Monday, March 30, 2009

The Decemberists - The Hazards of Love

Video / Album Review
ABC News
March 30, 2009

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Jeremy Jay - Slow Dance

Album Reviews
March 25, 2009

Slow Dance 

Whenever some idiot convinced you that stuff like crushes and holding hands was dumb, that what you should really care about is getting action, that's when you became an adult and started dying. I think I'm paraphrasing fellow music critic Chuck Eddy here. Remember your first slow dances, seventh or eight grade? For me there was a lot of nervous excitement, plus whatever you call the emotion when you're a clumsy preteen dancing to "The End of the Road" with the girl you like, or "I Swear" with the girl who likes you. I seem to recall high school dances being similarly fraught. Now try to think of the last time you felt something that intensely.

Jeremy Jay, then, must live in Neverland. But is he Peter Pan-- or Michael Jackson? The question gets more interesting on the hiccupy-voiced Paris/L.A. bandleader's second K Records LP. It's the most weirdly mesmerizing in a series of promising single, EP, and full-length releases that includes last year's shadowy, cinematic heart-tugger A Place Where We Could Go. Jay's the type of guy who tours with Deerhunter but covers Madonna just as naturally as Brian Eno. Billed as winter-themed, Slow Dance uses crisp garage-rock and frigid post-punk as a backdrop for romanticized pop fantasy.

"Slow dance" has has basically emerged as its own, resurgent genre these past several years: the cosmic disco of Lindstrøm, Prins Thomas, and Todd Terje; the flamenco-inflamed beach trips of Studio, Boat Club, Hatchback, and Windsurf; the after-hours glide of Glass Candy and Chromatics; the sample-based vacations of Quiet Village and Air France. That connection is probably a coincidence. But then again, maybe it isn't. On the first few listens, I noticed the record's minimal yet evocative lyrical repetitions less than its snow-globe-meticulous sound. Jay recorded the album in winter at Olympia's Dub Narcotic Studio, with bassist Derek James, drummer Nick Pahl, and additional guitarist Ilya Malinsky; the early nights and electric lighting of the season are all over the frosty synth-and-guitar surface of opener "We Were There" (a new version of a 2007 single), the slow strums and cold breaths of gorgeously spare "Winter Wonder", and the choked sobs and fingersnaps of piano waltz "Slow Dance 2". "You've got the rhythm," Jay insists on "In This Lonely Town".

That song also captures a vivid scene, maybe the opening of a film: the narrator walking with his peacoat on, seeing fish by the pier, smelling coffee and sweets by the "pizza club." Part of the pleasure of repeat listens is trying to figure out whether Jay is just too innocent to be true-- like, what's he hiding, right? "Giddyup, horsey, giddyup," goes "Gallop"; "Canter, canter, canter," adds the next song, "Canter Canter". And there Jay is, amid the "disco lights" (!) and Drifters-style percussion of "Will You Dance With Me?", resting his head on your shoulders, "melting in your arms tonight." Jay envisions an angelic guitar-strummer illuminated by a disco ball (!!) on "Where Could We Go Tonight?", again raising more questions than answers. In the final seconds of the most urgent-sounding track, "Breaking the Ice", he murmurs almost as an aside: "Should've told you that I love you." You could choose to dismiss it all as kids' stuff. But that's the idiot talking.

Monday, March 23, 2009

The Decemberists - The Hazards of Love

Album Reviews
March 23, 2009

The Hazards of Love 

Nobody got into the Decemberists for the riffs. In other ways, though, the theatrical Portland folk-rockers' noble sojourn into heavy narrative prog-folk was probably always in the stars. Ornately antiquarian diction was their Ziggy Stardust. Ginormous song suites based on world folklore were their deaf, dumb, and blind kid. Yes, they were meant for The Wall.

In an interview with Paste, singing guitarist/songwriter Colin Meloy mentioned that The Hazards of Love was "initially conceived as a musical... but I decided about halfway through my time in France that it wasn't going to work as a stage piece. But it would still work as a rock record, so that's where it ended up." Alas, for all the derring-do of the Decemberists' resolutely un-sold-out (I guess?) fifth album, its failures as a stage piece may explain some of the problems that hamper it as a rock record.

