish the center held together a little better when they try to rock out, and I also would like to hear them shift modes within songs rather than doing a quiet one, then a loud one, and so on.

Finally, Woode Wood is a bona fide DIY inspiration. How do you get Twitter Nation to sit still for more than 30 seconds and appreciate the subtle refinements of your simple but thoughtful lo-fi folk and pop songs? Well, use them as the soundtracks to beautifully shot and edited short films that flow out from the songs' ideas in nonlinear ways. Here in a sea of musicians who expect folks to show up and immediately recognize their inherent genius is a guy who's humbly making works of genuine emotional power -- and sharing them on the vast wasteland of YouTube. Austin music: It's totally as good and as magical and as powerful as everyone says, but not for any of the reasons you'd think.

Everyone Is Trying to Get to the Bar

Buttercup, Stereo Is a Lie
Mixx, 9/25

The best thing about Mixx is the big white wall behind the stage. From the upper level rather than observing the musicians on stage directly you can see their giant shadows play against that stark backdrop, twenty feet tall. Mix in a pleasantly bass-heavy sound system and a vaguely Teutonic exposed-metal decor, and it's sort of like modern Austin's answer to the Exploding Plastic Inevitable. We were glad for the couches during Stereo Is a Lie's fine set, both because the shadowplay complemented the band's shoegazer-y sound beautifully and because we wore ourselves out dancing frenetically to the music of Buttercup. They might be our favorite Austin band to date, were they not from San Antonio.

Sometimes, you can tell even before a band has finished setting up that they're going to be a good time. After a negligible first act with shiny guitars, overpowered amps, and no songs to speak of, just the sight of Buttercup's shredded instruments and thrift-store drums warmed one's heart. The night before at Mohawk, I walked inside to check out one of the local bands playing the second stage when Twilight Sad failed to hold my attention. Ten minutes later, I went back outside without having heard a note; the pretentious mooks astage were still fiddling with their six amplifers, three samplers, flotilla-sized pedalboards... it's not rocket surgery. Plug the guitar in and turn it on!

Buttercup don't take themselves too seriously, as their disheveled approach suggests. One of their guitar players didn't make it to the stage until a few songs in, and then they pulled a buddy out of the crowd and taught him the chords to one tune on the fly. Why not? With a drummer and bass player so adept at sketching in the shapes of their songs, and giving each a distinct identity, the other guys can let it all hang loose. Their mixture of goofy humor, audience involvement, beefy harmonies, and sheer joy in each other's company reminded me of a Texas-fried They Might Be Giants. Everybody sings! They do songs by other bands that the members have been in, just because they're fans of the music and it makes them happy!

Joel Gion tambourine throwing, ATDI-style rugby scrums, unexpectedly subtle and lovely nylon-string guitar fingerpicking, superstar guest musicians, "ba da ba" choruses... if it's fun and it's indie rock, they do it. The casual, tossed-off approach would be annoying if they weren't very tight and didn't have stacks of good songs, but they are and they do. They're also way more professional than most in the way they deal with noise problems. Persistent mic feedback didn't slow Buttercup down one bit. They'd just switch around or share, and when it got too bad to play through, they didn't get mad, they just stopped for a second to fix it, and then got the party going again. This is admirable.

Stereo Is a Lie, thankfully, were unaffected by any kind of technical problems, which is a mercy because their massive volume level is quite enough for the human ear to deal with on its own. I think bands play too loud a lot of the time, but these guys can get away with bludgeoning it, because Glynn Wedgewood's fine range and natural vibrato make him perfectly audible singing even above the din. They also have a drummer who kills it but can play with repetitive precision when the songwriting calls for it. Their bassist and second guitar player aren't flashy, but they are right on the grooves, and they largely avoid the monochromatic trap into which a lot of bands following in the footsteps of My Bloody Valentine, Ride, et al fall (a pinch of Smiths works every time). I do wish that the onslaught slowed down more frequently, as it was only about every fourth song that the guitars stopped screaming long enough for their keys player to even be heard.

Friday, September 25, 2009

"Walt iPod" Wouldn't Have the Same Ring

Nano Whitman [EP]
Nano Whitman

When I threw up my shot-in-the-dark ad a few days back, I wasn't expecting to hear from so many polished, professional-level artists as I did. I'm excited that I'm getting to hear finished products in addition to rough initial recordings. I'm fascinated by every element of the process of music-making, from the first solo sketch to the career-spanning 25-year anthology. Songwriter Nano Whitman has roots on the East Coast but has called Austin home for five years now; his self-titled record features contributions from some scene heavyweights including former Spoon-man Joshua Zarbo and the electrifying jazz singer Kat Edmondson.

It's not an accident or a coincidence that talented musicians (and producers) want to work with Whitman; he's got the gift. As a singer, lyricist, and melody composer, his skills are not inconsiderable, but it's his finely-honed ear for making his weak points in each area into strengths that sets him apart from the rabble. Take the production of "Jokers & Pros," the EP's most upbeat track. Two different guitar parts are present, reggae offbeats in one stereo channel and some more blues-oriented playing in the other, but neither is turned up to eleven. Whitman has a lived-in baritone voice that allows him to best express himself when he's singing at a conversational, personal volume, and all of his debut's songs feature arrangements that only force him to raise his voice to compete with the volume of the guitars when the song's natural development requires it. When Whitman raises to a rasp to deliver the song's signature line: "You can beat this dead horse all you want, see just how far it goes," the brief moment of anger makes the harmonies that arrive right after all so much the sweeter.

Although the songs are not light on instrumentation, with warm analog keyboard tones swirling throughout, there's an awareness of what basic factors need to be heard most clearly. Zarbo's bass takes a central role, its full and clear sound allowing the guitars to be used in a more restrained and creative manner. Unusual harmonies are one of Whitman's biggest calling cards; the use of a ghostly, minor-feel chorale part on "Just to Kiss You" undercuts the song's hopeful theme and makes the listener think harder about the musician's intentions.

He has a similar light-and-shade approach to his lyrics. Although "Just to Kiss You" begins on a very simple, almost trite sentiment, as Whitman's words continue his attempts to remain optimistic and hopeful reflect the artist's personal struggle. Whitman isn't writing a love song based on all the other love songs he's heard in his life, he's writing from his own life, as the often very specific references to people and events suggest. "28" has couplets so direct and sincere that they're almost uncomfortable ("my sister doesn't even have a name"), only Whitman balances himself out with a melody and rhyme scheme so plain it's almost childlike. There's absolutely nothing wrong with simplicity employed for an intelligent and original reason, and that's what Nano has nailed down here.

