Monday, May 30, 2016
XL Recordings XL LP 397
I heard this band on KXLU a few times but wasn't interested in them until I saw them open for Okkervil River at the Wiltern. Their performance was tremendously exciting and energetic so I decided to check out one of their albums. This was their debut album originally released on an indie label in 2008 before being reissued by XL in 2009. The band gives the album a theatrical structure in the lyric sheet organizing the songs into two parts plus a prologue and an epilogue. The lyrics are overtly autobiographical, drawn from lead singer Patrick Stickles' experiences as a youth and in college. The prologue consists of "Fear and Loathing in Mahwah, NJ" which like all the songs on the record was written by Stickles. It starts slow and distant, practically inaudible at normal volume, then it kicks into a fast tempo section with an Irish music flavor reminiscent of the Pogues. The song attacks the world with extraordinary vitriol apparently inspired by Stickles' unhappiness attending college in the titular town. At the conclusion of the song there is a reading from Shakespeare's play "Titus Andronicus." It comes from the end of the play where the villain Aaron expresses his lack of remorse for his evil deeds and his regret that he didn't do more of them. Part I begins with "My Time Outside the Womb" which describes Stickles birth and childhood in New Jersey. The song is a rocker that mixes power pop with old fashioned rock and roll. The gloomy "Joset of Nazareth's Blues" takes a poke at religion and outlines Stickles grim view of life. Musically the song sounds like a crazed street musician covering Bruce Springsteen. "Arms Against Atrophy" recounts a high school band trip to San Francisco where Stickles broke his arm as well as a dream in which his mother attempted to kill him with nail clippers. It is a punky rocker with a throat-shredding vocal from Stickles. "Upon Viewing Bruegel's 'Landscape with the Fall of Icarus'" has no obvious connection to that painting but instead features more of Stickles nihilistic philosophizing. It is raucous power pop with punk attitude. That concludes side one and part I. Part II begins with "Titus Andronicus" in which Stickles describes the misery of being in an indie rock band. The song ends with Stickles howling "your life is over" repeatedly. It is a thunderous song with a lot of drive. The band generates an impressive wall of sound. The misery continues in "No Future Part I" in which he describes himself as "dying slowly from Patrick Stickles disease." The song expresses a desire to runaway from unhappiness as well as thoughts of suicide. The song starts slow, almost dirge-like which serves its depressing message well. Beginning with the instrumental break it becomes noisier without increasing the pace too much, this part reminds me of Neil Young and Crazy Horse. "No Future Part II: The Day After No Future" is a song about the apocalypse. Unlike "Part I" it rocks out fiercely and just as loudly with lots of guitar noise becoming shoegaze-like at the end. There is a reading at the conclusion of the song from the end of Albert Camus' novel "The Stranger." It includes the famous line about Meursault laying his heart open "to the benign indifference of the universe." The epilogue features the song "Albert Camus" which is not about the author but rather describes adolescent stupidity and misbehavior in a small New Jersey town. The indifference and the apathy the people in the song feel towards life is presumably intended to be compared to the existential perspective expressed in Camus' work. The song is another frenetic assault on the eardrums with a shoegazy finish. This is one of the darkest pop records that I've ever heard. At times it seems more like a suicide note than art. I was an alienated adolescent and I haven't forgotten what it was like, but this is so extreme I have trouble relating to it at times. Also I find such a steady stream of negative feelings wearying to listen to, there is no humor or expression of warmth to offer any respite. The album is aptly titled, I don't think I've ever heard such a prodigious venting of spleen. The record's saving grace is the music which is wonderfully dynamic and passionate. It combines the raw energy of punk rock with the song craft of power pop and shoegaze with thrilling results. Also Stickles is a very expressive singer which makes his ceaseless whining a lot more palatable. Recommended to Nirvana fans who think Kurt Cobain was too cheerful.
