Tuesday, May 31, 2005

Sleater-Kinney 'The Woods'

Much like the evolution of life (outside of Kansas), the evolution of a good band is a slow and subtle process. Such is the case with these ladies from Washington. For those who are keeping score at home, it's been 10 years and seven albums. Even with that output, Sleater-Kinney have rarely slacked in the quality control department. They cut their teeth with Call The Doctor; grew up on The Hot Rock; got catchy with All Hands On The Bad One; and stretched their arrangements and song craft with One Beat.

Musical growth, sure. But in the end, even the most diehard fan-boy and grizzled riot grrrl knew what to expect from Sleater-Kinney. And perhaps the band felt the same way. How else does one explain the twin challenges the band took on as they got to work on their seventh, and arguably, best album: The Woods?

The first challenge has been dramatized more by magazines and fan blogs than the actual band. After spending their entire careers at the riot grrrl Mecca that was Kill Rock Stars, the band made the surprising switch to the legendary Sub Pop label. Simply switching neighborhoods, or creeping into commercial mainstream glory? Some hardcore fans may begin to wail in dismay ... but if Kathleen Hanna can move Le Tigre over to Universal, then Sleater-Kinney can do what they damn well please.

The second challenge proved to be a little more daunting. At first glance, pairing Sleater-Kinney with Flaming Lips / Mercury Rev uber-producer Dave Fridmann seems like an unlikely match. At second glance, it doesn't look any prettier. But good producers and even better bands know that challenges and tension can bring out the best ... if you let it. And so, during that slow march of evolution, the band took a giant leap forward...

The Woods is a brutal and confidant statement from the first dirty power chord onward. Never has Sleater-Kinney rocked this hard and with this much conviction. The production is thick and raw, with all the loose notes and bleeding frequencies merging into one triumphant assault. The opening track, 'The Fox', puts all the boy-band rockers like Fall Out Boy, Good Charlotte, and Taking Back Sunday back in their place. This isn't your little sister's smoothly produced pop-rock. This is the sound of an angry thunder god beating his children.

The lesson in aural aggression doesn't let up until the steady harmonization on the first verse of track 4, 'Jumpers'. It's a short moment when the ladies in Sleater-Kinney let us know that the 'ol pop-punks are still in there somewhere. Of course, the guitars kick back in and we hold on for dear life. 'Modern Girl' gives us a breather as we are treated with a sunny little pop-song. Then the album gets serious. Not that the melodies aren't there. These songs are just as catchy as we've come to expect. 'Rollercoster' is going on the next summer mix tape I make.

Throughout the album, Corin Tucker coaxes lovely shrieks and howls out of her limited but expressive range. The urgent pounding of Janet Weiss' drums dominate the mix, as Carrie Brownstein's guitar causes the earth to tremble. I don't quite remember the last time I heard an album so honestly heavy. Not the manufactured, 'forced' heaviness of a nu-metal band, or a faceless hardcore band. No, this is the kind of heavy that was channeled during Led Zeppelin's first practices, and Sonic Youth's noise eruptions. Many writers when discussing this album have used the Led Zeppelin comparison. And that observation is not far off. This album has that sloppy, reckless, yet professional feel that still endears the first Zeppelin album to millions.

Speaking of classic rock and Sonic Youth, one can hardly ignore the epic jam that closes the album. The two song finale, 'Let's Call It Love' / 'Night Light', takes the band into uncharted territory. Clocking in at over fourteen minutes, this is the sound of the band reaching its breaking point. You can actually hear everything about to fall apart, only to fall back into place as Janet Weiss fights to hold the band together. Balancing guitar heroics with bluesy noise making, Carrie Brownstein releases every note like it's an exorcism.

I've finally come to accept that Sleater-Kinney will never invite me onto their tour bus to be their long lost bass player. I've also come to accept that Corin Tucker is probably happy enough in her marriage to never look my way... *sigh* ... But one thing I am thankful for is that this CD is here. Waiting to convert a culture of bad music taste...

Monday, May 30, 2005

a brief ode to Declan McManus

Even with all the hundreds upon hundreds of CD's I own, I find my listening tastes rather limited. A few weeks ago, all I was listening to was Pinback. Before that, it was *glup* Coldplay. My latest binge has been the music of Elvis Costello. Some of it is music I've owned for a while (Imperial Bedroom and Armed Forces) and some of it has been newly acquired (Blood & Chocolate and Almost Blue).

After a recent spin of the classic This Year's Model, the sound of that album really struck me. Produced by Nick Lowe in 1978, the album has a clear, aggressive, and timeless production. It's aged rather well, no doubt due in part to the phenomenal playing of Costello's back-up band, The Attractions. Pete Thomas' drumming in particular is driving, precise, and could happily find itself shinning in any decade.