It makes sense that the Decemberists would end up here. A willingness to make their fans put in some work, whether with fancy language or sprawling song suites, has been part of their steez ever since the baroque reveries of 2002 debut Castaways and Cutouts and stagey bookishness of 2003 breakthrough Her Majesty-- both of which still kick pantaloon. After 2004's The Tain EP flashed the first signs of metalhead envy, Picaresque a year later ended the Decemberists' indie years with their most relatable and poppiest album (still my favorite of theirs). Capitol debut The Crane Wife showed no symptoms of what Meloy had termed "major-label sellout-itis".

The Hazards of Love, inspired by UK folkie Anne Briggs' 1966 EP of the same name, has thick stoner-metal sludge and peat-bogged prog-folk arpeggios. Tucker Martine, who mixed The Crane Wife, produces exactly right for the material, focusing on the songs. Multi-instrumentalist Jenny Conlee and bassist Nate Query add several string arrangements. Robyn Hitchcock adds subtle electric guitar textures on an instrumental interlude, and My Morning Jacket's Jim James and the Spinanes' Rebecca Gates are in there somewhere, too. Still, although the album's grandiose narrative about star-crossed lovers William and Margaret-- and the dastardly villains who beset them-- has some nice twists, it's not exactly Andrew Lloyd Webber. Usually here's where I'm supposed to say, "That's OK, you don't have to follow the plot, because the songs stand on their own"-- except, with a few exceptions, they don't, not quite.

It doesn't simplify things that Meloy sings the parts of multiple characters, also including "First Voice" and "The Rake". The blessedly thorough lyric sheet makes advance mp3s like dark infanticide memoir "The Rake's Song" a lot funnier, full of witty wordplay ("I was wedded and it whetted my thirst") and sly foreshadowing ("You think that I would be haunted"-- he will be), but reading isn't the same as listening. Too much work, not enough payoff. (Hmm, imagine that.)

Not that the Decemberists' latest has anywhere near the smugness that haters might wrongly expect-- they sang "California One/Youth and Beauty Brigade", calling "all bed wetters", after all. "The Wanting Comes in Waves/Repaid", in which Meloy's William argues against the Queen to set him free to be with his beloved, has blazing classic-rock riffs and a commanding vocal by My Brightest Diamond's Shara Worden. (The reprise is less essential, unless you're still following the plot.) Worden returns on the "The Queen's Rebuke/The Crossing", which has blistering dynamic shifts, an organ solo, and plenty of lurching Black Mountain heaviness. Surprisingly, it all sounds like the Decemberists, at least if you've been paying attention over the years.

For the love songs, then, The Hazards of Love puts on some Nashville twang. Pedal steel cries alongside swaying accordion on "Isn't it a Lovely Night?", with a precious post-orgasm (post-Pete & the Pirates?) pun. As the pregnant Margaret, Lavender Diamond's Becky Stark is a welcome pairing for Meloy, smiling with Princess Bride-like serenity through her worries on "Won't Want for Love (Margaret in the Taiga)"; Meloy's voice is at its vulnerable best on the trembling meadow-makeout ballad "The Hazards of Love 2 (Wager All)". I can take the undead children chanting on "The Hazards of Love 3 (Revenge!)", but not the watery wedding vows on the drunken finale-- what can I say, I really, really didn't like Titanic.

Enough happens musically on The Hazards of Love that I can still see it being fun for fans in a live setting, especially if you know the lyrics. On disc, though, it's largely missing the catchy choruses and verisimilar emotions that previously served as ballast for the Decemberists' gaudy eccentricities. As a turn toward metal, The Tain EP's smaller portion was more satisfying-- although, as mid-career change-ups go, this is still a fair piece more enjoyable than something like MMJ's Evil Urges.

"Doing The Hazards of Love took a lot out of me," Meloy confides in the press bio. "And I'm definitely curious what will come out now that I've got this out of my system." The Decemberists already released three non-album singles last year, compiled as the Always the Bridesmaid EP; "Sleepless", a lovely orchestral lullaby from the recent Dark Was the Night charity compilation, suggests the Decemberists still have plenty more nautical epics to perform. "I've got nothing to hold onto," Meloy sings. A friend of Bobby McGee's once called that feeling freedom, and it only took a four-and-a-half-minute song.

