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KRCC’s Delvin Neugebauer reviews new releases from Bass Drum of Death, Bill Callahan, Crystal Stilts, Elbow, The Joy Formidable, The Smithereens, Those Darlins and Wagon Christ. All the albums reviewed are recent additions to KRCC’s music library. Tune in to any of the Music Mix programs on KRCC to hear selections from these new releases.
Bass Drum of Death
(Fat Possum Records)
With the recently announced breakup of the White Stripes, it’s conceivable that newer guitarist/drummer duos could be jockeying for position to fill the void. Well, fans probably shouldn’t pin their hopes on Bass Drum of Death. After all, the biggest reason the Stripes thrived for so long is because they started with a strong command of the blues and spent more than a decade fusing other sounds into their style. On its debut album, GB City, BDoD shows very little grasp of the blues (particularly for a band from Mississippi) and even less exploratory spirit. For these two guys, rock history begins with the MC5 and the Velvet Underground, and ends with Iggy & the Stooges. The clipped guitar in “High School Roaches” (no pun intended) and the string-bending in “Get Found” make those tracks (or at least their riffs) stand out from the pack. “Leaves” and “Religious Girls” are particularly Velvets-inflected, and the melody of “Nerve Jamming” actually does sound a lot like the Stripes’ “Fell in Love with a Girl.” For the most part, though, guitarist John and drummer Colin first names only, thank you rely on pounding rhythms and big loud riffs to drive the album, from the first track to the last, hardly slowing down to take a breath. (And despite the band’s name, the production on this CD is pretty skimpy on low end.) Summary: If your taste in rock & roll leans toward the raw and primal, GB City is worth checking out. Just don’t get your hopes up for a lot of surprises.
(Drag City Records)
This is Bill Callahan’s fourth album under his own name, after about a dozen releases under the name Smog. On Apocalypse, the Maryland-born, Austin-based singer/songwriter assumes the character of a ranch worker in the Australian outback. In the opening track, “Drover,” the protagonist describes his working life and his statement of purpose: “One thing about this wild, wild country/It breaks a strong, strong mind/But anything less makes me feel like I’m wasting my time.” In “Free’s,” however, he starts to wonder if he’s wasting his time anyway, working on the ranch: “I’m standing in a field/A field of questions/As far as the eye can see/Is this what it means to be free?/Or is this what it means/To belong to the free?” “Baby’s Breath” contrasts the idealized image of a bride with the reality of sustaining a marriage: “Young girl at the altar/Baby’s breath in her hair/A crowning lace above her face/That will last a day/Before it turns to hay.” The drover soon looks to the promise of “America!” (“Where everyone’s allowed a past/They don’t care to mention”) and contemplates “Riding for the Feeling”: “I asked the room if I’d said enough/No one really answered … All this leaving is never-ending/I kept hoping for one more question.” He finally makes his decision “One Fine Morning,” taking off in the dawn: “And I say, ‘Hey/No more drovering.’” Callahan tells the drover’s story in his dry, grainy, slightly nasal baritone; he and his band support the saga with a warm, cozy backdrop of acoustic guitar, spare percussion, supple, jazzy bass, grace notes of electric guitar in just the right places, and a few touches such as the violin on “Drover,” the flute on “Free’s” and the gospel piano in “One Fine Morning.” Apocalypse is a fine album that combines Callahan’s nuanced, well-detailed storytelling with rich, engaging music.
In Love with Oblivion
On its second album, the New York-based rock quintet Crystal Stilts lays down a heavy update on Sixties psychedelia. In Love with Oblivion kicks off with a swirl of gusting sound, leading into the reverb-heavy, fast-picked guitar riffs of “Sycamore Tree.” “Through the Floor” is a Nuggets-style stomper, all tremelo and fuzz guitar; vocalist Brad Hargett sings about his subterranean adventure: “She tried to find me/But I fell through the floor/She reached inside the earth/And she found me at the core.” (His vocals certainly have enough echo on them to sound like he’s singing from a deep cavern.) “Precarious Stair” is another Nuggets-worthy number, with tympani drums added to the mix. “Silver Sun” and “Invisible City” are distinguished by Motown-style beats and chiming guitars (and a saxophone buried in the latter). JB Townsend’s guitars in “Alien Rivers” and “Flying Into the Sun” are a mixture of Byrds-style chime and spaghetti-Western twang. “Shake the Shackles” is distinguished by Townsend’s fast-strummed guitar and Kyle Forester’s poppy keyboards, not to mention the relative surprise of Hargett’s voice rising on the chorus: “Blinded to the future/Bind me to the past/Trying to shake the shackles/From the first to last.” Throughout the proceedings, bassist Andy Adler and drummer Keegan Cooke keep the energy level high. Crystal Stilts may be a derivative band in fact, the album-closing “Prometheus at Large” sounds like a rewrite of the Velvet Underground’s “Run, Run, Run,” right down to the undercurrent of piano and the strangled-sounding guitar leads but In Love with Oblivion sure is a fun listen.