It's bothered me for a while now that Elvis Costello doesn't seem to get the respect and attention he deserves. Outside of music snob haunts and music critic circles, he is known for a handful of classics, and then dismissed. One of his best-known songs, "Alison", didn't even chart upon its release. With every interview I read, from artist to artist, rarely do I count Mr. Costello being mentioned as an influence.

Which is a shame really. From the opening chords of My Aim Is True to the closing piano of Imperial Bedroom, Elvis Costello had a phenomenal run of quantity and quality as a songwriter. And in between his more fallow periods of inspiration, he still found the right combination of chords to release such slump busters as Blood & Chocolate and When I Was Cruel. Maybe it didn't help that his musical style shifted from album to album. The general public usually likes its artists predictable and familiar (*glup* ... Coldplay). His drunken, slanderous remarks in '78 about Ray Charles didn't help is popularity either.

But those who do know and love his music carry a wonderful secret with them. Rarely does one get to explore and examine such a large and rich back catalog of music. And please, a hearty round of applause to the folks at Rhino records. The reissues of Costello's CD's has been nothing short of spectacular. It's truly an example of music being marketed to music lovers. Each reissue contains not only a stunning re-master of the original album, but a bonus disc filled with live tracks, unreleased songs, and demos from the corresponding period. All for the price of a regular single disc! How often have you purchased the re-mastered edition of an album you already own, only to get a few bonus tracks, some extra photos in the liner notes, or nothing extra at all?

In closing, a wonderful quote by the man himself brought to mind my rant against Rolling Stone Magazine in a distant blog. Elvis isn't always right, by any stretch of the imagination. But this former computer programmer is right on target when it comes to music ... and that most hated rag...

"(Rolling Stone) has, over the years, undergone a remarkable transformation from an organ of the supposed counterculture to a shallow pop-culture shop window for starlets and acrobats while funding their efforts with generous amounts of Big Tobacco advertising revenue and offers of penis enlargement to easily deluded teenage boys."

Wednesday, May 25, 2005

some random music melancholy...

... can the record buying public stop doing its best to make My Chemical Romance a successful band? Seriously, we only need one Davey Havok in the world. Dear Mr. Gerard Way, the job of pale, pretentious, bitchy singer is already taken. Please form a nu-metal band. Thank you ...

... 'Speed Of Sound' isn't a bad song, but I hope it isn't a sign of things to come. Most 'important' bands usually reach an artistic peak by their 3rd or 4th album. Even if its not their 'peak', it's usually the point where bands really begin to grow out of the sound that used to define them. I've been a Coldplay apologist for a while now, but this new single is obviously just more of the same. If anything it's the sequel to Rush of Blood To The Head's 'Clocks'. All the way from the steady eighth-note push of the verse and the circular melody, to the falsetto strains of the chorus. Pretty, but we've heard it before ...

... Now It's Overhead is a band I'm having trouble keeping out of my CD player. I don't care how you feel about Saddle Creek bands, these guys know how to get me. It’s spacey, moody, and indie (but modest). Required listening includes the tracks '6th Grade Roller', 'Wonderful Scar', and 'A Skeleton On Display'. I can't wait to pick up last year's release,Fall Back Open ...

... one title I CAN wait on is the new album by Team Sleep. And no, it's not just a clever name. Put in on, you will fall asleep. Good insomniac music. Even the appearance of Rob Crow from Pinback can't invigorate this release. Chino Moreno still has one of the most distinctive and beautiful voices in rock music, but half of the melodies sound like recycled ideas from White Pony ...

... what irritates me more than three to four Ryan Adam's releases per year??? Genocide. That's about it ...

... Rufus and his daddy aren't the only musical members of the family. Don't miss his sister Martha Wainwright's debut solo album. It's a confident, intimate, and catchy affair. Beautiful, humble, and full of potential; her sound brings to mind a sassier and less melancholy Joni Mitchell. I saw her perform once, backing up her brother about four years ago. If she keeps making albums like this, she may outsell him ...

... ok. I admit it. I'm looking forward to Billy Corgan's new solo album. I even took advantage of my presale opportunity and got some early tickets for his San Diego show. Much like a desperate Paul McCartney fan, or a delusional REM fanatic, I will probably continue to buy into and be disappointed by this fading star ...

... pack your bags, folks! We're not even done with this 80's nostalgia trip. But bring on the 90's! The Backstreet Boys (after a 5 year absence which seemed far too short) are about to release their comeback album, Never Gone. Let's hope THIS album title doesn't prove prophetic ...