Live: Morrissey at Bowery Ballroom

Live Review
Village Voice
March 23, 2009

Our unsleepable friend gets the message on an ill-wind (Angela Hogan)
Bowery Ballroom
Saturday, M
arch 21

"I can smell your draft," Morrissey announced upon taking the stage at the Bowery Ballroom, the smallest New York venue the former Smiths emo-crooner has played in easily Googleable internet memory. The 550-capacity Bowery Ballroom is a step down for the Pope of Mope-- last time he was in town, Moz was originally supposed to play Madison Square Garden (but ended up at Hammerstein, post-cancellations); later this week he'll be at Carnegie Hall (and Webster, but y'know). At first, I figured he was making some obsolete quip about our dank Lower East Side hygiene. Four songs in, as a plume of green smoke from the front rows climbed to the rafters, the man's point was unmistakable: "I'm not really used to this smell, and I'm warning you, it could have an interesting effect on me. If I were you, I'd stand back."

Morrissey's superfans mostly took their hero's advice, even though they're notorious huggers. And as for interesting effects, Moz was in his hoped-for charming form, chatting and gesticulating throughout a disappointingly brief 80-minute set. Current album Years of Refusal is the best since 1994's Vauxhall and I, and the evening's songs were just about evenly split between YoR, 2004's You Are the Quarry, older Morrissey solo output, and the Smiths. (2006's Ringleader of the Tormentors wuz robbed.) His longtime backing band, including bolo-tie-rocking guitarist Boz Boorer, gave tunes both new and old a muscular glam-rockabilly crunch. If intimacy was the draw, charisma and showmanship were the rewards. Also: middle-aged male semi-nudity.


Forget the increasingly dignified resonance of that singing voice, how about the sounds Morrissey makes? "Everybody's la-ha-ha-ha-ughing," he hiccuped on Vauxhall's "Billy Budd." "Urrrrghhh!!!!" he bellowed during fiery YAtQ single-as-polemic "Irish Blood, English Heart". On the same album's Nancy Sinatra-covered slow jam (such as it is) "Let Me Kiss You", Moz practically barked like a dog, tossing the first of three shirts into the crowd on the words "you see someone that you physically despise." He growled insults on YoR's midtempo chugger "Sorry Doesn't Help", attacking "fake humility" only a few seconds after brilliantly brushing off creepy but heartfelt fan-worship with: "Is he making fun of me? He will, one day." Backed by upright bass and accordion on "Why Don't You Find Out for Yourself" Morrissey punched the air with a lusty "oooph!"

Then again, Morrissey's voice has arguably never sounded richer than on the new record, and Saturday night's show demonstrated that's no fluke. The 49-year-old performer romped through the endless "don't give me anymore"s on YoR opener "Something Is Squeezing My Skull" with nary a gasp; his pretty a capella intro to lone encore "First of the Gang to Die"--the YAtQ track that is probably his biggest 2000s-era "hit"--showed he can do soft nuance, too. The band's punched-up power chords could start to run together at times, but they helped freshen up Smiths classics like "This Charming Man" (first song of the night) and "Ask". "It's macho military might that will bring us together," Morrissey sang at the end of the latter, changing the lyrics. The star of a stunning "How Soon Is Now?", other than Moz's initial request for a "dead cat" ("I'd like to see if I can swing it"), was a gong, crashing again and again over the effects-washed final chords. Biggest complaint: He didn't play more songs, especially from the new album (especially "It's Not Your Birthday Anymore").

The "possible greatness of any pop artist is in the greatness of their influences," Morrissey declared before early-1990s b-side "The Loop", which suggested a few of the singer's own influences with its bright guitar twang and shuffling rhythm. Videos featuring Moz heroes--including early UK rock'n'roller Vince Taylor and the New York Dolls--were projected onto the curtain after a solid if uninventive opening set of post-Arctic Monkeys Britrock by Manchester's the Courteneers. And Morrissey dedicated "Seasick, Yet Still Docked"-- a slow, self-lacerating number from 1992's Your Arsenal-- to classic gangster-movie actors Billy Hallop, George Raft, and "all the great performers of the Bowery-- all of which you have obviously forgotten." Hey man, a $75 ticket price-- before Ticketmaster and/or scalper surcharges-- doesn't guarantee connoisseurship.

