Saturday, February 22, 2014

Cheatahs



Cheatahs
Cheatahs
(Wichita Recordings)

My old friend Ken, one time way back in High School – probably spontaneously, as we were about to begin a test in something like Geometry class – blurted out one of his many invented jokes.  He said: “I hate taking tests at the zoo.”  Of course, what you may have already surmised is that this is not a good way to set up a joke.  There’s no inherent response that such a statement will illicit, such as a ‘knock knock’ joke, which universally brings about the response: “who’s there?”  Somehow though, we were all tuned in enough to set him up as he needed to bring about the punch line.  “Why do you hate taking tests at the zoo, Ken?” - came the response.  “I always end up next to the cheatahs.”  And now, here we are 25 plus years later and I am listening to the debut album by a band named Cheatahs, before attending the first stop on their first US tour here in Portland tonight (2/22/14).  I cannot imagine a connection here, besides that they are using the term Cheatahs in the same twisted context.  Word has it that this UK-based four-piece, comprised of an American, a Canadian, a Brit and a German, coined the name because they were all involved with other projects, but were moonlighting with each other as they formed this band.  Whatever the case, I’m glad they went the route they’ve chosen, because their previous Extended Plays collection (my 2013 #11 pick seen here) and now this debut are dominating my music world.

As mentioned in my review of Extended Plays, this band dwells in musical styling’s that were guiding my days back in the early 90s.  They could be ripped for being too derivative, but I simply don’t care.  This new album contains a fire and passion and a quality that overcomes everything.  What I liked about the best of the old “shoegaze” bands (a terrible UK press term thrown at a wide variety of bands of that era, because their stage presence was too insular and not rock star-ish enough for headline hungry writers) were that they acted as a complete unit.  All of the instruments (be it guitars, bass, keyboards, drums, vocals, etc.) were on equal footing.  The songs were more about the whole impression - a wash of noise that could somehow be loud and bold, dreamy and atmospheric, and most importantly melodic, all at the same time!  When bands such as Swervedriver, Ride, My Bloody Valentine, Slowdive, early Moose, Lush, Catherine Wheel, Pale Saints, Curve and many many blew my freaking mind and expanded my horizons twenty plus years ago, it was because they somehow encapsulated everything that I had previously loved about music up to that point and pushed it to new territories.  Cheatahs have brought this all back to me and it sounds as fresh now as it ever did then.

For those familiar with the band up to this point, the second EP Sans lead off track “The Swan” makes a triumphant appearance in all of its huge pounding and soaring glory.  It has the same kind of vibe as Interpol’s “PDA,” but not as dry and angular.  Also, both sides of their late 2013 pre-LP single emerge in fuller forms.  The “Son of Mustang Ford” careening abandon and white hot riffage of “Kenworth” slowly dissolves into a floating in space ambient conclusion, while the super catchy buzz and spooky keyboards of “Cut the Grass” are allowed to come to a proper conclusion now, as the abrupt fade-out from the 7” is corrected.  Meanwhile all of the new material blasts and swoons perfectly. The album feels cohesive and flows naturally.  The new single “Get Tight” alternates a grinding power chord with each sung lyric and manages to alternate between heavy rock, dreamy psychedelia, and catchy three minute pop song.  Elsewhere, the opening mellow instrumental snippet of “1” explodes into “Geographic” whose hard strummed guitar hook instantly puts this song into overdrive, while the blistering and gliding “Northern Exposure” and its amazing chorus brings to mind the inspiration that is Teenage Fanclub’s “Star Sign.”  The second half of the album is the first real sign of their My Bloody Valentine influence, as “IV” is rife with layers of see-saw off-kilter feedback waves over the top of a stuttering shuffle beat.  The album closes with the most melancholic sounding song of the collection, “Loon Calls,” which is also one of their strongest to date,

It’s always difficult to describe what music sounds like, but it’s even harder when everything fits together so well in these ‘washes’ of melodic sound.  It takes so many listens to break apart mentally each component’s importance to the whole.  What I can say though, is that this is a lot of fun to listen to and both of their CDs have been on constant repeat at home and in my car for some time now.  I do not see that ending any time soon.  Now should I try and tell them Ken’s joke sometime before or after their performance tonight?  Probably not.



