Uncommon music criticized by the common man. (Or, exercises in futility masquerading as critical thought.)

Wednesday, October 29, 2003

I found this over at Scrubbles. A fun concept. So I thought I'd put together my own. I haven't burned this yet (and can't because I don't have a CD burner on my computer and don't have a couple of those songs in my collection), but would like to, I think.

My Frankenstein Mix (the rules are at the link above), entitled "I'm a Mushroom Cloud Laying Muthafucka, Muthafucka!":

1. Cosmic Riders "Galactic Bomber (Roll Over Captain Ultra!)"
2. Jon Spencer Blues Explosion "Talk About The Blues"
3. Beck "Sexx Laws"
4. Mojave 3 "Love Songs on the Radio"
5. Ted Nugent "Cat Scratch Fever"
6. Dr. Teeth and Electric Mayhem "Can You Picture That?" (I finally thought of one!)
7. Spiritualized "I Think I'm In Love"
8. Pearl Jam "Even Flow"
9. Helium "Lullaby of the Moths"
10. Disco-Tex and the Sex-o-lettes "Get Dancin'"
11. Butthole Surfers "American Woman"
12. Primus "Tommy the Cat"
13. The Cardigans "Love Fool"
14. Badder Than Evil "Hot Wheels (The Chase)"
15. Slint "Good Morning, Captain"
16. Cornelius "The Micro Disneycal World Tour"
17. Motley Crue "Looks That Kill"
18. Janis Joplin "Summertime"
19. Elvis Presley "Bossanova Baby"
20. High Rise "Ikon"

And there you have it.

Thursday, October 23, 2003

Junior Citizen
Poster Children
Sire/Reprise - 1995

It's a shame about the Poster Children. Despite still going strong some fifteen-odd years after their inception, they barely get recognized for the excellent body of work they've released. Now, admittedly, I haven't picked up their last two albums (New World Record and DDD), or listened to any of their electronic offshoot, Salaryman, so it's possible that those works have tarnished their otherwise stellar reputation. Still, to completely ignore some of the best music of the early 90s because of the (potential) inconsistency of their latter is tragically ludicrous. (Or would that be ludicrously tragic?)

The pinnacle of these early years, released roughly at what is now the mid-point of their career, is this record, Junior Citizen. This was their fourth full-length, and as with the previous two records (the fairly profile-raising, Steve Albini produced Daisy Chain Reaction and its follow-up, the very good Tool of the Man), was a nice step forward in the band's evolution. The post-hardcore roar of Daisy Chain was replaced by the punchier, more immediate pop-punk (in the cross-pollinated sense of the word, not in the shitty, Sum 41 sense) on Tool of the Man. Going further in that direction, Junior Citizen showcased a band firing on all cylinders.

Building off the appetizer EP Just Like You, Junior Citizen is filled to the brim with absolutely epic rock songs. In terms of songwriting and hooks, this is without question the band's high point. Tracks like opener "Get A Life" and "New Boyfriend" explode behind some great guitar work from Rick and Jim Valentin, while Rose Marshack and Howie Kantoff (on bass and drums, respectively) lay down a solid rhythmic foundation. (Kantoff in particular plays with great force and really gives the group some real kick.) Elsewhere, on songs like "He's My Star" (a paean to David Hasselhoff!), "Drug I Need," and closer "One of Us," the PosterKids play it much gentler, toning down the big riffs in favor for some solid midtempo pop. While these songs might seem incongruous with the rest of the album, they are filled with a subtle buoyancy that is a testament to their ability to craft a good pop song, as well as their cohesion as a unit. The playing is just tight and the energy between the players jumps out of the speakers. Also deserving a lot of credit for this is producer Billy Anderson and mixer Bryce Goggin. The latter in particular was very in demand among indie-doms more high profile acts at the time, working on albums by Pavement, The Amps (Kim Deals band during The Breeders hiatus), The Lemonheads, and Sebadoh. He does a great job of capturing the PKids live sound, huge without being overproduced.

All these years later, the music sounds as vibrant as it did then, holding up incredibly. Hopefully, time will become kinder to the Poster Children. Any band that puts out a record as wonderful as Junior Citizen deserves it.

Punk Rock Blues and The Rock and Roll Report: two music blogs found via Rock Critics Daily. Solid.

Wednesday, October 22, 2003

Elliott Smith is dead.