And then sometimes you've got to mix some fire in with all the icy cool: That's where Edmondson comes in, her powerful instrument giving a reprise of "Just to Kiss You" a completely different feel. While Nano seems resigned to wait for his lover to come around on her own time, Kat is going to grab you by the lapels and make you love her. The result is a really wonderful collaboration that elevates both artists; read more about it here. I was reminded favorably of Elvis Costello's recent work with Lucinda Williams. You can see Nano out on the boards at Botticelli's Monday the 28th and at the Irie Bean Coffee Bar Tuesday, October 6th.

Also, Nano was kind enough to give me a tip on his favorite locals, a quartet called Wiretree, check 'em out.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

I Burned Out My Whole Supply of Scottish Jokes

Frightened Rabbit, The Twilight Sad, We Were Promised Jetpacks
Mohawk, 9/24

I keep hearing from Austin musicians about how terrible this town really is, but I'm not so sure. I've lived in several large American cities now and I've been both in front of the stage and up on it. In Chicago, San Francisco, and Denver, no one can be bothered to show up for the time that's listed on the ticket. If you're the first band and you're playing at 9, perhaps there will be 20 people there by your last song. But the crowds here seem sharper. We Were Promised Jetpacks were certainly the band on this triple bill of Scotsmen that I was most excited to see, but their tourmates in Frightened Rabbit and the Twilight Sad have more releases under their belts and lengthier press packets. This being my first "roadshow" (a term I'd never seen used before relocating to Central Texas), I wasn't sure what the crowd would be like or whether they'd be hip enough to realize that WWPJ absolutely destroy their colleagues as songwriters and as a live band.

No worries! The Mohawk outdoor area was very near full by the time the Jetpacks lifted off, and although the place got more crowded by the end of the festivities, there was never more screaming, hooting, stomping, and dancing at any point later on than during their highly satisfying set. We Were Promised Jetpacks are a young band -- only one of their four members looked as if he had even a suggestion of a tour beard. For the first half of their set, they seemed to be concentrating so hard that they appeared a little stiff. Sean Smith and Michael Palmer appeared oblivious to the crowd, tapping out quarter notes on the pickguards of their instruments while laying out. They were counting, of course, something an astonishing number of self-proclaimed musicians don't know how to do.

The band's music, which often inverts traditional rock quartet dynamics by leaving both guitar players to chug sixteenths while the drummer and bassist play syncopated figures, hinges on everyone staying together. Drummer Darren Lackie lays off his snare to an unusual extent, concentrating on cymbal polyrhythms while holding shape with the kick. A song like "Roll Up Your Sleeves," where the guitarists play stop-start figures and the bass and drums play a familiar Gang of Four pulse, is the exception rather than the rule for WWPJ. Careful group musicianship is the secret to the band's impressive power. Even though they're not terribly loud for a post-hardcore band (Adam Thompson's vocals can be heard quite clearly even when he backs off the mic), they have a vicious kick to them because guitarists are so perfectly in sync. Whenever someone drops out of the underlying chug, nearly always Lackie or Smith, there's a reason for it in the story of the song. "Keeping Warm" live totally obliterates the album version. Sure, it's kind of their answer to "Mogwai Fear Satan" but with a totally different plan of attack; the guitars stay at home while the rhythm section keeps changing the feel.

By the end of their set, We Were Promised Jetpacks seemed to find their meter a little more easily and began loosening up, moving around a little, and practicing their heroic axe raises. Thompson, half-humorously, suggested that the increased energy level might have been due to their Mexican-style dinners finally having settled. More difficult still to digest were the Twilight Sad, a train wreck on stage with a drummer who couldn't keep time and a bass player who was totally clueless and wasn't playing along to anybody in particular even when he could remember the changes right. I thought their singer was pretty good, but as the bandleader I hold him responsible for the overall dreadful racket the group was making. They were way louder than the Jetpacks, but muddy and lacking definition, and the amateurish noise the guitar players made with no consistent rhythm to follow drowned the singer out.

Frightened Rabbit were a relief in comparison to the sloppy Twilight Sad; their drummer knew his business and the three guitar players knew how to listen. Oddly they don't play live with a bass player; one of the guitar players uses foot pedals, something I thought went out of fashion with prog rock. I've got nothing against bass pedals -- Rush, Genesis, and the Doors all used 'em -- but in this case I felt like I was missing something. The guitar player with the pedals and the lead singer both just strummed chords; when their other bandmate wasn't fingering yet still more chords on a keyboard, he strummed too. No wonder they use so much outside help on their records; it would get really dreary listening to just three guys strumming chords for two LP sides.

But seriously, why couldn't one of those three guys pick up a bass? Are there simply no competent bass players available anywhere in Glasgow? Must be so. As I learned tonight, We Were Promised Jetpacks and their talented young bassist are in fact from Edinburgh.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Demo Sweat #1

To half the posts I write I end up attaching a subtitle explaining how it's possibly the first in a series, but today I can speak with confidence. There will be another column with my first reactions to Austin bands' online demo recordings tomorrow. I promised that I would listen to the music of everyone who responded to my craigslist ad, and I meant it. The trouble is there's only so much new music that a person can listen to in one day and still maintain open, objective ears. I hit that point about an hour ago and in fairness to the many, many groups who sent me e-mails after 3:30 this afternoon I'm going to return for a second installment of the project tomorrow.

Before I start dropping links, let me make a few generalized statements. First of all, I had no idea what to expect. I didn't know how many e-mails I would get nor how well-recorded any of the songs would be. In both respects, I'm pleasantly surprised. I was not expecting to hear so much promising and genuinely original music so soon after moving to Austin. One of the things I already much prefer about my new hometown to my old one is the casual, pragmatic multicultural atmosphere here. Bands in Austin are bound to have wilder and more intriguing combinations of influences because Austin musicians themselves have such varied backgrounds. That's so cool. I want to hear something I've never heard before every day, and I want to hear something old in a new way each day too. Those experiences are right at your fingertips in Austin if you take the initiative in seeking them out.

