Sunday, June 5, 2016

X-Communicate




Kristin Kontrol
X-Communicate
(Sub Pop)

On “Trouble is My Name,” the final song of Dum Dum Girls’ 2014 album Too True, Dee Dee sang “I had a vision / I begged and I plead / I had a vision / I wanted to be dead.”  Little did we know then, that she was perhaps foreshadowing what was to come.  Dee Dee has always been the moniker for Kristin Welchez, who has steered the Dum Dum Girls since her early bedroom recordings in 2008.  Now she has decided to toss the eight years of building a loyal audience (over three fantastic albums) into the wind, as she dumps the Dum Dum Girls name in favor of Kristin Kontrol – along with a total synth pop makeover.  My first introduction to this wholesale change was early this year when this name kept appearing on my Facebook feed.  There was a 30 second video clip with a clanging techno beat and Dee Dee posing for a photo shoot.  I was shocked, and honestly dismayed, and began to panic.  It felt like a massive betrayal like when the untouchable Siouxsie Sioux shimmied uncomfortably and dawned movie star hair and make-up, pouty lips, diamonds, and a sparkly dress amidst a heart-shaped hot tub and popping champagne corks for her first U.S. hit single “Kiss Them for Me” back in 1991.  Like then, I felt like I had lost the artist who has provided many of my favorite songs in recent times – the songwriter whose words have been a comfort due to their complete understanding of utter and complete loss and despair.  Upon first hearing the lyrics quoted above, shivers rushed down my spine, because I have those desires and visions of death nearly every day and it is helpful to not feel alone in those moments.



Siouxsie and the Banshees "Kiss Them for Me"


I was completely conflicted.  I was dismayed by this short preview clip and talk of Kristin delving into the realm of some of her previously untapped Top 40 dance pop influences, yet hadn’t she completely earned the benefit of the doubt over the last eight years’ worth of excellent and often transformative music?  That 1991 Siouxsie and the Banshees album Superstition may have been impotent as compared to their previous cannon, but once I got over my initial consternation about “Kiss Them for Me” (admittedly after many years), and I began realize that the discomfort and awkwardness Siouxsie Sioux displayed in that video and the sheen of the music was perfectly fitting for the subject matter of the song.  With some excitement and anticipation and a tiny bit of dread, I went ahead and purchased X-Communicate, this debut album by Kristin Kontrol on its May 27th release date (coincidentally the same date I first saw the Dum Dum Girls live in 2012 – see story here).

One of my initial concerns is the idea that somehow the Dum Dum Girls material feels like it’s being dismissed – like somehow it is hasn’t been a true reflection of Kristin.  It hurts to think that, because her songs have been so damn important to me.  Her authenticity has always been a part of her appeal.  How much more personal can one get when the cover of her first album (2010’s I Will Be) is adorned by an old polaroid of her mom who had passed away after a battle with cancer (of course chronicled on the heartbreaking powerhouse that is 2011’s Only in Dreams)?  But, what makes something authentic?  If she wrote all of those songs as fictional stories, would they be any less impactful or authentic?  Why is it okay for a fictional movie or a novel to move us, but not a fictional song?  Why is it okay for musical icon, David Bowie, to change his artistic identity every few years, but no one else?  Didn’t Bowie build an impressive cutting edge catalog by mixing things up and always keeping it fresh by looking for new inspiration?  Not everything he did was perfect, but much of his genius spawned from his ability to keep things vital and to keep himself engaged all the way to the end.  Kristin is providing herself an opportunity to shed the pre-conceived notions and expectations that we have of her and to actually give us a fuller picture of who she is.  What could be more authentic then that? 