Build a Rocket Boys!
This Manchester-based quintet gets into some complex instrumental interplay on its fifth album, taking each of its songs the shorter pop tunes as well as the longer epics through a range of changes. The opening track, “The Birds,” builds slowly from light percussion and a one-note guitar riff to a big cinematic rocker, as vocalist Guy Garvey asks on the chorus, “What we gonna do with you?/Same tale every time … Looking back, it’s for the birds.” Craig Potter opens “Lippy Kids” with a slow keyboard pulse; then Craig’s brother Mark adds lightly ringing guitar beneath Garvey’s smooth, Morrissey-influenced vocal. “The Night Will Always Win” shows that the Morrissey influence doesn’t just extend just to Garvey’s singing style: “I threw this to the wind/But what if I was right?/Well, did you trust your noble dreams and gentle expectations/To the mercy of the night?/The night will always win/The night has darkness on its side.” “With Love” features a balalaika-like riff over Pete Turner’s crisp bass, handclaps, an African-sounding choir and interwoven vocal lines on the bridge. “High Ideals” opens with a shaker rhythm and spiny-sounding bass; then drummer Richard Jupp comes in with a tribal beat. The song’s florid keyboard riff sounds like the horn section of a mariachi band playing something from a Rodgers & Hammerstein musical, as Garvey sings, “There’s a ladder tear in my high ideals/Like I took a chair on the battlefield/And any noble fire that was burning in my chest/Is acid in my belly at the very best.” “Open Arms” begins with what almost sounds like an ensemble of toy instruments; the song develops into a more robust rock number, as Garvey tells the song’s antagonist, “You’re not the Man Who Fell to Earth/You’re the Man of La Mancha.” Build a Rocket Boys! is a rich, varied album from a band that’s been together for twenty years with no personnel changes time enough, apparently, to learn each other’s musical strengths and grow together as a unit.
The Joy Formidable
The Big Roar
Samuel Goldwyn, the movie producer whose name provided the G in MGM Studios, has been credited with some rather confused-sounding comments. (This was decades before the Internet made it popular to recycle such laughable quotes again and again, attributing them to whoever’s running for office.) He’s alleged to have told a director, “We want a story that starts out with an earthquake and works its way up to a climax.” It’s too bad the movie mogul didn’t live to hear The Big Roar. The opening track, “The Everchanging Spectrum of a Lie,” begins with seemingly random, clattering percussion, which soon coalesces around a whirring guitar riff. More guitars join in, building up in layers over thick, tense bass guitar and pounding drums. A female voice wails through this tempest of sound. As the song draws to its ending, the tempo speeds up from one measure to the next, until it erupts in a storm of atonal piano and staticky noise, which all suddenly drops away. And that’s just the first song! From there, this Welsh rock trio’s debut album is a nearly non-stop tumult of hammering rhythms, spiny bass, surging melodies, and churning, roaring, thickly layered guitars. To lift another line from Goldwyn, the band plays like Wagner, only louder. The Big Roar isn’t just an unmodulated sonic assault, though; The Joy Formidable deploys its dynamic skills to make the most of its melodies. In songs like “Austere,” “I Don’t Want to See You Like This,” “Cradle” and “Buoy,” Bryan’s rich, unabashedly Welsh-accented singing voice frequently is supported just by Rhydian Dafydd’s bass and Matt Thomas’ drums. Those stripped-down moments feel like the group’s way of coiling its music tighter, so Bryan’s guitar riffs can rush out toward the listener with that much more urgency when the time is right. A couple of tunes in the latter half of the disc “Maruyama,” which features Bryan singing over just a two-note guitar riff, and “Cradle,” which features a low-key vocal from Dafydd over a droning keyboard track serve as the eye of the musical storm. “Chapter 2” opens with the sound of a typewriter, which becomes part of the rhythm track as the song shifts gears. The final number, “The Greatest Light Is the Greatest Shade” is indeed the climax that The Big Roar has been building up to: the musicians pile on the keyboards along with the guitars, Bryan holds back nothing in her singing, and the band uses all the loud/soft shifts that the track probably can withstand. The Big Roar isn’t just a terrific first effort; it’s the most powerful, exciting rock album yet to appear in 2011. To paraphrase Goldwyn just once more (I promise), give The Joy Formidable a couple years, and the band will be an overnight success.