But from a band's perspective, it's a real challenge standing out in a town that is lousy with live performances every moment of every day. What is it that makes the difference between languishing in obscurity and headlining tours? It's almost never solely contingent on how good your band is. I'm a huge fan of a band from the early 90's, Chicagoans called Number One Cup. They made two albums that I still listen to all the time even today. But they didn't tour enough and they didn't stay together long enough and they're now completely forgotten, which is a shame because I really wish some label would reissue Possum Trot Plan and Wrecked By Lions on vinyl. They had some early success -- a hit single in England, even -- but they never built on it.

I never understood why back in the day, but I'm older and wiser now. Their label was in Seattle but the band was in Chicago; they constantly were firing bass players so they didn't play live enough and when they did they weren't as good as they could be; most people in their hometown had no idea who they were. Number One Cup was a billion times better than Urge Overkill or Fondly or Kill Hannah or Filter but they didn't play the game the right way. They assumed their songs would speak for themselves and that only works if all you want in the way of fans is hopeless obsessive record nerds like this journalist.

A few -- too few -- of the folks who asked me to give their music a listen understand how to set themselves apart. Rich Restaino wrote me a whole little biography of himself and his work that made me feel like we have something in common (we're both former newspapermen) and predisposed me to find a new musical friend through his urban, rhythmically sophisticated pop cabaret pieces. Because Rich spent time showing an interest in my work, even flattering my dearly-beloved proper grammar, I spent more time listening to his music and reading some of the things he has to say on his MySpace page than I might have otherwise. Thoughtful people don't become so overnight, and I could tell right away that this was a good guy to know. His piece on SXSW (not this year's, but the points are more relevant than ever) is a must-read. Rich, you're good people, and "Ronnie Got Free" is wonderful satirical songwriting in the 70's UK tradition we both love.

Alex Salinas, the drummer for Glafiro and Solid Ghost, is another guy whose enthusiasm and passion for his music is contagious. "We recorded the album The Days Between here in Austin with one determining factor," he wrote me. "No digital, no [gimmicks] or tricks. Luckily it rained outside while we were cutting the tracks so that helped add some of the darkness that I think will be a staple in our sound to come." I mean, how can that not make you curious? Luckily Solid Ghost's music delivers on the buildup. Ariel Sauceda's masterfully fluid bass playing demands your attention, and the analog recording reproduces it in gut-busting detail. Salinas and singer/guitarist Glafiro Benavides are very good at leaving space in their parts to create an ethereal quality no amount of digital postproduction can rival. I wish the lyrics were as successful at painting pictures in the listener's mind as the trio's tight instrumentation, but the sound here is very assured for a new band.

And with Salinas as pitchman, they're bound to go far -- he's already written me back with the surprising information that Sauceda's only been playing the bass for a year. That kind of interaction between listener and band is the linchpin of creating a devoted following. The more I know about how Solid Ghost came together, the more I find to listen to in their music. It makes sense that their bassist would have played some guitar before settling on his current instrument -- most great bass players are listeners first and foremost. Guitar players listen to themselves, drummers keep an internal meter and play to that. But bass players have to find the line of best fit that runs as near tangent as possible to everyone else's part. Perhaps that's why so many great musical maximalists -- Paul McCartney, Brian Wilson, Nick Lowe, Willie Dixon, Charles Mingus, Bill Laswell -- were bass players.

So much for the gifted networkers. No offense to Rich or Alex, but the only band I listened to today that I would sign this minute were I a record label is the Anti-Scene, an almost casually mind-blowing quartet that mixes brutal double-kick blast beats, backing vocal wails and accents employed like 80's break music, hefty lyrical credentials and varied, ill flows, and a live group sound that shifts on a dime under the MC like a DJ swapping records. You can hear elements of TV on the Radio, poppier rap-metal like Phoenix's better-than-you-think Chronic Future, consciousness rap like Dead Prez, and live hip-hoppers the Roots, only the Anti-Scene are better I think than any of those bands, because they can do all that they do and more still. Their songs are never predictable, Willie Barnes II is a thoughtful and authoritative rapper and a great singer, and they've got a message that their core audience really needs to hear. Reggae toasting and heavy metal basso profundo one right after the other? Why the hell not? I can't wait to see this band on stage.

As for those bands neither friendly enough to give me a reason to give them a lot of attention nor obviously excellent enough for the music to stand on its own merits, they fell into a few different groups. Those operating in more obviously commercial genres -- dance singer Tomas Corbalan and country-rockers Wynn Taylor and The Jeremy Miller Band -- probably don't care that their music is formulaic; formula is what sells. There are some very obvious pitfalls that each could stand to be more aware of: the immediately fraudulent-sounding use of AutoTune when it comes to our pop singers and I-V-IV tunes about dirt roads in the case of the Nashville guys. Taylor's less polished, scrappier-sounding "Dimestore Radio," with its more personal-sounding lyric, is the one bit of real artistry I found in this group.

Box of Baby Birds show individual musical mastery in their mostly one-man symphonies of layered instrumentation, but that sort of thing has been done to death recently and the songs lack the spontaneity and collaborative payoff of real group music. The Demon Hlatus likewise is amusing himself with his lengthy, ambient recordings of digitally altered found sounds, some sort of (implied, at least) narrative must be introduced in order for many others to follow the joke. Scorpio Rising must be a pretty freaking good party band if their recordings are to be believed, they synthesize a dozen different styles of dance music from the 70's to the 90's. There's nothing revolutionary about them but I imagine that they get crowds moving and their well-produced tracks show off all three musicians' talents in the best possible settings.

The world probably doesn't need any more Texas garage bands but here's Lies a Bloom. anyway; I like their varied songwriting (the 6/8 "Attractive Distraction" particularly), evolved dynamics, and way-above-genre-average lead and backing vocals. The Fever Dreams are looser and more ambitious. Their show fliers and the artwork accompanying their songs display a distinct and intriguing aesthetic that the songs meet the challenge of; I wish only that the vocals were less affected. The live track represented ("The Beginning") is tighter and further out than any of the studio recordings, which is a very encouraging sign.