The album opens with the mid-tempo “Show Me” and it’s huge 80s sounding drum machine snare beat, a Psychedelic Furs inspired saxophone melody, and words of unconditional love.  It’s Kristin’s fantastic voice that raises this song (all of her songs) to another level.  The energy gets ramped up on the stroll down “White Street,” as a squalling guitar rides along a stuttering dance beat.  It carries that dance club street cool chic that the Furs tapped into so well with “Heartbreak Beat” back in ’86 and is undeniably addictive.  In “(Don’t Wannabe)” Kristin sings with her cool menthol flavored Christina Amphlett voice: “my unhappiness offends me,” perhaps a reference to much of her past work, as the song fittingly blossoms from an atmospheric opening into a big bright full blown pop song.  Meanwhile, the throbbing rhythm of the title track “X-Communicate” is still taking its time on winning me over.  It’s overblown chorus and repetitive sound are just so far removed from where I’ve gone musically, since I was about 15 and still spending all of my money on 12” dance mixes.  However, it’s that New Order-esque guitar outro that hints at “Bizarre Love Triangle” greatness.  Similarly, the giant pounding techno beat of “Skin Shed” is an unexpected detour, but it is easy to get lost in its dreaminess and slow burning musical tension.

The album begins to lose a bit of steam for me at this point, but does not lose me completely.  The most rock song on the album, “Drive the Night,” oddly feels like a throwaway, while the near power-ballad “What is Love” begins with ominous piano and synth atmospherics before spreading into a crossover bound Lone Justice - tinged chorus.  “Face 2 Face” and it’s boisterous arching sounds are somewhat fatiguing, while “Going Thru the Motions” remedies this with another cool song that has the same kind of streamlined Euro-reggae sunshine sound that Bananarama employed on “Cruel Summer.”  The earnest pleas of the closing heavy sounding “Smoke Rings” is likely the most reminiscent of Kristin’s previous Dum Dum work, as she sings of trying hard to reignite that certain spark that keeps us all going.

Kristin put the album together with Kurt Feldman (I know him from the Pains of Being Pure at Heart) and Andrew Miller, who played guitar off and on throughout the history of the Dum Dum Girls, and yes, it is quite a departure from where she’s gone before.  Though it is not what I was hoping for, I find myself caught up in most of the songs on this record.  Her sudden bold positivity is infectious.  Kristin has thrown aside any pre-conceived notions as to where she will go next.  What I do know is that she will continue to inspire by going in with all of her heart, which is what makes her such a compelling artist.

Identity is a helluva thing.  We spend much of our lives trying to galvanize an identity – sometimes scratching and fighting for one, but do we ever achieve what we’re looking for, or was our identity simply there the entire time?  Isn’t our identity essentially a collection of our body of work – positive or negative decisions and actions taken along the way?  As humans, we aren’t one dimensional.  We each have our varied tastes and cannot be pigeon-holed into simple categories, though we try to do this to everyone and everything – all while not wanting to be classified and placed into a neat little box ourselves.  It took a lot of guts for Kristin to throw aside the artistic identity that she has so impressively forged over so many years and begin anew.  However, would I have given her the benefit of the doubt, if she had released this same album under the Dum Dum Girls name?  I’d like to think so, but I cannot be sure.








Kristin Kontrol "X-communicate"







Monday, May 23, 2016

Return of the Wild Style Fashionists




True Love Always
Return of the Wild Style Fashionists
(Teen-Beat)

With so many artists from the past reuniting nowadays, I should not be surprised that True Love Always are back.  However, they were such a well-kept secret during the span of their original recording career (1997-2003), I wonder what the impetus was to give it another go.  Don’t get me wrong, because this is a very welcome return.  TLA somehow managed to combine the sounds of Postcard Records-era Orange Juice with the blue-eyed soul of New Romantics Spandau Ballet, along with Teen-Beat Records label-mates Unrest.  The sound throughout their four albums and many singles is wound-tight, dry, and flawless and nothing has changed, except this new EP may be their best work yet (I’d better go and listen to the old CDs as a refresher course).

Vocalist/guitarist John Lindaman’s friendly voice reminds me a lot of John Conley (Desario, Holiday Flyer, California Oranges), which makes these five songs of love lamenting incredibly accessible.  The perfectly pitched chorus of “Summer Trains and Tears” is a great example of their addictive sound complete with perfect bouncing bass lines from Tony Zanella.  The opening “In the Dark” is the true highlight here though as Lindaman sings words of hope to the hopeless (“Hopelessly drowning / Walk through the fountain / Your heart beats faster / Filled with disaster / If you can get outside / Then it will be alright”).  “Concentric” is the closest they get to straight forward rock here, with wonderfully dynamic drumming from Matt Datesman, while “5:32” displays their ability to capture sing-along moments from out of the air with such ease – though the song fades out too quickly.  The set closes with the oddly timed, but fun “Junkyard,” whose chorus call and response vocals remind me of the theme from 70s sitcom “Welcome Back Kotter,” and I dare you to remove it from your head after the first listen.