Thursday, May 19, 2016
Ardent ADS 1501
This is a Concord Music Group reissue of Big Star's second album. A couple of years ago I attended a Big Star tribute show at the Wilshire-Ebell Theater featuring a bunch of power pop musicians including members of the Posies, Bangles, R.E.M., the dB's, Yo La Tengo, Luna, Let's Active as well as the sole surviving member of Big Star, drummer Jody Stephens. It was a fantastic show played with obvious love and respect by the musicians. They played Big Star's albums "#1 Record" and "Third" in their entirety but just a handful of cuts from this album. I guess that makes sense, "#1 Record" is the only the Big Star album with Chris Bell in the line-up and "Third" has a big cult following. However when I feel like listening to Big Star, this is usually the album I reach for, it is my favorite of the three. The album gets off to a strong start with "Oh My Soul" in which Alex Chilton combines the blue-eyed soul sound of his previous group, the Box Tops, with the effervescent power pop of Big Star with dazzling results. The song is full of shifts in tempo and melody punctuated by frenetic guitar solos and a buoyant vocal from Chilton as he sings about romantic frustration. I consider this to be one of the band's best ever songs. Chilton and bassist Andy Hummel co-wrote "Life is White" which continues the soul/power pop fusion albeit in a far less charged manner. The sound is notable for the density of its sound, in particular the howling harmonica that runs through it. It is a merciless kiss-off song. Hummel's "Way Out West" expresses romantic yearning for an absent lover. It is a catchy song driven by a solid power riff with a lovely chiming guitar solo in the break. "What's Going Ahn" is another Chilton/Hummel collaboration. It is a slow song with a poignant vocal from Chilton and lots of ringing guitar runs to keep things interesting. The song expresses disillusionment with love. The side concludes with Chilton's "You Get What You Deserve" which is a rocker full of hooks and compelling guitar licks and other power pop niceties. It is an enigmatic song about being realistic about life and accepting it. "Mod Lang" was written by Chilton and drummer Richard Rosebrough who filled in for Stephens on a few tracks of the album. It is a riff driven rocker that expresses dissatisfaction, a classic rock and roll theme that suits the song's heavy sound. "Back of a Car" is a Chilton/Hummel tune about romantic confusion and insecurity. With its soaring vocal, jangly guitars and hyperactive drumming it laid the foundation for a generation of power-poppers to come. It is another one of my favorite tracks. "Daisy Glaze" is a group composition about self-destructive behavior in the wake of a break-up. It is a delicate song with a sensitive vocal from Chilton that shifts into high gear near the end for a power-pop rave up that gives the song a strong finish. "She's a Mover" is a Chilton song about a wild woman. It is a straight ahead rocker full of energy and guitar riffs. Chilton's "September Gurls" is one of the greatest power pop songs of all time, a true classic. It is a simple song about the ups and downs of love, but the imagery in the lyrics is memorable and the hook-laden tune makes the words' impact powerful and lasting. The song blew me away the first time I heard it (in the Bangles' cover version) and the Big Star version is even better. I've heard it countless times and it still sends me every time. Chilton's "Morpha Too" is a silly love song with a childish tune driven by a piano. It is the weakest track on the album but still fun. Chilton also wrote "I'm in Love with a Girl" which is a joyous love song. In contrast to the rich sound of the rest of the album, this song simply features an acoustic guitar. The simplicity of the arrangement emphasizes the vocal which serves to show what a terrific singer Chilton was. I find his high sensitive voice very appealing. It gives the album a tender and heartfelt finish. I love this record and rank it among the very best albums of the 1970s. I wish I could have heard it back when it came out instead of having to wait 15 years until I finally got it on CD. I grew up in the 1970s hating the music of my generation and admiring the music of the 1960s. Perhaps if I could have heard this instead of the Eagles or the Doobie Brothers or any of the other crap that was on the radio in 1974, I would have felt better about my own generation. Nonetheless I'm glad this music is finally widely available on vinyl and getting the respect it has always deserved. Recommended to fans of the Posies and Sloan.