I haven’t much to say about the passing of Elliott Smith. I must admit, I didn’t know much of his work. My first experience with his music was when he was in Heatmiser (an underappreciated indie-pop band from the early/mid-90s). As for his solo work, the only thing I own is his Dreamworks debut, XO. Of course, I had heard that the place to start with him was Either/Or, but I never got around to it. As much as I liked XO, it wasn’t enough to break my streak of once-in-a-while fascinations with singer/songwriters. His was just another name in the list: Leonard Cohen, Billy Bragg, Joni Mitchell, Elliott Smith. I own one album by each of those artists, and have not been compelled to seek out more. I’m never in the proper frame of mind to just listen to that music. Hell, I don’t even have Pink Moon in my collection. (Unlike a lot of people, who bought that album under the influence of Volkswagen. There’s a part of me that wants to rant about that, but ultimately, if that’s the one good album they have in a collection of crap, who am I to argue? Good on them.)

Anyway…no grand point to make, really. To his family and friends, my condolences. To Mr. Smith himself, I hope it was worth it.

Monday, October 20, 2003

Well, it's been a while since I actually posted a review, but I left work early today, so I figured I'd do something a bit creative with my time. Plus, I'm listening to a most excellent older album and feel like writing about it.

Yank Crime.
Drive Like Jehu
Interscope/Cargo - 1994; Swami - 2002
(this review is based upon the original 1994 release because, well, it's the one I have)

I slept for the longest time on this album. When it first came out, I reviewed it for the radio station for which I was a DJ (WVAU from American University) and didn't give much thought to it. Of course, back then, when I was reviewing CDs, I would listen to parts of tracks and wait for them to hook me, and if they did, then I would listen all the way through. If not, then I just went to the next track. Needless to say, such an ADD approach to music reviewing is tremendously flawed and does a disservice to people who read the reviews.

So, my initial reaction to the disc wasn't the greatest, only because I hadn't really listened to it. The standouts at the time were "Golden Brown" (which found its way onto a number of mixes I made back in the day) and "New Math."

Then a few years ago, while going through cds to make another mix, I pulled this one out. Because I had used "Golden Brown" so much, I decided to listen to the album all the way through, something I had done maybe once or twice before, and half-heartedly at that. Needless to say, I was shocked. This album is an amazing work that was thankfully reissued last year.

So what is the album really like? (I'd love to read what I had written on it nearly a decade ago.) Well, it kicks off with the supercharged "Here Come the Rome Plows," which is packed full with a guitar that is as lean as Andy Gill's, but sprayed out like feedback shrapnel, giving the song a wonderful chaotic element. The rhythms, as they are throughout the disc, are constantly in flux, as if they are trying to keep up with the guitars. Over top of all of it is guitarist/vocalist Rick Froberg's throat shredding screams. Often, if the vocalist is a screamer, it can be grating. Yet, anything less would have sounded out of place. The harrowing cries Froberg emits parallels the dual guitars noisy shards. It's all perfectly complementary, and due to the precise, repetitive nature of the songs (this album, while often getting shoehorned in with emo because of Froberg's vocal performance, really has more to do with math-rock than any other ridiculously named sub-genre), the storms eventually develop a rhythm all their own. As album openers go, few are better, both in terms of hooking the listener as well as setting the table for what is to come.

The second track, "Do You Compute," reigns in the chaos, yet loses none of the power. Here, DLJ go for more of a slow burn, building until about the 3 minute mark, where Froberg unleashes his most powerful vocal moment on the disc. He becomes completely unhinged, and the music just explodes. This is by far the best moment on the disc, as the effect is totally exhilirating, made more powerful due to its brevity. Right before this can become a supernova of sound, the music collapses back onto itself, to a point where Froberg is merely singing (in a bit of a sneering monotone) over a lone rhythmic guitar line. From here, the music again works a slow build before ending just over the seven minute mark. No huge explosion, and the leftover tension from the song is almost palpable. Now that's execution!

The third song, "Golden Brown," is the album's shortest track at just over three minutes(and probably the single when the album came out; I don't recall). It's a little speed demon of a song, galloping rhythms and guitar lines that are somewhat reminiscent of Steve Albini. Sadly, it's over before any kind of hook develops. It's power comes from the adrenaline rush that comes with most fast songs. It's good, sure, but it's not one you necessarily have to listen to over and over again.