No one makes melodramatic self-mockery more appealing. "I'm the type who just can't be loved," Morrissey murmured at one point. Later, after introducing the band, he contemplated aloud: "Who am I? Well, that is a question that many have died trying to answer. I can only be identified on a slab, by the scars of pain." The shtick's not all self-mockery, either: "In a few days we'll be in a slightly posher part of town, so obviously none of you will be there. Nice meeting you."--Marc Hogan

Morrissey plays Webster Hall, Wednesday, March 25, and Carnegie Hall, Thursday, March 26.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Lotus Plaza - The Floodlight Collective

Album Reviews
March 20, 2009

The Floodlight Collective 

It'll be a shame if Lockett Pundt's solo debut gets lost in all the light and heat coming from his main band. But it won't be surprising. In a rare interview, the shy Deerhunter-er told blog BBQCHICKENROBOT that he started recording his album at the beginning of 2007. Since then, Deerhunter has released Cryptograms, the Fluorescent Grey EP, and last year's Microcastle/Weird Era Cont.; lead singer Bradford Cox's Atlas Sound has released Let the Blind Lead Those Who Can See But Cannot Feel, plus a staggering number of mp3s, mixes, and non-album tracks. At shows, Pundt can be seen strumming wordlessly, staring toward his effects pedals.

And yet the sole figure behind Lotus Plaza has had a huge-- and all too often unacknowledged-- role in establishing Deerhunter's hallucinatory sound. The Atlanta band's chaotic 2005 debut, Deerhunter aka Turn It Up Faggot, gets kind of a bad rap, no doubt in part because Cox disavowed the thing. But it shows that Deerhunter didn't turn into the shoegaze-drenched dreamweavers we know and love until after Pundt joined. Pundt wrote the music for some of Deerhunter's most indelible songs-- "Strange Lights", "Like New"-- and made his singing debut on Microcastle. The Atlas Sound album, which features Pundt's guitar on "Cold as Ice", is dedicated to him.

So that the first Lotus Plaza album, The Floodlight Collective, is a hazy bedroom reverie shouldn't surprise listeners accustomed to other Deerhunter-related projects, the hypnotic solo work of Panda Bear, the lonesome longing of Jeremy Jay, or to a lesser extent the introverted homemade racket of Wavves and Dum Dum Girls. Produced by Brian Foote of Nudge, the album submerges plaintive vocals in layer after reverb-washed cloud layer of ethereal guitar atmospherics, achieving a woozy and sometimes barely intelligible prettiness. That can best be heard on tracks like the tambourine-jangling "Whiteout"-- its gentle melody gaining force on repeat listens-- or the squealing, Quickspace-esque rocker "What Grows?" (it does, an abstract Yo La Tengo). Pundt plays all instruments, except for Cox's turn on Factory-ready drums for the sweet dream pop of "Different Mirrors"; a bouncy Supremes beat gives way to outer-space Roy Orbison on "Quicksand". The krautrock pulse and piano-dripping radiance of seven-minute centerpiece "Antoine" sound like a Stereolab disciple starting to come into his own.

As with bashful Blur guitarist Graham Coxon on his own solo debut more than a decade ago, Pundt at times lets his diffidence get the best of him. For all the subtle detail in a track like the mournful, pitch-shifted "Sunday Night"-- which vaguely recalls Atlas Sound's "Bite Marks" in its nostalgic main riff-- with Pundt's melodic and conceptual strengths so submerged, the album can begin to run together. That's probably the point: From the washed-out cover art to the few discernible lyrics, The Floodlight Collective is obsessed with the indistinctness of memory, the dazzlement of bright lights. Opener "Red Oak Way", maybe Pundt's "Hazel St.", longs for "sunny Saturdays watching cartoons in the living room," warm rays shining through the windowpane. So The Floodlight Collective is a mostly elegant listen, and one whose failings are part of its theme: Like a vague recollection, it's still a little hard to hold onto after it's over-- pretty albeit somewhat ephemeral. Memory knows before knowing remembers, sure, but too much light makes the baby go blind.

Monday, March 16, 2009

White Lies - To Lose My Life...

Album Reviews
March 16, 2009

To Lose My Life...