(Entertainment One Music)
The Smithereens never actually went away, even for a short while. But their recorded output over the past decade has amounted to an effort to stay in the marketplace, rather than serious quality work. God Save the Smithereens was the New Jersey-based quartet’s last collection of original material to hit the racks. Since that 1999 release, the Smithereens have put out two live albums, two collections of Beatles covers, a tribute to The Who’s Tommy and a Christmas album. So 2011 (whose cover art drops a big hint toward the group’s most commercially successful album, Smithereens 11) offers welcome reassurance that the band hasn’t lost its knack for moody, hook-filled songs. Granted, none of this CD’s 13 tunes is quite as stellar as such past standouts as “Blood and Roses,” “Behind the Wall of Sleep,” “A Girl Like You,” “Blues Before and After,” “Drown in My Own Tears” or “Only a Memory.” But none of the new songs is weak, either (although a couple are just adequate), and “Sorry,” “Keep On Running,” “Rings on Her Fingers,” “Nobody Lives Forever,” “Turn It Around” and “What Went Wrong” are particularly choice additions to the Smithereens canon. Pat DiNizio’s voice still has its burnished, melancholy resonance, Jim Babjak’s guitar still sounds muscular and crunchy, and drummer Dennis Diken and bassist Severo Jornacion (the group’s only non-original member) make as solid and tight a rhythm section as any rock & roll band could ask for. Producer Don Dixon, the man behind the controls for 1985’s Especially for You and 1987’s Green Thoughts, returns to capture the group at its most vigorous. That might make it seem as if the Smithereens are trying to recapture their past glory, but the result sounds more like they’re just returning to what they do best and haven’t done in far too long. Welcome back, guys.
Screws Get Loose
(Oh Wow Dang Records)
The second album by this Murfreesboro, Tennessee-based quartet is an exhilarating mash-up of rootsy, swaggering rock & roll, rockabilly cool, down-home country sass, Sixties girl-group harmonies and pure punk rock abandon. Those Darlins vary their attack from one song to the next, but their energy, enthusiasm and sense of fun always come through. “Let U Down” and “Hives” are bouncy, jangly rockabilly; “Boy” is surprisingly poppy in its approach; “Waste Away” and “Bumd” are pummeling rock & roll. A sound with this much fun and verve just begs for an unserious, sarcastic approach to its songs, and Screws Get Loose doesn’t disappoint in that department. “Be Your Bro” is a tomboy’s riotous plaint to the fellow who’s pursuing her: “I may have girly parts/But I got a boy’s heart.” “Mystic Mind” lays its goofy lyric about the occult (“Suckin’ on a cosmic egg/Open up my third eye/Walkin’ down my life line/Call Miss Cleo”) over a swampy, sinister groove that the Cramps would’ve been proud to call their own. “Fatty Needs a Fix” is a faster rockabilly number about food: “You come home wantin’ love-makin’/I’m hopin’ you’ll bring home the bacon … Can’t do soup/Can’t do salad/Gimme something hearty to fill up my palate/You just want to give me some lovin’/I don’t want that kind of bun in the oven.” The three Darlin “sisters,” Nikki, Jessi and Kelly Darlin, take their turns in the lead vocal spot, and blend their voices in some attention-grabbing harmonies. Drummer Linwood Regensburg joins in the harmonies as well, and gets to take the lead on “Let U Down.” (Hmmm, he’s not a Darlin, huh … guess the girls didn’t want him to be their “bro.” Wonder why not.) The echo-laden production makes Those Darlins sound like a Grand Ole Opry version of the Shangri-Las. The album isn’t unimpeachable: the title track is thrown off by a weird, out-of-tune guitar solo that just doesn’t fit. But that sort of thing happens occasionally when screws get loose.
(Ninja Tune Records)
This is British DJ Luke Vibert’s sixth album released under the name Wagon Christ, and his twentieth album overall. (In addition to the Wagon Christ moniker, Vibert also has issued his work as Plug, Kerrier District, Ace of Clubs, and under his given name.) Toomorrow is constructed from a wide array of samples and varied (but always funky) beats. “Introfunktion” kicks the DJ’s set off with a host of sampled voices over a languid electric piano groove. The title track follows, its double-time beat and retro melody conveying the feeling of a fast-paced day in the city. “Accordian McShane” features a cool-sounding organ on top of some thick, chunky bass, dry snare drum and tympani … but no accordion. A needling synth hook drives “My Lonely Scene”; “Respectrum” rides on its samples of ‘70s funk licks; “Rennie Codgers” is a brief snippet of old-fashioned soap-opera organ theme. With its succinct bass lick and string section, “Oh, I’m Tired” would sound pretty cool in an Ocean’s Eleven-style film. (By the way, this track is where the accordion ended up.) The next tune, “Wake Up,” mixes a Middle Eastern reed melody with sitar and a wriggling synth riff over snare drum. Some of the synth hooks in “Lazer Dick” are just a bit too retro-sounding for the track’s own good, but the rock-solid beat makes the song worthwhile. “Sentimental Hardcore” leans more toward the first half of its title, with its bird noises, pastoral flute melody and distorted baby voices. If any of this has stirred your interest, check Toomorrow out; it’s sure to provide something that’ll enhance your next party mix.
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