That distinction goes the song number four, and the album's centerpiece: "Luau." If you want critical shorthand for it, think of Sonic Youth at their most epic mixed with Slint. If you want your critique as simile, then this is like a giant living machine slowly malfunctioning over nine and a half minutes. This song has it all, everything that makes this album great. The guitars start off in full spazz mode, careening against each other in no (immediately apparent) discernable pattern, but tethered nicely by the repetitive rhythm being laid down underneath. Eventually, they morph into an almost synchronized chime as the song pulls back just a bit. Then somewhere around the six minute point, they start this seemingly endless climb, one right after the other, before falling back into a detuned feedback heap. It's like the guitars have become too tired to keep pushing higher and higher and instead, let gravity take hold. In the hands of a lesser band, this would just sound like a muddled, tuneless miasma. Instead, because of the frequently precise playing of guitarists Froberg and John Reis, the chaos is controlled and purposeful, giving it greater visceral and musical impact.

The rest of the album (no need to continue with this song by song analysis, because if the first four songs don't hook you, nothing about this album will) is almost as strong: "New Intro" is a beautiful, melodic instrumental piece, "New Math" returns to the short form, but is less frenzied than "Golden Brown," while album closer "Sinews" is the other epic on this disc (again, clocking in at just over nine minutes), but is a bit more content, until it's climax, to keep things in slow burn mode. It also features another fine Froberg vocal performance that might stand out as most powerful if not for his delivery on "Do You Compute."

In all, a fine disc worth owning if you're even remotely interested in the now (mostly) worthless emo scene, or if you just want something new that will kick you in the ass.

Thursday, October 16, 2003

Epic Problem

This week's cover story for the City Paper is entitled "In on the Killjoy." The front cover illustration is of the members of Fugazi dressed as puritans. Underneath, it poses this question: "What have 20 years of righteous rock brought D.C.? No smoking. No drinking. No fun." I had only to view that to know exactly in which direction the piece was headed. Still, for laughs, I read it. I was dead-on in my assumption. Let me say this (only somewhat hyperbolically): I have not read a more muddled and faulty piece of rock journalism in a long time. Well played, Mr. Little.

Let's just break it down up front: the author apparently has an axe to grind with Fugazi (and specifically, or so it seems, Ian Mackaye) for their personal politics and the alleged detrimental effects it has had on the local scene. According to Mr. Little, the local scene is nothing more than a collective of boring agit-prop rockers, poo-pooing anybody who is having a good time. Who are the zealous bands out there handing out moralistic tracts? You know, the ones that currently represent the "Cotton Mather" version of rock music. Oh, that's right. He doesn't really say. We're just to assume that there are all these bands that have bought the Fugazi/Mackaye/Dischord party line and totally sucking the fun out of the scene. The examples he parades out are all defunct now, and existed much closer to the time Minor Threat existed, so the chances of them coming from a similar mindset are not all that surprising. The only other active local he mentions is Ian Svenonius of The Scene Creamers, The Make-Up, and most famously, Nation of Ulysses. But before he can even discuss the music/politics of any of those bands, he immediately dismisses him because he was once named "Sassiest Boy in America," which immediately means he has no credibility, for as Little puts it, "sassy and evil don't mix." Little fails to mention bands like the recently disbanded Dismemberment Plan, Q And Not U, Black Eyes, Beauty Pill, or El Guapo. Why are these contemporary local acts not mentioned? Is it perhaps because they don't really fit in nicely with Little's argument? Sure, there's a political statement here or there, but nobody is going to get the Plan's "Onward Fat Girl" confused with "Merchandise."

Here is the basic point of contention, what gets Little's dander up: the brand of personal politics espoused by Fugazi isn't what he believes rock and roll is supposed to be. Which of course is sex, drugs and rock and roll. Dope-fueled hedonism and reckless living. You know--live fast, die young. To Mr. Little, if you're not belting out the wild, shirtless lyrics of Mark Farner, you're not playing rock and roll. While it's easy to buy into that interpretation, it's also missing the point, a grand one. If rock and roll stands for anything, it's rebellion. And the politics of Fugazi has rebellion in spades, and always has.