Austin boasts a lot of talented and underexposed bands still perfecting their sounds; every one that I mentioned above has some worth and people of different tastes might have totally different reactions than I. But it also has a lot of people who are completely clueless. Lucas Cook's songwriting is so underdeveloped that his every riff invites plagiarism lawsuits. Done Deal are another in a long line of indistinguishable rock-rap fusion bands whose music is sloppy and unfinished and whose lead rapper delivers rhymes that a fourth grader would find immature. The singer of The Melodic Drifters' unshaded Michael Hutchence impersonation is in very poor taste indeed (and the band's terrible meter indicates that they need to practice more, too). And I can't even think of anything to say about Camero Jones. Just follow the link, I guess.

I received a ton of e-mails today, clearly. Some bands shot right up the ranks of my favorites in Austin, many I'm sure I'll never hear from again. But every single person who wrote me, at the very least, put a sentence or two in their message to say who they were, that they had read my post, and that they would very much appreciate any feedback I had to offer. Except for one. This guy just sent an e-mail with a link and no text. In that spirit, I will offer no comment whatsoever, merely pass on the link. You folks will just have to follow and form your own guesses as to what my reaction might have been.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Yield Code

Pearl Jam

Pearl Jam were never remotely indie, let alone grunge. Sony did an unbelievably clever job of repackaging and promoting their debut album Ten, which languished on record store shelves for months before Nirvana made Seattle and flannel royalty points gold, to make it seem like PJ were reconnecting the Pacific Northwest sound back to classic rock. In fact they were doing no such thing; Jeff Ament and Stone Gossard had done the grunge/Melvins thing to little financial reward with Green River and were overjoyed to now be in a band that liked guitar solos and had San Diego's biggest Roger Daltrey fan as a lead singer.

If PJ had formed a few years earlier, they would have signed to a major and made good records in the 70's album-rock mode while making a decent if not superstar living on the road. In short, they would have been Eleventh Dream Day, not such a bad thing. In fact, in hindsight superstardom was the worst thing that could have happened to Pearl Jam, as they wasted most of what should have been their prime creative period picking fights they weren't prepared to win and filling their records with terrible experiments in an attempt to come across as more than they really were.

Whether it was the plan all along or not, Pearl Jam have now succeeded in whittling away their following to just the devoted cult of a long-lived indie band. Their last record marked their coming to terms with themselves as a very good band with a recognizable and still potent sound -- and absolutely no new ideas; they went ahead and self-titled it to make the point plain. For a lot of bands giving up on greatness would be a stupid decision, but Pearl Jam at their absolute best was never more than a B/B+ kind of band. Rather than leaning in on each other and contorting to the ideas of a sequence of misguided producers, they've gotten back with Backspacer to writing songs separately and using the sympathetic Brendan O'Brien to make them sound more like they always sounded than ever.

And gee whiz, it's their best record in thirteen years. Backspacer breaks no huge new ground, but it's a dual salute to the band's last two really good albums, and since it's the first fully successful recording they've made with their best-ever drummer, it might be their best one altogether. The last two really engaging PJ records were No Code (where the band practically broke it down into Ummagumma-like solo showcases) and Yield (where they rocked it out for their greatest album side ever, than coasted to a solid three-star finish). Backspacer is like all of the Pearl Jam records ever in that the first half is all rockers and the second half is slower, but not since No Code (and for only really Code and Vs. in their whole catalog) has the second side been stronger than the first.

It's their shortest-ever record, which is fine; jamming out and elongating material was never Pearl Jam's strong suit. In fact the tightened-up arrangements emphasize the loose theme, which is a way less confident, milquetoast Pearl Jam version of Sgt. Pepper or The Who Sell Out where the band separates all of its influences out into separate strands and does a bit of a jukebox hits record. Of course Eddie Vedder's voice is too singular, and the band's playing too worn into established grooves, for them to really sound like anything besides Pearl Jam at this point. What it is, however, is their least self-conscious record by miles; No Code had a similar mixture of distinctly different songs but linked with a very ponderous journey-of-self-discovery theme.

The same elements that always made Pearl Jam comforting, if not innovating, remain: Mike McCready's just-enough-inverted Hendrix and Gilmour licks, Jeff Ament's touches of garage and psychedelic, Stone Gossard's surf riffs. Given a lovely, clear space in the mix by O'Brien is Matt Cameron, who takes on the task of linking all the material together with a consistent drum sound and nails it; he's really the star of the album. What makes the workmanlike quality of Pearl Jam's instrumental section sound particularly bright on Backspacer is the uncommonly light touch here of Vedder, a singer and lyricist who normally makes things sound about ten times heavier than they really are (like the gravity on Jupiter). He sings the other members' lyrics here, something he only consents to do about once a decade, and his own songs are his lightest in ever: "Just Breathe" is a "Wishlist"-y love ballad (is that Mellotron, or recorders, or both?) but aren't the lyrics about Eddie's bandmates and not his girl? "I'm a lucky man, to count on both hands the ones I love.... Did I say that I need you? If I didn't, I'm a fool. No one know this more than me."

Monday, September 21, 2009

Pieces of the Past Caught in Their Throats

The Midnight Organ Fight
Frightened Rabbit
These Four Walls
We Were Promised Jetpacks

It's a great gig being the originators of a scene, the first to play music with a new feel to it in a remote location. Take The Clean. By part undeniable greatness and part historical accident, the late-seventies New Zealand trio has one of the most striking divides ever between musical professionalism/fidelity of original recordings and enduring influence. The Kilgour brothers, still active in their own idiosyncratic fashion after all these many years, were relatively unique in that they absorbed all four Velvet Underground records before beginning to try to imitate them. As a result, their early EP's had both completely dotty and wonderful lo-fi pop accidents like "Tally Ho" and grinding "Sister Ray" jams like "Point That Thing Somewhere Else." Every New Zealand band to follow would end up sounding like lesser imitators, partly because nearly every New Zealand band to follow had a few members of The Clean among their ranks (or failing that debut producer/organ fingerer Martin Philipps) and all of them sounded like they had picked just one Clean song as a starting point.

By this example I can't say I've been observing the Scottish postpunk scene all that closely since the late 90's. Seeing (the deathly boring) Ganger open for Mogwai a couple of times probably wasn't enough of a basis to make such a snap decision, but I figured that if Mogwai wasn't capable of more than two pretty good LP's and then a rapid diminishing of marginal returns, none of the many other bands springing up in their wake needed my attention at all. But what do I know? Postpunk is apparently alive and well north of Hadrian's Wall, and has even launched something called "the Scottish Tri-fecta Tour" which arrives at Austin's Mohawk on Thursday the 24th.