Maybe this reunion will shine a light on this deserving band.  Welcome back guys!





True Love Always "In the Dark"




Sunday, May 22, 2016

Blind Spot



Lush
Blind Spot EP
(Edamame)

Lush are back!  I honestly thought that this would never happen after the suicide of good guy original drummer Chris Acland nearly twenty years ago.  Yet here they are and sounding as amazing as ever.  I long ago gave up having any kind of suspicions regarding bands that reform for nostalgia tours or even new material.  Calls of “sellout” and “poser” have long since left my vocabulary.  Firstly, because if it is simply a cash grab, then good for them.  Most of these artists did not get the exposure they deserved when they first started, so why not get the due?  Secondly, having seen some of these reformed bands perform again, it’s heartening to see them get adulation for their amazing work.  It’s fun to see them having fun in front of big enthusiastic crowds instead of grinding through night 45 of some epic tour across the U.S. in some shitty club with shitty sound opening for some horribly mismatched band in front of 22 people.  If these bands actually do release new material, it’s difficult to have expectations.  Sometimes it disappoints, like the Pixies new album a couple of years ago, yet when they do pick up right where they left off, nothing can be sweeter.  Lush are back!

I have been debating for weeks about whether or not to write about this record.  I have this debate to some extent always, because as I am always on the fence about the effectiveness of sharing my opinions on music and the quality of my writing abilities.  Yet in this case, I am so happy that Lush are back that I want to shout it out to the world!  Plus, they begin again with an EP!  This is how we were initially introduced to them, so it’s exciting to see a 4AD-style sleeve jacketing the nearly lost art form of the four song EP, which helped introduce me to a million great bands back in the late 80s and early 90s.

Hearing the incredibly distinctive guitar work and vocals of Miki Berenyi and Emma Anderson launch this EP on the love plea “Out of Control” is like a breath of fresh air.  It’s a striking reminder that this band was wholly unique when they came along and they still are today.  “Lost Boy” follows with pure heartbreak and loss and an abrupt ending making one wonder if this is about Acland.  Meanwhile, “Burnham Beeches” is a breezy and summery song seeking solace in isolation with an interesting trumpet solo.  Lastly, the quietly orchestrated “Rosebud” sounds like a creepy night time lullaby (aren’t they all creepy?).

Lush are back!  Blind Spot has the most in common with their early EPs, but with the to-the-point clarity of their final two albums, the flawless Split and the straight ahead pop of Lovelife.  Lush are back, so please spend the money for their record and to see them perform.  Adore them while they are with us.





Lush "Out of Control"




Tuesday, May 17, 2016

As We Make Our Way (Unknown Harbours)



Sophia
As We Make Our Way (Unknown Harbours)
(The Flower Shop Recordings)

There is something special about each Sophia album.  Each album is immaculately recorded.  Every instrument shines with clarity and depth. Each album is sleeved with tastefully simple but effective artwork and packaging.  And, of course, it always takes some effort to track down.  I first encountered Sophia twenty years ago when I purchased a double 7” single that included two songs each from long-time favorite Swervedriver, and Sophia.  Both Sophia songs assured that I would be hooked on this new band.  Unfortunately, that would be the last time I ever saw one of their records or CDs in an actual record store, so it’s always been about tracking down each release via mail order. 

Robin Proper-Sheppard is essentially Sophia.  He has led various incarnations of his band now over six fantastic and incredibly consistent albums spanning the last twenty years.  As We Make Our Way is no exception.  Though it’s been seven long years since the last tour de force There Are No Goodbyes, it’s clear that Sheppard has not lost his way, at least musically.  He has always been a voice of clarity for the downtrodden.  His lyrics have always represented those of us who have a hard time accepting our lot in life and feel regretful over pretty much every decision we’ve ever made.  He accepts the blame for all of our wrong-doings and finally comes right out and says so in “Blame” halfway through this collection (“it’s okay, I’ll take the blame / for the both of us), atop his ever present acoustic strum and piano phrase that mirrors the short instrumental opener “Unknown Harbours.”