Cheatahs "Get Tight"

 

Thursday, February 20, 2014

None the Wiser






I’ve been in a tiny bit of a crisis mode about writing these reviews.  One of my goals to begin this year was to write about music as I encounter it throughout the year – highlighting what I personally find exciting and try to spread the word, instead of saving it all up until the year end best of list and completely melting my feeble brain with 40 plus of my favorites.  Well, I’ve been doing this, but only a month and a half in, I’ve lost focus.  Instead of being content with the joy of listening to the great music (and this year’s music has been especially great so far!) and writing about it, I’ve found myself too fixated with my limitations as a writer and too discouraged by a lack of response or much of an audience of any kind.  I’ve also questioned the point of my silly little ramblings about silly little albums.  I wish I had more valuable insight, such as the thoughtful musings and life lessons as presented by Kario via her frequent posts in The Writing Life, or tangible skills to offer like the renaissance talents on display from Lola Nova – a crafter, writer, and musician.  My excuse is that I tend to personalize these reviews quite a bit.  I do not take an academic approach and attempt to slot each release into a historical context and pontificate about how it may fit into the grander social and cultural context.  I do my damnedest to express in a feeble way how powerful this music is to me and how it impacts me.  In this world of complete and total narrowcasting, it feels like it’s too easy to shut out the recommendations of friends and those old knowledgeable, but sometimes intimidating record store guys of the old days.  I am guilty of this as well.  I couldn’t tell you who 90% of the artists that are “popular” are these days, but I can also say that I don’t have a lot of favorite artists that have been discovered via pre-programmed suggestions as presented from Spotify or Pandora or whatnot (there’s been a few interesting discoveries, I won’t lie).  Most of the thrilling finds still come from friends or trusted writers giving a song or album their solid approval and spreading the word.  So, I am still in flux and question the value of this for myself or anyone else, but I made a commitment to myself to make a concerted effort to write more, so I will continue for now.  I do encourage anyone who happens upon this to share their thoughts about the music in question or music in general.  There’s not much I enjoy more than listening to and absorbing the music I love - jabbering ceaselessly about it comes close.

  



The Rifles
None the Wiser
(Cooking Vinyl)

It’s fitting that I now turn my attention to the UK four-piece The Rifles.  As I was waiting for the long-awaited pre-ordered (via a Pledgemusic campaign begun in 2012) copy of their wonderful fourth album to arrive, I perused the web for a few reviews to get a line on what to expect.  What I ran into was a lot of hyperbole about how the Rifles are making ‘unhip’ music and that they were and apparently will always be middling.  I would guess that hearing such commentary certainly wouldn’t be very inspiring or encouraging – considering the fairly middling "success" of the band.  It cannot be easy to keep chugging out their brand of tasteful mod pop, however unhip, with such a limited response after ten plus years as a band.  Yet, here they are and after a one album separation (see review of the experimental and beautiful third album Freedom Run 2011 #8 pick here) the original members are all back in place and sounding as fresh and vibrant as ever. 

Right away, this album sounds like it has a lot more in common with their 2006 debut No Love Lost.  It is brimming with tight pop songs with huge memorable choruses and hummable guitar hooks.  Whether endlessly catchy music is hip or not, I could give a shit.  This music and these simple ruminations about love found and lost are so damn enjoyable.  There is a willing innocence to these tunes.  They sound like they could’ve been huge radio hits from the mid 60s, or the cool retro mod run that the Jam had in the late 70s.  One song after another, from the tight dry opening of “Minute Mile” (what a chorus!) to the two minute burst of the jaunty “Heebie Jeebies” on to the spiky “Go Lucky” (what a guitar melody!) to the jangly classic pop of “All I Need,” which I dare anyone not to bounce around with snapping fingers upon first listen, these first four songs alone make the album worth the price of admission.  Each and every one could and should be hit singles – like a hot streak in a career spanning best of.  I only stopped that list, because the sentence was getting too unruly.  The fifth song “You Win Some” follows in the finger snapping mode as they take a positive take on the churning of time, by continuing to look ahead and be ready for good times (“open up your heart and let come what ever may / and you’ll win someday”).  The unfortunately titled “Catch Her in the Rye” is another classic song brimming with life and another big sing-along chorus (which reminds me of something I cannot quite place – is it similar to the chorus of Tears For Fears’ early single “Suffer the Children” of all things?  Hmmmm….) that addresses the battle for individuality and making a mark or difference (“there’s a million things you missed at school / there’s a million and one like you / another drop in the sea and the oceans blue / cause it’s full up to the banks with fools like you”). 