Frightened Rabbit is the nominal headliner and the longest-established of the three, but they're also the least original. The Midnight Organ Fight has interesting songwriting and arrangements, with banjo and violin competing with loud and surging drums, but it's not at all difficult to connect the sound here with many earlier British Isles bands invigorated by U.S. indie and experimental -- late-period Blur, the somewhat forgotten High Llamas, in particular Ireland's The Frames with their combination of post-rock rhythms and production with fiddle and acoustic instruments. "The Twist," with its spooky computer-altered backing vocals, pounding drums, and folk-y string-scraping, deserves to begin a dance craze of some sort. I can't think of a name for it right now.

Younger and more aggressive, with thicker accents still, We Were Promised Jetpacks are certainly the beneficiaries of a scene primed and ready for the next evolution of a sound combining Mogwai volume with the melodic awareness of a much, much earlier group of British bands. While their current tourmates are still struggling with shaping a definitive sound as of their second albums, These Four Walls is full-sounding and totally musically assured. Beginning its first track, "It's Thunder and It's Lightning," with nothing louder than a pumping hi-hat and some orchestra bells for two-thirds of its length shows their self-confidence. "Moving Clocks Run Slow" is another standout, with some absolutely gorgeous bass -- it goes from a disco pulse to an utterly unexpected, outrageously joyful melody-laden Macca-style walking figure to some Peter Hook overdriven lead bass at the end. All these changes in tone and style, and Sean Smith still manages never to break the flow of the piece or abandon the logic of the song. Unexpected American influences abound, in the way the band finds an alternative course away from Mogwai's "louder louds, quieter quiets" approach (shades of the sadly forgotten Juno) or daringly direct leads and melodies (like Rites of Spring's most-definitely-remembered All Through a Life EP). The only real drag on These Four Walls is the epic "Keeping Warm," which ought to be a definitive statement but just sounds like them trying to do all of the different things they are capable of at once, which doesn't sound nearly as cool in practice as in theory.

A recurring lyrical theme in both bands' music is the use of the words "warm" or "warmth" as a particularly Glaswegian shorthand for cultural engagement. That's the question hardcore has faced since its birth: How do you inspire deeply individually-minded people to mass action? Outside of the educated, polyglot Guy Picciotto, few lyricists to emerge from the genre have addressed this in song directly. I couldn't have ever guessed it would become a genuine trend in Scotland of all places.

Frightened Rabbit and We Were Promised Jetpacks play Mohawk on Thursday with the Twilight Sad.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Ticket to Ryde

Isle of White EP
Isle of White

At a certain point during this five-track debut, the listener has to decide for himself whether he's having as much fun listening as this slightly tongue-in-cheek power pop quartet has playing. It might be the barrage of finger-tapped metal guitar triplets that arrives like a needed electric shock during the otherwise slightly dreary power ballad "Far Away," or the Def Leppard harmonized shredding section on the mostly Weezer-indebted "It'll Be Tonight." What's as clear as the handclaps on the winning opener "Jen Young" is that the band was totally prepared to make a record, as the well-thought out arrangements on all the songs suggest.

Rock music is an obviously cyclical thing. As Big Star and Todd Rundgren arrived as a response to the impenetrable prog-rock supergroups of the 70's, R.E.M. and the Replacements emerged as an alternative to early-80's punk's dogmatic anti-musicality. When Nirvana and grunge threatened to push three-part harmonies and relative minors out of rock entirely, Weezer and their acolytes were there to keep the power-pop torches alight. With technical precision and songwriting craftsmanship as undervalued today as they've been in many years, Isle of White are fighting a noble battle. With this EP they're off to a promising start, with a clear focus on playing as a group rather than highlighting the singer or the guitarists. The strong harmonies are also well-recorded and performed.

Making music that sounds simple but doesn't get boring is quite difficult, perhaps more so than mastering a more overtly technical style. Each song on this EP demonstrates that these songs have been worked on and perfected: a snatch of two or four bars will slow in tempo for dramatic effect, a repeated verse motif will have a slightly different drum pattern each time, or the whole band will rev up together to signal the listener that a big chorus or exciting solo is around the corner. When the anthemic chorus of "Nicholas and Alexandria" arrives, it doesn't feel as if the band is reinventing the wheel with three chords, but it doesn't sound less than fresh either, because the interlocking guitars of the verses show Isle of White's more elliptical side off as well. In short, they earn the right to be broad and obvious at times thanks to their careful and subtle attention to little details elsewhere.

Some room for improvement remains. The lyrics are hardly poor nor uncharacteristic for the genre, but they do fixate unvaryingly on lost love in an occasionally self-pitying and precious manner. Neither the guitars nor the drums, due to the limitations of the recording much more so than the arrangements or the playing, are quite as massive and universal as the songwriting needs them to be. The bass is a bit of a sore point, as it's not nearly confident or loud enough, lags behind the beat more often than not, and lacks much in the way of melodic development. Past the slower, Smiths-ish "Won't You Tell Me," the songs are all of a piece. There is one partial exception: "Nicholas and Alexandria" has a plaintive electric piano coda that might be my favorite piece of music on the whole EP.

You can see Isle of White in October at Beerland (Thursday the 8th) or the Beauty Bar (Tuesday the 29th) and get the EP from iTunes.

East Texas Avenues

Book of Sounds
Beauty Bar, 9/19

A lot of bands describe themselves as "folk" or "minimal" as a means of deflecting criticism for lack of imagination in their chord choices. And a lot of the two-man guitar-and-drummer groups that have become quite common in recent years use the lack of more than one chromatic instrument to mask the fact that they can't stay in time and haven't completed arranging their songs. Book of Sounds reclaim these descriptions in a meaningful way; they're folk in the sense that their music connects to a number of very old traditions (some of which, refreshingly, come all the way from the Old World) and minimal in the sense that every time drummer Marc Henry drops his hands slightly to rest his brushes on his ride cymbals, there's a purpose to it.

Mike Wood has an unusual style as an acoustic guitarist that you'd never guess stems from an apprenticeship as a metal player. Wood's enviable pinkie finger stretches way out to add sevenths and ninths over his solid rhythm playing and his equally limber pointer can dive down the opposite way for leading bass notes. Combined with Henry's marvelous pulse and polyrhythmic one- and two-handed snare fills, the band never seems to repeat itself even though their instrumentation is so spare. Wood's knack for making a quite modern lyrical style sound of a piece with songs that use swing and even flamenco time signatures sets Book of Sounds apart as well. His vocal melodies echo the imagination evident in his guitar playing, avoiding obvious intervals and often coming at a rapid, irregular pace that is beautifully complemented by his drummer.