Tuesday, May 17, 2005

nine inch nails - 'with teeth'

Build a time machine and go back to 1994, and you'd probably find an awkward teenager roaming about with long hair and headphones on, mouthing along to the words of the Nine Inch Nails' song 'Heresy': "God is dead and no one cares! If there is a hell, I'll see you there!" Come on, that's pretty potent stuff for an angst filled freshman who wonders why the auburn-haired girl in his biology class doesn't love him. Fuel to feed his anger from gym-class teasing and hours of homework. His name was 'me' by the way. He also quoted NIN lyrics in his English papers and printed out lyric sheets, which decorated his walls. Those were the good 'ol days, when a man named Trent Reznor spoke to a generation abandoned by Kurt Cobain and mainstream music.

Trent never really went away, but his message became moldy and stale. He followed up his masterpiece, ’The Downward Spiral’, with the ambitious, pretentious, confused, and somewhat bloated double-album, ’The Fragile’. Though under-appreciated at the time of its release, ’The Fragile’ still suffered from the old cliche that a little editing would have made it a great single album. Of course, it would have been almost impossible not to have been disappointed. The hardest thing for an artist or band to do is to follow-up their masterpiece. There are only three possible routes of success after you record one of your best albums:

1) Break-up. (At The Drive-In 'Relationship of Command')
2) Put out a radically different album. (Radiohead 'Kid A')
3) Stay with your style, but show musical growth. (Smashing Pumpkins 'Mellon Collie...')

With 'The Fragile', Trent Reznor suck with his style, but chose not to evolve as a songwriter. This was all the more a shame after the promise shown by the 'Perfect Drug' single. Instead, Trent rewrote 'The Downward Spiral' twice and stuck them together. Even the record's more beautiful and inspired moments are buried under the requisite wall off rage and radio-friendly industrial noise. The under-whelming reaction to 'The Fragile' by the press and public was just one of the motivating factors which led to Trent's multi-year battle with alcoholism. This journey included half-filled arenas, uninspired performances, stage fright, and finally, a disappearance from the pages of the music magazines altogether.

One thing working in favor of Nine Inch Nails' fourth full-length album, 'With Teeth', is the fact that 'The Fragile' absorbed the post-masterpiece expectation onslaught. Over ten years removed from Nine Inch Nails' finest moment, many fans are just relieved that Trent is alive and making music. This jubilation should serve his record sales well, considering the actual album adds little to the band's legacy.

With Teeth opens promisingly enough with the beautiful ballad, 'All The Love In The World'. Carried by stuttering beats and gentle piano, the song brings to mind The Fragile's more intimate (and better) moments. Soon after the song's dance club-friendly close, Trent reaches further back into his past for the next track, 'You Know What You Are'. With rhythms and guitars straight off the Broken EP, even the mighty drumming Dave Grohl couldn't keep me from feeling like I've heard this all before. Regretfully, the rest of the album abandons the promise of 'All The Love In The World' and looks to play it safe.

As with the album's first single, 'The Hand That Feeds', most of the songs all pound away with the same level of manufactured rage and danceable industrial beats. Think Pretty Hate Machine with more guitars. 'Only' is the most obvious throwback track, emulating the classic 'Down In It' (off of Pretty Hate Machine), right down to the lyrics: "The tiniest little dot caught my eye, it turned out to be a scab..." Tracks such as 'The Collector', 'Love Is Not Enough', and 'The Line Begins To Blur' are all pleasant, rock'n, and rather interchangeable. 'Every Day Is Exactly The Same' and 'Getting Smaller' are the best candidates for the next single, and offer what little the album has in good melodic hooks. 'Sunspots' and the title track 'With Teeth' are forgettable moments. 'Beside You In Time' would have been the perfect album closer, with its moody droning and experimental vibe. The album officially closes with 'Right Where It Belongs', a charming little bouncy tune which would have found a better home toward the center of the album.

The lyrics are dark, tormented, and bitter as one would expect. Each song is filled with the author's contempt for all human beings who surround him. This contempt is only exceeded of course by the contempt he directs toward himself. And there in lies another one of the album's greatest faults - regurgitated concepts, stanzas and images. Trent's still singing about the same anger he had 10-15 years ago. And frankly, its grown about as old as a latter day Robert Smith mope or Michael Stipe wordplay. But Trent is here to sell records, usher in new fans, and reach all the angry kids. So why change the message when its worked so well?

All in all, With Teeth is a non-offensive, catchy, well put together album. It’s listenable and dispensable, in the same way a post-Pinkerton Weezer album is. You'll enjoy it while you listen to it, but it wont find its way into your CD changer that often, nor will it be a conversation starter at your favorite java joint. With his hair combed in indie-kid fashion, Trent Reznor seems to be fighting hard against the 'elder-statesman' label. Instead, he seeks to be just as relevant as ever. But in a day in age where his contemporaries and protégés have all faded away (Filter, Marilyn Manson, Stabbing Westward, Front Line Assembly, Ministry, KMFDM), the one thing Reznor's latest album will not do is spark an industrial revolution.