The second half of the album loses a slight touch of steam for me, but still has plenty of magic moments.  The melancholic “The Hardest Place to Find Me” reflects on poor decisions from the past in the face of the passage of time.  “Shoot from the Lip” and “Eclectic Eccentric” both lumber along at times musically, but once each reaches their respective chorus they bloom with wide open glory.  The album officially closes with “Under and Over,” which will probably be a great live closer allowing the crowd to sing-along about man digging for money and for greed. 

Does this live up to their previous “middling” legacy?  I think so.  I think their devoted fans will enjoy – but I do not see why songs this addictive cannot be enjoyed by a wider audience.  I hope it will be. 




The Rifles "Minute Mile"

 


Sunday, February 16, 2014

Too True



Dum Dum Girls
Too True
(Sub Pop)

How does one ever get over major grief?  And by grief, I mean the catastrophic kind – the kind that we hopefully will only have to experience a few times during our lives – like the death of a parent, child, or spouse, or from extreme personal illness.  Whatever form it may take, every one of us will go through some kind of heartbreak that feels insurmountable.  Sadly, there are those of us who cannot and choose not to continue on with their inner turmoil.  For the rest of us, what remains?  Do we ever find a genuine path back?  I’m sure some of us actually do, but no matter how many times we are reminded of the Kübler-Ross Model (Five Stages of Grief), I wonder if the rest of us ever actually move past the grief, but instead simply stop dwelling on it.  It’s as if we simply return to the denial stage and try to act as if nothing is wrong anymore in order to not be a burden on those who we find ourselves with, be it family, friends, and even co-workers or neighbors.  We make an attempt to hit reset and go back to how we felt before the pain hit our lives, but we all know that we are forever changed in a negative way.  Sure, someone can argue that positives can be drawn from such difficult times and it is all about perspective.  It’s like when a person tells a story of survival like: “I was lucky to survive the 200 foot fall when the cliff collapsed underneath my feet.”  It always seems like they were first really unlucky to be present when that ledge crumbled.  I’m probably saying a lot about myself with these questions and statements, but I find that all of the most painful events in my life have only made me numb to both the highs and lows that our life can provide.

Numbness is a recurring allusion on Dum Dum Girls’ newest album (their third).  On “Too True to be Good,” Dee Dee Penny sings: “the clouds were opening above my head / stood on the edge / feeling so dead.”  There is exhaustion here.  She has been on the edge from mourning the loss of her mom for so long (as chronicled brilliantly and heartrendingly and their 2011 Only in Dreams – see my breakdown here) that she feels like she’s between wanting to die and already dead.  With 2012’s End of Daze EP closer “Season in Hell” she showed us the first glimpses of recovery (or acceptance) as she powerfully sang about the redemptive power of the dawn, but with this new release it feels like she’s simply worn out from dwelling on her pain, which still lingers.  This album, though far more advanced than the bedroom recordings of her 2010 debut I Will Be, has more in common with that release than Only in Dreams.  The full band is gone (sadly) and we’re back with the drum machine and dirty sounding guitars.  The production is brighter and the songs are more varied and fully realized than that promising debut, but songs like “Evil Blooms” and “Little Minx,” with its pile driving drum beat and fuzzy guitars, sound like they could’ve come from that time. 