The group's command of dynamics (and their ability to change rhythmic feel radically on a dime) is such that it makes sense that their compositions are lengthy, patient to develop, and as a rule never limited to a single tempo or mood. These slow-building epics do leave some room that some additional instrumental color could fill nicely, and Wood's more haunting moments cry out for a close vocal harmony here and there. The basic shape of these tunes (the bullfighting indie rocker "Optimistics" is a standout) is rock-solid, however, as is the musicianship of both parties. Keep it coming, boys.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Cheap Alternatives to Therapy

As odd as the very idea may seem to some people, I'm a creature largely of pure logic. I pose problems to solve, research precedents, form a plan of action, and follow through with it. How I may personally feel about the initial problem doesn't really enter into the process all that much. I'm far more likely to get annoyed because someone else gets in the way or questions one of the steps of my process than I am likely to spend much time bemoaning the initial insult. Couldn't get a job in Boulder, fine, moved to Texas. I'm over it. Cooking at high altitude sucked anyway.

But, as many of us are, I'm getting older, and some of the lifestyle choices I made happily in my early 20's (like subsisting for days at a time on white rice) are no longer wholly my own to make. I have no problem working without rest or complaint for days on end if a project requires it. Certain other people who rode shotgun with me down from Colorado are not hardwired the same way. OK, I'll give it away, I'm talking about my girlfriend (and my cat). In the interest of maintaining domestic felicity, my major self-improvement concern nowadays is becoming more conscious of my moods, figuring out their root causes, and addressing them before I say something really mean to someone who didn't deserve it.

As I've been completing self-assigned homework readings like Goleman and Gardner's work on emotional intelligence and attempting to improve my self-awareness I've realized that I do a lot of things every day that subconsciously reflect my mindstate. My music listening habits are the best example. During the weeks of planning and packing in Boulder before our move, I listened to a lot of musical comfort food. Generally I try and spend most of my turntable time on expanding my knowledge, but the last month in our old apartment it was all Pavement, Beatles, Built to Spill, Stones, Guided by Voices. The first thing I put on when I got the receiver unpacked in Texas was Pet Sounds.

When I'm in a relaxed state, I put on whole LP's and I listen to both sides. When I'm mildly manic, I play 45's or one LP track at a time. Only when I'm too preoccupied to deal with handling vinyl do I go to the iTunes or the iPod. I must be embracing my new home, because since we've settled all I've been doing is hunting for new Austin bands on MySpace. I can't complain really about how much free digital music is at our fingertips in the modern era, because I wouldn't be able to develop this blog in the way I envision without that access. But I do worry about a generation that never decides what to listen to for themselves, since I gain so much insight into my own mysterious moods through what sleeves I pull off the shelves. Pandora or new music blogs or "Genius" mode or shuffle are all very well and good if you're feeling directionless. But everyone who takes their music seriously should spend a little time each day asking "What do I want to listen to?" and then pondering what internal feelings the chosen music reflects.

Another perhaps less universal method I use for taking mental inventory is playing Civilization IV. As I'm sure I've written before, I started playing the Win 3.11 build of Sid Meier's original Civilization in the fourth grade or so, and I've played that game or a sequel very close to every week of my life since. The game and Larry Gonick's Cartoon History of the Universe made me decide to be a history major, and so certainly influenced my choice of college. I've always understood that the game's remarkably open-ended design is central to its addictiveness. There are many different conditions for winning and many different combinations of strategies possible to reach each of the several ending points. It's like four-dimensional chess with an added time element; survive long enough and the pieces start behaving completely differently. (Of course chess itself does have an echo in this time element in the promotion of pawns, but bear with me.)

I've always figured that I love Civilization and its related family of games because I have the natural instincts of an historian; I memorize the release dates and attached personnel changes of rock records in the same way I do World Series matchups and the succession of English monarchs. But with my new developing emotional consciousness I also see that it's a way for me to put my sense of justice into practice in a sandbox where no actual nuclear warheads will be dropped on any actual Zulus. With the Beyond the Sword expansion, Civilization IV is the first game in the series where religion and diplomacy can be as rewarding as military conquest. I like to think of myself as a world leader of peace, and most of the time I only make war on my neighbors when provoked. But what serves as provocation changes depending on how my life in the outside world is going. Sometimes I will let the aggressive Spanish bully me, giving them technology and money to avoid war like Neville Chamberlain. Then sometimes I will crush the Carthaginians under my mighty boot like Zeus just because they dared to found a city in an unclaimed spot of land that I happened to need if I was going to draw a giant "W" on the map with my territory.

Experienced players will know that certain races have to be beaten into submission: the Celts are just going to keep attacking your tanks with swordsmen until you put them out of their misery, and the duplicitous Babylonians simply aren't the sort of people with whom you want your subjects sharing a continent. But how you deal with dangerous, crafty Indians or Egyptians will change with every game depending on various factors both internal and external to the game world.

Well, now I just really feel like playing. I hope today I am a man of peace.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Unreasonable Vinyl Reissue Demands: Definitely Not the Last in a Series

The Velvet Underground
The Velvet Underground

Listen, I'm not here to tell my sophisticated readers anything they don't already know about the Velvets. They're either the third most important rock band of all time (Beatles, Stones) or the fourth (Stooges). If for some reason you don't already know all four of their albums by heart and need some advice on where to start, this is a pretty good overview. (Pretty darn well-written, too.) But let's assume you already know the name of the English professor who assigned Lou Reed the short story assignment that became the lyric for "The Gift," and bought a copy of the trashy paperback that inspired their name on eBay just to have it. Are you as cranky as I am that only one mix of The Velvet Underground, the radically quiet third album, is available on LP?

If my history doesn't here fail me, Lou Reed supervised an initial stereo mix of the record that emphasized the hushed, conversational quality of the songs even more so than the more widely available version. This is usually referred to as the "closet mix," since the instruments sound very muted relative to the vocals. MGM didn't like the mix and initiated a revision, although the original version made it out for the first pressing. Subsequent reissues have all followed the more traditional MGM mix. The "closet mix" finally made it to digital on the '95 Peel Slowly and See boxed set.