Two months after Ian Curtis died, Bono stopped by the desk of Factory Records founder Tony Wilson and said something like, "Now he's gone, I promise you I'll do it for him." At least that's what Wilson later told critic Simon Reynolds. U2 soldiered on without Joy Divison's gothy glamor, and of course Bono wasn't the only one carrying an unforgettable fire for Curtis. Then and since, a long list of bands have tried fusing U2's stadium-size grandiosity with Joy Division's bleak foreboding. Sometimes they're Radiohead, sometimes they're Interpol, and sometimes they're White Lies.

The most relevant current comparison is probably Glasvegas, another UK band groomed early on for success, only to release a disappointingly ponderous debut album. Except where Glasvegas' roots in girl-group, JAMC, and early Creation bands amounted to an Exciting New Direction in the beleaguered British indie scene, White Lies have been striking the usual post-punk moves ever since a pair of Stephen Street-produced singles in 2006, back when they were called Fear of Flying. White Lies' debut To Lose My Life... recently entered the UK charts at #1 and combines prose-purple darkness with rafters-shooting arena rock. It's better than Elefant, worse than the Stills, nearly on par with Editors-- which in the English rock press these days assures descriptors like "classic" and "masterpiece."

Produced by Ed Buller (Pulp, Suede) and Max Dingel (the Killers, Glasvegas), and boasting melodramatic accompaniment by a 20-piece orchestra, To Lose My Life... can't be faulted in terms of tightness or radio-ready polish. If you liked the new Oasis and U2 records, never bought Turn on the Bright Lights, and tend to ignore clumsy lyrics, you might enjoy raising your beer to this album just fine. Hell, the hummable Cars-esque new wave at the bridge of dour opening track "Death" is just what you needed if you're willing to forget "Just What I Needed". But White Lies know beer is really more for staring at glumly: "Everything has got to be love or death," singer/guitarist Harry McVeigh declares.

Why not both? "Let's grow old together and die at the same time," the title track urges, certainly not the last time someone will rewrite the Smiths' "There Is a Light That Never Goes Out" by way of the Modern Lovers' "Dignified and Old", crank up the bombast, and leave out all pathos, personality, and charm. White Lies' flirtations with mortality certainly don't help their drab tunes. "If you tell me to jump then I'll die," goes the galloping "E.S.T."; "As you said goodbye, I almost died," the weepy "Nothing to Give" adds. But their rote cheerlessness suggests no such emotional intensity. As McVeigh sings on POW-invoking sub-Joshua Tree ballad "Fifty on Our Foreheads", "All we heard was lies about the truth." Right, as opposed to the other kind of lies.

White Lies could even get away with a little heavy-handed somberness if anything of their own (other than unintentional humor) shone through their reconstituted gloom-rock. A little less death, a little more love-- of creativity, of life in all its urgent particulars rather than just the hand-me-down cliches that stand in for them-- would go a long way. Take "Unfinished Business", where gothic organs, Interpol-like phrasing, and a jarring James Bond allusion convey little other than that White Lies own a few critically acclaimed records and probably know who Roger Moore is. "Love and death are always on my mind," the Stills sang back in 2003. In other words, White Lies are boring and stuff.

Monday, March 9, 2009

Say Hi - Oohs and Aahs

Video / Album Review
ABC News
March 9, 2009

Thursday, March 5, 2009

The Boy Least Likely To - The Law of the Playground

Album Reviews
March 5, 2009

The Law of the Playground

Childhood isn't kids' stuff. Like Tom Cruise, or life in Hobbes' state of nature, it can be nasty, brutish, and short. Language that would make Rahm Emanuel or a "South Park" writer blush. Intolerance enough to have Rush Limbaugh sound like Gandhi. A mini shock'n'awe campaign of child-on-insect violence. And, every now and then, brief glimpses of nudity. Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian.

UK twee-poppers the Boy Least Likely To didn't disappear after 2005 debut The Best Party Ever reclaimed the schoolyard. But their vividly imagined mix of whimsy and melancholy has attracted a magic-threatening share of the spotlight. A steady drip of TV, film, and retail licensing for single "Be Gentle With Me", originally released in 2003, culminated (so far) with a Coca-Cola commercial during this year's Academy Awards broadcast. At the same time, in a world where Noah and the Whale exist, hipper-than-thou tastes have shifted back toward harsher, rougher sounds, or else impossibly perfect Auto-Tune chart-pop.