As I’ve mentioned numerous times on this page a couple of years ago, Only in Dreams found a way to force me to confront the loss of my mom – something I’m not sure I had ever truly done.  I think I was still inside some sort of extended denial stage.  Dee Dee’s powerful, frank and vivid words really hit me hard, all the while making fantastically catchy and enjoyable tunes that beg for repeated listens.  The question is really how could she follow up such a forceful and committed album?  How would I react?  Her songs have been some of my favorite over the last few years, but how could she ever achieve that transformative magic again?  I’m not sure it’s possible.  However, once the fourth song, “Are You Okay?” comes around, everything becomes just right; this strumming narcotic of a song is instantly addictive and begs to be sung along with.  Not only that, but it confronts exactly these questions of lingering mourning: “But what if it doesn’t go away? What if this feeling always plagues?” - and finds answers in understanding support: “and you say ‘are you okay?’ What do you feel?  I feel it too.”  This is where the album really finds its stride.  The aforementioned “Too True to be Good” shuffles along beautifully with terrific background vocals elevating the song to another level.  Then the loneliness of separation sets in on the relentless buzz of “In the Wake of You,” where Dee Dee sounds a helluva lot like the smoky voiced Christina Amphlett (R.I.P.) from Australia’s Divinyls.  It’s on the first single, “Lost Boys and Girls Club,” where Dee Dee channels a later era Siouxsie Sioux and sings of being adrift and looking for company – like a theme song for all of the downtown Goths smoking cloves below the neon lights of the degenerate clubs.  In the reverb soaked closing ballad, “Trouble is My Name,” Dee Dee sems resigned to her fate: “There’s nothing you can do to make all your bad turn good.”  She is still looking for a way out of her trouble, but seems to be accepting that trouble will haunt her anyway.

So, no, this is not as stunning and heart wrenchingly powerful as Only in Dreams, but Dee Dee has managed to provide us with an entertaining set of new music.  For me, it doesn’t hurt that her influences are so seemingly in line with mine.  She has a knack for tapping into sounds that I am predestined to like.  My only complaint is the lack of the full band on the recording.  This may be a choice made to save money, or that they were all too busy with their own projects (check out drummer Sandy's amazing Sisu - my #10 pick of 2013 seen here) but I look forward to hearing these new songs live and in person on their upcoming tour.



Dum Dum Girls "Lost Boys and Girls Club


Sunday, February 9, 2014

Trouble



Hospitality
Trouble
(Merge)

Later tonight (February 9th, 2014, as I write this), Brooklyn band Hospitality will be performing a show at Portland’s Doug Fir Lounge.  I plan on attending, since I somehow made an excuse not to go after their prior trip through town (in support of their wonderful 2012 self-titled debut - #24 pick seen here).  And again, I find myself in a dilemma.  The show is a Sunday night.  We’ve had a shower of ice layer over the streets after a few days of unusual amounts of snow, I’m old, I work early tomorrow morning, and I’m not sure I will be able to convince anyone to join me.  Should I go?  I’m listening to their new second album right now and the internal battle between my love of music and desire to support the bands I love versus the cheap old curmudgeon shut in that I’ve become rages on.  What to do?

There is a dilemma spread across Trouble as well.  Of course, the crossroads explored in vocalist/guitarist Amber Papini’s lyrics are a lot more in depth and more important than my trivial one.  Papini seems to be stuck in a purgatory between the desire for a relationship and a desire to be alone.  This is something I think all of us can identify with at some point in our lives.  Do we want to deal with the weirdness, frustration, compromise and potential heartbreak of dating or do we want to be lonely?  Neither one sounds particularly appealing, does it?  Maybe this is the jaded view and we should always dream of that perfect match that only a rare few of us seem to find in life, but such are the emotional ups and downs of love and life.