The songs on which the change is most obvious, although all the tunes are affected, are "Some Kinda Love" and "After Hours." The former is all rhythm guitar and floor tom on the MGM mix and barely anything besides vocal, lead guitar, and cowbell in the "closet" version. The latter has a pulsing electric bassline on the remix that can barely be heard in the original (although it's there if you know where to listen for it). In both cases, the "closet" versions are in Reed's opinion and mine the definitive mixes. In MGM's edits, the songs have a clear evolutionary connection to the simple electric rock songs the band had been playing since the beginning, while the Reed originals push the band to a new folk-inspired place that's been wildly influential since. To get a complete picture of how the Velvets became a very frequently repeated Brian Eno quote, the serious rock historian needs to hear the records as they were originally received.

Because I'm a sucker with a bit of a martyrdom complex, I keep buying new reissues of The Velvet Underground with no indication that they'll be any different than the four or five I already have, skipping right to the last track, and saying something ungentlemanly when that damn bass line starts in at full blast. If anyone even more obsessive than I knows of a reissue that has "closet" sound, I'd be obliged for the tip.

Ditto the 90's Iggy resuscitation of Raw Power.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009


Well, so much for my outpouring of enthusiasm for my new adopted home. Anna and I don't have jobs yet, and we spent pretty much all of our savings on the U-Haul. So we've been trying to find free shows to attend, since we simply don't have any extra money. Something Called Nothing advertised their performance this evening at Trophy's as being free. We know that bands don't always know what's up, so we called the club earlier this evening before we left. They assured us that there was "no cover until nine." So we showed up at eight, bought drinks, and dug the music of J.T. Wright & Solstice. Then, since we were enjoying ourselves so demonstratively during SCN's first song, the barmaid came over to tell us we each had to give her five dollars. We simply don't stand for these sort of bait and switch practices where I come from, so we walked out. All of my finely-honed instincts tell me that this kind of thing goes on constantly in this town, where there's way more clubs and bands than any one city can really hold comfortably. No skin off my back, I've got a finely-honed sense of justice -- and more importantly, a platform from which to wield it.

Sorry to Something Called Nothing -- we really hope to see you again soon. You're good, way better than the sloppy recordings on your MySpace page. I was all set to review this show based on those demos as an example of how attitude and instincts can go further than chops a lot of the time, but even after only one song I can tell that such a description would be selling this trio short. They're tight with great vocals, a southern edge than doesn't really come across on the Ramones-y recordings, and a wonderful melodic bass player. Absolutely not the last you or I will be hearing from them.

In any case, we did manage to catch the very tail end of J.T. Wright's happy hour set, and that alone made the outing well worth our bother. A mix of the organic early 70's Dead and Jeff Tweedy's stuff when he was still in Uncle Tupelo, J.T. and his trio play simple songs really well. Wright has a knack for writing songs that echo familiar progressions without falling over the ledge into plagiarism (as their MySpace description wryly acknowledges), and their cover of "Not Fade Away" mixes Holly's passion, the Stones' Bo Diddley arrangement, and Tupelo's good ol' boy roar. Refreshingly, Wright and his bassist use little teeny amplifiers instead of overpowered stacks. You can hear what they're doing, and when they jam it's impressive how clear the sound is. It holds together even when both are improvising pretty furiously, something that's way easier to conceptualize than execute. We'll see them again for sure -- since we know for certain they play every Wednesday and it's actually free.

Let's All Shimmy Like It's the Very Late Nineties

To Silently Provoke the Ghost EP
The Photo Atlas

What better way to begin a renewed commitment to music reviews in my new city than checking in with my old Denver homies, The Photo Atlas? One of the first local bands that really earned my attention when I settled in Colorado, I would be really broken up about not getting to see their Gang of Four-derived, dance-informed, energy-laden performances any longer -- only they're road warriors and they play here almost as often as they do in the 303. The Atlas got a lot of notice with their debut full-length No, Not Me Never in 2007 (the undeniable "Red Orange Yellow" remains their definitive statement), but their instant perfection of a recognizable style might have left them in a bit of a cul-de-sac creatively. This EP, which seems to have twice as many ideas in half as many songs, finds them managing to keep it fresh even as their basic sound remains essentially unchanged. Producer J. Robbins doesn't hurt any, and I like the Jawbox-like effect of Alan Andrews dueting with himself on "Jealous Teeth," with one line delivered in a melodic style and the next shouted.

Andrews has grown a ton as a vocalist after hundreds of shows, his voice sounding fuller and more assured on all of these tracks. Drummer Nick Miles, added since No, Not Me, also has a lot to do with the quality of this new one, as the Atlas sound more like a rock band and less of a producer-shaped dance act here, something that's always been reflected in their live shows. Disco beats are still in the mix, but Miles' kick and hi-hats are loud and that's as it should be. Harmonies on "It's Always About the Money" and "You Haven't Read Enough" are welcome developments, and I appreciate the way band and producer are thoughtful about putting unique details on every track, like the fuzz bass tone for "Class of 2012." The group still has yet to release anything that's a departure from their basic beat-happy template, even though a teaser EP like this one would have been an excellent opportunity to try a ballad experiment. I guess we'll have to await the next full-length.

I wasn't sure what to expect from the Photo Atlas after label problems and a lineup change sapped their initial momentum. To Silently Provoke the Ghost proves they're still full of energy, and that their chops have just gotten better. The one thing that remains is to find a method of transferring all those qualities into some tunes that shatter the mold they've built for themselves a little bit.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Records I Listened To Today