Boy will be Boy. Delayed by record-label collapse, sophomore album The Law of the Playground evokes a nostalgia that has as much to do with those innocently optimistic days before financial meltdown, fake celebrity Twitter posts, and Hipster Runoff as with lazy summers. This still isn't kids music. But TBLLT's child's-eye perspective on English anorak pop, sunny West Coast harmonies, Belle and Sebastian-y folk, country, and soul, is now certifiably... theirs, just theirs. Dexys Midnight Runners-like strings join banjo, recorder, handclaps, synths, and glockenspiel. If the enchantment has weakened a smidge, the craft-- and the extreme cuteness-- sure haven't. TBLLT have covered both George Michael and the Field Mice; their own best songs combine the former's chart-conquering populism with the latter's practically mind-expanding wimpiness. "I've got puppy powers," TBLLT lyrical and vocal half Jof Owen murmurs on current single "Every Goliath Has Its David", as multi-instrumentalist/composer Pete Hobbs wields birthday-party orchestration like a giant-killing slingshot.

Yet whether on gung-ho opener "Saddle Up", or self-pep-talk "When Life Gives Me Lemons I Make Lemonade", fear and neurosis almost always undermine the cheery arrangements. It's an old move, not just for these guys, but on advance download-only single "I Box Up All the Butterflies", with its twang and "When I'm Sixty-Four" oompah, TBLLT give gnawing insecurity a welcome charm. After "the birds and the bees" beset Owen when he's being entomologically cruel, dude reaches a koan-like understanding on acoustic ballad "The Worm Forgives the Plough", itself halfway between Sarah Records indie and Weezer's Pinkerton "Butterfly". Harmonica- and glockenspiel-led "Stringing Up Conkers" juxtaposes grown-up body image problems with... shoving pencils up your nose.

Self-referentiality adds to The Law of the Playground 's sense of déjà vu even as it lets the band try new angles on familiar themes. "The Boy Least Likely To Is a Machine" is a sad scientist's-workshop concept-song... sort of their "Dr. Carter"; brassy swooner "The Boy with Two Hearts" could be the duo's autobiography (with its accompanying anxieties) or a love song (with its accompanying anxieties); "The Nature of the Boy Least Likely To" slows down and stretches out, fighting the same demons as The Best Party Ever 's "The Battle of the Boy Least Likely To".

An old Calvin & Hobbes Sunday strip has been making the rounds again lately. Calvin tries to sell Susie Derkins lemonade, overcharges her because of "demand" for an exorbitant salary, uses sludge water to cut costs, goes to mom for a bailout when Susie won't buy. As strong and unusual as The Law of the Playground is, especially out of step in 2009, it never quite feels as inspired, as fraught with conflicted beauty, as past songs "Paper Cuts" or "Be Gentle With Me" or "Monsters". But that doesn't mean melody, harmony, and earnest self-expression of the funny pathos of being human are any less relevant this year than they were in 2005. "I'm still as stupid as I was before," Owen sings on poignant finale "A Fairytale Ending".

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Shrag - Shrag

Album Reviews
March 3, 2009


During the first wave of UK indie, Gang of Four wrote anti-love songs while bands like the Slits, the Raincoats, and X-Ray Spex rejected not only romance but also traditional femininity. In the Britpop 1990s, Blur snarkily claimed to see no difference between "Girls and Boys", and Elastica made sexual demystification a lot more fun ("You could call me a car lover/ 'Cause I love it in a motor"). Brighton's Shrag are a sharp up-and-coming poppy post-punk band smearing their own dark lip gloss on sex and gender. But you can always tell deep down they're looking for real, vital connection.

They find it in more ways than one on their self-titled debut album, which mostly pulls together songs released on mp3 and 7" going back to 2006, when "Don't Speak"-ably stinging breakup ballad "Hopelessly Wasted" made a few waves. More often the three-girl, two-boy guitar-synth rioters are more bellicose-- hitting the giddy stratospheres of early Long Blondes singles (minus the glamour) while tremblingly shouting down a cheating lover on spiky-riffed "Lost Dog", or holding a "long term grudge" on fast, still-furious "Long Term Monster". Shoplifting is hard on the unrepentantly unruly "Intelligent Theft", but bratty MySpace-quote pop sounds easy. The most divisive track is likely to be Kate Nash-conversational "Talk to the Left", a bare electro-punk update on awkward sex jams ("Did he really say, 'Baby, now I'm heading south?'") from the Au Pairs' "Come Again" to Art Brut's "Rusted Guns of Milan". "Cupboard Love" should get basement crowds belting out requests for W-2 information. You just haven't earned it yet, baby.