Let’s begin with the lonely side of the equation.  The smooth Luna sounding first single, “Going Out” (the video fittingly stars Luna’s Dean Wareham and Britta Phillips), finds our protagonist dressing up for a night on the town (“ruffled dresses and parasols / rhinestone rings and high-heeled soles / wrapped in cloth from your head to toe”), but the frosty night only turns out to be an evening stroll alone (“you’re looking at yourself a lot / standing in the glass with costume on / posed for no one but you were caught”).  The stuttering “I Miss Your Bones” finds her alone either from separation or from being let go, while the epic and mysterious sounding “Last Words” finds her stranded on an island wanting companionship desperately enough to “evacuate to salty arms of a soldier or a snake.”  On the closing spare acoustic “Call Me After,” Papini finds herself outstaying her welcome due to a rainstorm and the resulting humiliation of this realization: “Will you want me after? / will you want to walk me home in the dark? / is it the weather that just keeps me?”

Yet, on the other side of the coin, the album opens up with Papini’s faux British accent cursing a cheating lover in “Nightingale” (“If you sleep here you’ll see sirens and vamps”) over the top of spectacularly splashing cymbals in the rousing denial chorus: “What girl?”  In the brief “Inaugaration” finds Papini sitting alone watching TV and giving a subtle kiss off to her missing partner (“Why you call and say / you’ll call me back / I’ll disconnect the line”), while the first album Psychedelic Furs sounding “Rockets and Jets” is a case of a lovely sunny afternoon out watching planes when things go south (“I left the knife on the rafter / I’ll have your heart after / I know this won’t last too long / I’ll have the day a long long time”).  Meanwhile, the frank “It’s Not Serious” is all about being the on the other side and disinterested – “I’ll figure out / I don’t want this / and so it’s not serious”).  Clearly, there are no easy answers.  We are all heroes and villains in the world of love – depending on whose side you’re on, but finding a balance between independence and companionship is not easy to achieve.

Musically, this sophomore album is a big departure from the to-the-point baroque pop of their debut.  As hinted at in the post album double-A sided 7,” “The Drift” b/w “Monkey,” the band have decided to stretch things out and linger over notes and passages in a more spacious way.  Much like the early 80s post-punk influenced cover art (reminds me of early OMD); the music sounds like it could’ve been recorded from that period.  There is a darkness and mystery behind many of these songs and the keyboard layers and moments of programmed beats and stark piano hammers enhance the indecisiveness and hollow feelings of the words, while the space allows for bolder crescendos and longer passages of near silence.

It is fun to hear a band growing and trying new things and so successfully.  This album is an enjoyable listen from start to finish from the get go, but it reveals more and more with repetition.  Now, should I go to the show tonight?  I really should.  They’ve travelled a meandering 3,000 plus miles to arrive here across a nation decimated by bone chilling cold and treacherous roads.  It seems as though I could chance a 15 minute drive to see them perform.  But I do have to be up early tomorrow….  



Hospitality "Going Out"

 

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Metropole



The Lawrence Arms
Metropole
(Epitaph)

I must be extremely hard headed - my skull so thick that not much leeches in and certainly no insights are allowed to escape.  I seem to need constant reminders to mentally engage with life.  Even when I do make an effort to sort out important aspects that I have allowed to lag, all the other stuff gets all dusty and disheveled.  It’s an endless cycle that generally winds up with me giving up all efforts out of feelings of futility and letting everything around me decay for awhile.  Once I wake up again and give it another go, I find myself further behind and less likely to be inspired to reach whatever lofty and elusive goals I set for myself.

Life always feels so fleeting and disposable.  I spend way too much time focusing on the emptiness I often feel about how fast and difficult things always seem, and lose focus on actually living what little time I have available.  What is the point of life?  Is there one?  Things continue on – people die just as more are born and each generation continue to make the same mistakes over and over again as everything is eventually forgotten.  Similarly, I find myself continually sinking into patterns, repetition, and lethargy as the days pass and turn into weeks and months and then years.  It seems I need to be reminded that I hate feeling complacent and barely aware of another year passing by.  Yet, here I am - still hoping to get myself sorted out and find a direction that doesn’t overwhelm me with stress and frustration – right where I started.

The Lawrence Arms have always understood this.  They shook me out of my state of sorrow and self-pity back in 2003 with their amazing album The Greatest Story Ever Told (see why here) and now nearly eight years after their shredding last album (2006’s Oh! Calcutta! – my #1 pick of the year seen here), they’ve returned to kick my sagging ass with their sixth full length Metropole.  Much like The Greatest Story, Metropole is a unified work.  Every song hints at the passage of time and the struggle to keep one’s spirit alive at least as long as our bodies. 