Things really take off with the powerfully pounding drums of the epic “Resisting.”  The simple repeated lyrics ask why we’re always resisting (Temptation?  Leadership?  Status Quo? Happiness?), while the music swells to dramatic highs that hint at the huge orchestrated songs from Swans’ 1991 album White Light from the Mouth of Infinity.  It’s a song that has the patience to allow the musical tension to build and build, making the conclusion that much more satisfying.  The next two songs, “The Drifter” and “Don’t Ask,” recall Sophia’s long history of dusty downbeat trudging gliders that tell some kind of intriguing yet sad story.  Proper-Sheppard is so adept at these that they always sound fresh, even if he has already covered this ground.

Where this new album steps away from previous Sophia albums is at the start of side two.  “California” offers up a big bright sounding tune that actually feels hopeful.  Then comes along the grinding bass groove of the foot stomping “St. Tropez/The Hustle” and Robin’s falsetto in “You Say It’s Alright” over a repeated keyboard line.  The latter two tracks definitely show off some experimentation and, dare I say it, a more danceable approach. 

The final two tracks close out this collection in classic Sophia fashion.  “Baby, Hold On” is a slow builder that details his tendency to be a no show for important times in a relationship, but he offers a slight glimmer of hope that change may be coming, as he readily admits his mistakes.  Meanwhile, the closing song “It’s Easy to be Lonely” is an outstandingly effective indictment for everyone who feels sad and lonely, by pointing out that we’ve taken the easy way out.  In other words, we’ve made the decision to be this way (“Another chance to change is avoided”).  This is a beautiful and potent song and one that can be difficult to get through, as he finally points the finger at us (the lonely), instead of accepting the consequences himself, as usual.

It’s a shame that Sophia is not more widely known, especially in the U.S.  I would love the opportunity to see them perform live and hear this majestic music in person and at high volume.  However, I am thankful that they have stuck it out for so long and offered us so many great songs.













Monday, May 16, 2016

Out of the Garden



Tancred
Out of the Garden
(Polyvinyl)

Holy 1994!!  This is all I could think of when I first heard “Control Me” from Out of the Garden, Tancred’s third album.  This was my introduction to Tancred, Jess Abbott’s apparent side project.  Who is Jess Abbott?  Well, all I know is that she plays (or played?) guitar for Now, Now, whose 2012 album Threads was my #10 pick of that year (see here).  However, this does not sound like a side project.  Instead it sounds like a well-rehearsed and seasoned rock trio who were raised on a heavy dose of “alternative rock” radio.  The best music is able to transport one’s mind to another place or time or emotion and this album transports me directly to the early to mid-90s – the time after Nirvana’s big breakthrough and major record labels (remember those?) were signing any band who employed loud guitars and pop hooks to huge contracts.  This is not a slight, as Tancred have captured the best of those times with genuine energy, direct coming of age lyrics, and fantastically abrasive guitars.

Tancred utilize the loud/quiet/loud approach that Nirvana used so well, but then if you throw in the buzzing and bright melodies of bands such as Veruca Salt, The Breeders, Julianna Hatfield, and the under-appreciated That Dog (whose Anna Waronker co-produced this album) it all comes alive and sounds as vibrant and exciting as ever.  Abbott is an amazing and versatile guitarist and this trio sound like they are having fun with these songs, which is contagious. 

The three-minute pop numbers like the opening trio of “Bed Case,” the drum overloaded in-the-red bursts of “Joey,” and “Control Me” all sound FM radio ready and are as endlessly catchy as anything of its kind and fun as hell.  But it’s the more complex and darker tunes like “Not Likely” and the guitar only “Hang Me” that give this album some balance and variety.  There is an abundance of sexual euphemisms, disgust, work angst, and a newly discovered confidence all over Abbott’s lyrics and this is all best encapsulated in the explosive “Pens”, whose off-kilter verses careen into the oddball chorus of “I’m incredibly healthy in my head / It’s crazy how stable I am.” 