14 Greatest Hits, Hank Williams. I'm no stranger to the music of Hank Senior; I've been playing songs like "Howlin' at the Moon" in my solo sets since I was in college. But it is a little tricky finding unaltered Williams recordings on vinyl. The pioneering live fast, die hard rock star, one of the many tragedies of Williams' biography that would be repeated endlessly by later travelers on the lost highway is the way his original recordings were butchered after his death by shortsighted, profiteering record labels. 60's and 70's re-releases of the original recordings (which spanned from 1946 to Williams' death in 1953) added atrocious orchestra overdubs in a misguided effort to make Hank's timeless songs sound "contemporary." Being able to find a better selection of used classic country albums in record stores wasn't the main reason I moved to Texas, but it doesn't hurt any. This '61 MGM compilation presents a somewhat random assortment of hit singles as they originally sounded, with the lean accompaniment of drums, upright bass, fiddle, lead electric guitar, and pedal steel. The idea of making "greatest hits" albums by any criterion other than raw sales figures was decades away, so this compilation has a couple too many novelty tunes like "Kaw-Liga" and "Jambalaya" at the expense of more fully covering Williams' blues and gospel elements. But any Hank on vinyl is a thrill for me, and as is the case for all music made before the invention of true multitrack recording in the mid-sixties, there's simply no way to make this material sound halfway decent on CD. The details that come out most for me are the wonderfully sympathetic lead guitar playing of Bob McNett, the way the roles of bass and rhythm guitar are reversed from modern standards (guitar holding down the beat, bass anticipating the chord changes with rhythmic accents), and mostly Williams' remarkable command of his voice as an instrument. The way he chooses, sometimes only once in a song, to go to his falsetto just for one choice syllable continues to influence singers and songwriters all over popular music to this very day.

I've Got My Own Album to Do, Ron Wood. Fantastic, overlooked solo album, despite the fact that it has two otherwise unrecorded Glimmer Twins songs and even a tune cowritten with George Harrison. Keith Richards plays on every song, although this record was made before Mick Taylor left the Stones and Wood took his place. It's a very loose session, with Richards and Wood both freely stopping mid-riff to spin out groovy little licks whenever the mood strikes them. (The presence of top-drawer studio musicians on drums and bass holds the songs' center.) Although the Stones would never be this sloppy on record, you can hear how much the two guitarists enjoy playing together. Although Keith Richards is almost always described as a rhythm guitarist, it was really only during the Taylor years that he stuck strictly to that role; with Wood and Brian Jones no strict boundaries applied. I've Got My Own Album to Do has two highlights each of which have been made famous by other artists. I initially fell in love with the song "Mystifies Me," a Wood original, from the dynamite cover on Son Volt's debut album Trace. It's the excellence of that performance (which sadly overshadows nearly everything else Jay Farrar has done since Anodyne) that originally put me on the lookout for my own copy of this record. Ron Wood is absolutely no competition for Farrar as a singer, but I've come to like the original recording better since the Son Volt revival stays a little too close for comfort to Wood's arrangement, right down to the little lead guitar flourishes, and Richards' harmony vocals are priceless. Over on Side Two, "If You've Got to Make a Fool of Somebody," recorded by everyone from Bonnie Raitt to Brian Poole & The Tremeloes, gets made over in that unmistakable Keith Richards duet style where the two singers aren't really remotely in synch and yet it's perfect. Super record, it's a shame Wood never really got the material together for another solo outing of equal strength.

Magic Potion, The Black Keys. I never really gave the Black Keys much of a fair hearing when they first emerged because (unfairly) they were lumped in with the White Stripes, for whom I've never had much use. Anna loves both those bands, however, and she's brought me around on the Keys if not the other. We've been looking for Magic Potion on LP for ages and it finally turned up today. After all the buildup, I was a bit disappointed. Anna says that her attachment to the album is due to the period in college when she was listening to it all the time, apparently a very creative era in her life. I don't really listen to music in at all that way, which is interesting -- there was a time I remember being quite obsessed with Let It Bleed, but that was before I had Exile, which is patently superior, end of story. Anna continues to consider this her favorite Black Keys album even though she agrees with me that Rubber Factory, which came out before Magic Potion but she heard after, is a much more interesting and diverse listen. I simply don't think that way. Objectively, what was going on in my life the first time I heard Painful as opposed to Electr-O-Pura doesn't make a lick of difference when it comes to which in my opinion is the better Yo La Tengo album. (But then again which records I have on vinyl and which I only have in crappy digital does make a huge difference. There was a time when I was convinced Presence was better than Physical Graffiti simply because I hadn't located the 2xLP of the latter yet. Also personal, also extrinsic to the history of the music in question, but in a totally different fashion.) Back to Magic Potion. This record was the Black Keys' major-label debut, and yet it sounds more stripped-down than anything since their first indie record. The huge variance in guitar tones and vocal ambience from Rubber Factory is absent, though Dan Auerbach's songwriting is more than strong enough to carry you through the record without things getting boring. It is surprising based on their other output that they were self-conscious enough about signing to Nonesuch to break their habit of broadening their sound with every record for this one. Maybe they wanted to make one more album in Patrick Carney's garage just to make sure the new label would let them get away with it; maybe they were afraid of alienating their fans (or just as bad, winning too many undesirable new ones). In retrospect, Magic Potion fits into their catalog nicely as a bit of a breather before Attack and Release, which isn't their best album but maps out the direction they have to keep going, trying new weird ideas just enough to keep their basic formula exciting and fresh.

Minor Threat, Minor Threat. Okay, vinyl is not always superior to digital in every single instance. Every single thing Minor Threat ever recorded is available on one CD, with the same iconic cover image as you get here. That CD basically made a musician out of me in 1994, as I was drumming in a band called the Flagburning Communist Homosexuals the instant I had the stamina to get all the way through "I Don't Want to Hear It" without keeling over. I've been meaning to pick this 12" EP, which in itself is is a repackaging of two 1981 seven-inches, for ages. And I'm glad I did, if only because the fold-out insert is going to look super awesome in my practice space. Vinyl sounds better than CD's, it's true, but lack of clarity for the individual instruments on these founding hardcore broadsides was a good thing, making it sound like the band was way too angry and explosive to keep the levels out of the red. I also miss the way all the songs on the Complete Discography CD abruptly cut out slightly before the end, to make room for every song -- that sense of haste, of rapid forward progress even though the songs in question are mostly a minute and thirty seconds or less, sums up the Minor Threat experience more than any one track or single. The biggest problem with the vinyl is that it reveals that the band couldn't really play: Jeff Nelson's kick drum is muffled and off the beat half the time, Lyle Preslar's overdubbed guitar solos are laughably amateurish, and Brian Baker's complete lack of chops is not mitigated by the fact that he rivals Tommy Stinson as the most adorable incompetent hardcore bassist of the 80's. Oh well. At the very least the wax edition does wonders for Ian MacKaye's precedent-setting vocals, as you can hear every spit, snarl, and snide aside as perfectly as the hundreds of tone-deaf louts who ripped off his schtick did back in the day. That reminds me, must get some Descendents and Black Flag now.