A sample snippet of the closing track, “October Blood,” opens the album with the line: “I was born and I died, and just a moment went by” and it serves as the de facto thesis for what the next 30 or so minutes of punk rock have in store.  Both Brendan Kelly and Chris McCaughan are clearly agitated by the realization that all of those dreams and goals of the young all wind up futile and lost.  The first verse of “You Are Here” – the first sneak peak we had of this album in December begins with: “Where you are is where you are / and it’s just the way it is / days keep rolling on / they won’t miss me much when I’m gone.”  The wash, rinse, repeat dominance of our lives is a constant target throughout (“most days I take the train from here to there / then back to here” – from “You Are Here”).  The shouted vocal of the rousing “Hickey Avenue” urges us to “get rolling out of this shitty yellow light / ‘cuz we’ve been droning through this endless parade of identical days / nothing changes / it only rots away,” as they are trying to wake us up: “What are we doing here?  Nothing.  That’s what’s killing me!”  Elsewhere, in “Acheron River” (or ‘river of woe’ for the ancient Greeks), Brendan sings “I’m just on this train and stuck in several thousand different ruts” as he teeters on the edge of giving it all up completely (“take me down to the river / take me to where all the poisons flow / and let’s ride this fucker home”).  Fittingly, this rambunctious, yet fatalistic song is followed by even more fatality.  “Metropole,” which opens quietly, as Chris strums an acoustic guitar and sings of “years on repeat” and “years of defeat,” while Brendan steps in with the line “the traffic lights blinked a million times / I blinked twice and twenty years went by” before they both repeat at the conclusion “This is the end of all things.” 

The end of all things indeed, as a dark “Raskolnikovian Gloom” ( see Dostoyevski’s Crime and Punishment) takes over the middle third of the album, as Brendan’s explosive, could give a shit rant “Drunk Tweets” slaps anyone and everything in sight with loads  of ‘F-you’s’ as he cuts down our society’s waste and blind belief in ignorance, before concluding that we’re shooting ourselves down as a whole  – “but there’s no unraveling the rings of the tree / Lord keep my soul…the fuck away from me.”  Then, Chris’ “The YMCA Down the Street from the Clinic” guides us through a melancholic tour through more moral decay and emptiness (“Back when I was a boy there were okay ways to go / but baby, I got old / and somewhere I ditched my soul”). 

There is a lot to take in here.  The Lawrence Arms have always exorcised major demons in their expertly performed songs, but usually with a lot of humor and cynicism.  But this one, after the first few listens, brought back all of my memories of being a little kid sitting in the bathtub with plastic boast floating around me and imagining only blackness after death and becoming inconsolable.  But there are moments of light that eventually come through.  The aforementioned call to action in the fitful “Hickey Avenue” shows signs of life.  And though “Seventeener” dwells on the sudden realization of getting old (when, let’s face it, if we’re 40 or 50, or whatever, there’s still a big part of us inside that feels like the same little kid we always were inside.  Somewhere along the line, we miss our own passage of time); he still manages to find a way to restart – even if it means going back to writing ‘teenage’ poetry.  In “Beautiful Things,” Chris also finds solace in his desire and passion for writing songs as a way to search for “truth in the dust.”  Meanwhile, in “Paradise Shitty,” (they continue their occasional Guns and Roses song re-titling) the fight against complacency is handled by hurtling oneself into life and not worrying about dangers and potential consequences.  Luckily, the album closes with the most uplifting song.  “October Blood” brings us back to the beginning: “I was born and I died and just a moment went by,” but instead of dwelling on this tragic notion as much of the album, Chris defiantly states in the chorus “I burn on / I burn on / endless summer in my heart,” as he takes the time to take in the beauty and majesty of what we do have in life - which is probably the simple answer to the meaning of life question: do your best to enjoy it while you can.



"Seventeener (17th and 37th)"