The album fully blossoms for me on the second side.  The quietly angry and confused “Hang Me” melds seamlessly into the album’s fastest and catchiest song “Sell My Head.”  Then comes the dark humor of “Poise,” with a chorus to die for, or kill for, in this case.  The closing “Pretty Girls” is both a deep album ender and a teaser that leaves us wanting more.  What else can one ask for? 





Tancred "Bed Case"




Sunday, May 15, 2016

California



California
California
(Blackball)

Where to begin?  As I’ve mentioned many times on this site, Jawbreaker was a huge band for me during my twenties. I have tried to track down releases from all three band members over the years since their disappearance, and drummer Adam Pfahler has always impressed, especially with the 2006 Whysall Lane album (still waiting impatiently for album #2), and I think I have an old 7” by a band named The Moons.  I was also a big fan of Green Day, especially the Lookout! Records-era records, as well as the similarly fun and energetic Billie Joe Armstrong side project Pinhead Gunpowder, also featuring guitarist Jason White. Learning that these two were part of this new project, the Google-proof California was a clincher for me to purchase without a previous sound introduction.  This trio, rounded out by bassist Dustin Clark (of The Insides and Soophie Nun Squad – unknown to me), seemed to promise a revival of the exciting East Bay punk scene from the late-80s and early 90s, where one could buy like five albums, ten 45s and a couple of T-shirts for like $30 dollars via Blacklist Mailorder.  Ah, the good ole days of getting exhausted and frustrated from reading the endless dogma in the pages of Maximum Rock-N-Roll, but all the while voraciously ordering records advertised in the very pages that constantly railed against commercialism.

The album opens with the upbeat “Hate the Pilot” that recalls those Green Day/Pinhead Gunpodwer olden days, with lyrics that call out those who dislike everything for the sake of disliking, while “Same Boat” brings to mind Unfun-era Jawbreaker with Pfahler’s ever-inventive drumming, Clark’s gliding low end and White’s chiming post-punk guitar line.  The next couple of songs also hint at the sounds that I had kind of expected, except not as reliant on power chords and volume, and resoundingly more adult.  Then the record transitions into something much different.  The songs stretch out and side one closes with “Winners” - a positive outlook on how just getting through the daily grind and surviving can be something to celebrate.  Meanwhile, side two opens with the acoustic-led duet with Rachel Haden from the also much missed That Dog.  It’s a song filled with a real life melancholy as it describes the final moments of a relationship that has run its course.  There is no last second drama, just a simple bummer ending (“There was only a last knowing glance / A smile and a wave / Goodbye and I flew way”).  Then comes along the Hammond organ adorned standout “See Your Friends” – a downtempo reminder to keep our friends close and not let the drag of depression isolate oneself.  By this point, we start to realize that this album is really a simple, but incredibly performed and tastefully recorded timeless rock-n-roll album – not a pop punk record. 

Now that I’m old and have heard what seems like everything, I find that new music often takes several listens before it starts to show its strengths or weaknesses.  I can honestly say that California gets better with each listen. 









Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Here's Where the Story Ends



“Please strip down to your underwear and put on this gown,” the lovely young nurse’s assistant stated flatly as she swung the curtain closed at the foot of the hospital bed.  “Put your clothes in this bag,” she added.

I sat on the side of the bed and flung my new slip on shoes into the wall near where I had left my cane.  I began to wonder if I should put the cane somewhere else, as I suddenly became fearful that I would lose it here. I balled up my wet socks and stuck them into one of the shoes.  My feet had already been drenched with sweat, despite only having them on for the previous half hour or so.  It was inside-oven-hot outside, even though it was only mid-April and only mid-morning.  Plus, for some unknown reason, I have been retaining fluid like I was still a dialysis patient.  My ankles looked like an elephant’s. 

I attempted to fold my pants and shirt, but my left hand was not cooperating.  Ever since the stroke last Halloween, there has been no signs of improvement on that front.  I actually do practice my Occupational Therapy exercises nearly every day, but to no avail.  My fingers fumbled around behind my neck in a feeble attempt to tie the tiny back side open gown.  My left thumb seemed to dart back and forth of its own accord, getting in the way from the simple task of securing the gown.  I started to sense sighs and impatience from the outside of the curtain as I struggled unsuccessfully in the shadows, so I stretched my right arm out to pull the curtain open and requested help.

