Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Rocket Fuel

Shaman Shit [EP]
Watch Out for Rockets

I'm always afraid that I'm going to begin repeating myself here, if it hasn't happened already. What Tolstoy had to say about unhappy families does not apply to miserably poor rock bands. Most terrible bands are bad for the same reason. For variety's sake, I try to focus in on specific things that a group can improve upon when I write negative reviews. But nearly all of the time, the real problem is that the songs aren't good.

To the lay reader, and the dingbat press release-cut-and-pasting "music blogger," the idea that there's an objective way of listening to the quality of songwriting that has nothing to do with genre or instrumentation or performance might be alien. The decentralization of information in the Internet age has led to foolish persistence in the belief that any one person's opinion is as valuable as any other's. There's no such thing as a bad song, only different styles for different tastes. That's stupid! There is too such a thing as a terrible song, and I feel pretty confident in my ability to recognize one. Then again I do spend more time willingly listening to bad music than most.

Take the catalog of Watch Out for Rockets, an Austin quartet notable for their generosity (all 46 of their tracks can be heard for free online) if not for their consistency (maybe five of them are good). If I were a less thorough listener, I could quickly note their main influences (Spoon, classic mid-90's GbV), praise their economical song lengths, melodious vocals, and variety of production approaches, and leave it that. But that would be encouraging the band to continue operating as they are, which would be unfair both to the musicians and those who will have to listen to them going forward.

The trouble with this band is they are writing the same song over and over again. Watch Out for Rockets are trying awfully hard to dress it up in new clothes every time out. They move microphones around, EQ differently, sing in wildly different registers, switch out electric guitars for acoustic, overdub Casios and cellos and heaven knows what else, but to anyone with an even slightly trained musical ear, they're accomplishing nothing. With a handful of exceptions, which rather prove the rule -- "Art Show" from Let Me Levitate, "Over Mountains, Underneath the Plow" from Beasts with Hearts of Gold, the winning "Go Turbo" from the new Shaman Shit -- every single last one of their songs is written around an obnoxious, unabating eighth-note pattern. Up-and-down strumming on the electric guitar, usually, although they sometimes move it to acoustic or even a no less numbing keyboard. JAB JAB JAB JAB JAB JAB JAB JAB, for every measure of every song. It's like water torture.

I'm certain that I'm repeating myself now, but perhaps it bears repeating. Guitar players of Austin -- heed my words. Are you playing in a Ramones tribute band? No? OK, then perhaps you should explore some more of the variety offered by your most versatile instrument. Playing guitar like it's a tambourine isn't against the rules, but playing every string on the damn thing with full emphasis for every quaver of every measure of every song will rather narrow its creative potential. And if you are using a guitar as your primary vehicle for songwriting, as Watch Out for Rockets are doing, you're kneecapping the whole band by slashing at the thing so indiscriminately.

The vocals are repeatedly forced into too-similar spaces, sabotaging their initial woolly likability. Worse, there's no room for the bass and drums to contribute on Shaman Shit and the earlier WOfR offerings. The guitar doesn't leave them room to do so, blaring as it does over every last note. Rather than developing their songwriting (that is to say, employing a different guitar pattern), the band begins to try ever more desperate distraction techniques from release to release. The experimentation isn't worthless. The weird but compelling edit piece "Daughter's Beautiful Hair" is the best of the many non-songs on Shaman Shit. But on the second and third listens, waiting through 20 or 30 seconds of tape hum for the witless guitar chug to begin again only compounds listener frustration. Lo-fi is supposed to be about great songs overcoming the limitations of the recording, and not those limitations disguising songs that aren't finished.

The few examples of good, memorable songs I have given above are the handful of tunes where the incessant strumma-strumma-strumma lets up and the guitars play riffs. Without getting lost in the details of music theory, the drummer is supposed to be the one doing the counting. The guitar is there to provide emphasis, and if you're playing it as loud as you can all the time, you are in effect emphasizing nothing. If you've chosen your three chords and written a vocal melody, you're not done! What rhythm can the chords be fit into that will flatter the melody? How can you construct an instrumental hook that will make the sections that don't have singing sound distinctive on their own?

Watch Out for Rockets haven't figured out how to write songs yet. The few they have that work do so almost by accident; I can't in good conscience say that they are improving with time because Shaman Shit is substantially less interesting than Beasts with Hearts of Gold, which itself has fewer good moments than their debut Let Me Levitate (although they have improved when it comes to lyrics and song titles that don't as obviously crib from R. Pollard). The drab death march "Alex Chilton," which is so unworthy of its subject matter that I feel guilty even mentioning its title, might be their single least interesting composition to date and it's on the new one. The band wants you to be impressed by their supposed swings from psychedelic to punk to folk, but since it's always the same structure and the same rhythm, none of the costume changes make the least tiny bit of difference.


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  2. I just spent 30 minutes trying to figure out if watch out for rockets had more than one singer... when I cam back to your blog it doesn't say that anymore. Am I confused or did it not say that? blogger etiquette would have you note your edit!! either that or I'm losing my mind

  3. Sorry about that, Anonymous. For the record: They only have one singer. He e-mailed me very politely to ask me to make the correction, so I did. The etiquette is something I will have to work on... I'm a displaced newspaperman and I don't read a lot of blogs.

    This does raise a larger issue: I write a lot about bands who don't have much in the way of proper press kits and I do the best I can with what is available to me. If you're in a band and you want to get it written about accurately, it helps your cause to have basic things like who is in the group, who plays what, and who sings marked down clearly.

    It's cool to try and angle for an air of mystery if you like, but for what it's worth, I would have given the "band" a lot more credit if I had known they were really more of a one-man project with guests, something I had no way of knowing from the WofR MySpace and Bandcamp pages. I probably would have used the theme "learn to do one thing right before you do everything" instead of "using the same guitar part on every song is boring."

  4. This blog is terribly boring. My dislike of WOFR aside, I find these reviews atrociously bland and self-indulgent. You, sir, are no different than the dickwad in my high school that made a buncha Sublime mixtapes and forced them on everybody.

    Nobody gives a shit about your opinion.

  5. Hmmm... Your review of this band is pretty off base, to say the least. I mean, we all have our opinions, but to say that someone doesn't know how to write a song or know how to play guitar... well, that's objective, I guess...

    Anyway, let's hear your music. I would love to know how a guitar "should" be played and how a song "should" be written.


  6. I thought this review was quite on point. I found myself coming to the same conclusions in regards to the guitar playing, repetitivness and the lack of space for the drums and bass. Was there bass? Although, as pointed out, song writing is objective, but thats what objective music critics do. Provide their objective opinion.