When the D.C. punk scene was starting to come into its own (and Little should know this, since he mentions reading Andersen and Jenkin's wonderful history of the scene, Dance of Days), it was during the dawn of the Reagan era, a time freshly removed from the drugged-up stupor and raging promiscuity of the 70s and the Disco era. It was the beginning of the Me-first decade. So then, if the dominant paradigm is self-indulgent recklessness without consequence, wouldn't true rebellion be responsibility and ethical living? Little even quotes perhaps the definitive Minor Threat song, "Out of Step" as proving his point about Mackaye's no-fun ethos:

"I don't smoke/Don't drink/Don't fuck/At least I can fucking think."

Considering the time it was written, what statement could be more of a fuck you to the establishment? All of the things that are expected of teenagers, Mackaye completely blows off. There's more balls in that line than anything the hedonistic hair-metal bands of that same period (for example) have in their entire catalog. Of course, Little isn't buying that. He writes, "Drugs and rock music go together...The reasons are myriad, but the simple truth is that rock music, no matter how 'corporate,' retains the ability to frighten parents, and so do drugs." That may have been true in the 50s or 60s, when rock and roll was taking its first steps toward something meaningful, but at the time Minor Threat started to go, both drugs and rock and roll (except for heavy metal, which was a popular whipping boy at the time, more for its imagery and imagined content) had lost its power to spook parents, because the parents at the time (or the soon to be parents) were raised with it. It reminds me of a bit from an old George Carlin routine (and I'm paraphrasing here) when he talks about how he used to wear an earring, because it would piss off the squares. He said he stopped wearing it, because the squares were now wearing earrings themselves. If the parents are already coked-out, how much can the kids possibly scare them by doing drugs on their own? Where's the rebellion in doing what your parents do?

Another "problem" he points out with Fugazi is when they sometimes admonish people in the crowd for moshing. He makes it sound like Fugazi are preaching from a detached perspective, as if they can't fathom how kids can be moshing to their music. But (again, pulled from the Dance of Days book...I wonder if Little even read the thing), they know all too well what the problem is. They used to be the problem. The "Georgetown punks" learned from the Huntington Beach hardcore scene the fantastic violence of slamdancing, and brought it home and beyond. Andersen includes quotes from Lester Bangs (calling them "a phalanx of big ugly skinhead goons") and Jack Rabid ("They brought slamdancing to New York. I hated them. You're just standing there to watch the band and suddenly you're getting rammed into.") about the DC punks moshpit escapades. So, it's not like they have no idea what they're "preaching" against. What it came down to is that it was getting in the way of not only their performance, but of people being able to enjoy it, especially the women in the crowd. It went from being a way for people to get off to the music to a way for assclowns to legally fuck people up. Moshing is, ultimately, irrelevant to the shows and the music. If you're there just to be a violent dick, pushing people around who want no part of that action, you deserve to be made fun of. The fact is, this is just another piece of what Fugazi consider to be the total package as performers: give the crowd 100% and make sure they enjoy it. They are by no means obligated to make sure people aren't getting their asses kicked, but they do it because they feel a responsibility to head trouble off at the pass.

Ultimately, that is what Fugazi stand for: personal responsibility. It was never totally about "don't do drugs." It was "don't do drugs if you're just using them as an excuse to be a fuck up." They feel a personal responsibility to do business with people they trust. They feel a personal responsibility to not gouge their customers. (And to Little's credit, he does praise Fugazi for the way the conduct their business.) They feel a responsibility to give back to their communities. Sure, it's not the rock and roll abandon that was extolled by a generation of dead rock stars that preceded them. But so what? That just means that they learned young what eventually everyone learns. The rock and roll lifestyle is, in the long run, bullshit. It's artifice. It's a pose. That, to me, is where Little's precious article fails the most: he wants rock to be style over substance. Who cares if the music is utter shit if they look the part, if they live like a good little rock and roller is supposed to live? Sure, it's possible to have both (Van Halen kicked ass musically AND they were bona fide rock stars), but if the choice is one or the other, isn't being accountable for your actions always preferable? Besides, as Little pointed out himself, Ian isn't out there forcing people to live as he does. The kids are making that choice. To that, I ask: what says rock and roll icon more than the power the individual has over his devoted fans? If Little wants a rock icon who wants nothing to do with rock music but everything to do with the rock lifestyle, perhaps he should be a Limp Bizkit fan. I'm sure the backwards cap frenzied mob will be much more to his liking.