“You can tie the gown first and put it over your head,” the nursing student was clearly exasperated as she moved in behind me and pulled the strings quickly into a knot.

“Good idea!  Wish I‘d thought of that,” I responded.  I still cannot tie a knot!

“Lie down on the bed,” she commanded as she walked around the bed to the computer terminal, whose keyboard hovered over my left shoulder.  She placed a brand new, apparently disposable blood pressure cuff onto my left arm and asked me to state my name and date of birth, as the cuff automatically began to squeeze my formerly fistula’d left arm so tight I could feel my pulse pounding in my ears.

I looked up at the nursing assistant who was leaning over me with a stethoscope listening to my heart and lungs.  She was likely half my age.  How did I get so old?  It wasn't that long ago that I remember so vividly coming to after my first surgery and seeing a smiling nurse leaning over me, looking like a Madonna Wanna-Be.  I closed my eyes and concentrated on the hum of the air ventilation system and the hushed voices coming from the five other beds filled with people either returning from or preparing for an endoscopic ultrasound like I was.

“Please state your name and date of birth,” came the startling voice of the nurse, who was running this little wing of the old hospital.  She had replaced the young girl who was now observing from the foot of the bed.  “Have you been out of the country in the last thirty days? Have you been in contact with someone who has been out of the country in the last thirty days?”

I felt a few quick slaps on the crook of my right arm.  Another nurse was preparing to insert an IV needle.  She studied my arm closely.  Holding it upright by my hand and smacking it in different places.

“Why are you here today?”

Beep.  The nurse on my left stretched her laser gun across my gut to scan the barcode on my right wrist which I dutifully held aloft.

Slap slap slap.

“Have you ever had this procedure done before?”

Slap slap thud.

My limp arm fell back to my side.  I could a hear a few strips of tape being pulled and ripped and stuck onto the bed’s railing. 

“Have you had any recent hospitalizations?”

“Ready for a poke!”

The poke reminded me of the sudden stabs by the massive dialysis needles they used to slide into my arm three times a week.  Not like the mild sting from the labs I had drawn the two previous days.

“I see you’ve been on dialysis; did you get a transplant?”

“Hmmm.  I’m not getting anything.”

She slowly moved the needle around in a search for my vein.  The poor vein all of the needles are initially aimed for.  It’s no wonder it rolls away from any sign of danger.

Snap!  The nurse undid the bright orange rubber band she had used to tighten around my arm.

“Hi, I’m Doctor Brintha, I will be doing your procedure today.  Please tell me your name and date of birth.”

Slap slap slap.  The nurse began smacking the back of my right hand.

“Have you ever had an endoscopy before?”

“These all look like valves to me!”

“Have you or someone you’ve been in contact with been out of the country in the last thirty days?”

“A little poke!”

An intense burning sensation radiated through my hand.  I opened my eyes a little and looked at the nurse moving the needle around the back of my hand.  No blood was appearing in the tiny tube on the opposite end of the needle, which felt like molten lava being spread evenly onto my hand with a butter knife.

“So, the procedure will take about an hour…”

I closed my eyes again.

“Can you cup your hand?”

“We will spray some nasty tasting goo into your throat…”

“There it is!  Hold your hand still!”

“It will numb your throat, but you may still have a sore throat afterwards.”

“Can you keep your hand in that position?” the nurse asked as she taped the IV needle in place.

“We will be looking at your pancreas.  There are some cysts in there…”

“There you go.”

“If anything looks odd, I will take a biopsy.”


The voices began to fade away.  I felt completely empty – devoid of emotion.  I started to think about an early teenage crush I once had and how I felt sick to my stomach all of the time – not just when she was around – but all the time.  Oddly, not so different from how I felt at that moment.  I wondered if this would be the last of this hospital shit for a while, or just the beginning of another long stint.  Like that long ago crush, I somehow knew that nothing good was going to come from this.