Like many of us in our increasingly autistic age, Shrag seek not just physical connections, but to participate in shared culture-- the essence of the English DIY movement. Even when they're talking about their bodies, Shrag use the language of fans. Love Is All-ish sax spree "Pregnancy Scene" is the best petulant protest against all our friends growing up and having babies since the Boy Least Likely To's "Monsters"; the only previously unreleased non-instrumental, "New Favourites", obsesses over a clique-changing best mate like she's a once-favorite band; "Mark E. Smith" is the indie kid's "Would you do that if Barack Obama was watching?". My absolute favorite song here, "Forty Five 45s", is a beautifully crafted, basically one-chord wonder sung by a narrator who'd notice every nuance in the mixtapes you give her and then be really fucking pissed when you take off with all her mp3s except Jeff Buckley. You could've at least left the Los Campesinos! zine.

Only connect? Not hardly: "Different Glue" grapples with groping strangers who will make you glad you stayed at home tonight. "Women get hassled at gigs if they're not with a bloke," Gang of Four's Jon King told critic Greil Marcus in 1980. The name Shrag, sort of a nice onomatopoeia for the younger group's tough-talking shambling, is also an actual English word that's obsolete. King's statement isn't-- neither is a good fanmade antidote to pop music that's some dying conglomerate's idea of how much self-expression you can handle. Things aren't perfect, but we've come a long way.

Monday, March 2, 2009

Malajube - Labyrinthes

Album Reviews
March 2, 2009


"Malajube's music is labyrinthine," Pitchfork's Brian Howe wrote by way of praising the French Montreal band's breakout sophomore album, Trompe-l'Oeil, in 2006. With their city then under the indie rock microscope, Malajube (still say it MAL-a-zhoob) scanned as yet more ramshackle hyper-pop, language less a barrier than a Dungen-esque point of difference-- when it counted, say on the hook to commercial-bait standout "Montréal -40°C", these inaugural Polaris Music Prize nominees sounded no more francophone than, I dunno, Electric Light Orchestra. Media hype now gone home, Malajube up the labyrinthine stakes on Labyrinthes, daring re-entry. It's not for the faint of heart-- or the fain to double back.

How do you say "gone all prog" en français? The change is as much context as content-- multipart Trompe mini-epics "La Monogamie" and "Le Crabe" already were reminiscent of contemporaries such as Mew-- but jarring structural changes are the norm on Labyrinthes, suggesting Malajube's former "progressive emo jam band" MySpace descriptor may have been more apt than absurd. Six-minute opener "Ursuline" boldly announces the new approach-- and, if you understand the submerged lyrics (or read the interviews), the Catholicism/mortality-minded lyrical themes-- as blistering guitar solos, chopsy drumming, and portentous chants descend upon a placid piano intro, leaving only church bells in their wake. Juxtapositions juice a couple of the best songs: "Casablanca", which veers from hazy Tropicália-tinged pop to a fleet-fingered guitar coda, and "333", all gallops and screeches and echoes except when its inner "Dust in the Wind" breaks out.

Where Malajube fall flat, it's not due to complexity, but grim reality: Comedy rarely translates well. Jerry Lewis, anyone? "It's good to have humor in music too," drummer Francis Mineau, lead singer Julien Mineau's brother, told the National Post. The most immediately accessible tracks here-- spiky video selection "Porté Disparu", with its Ed Wood-worthy synth line, or the harmony- and piano-driven "Luna"-- translate as light-hearted whether you know that "Les Collemboles" refers to eating bugs someday or just like to hum along with its call-and-response chorus. The more sinister "Le Tout-Puissant" and "Cristobald" convey instrumental prowess and grandiosity, sure, but I could use a pie in the face (OK, the closing growls almost count). So although Labyrinthes further establishes Malajube as French Canadians worth following, this time you may not make it far enough to save your brother from the Goblin King.

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