Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Art Brut - Art Brut vs. Satan

Album Reviews
April 21, 2009

Art Brut vs. Satan 

Spoiler alert: Art Brut lose. Of course they do. Tramps like former Art Brut tourmates Hold Steady were born to run around wearing baseball jerseys in front of Counting Crows fans (and good for them!). Art Brut were born to lose: How could they ever improve on the clumsy meta-punk rush of their first single, "Formed a Band"? They arrived almost fully formed. They never got to play "Top of the Pops". When they miraculously came up with another 11 songs just about as good-- or, in the case of "Emily Kane", arguably better-- on their brilliant 2005 debut album, Bang Bang Rock & Roll, it only added sting to their inevitable defeat. They were even losers at being losers. I loved them for it.

That's partly why it's so strange now to read reviews that lump Art Brut in with more commercially successful UK bands such as Bloc Party and Franz Ferdinand. At live shows, lead not-quite-singer Eddie Argos used to change "I can't stand the sound of the Velvet Underground" to "I can't stand the sound of Gang of Four," and I always assumed his targets were obvious (hint: neither the Velvet Underground nor Gang of Four). Full of fist-pumping but self-mocking bar-punk about obsessive fandom and romantic awkwardness, Bang Bang Rock & Roll was the closest our decade has come to The Modern Lovers. Art Brut's true peers are lyrical music geeks like John Darnielle, Jeffrey Lewis, Jens Lekman, Los Campesinos!, the Tough Alliance, and, most recently, Nodzzz. It's not irony; it's self-aware sincerity.

Good news for people who love losers: Art Brut's third album is on what Kanye might call "some Benjamin Buttons shit." Gone is the slight maturation of their good-- but, sadly, not great-- sophomore album, 2007's It's a Bit Complicated, which tried to win by the attractive-people rules of polished production; the songs were still warm, witty, and alive, but they just didn't have the original's "I've seen her naked-- TWICE!" brashness. Recorded on the fly with fellow Jonathan Richman acolyte Frank Black, Art Brut vs. Satan is a scrappy, romantic, and painfully hilarious return to loserdom. Coldplay will always be more popular. So what? I hate those guys!

Art Brut probably do, too. If they can't topple vague, pasty, barely breathing background rock from the charts, at least they can sing gloriously doomed songs about it. "Cool your warm jets, Brian Eno," Argos jibes on "Slap Dash for No Cash", teasing shiny U2 clones the way he previously skewered vapid post-punk revivalists. Argos champions instead the records where you can hear not only the crack of the singer's voice, or the squeak of the guitarist's fingers, but also (as on a Gorky's Zygotic Mynci B-side, apparently) their parents complaining about the volume-- not because those records are more artistically valid, or more authentic or whatever, but for a more important reason: "Those are the records I like."

Black gets the Art Brut spirit down on record better than anyone has before, with the blazing pop-metal vainglory of Weezer, the scruffy cheekiness of early Rough Trade bands, and lots of enthusiastic backing vocals. Fun for them, fun for us. "Demons Out!" shifts the Smiths' "Panic!" from hanging DJs to denying record buyers suffrage, but don't mistake it for a Death Cab for Cutie-like manifesto against U.S. Auto-Tune pop; more accurately, it's an ideal rebuke against the endless Travis Kooks Kaiser Chiefs Razorlight blandness of UK "science museum" rock. So too "The Replacements", which melds the Mats' "Alex Chilton" and the Brut's "My Little Brother" into a clamorous endorsement of used CDs and deluxe reissues. Extending the prior album's trend toward sacrilegious song titles, "Twist and Shout" may not have you accidentally repeating its off-key la-la-las in public, like the song's narrator, but you'll probably know exactly how he feels. Not that Satan gives a damn about songs that communicate aspects of everyday life with clarity and human charm.

Art Brut remain ever the underdog when they're singing about arrested development and girls, too. "DC Comics and Chocolate Milkshake" is a cereal-eaters' song as universal as Jerry Seinfeld, with a nicely echoing bridge, while perfectly sloppy public-transportation anthem "The Passenger" rewrites Iggy Pop from the perspective of a guy who can't drive. "Summer Job", with its Vampire Weekend-whooping intro vocal, is the album's only concession to conventional melody, and its summertime-blues-curing slackerdom could hardly be more enjoyably juvenile. Like a bizarro "Rusted Guns of Milan", "What a Rush" fumbles for morning-after Beatles vs. Stones meaning-- and socks. Add to vocab: "Sober...ish?". Slowing down but not going ballad, "Am I Normal?" is a preview of the kind of shy neurotic who might go on to write "Emily Kane".

Art Brut Vs. Satan begins and ends with a hungover Argos trying to remember what he did the night before. Frantically buzzing opener "Alcoholics Unanimous" finds Argos sending apologetic mass texts; he's been concerned about what he's been up to, and with good reason. On epic finale "Mysterious Bruises", which I didn't even notice was seven minutes until I looked it up later, Argos proclaims: "I fought the floor and the floor won." Satan always wins. The beautiful people and their sycophants will always outnumber lovable losers. But this is a record I like.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Super Furry Animals - Dark Days/Light Years

Album Reviews
April 20, 2009

Dark Days/Light Years 

Once you've communicated what you want to say so many ways, there's always the groove. Not that Super Furry Animals were the ones who needed to get theirs back, exactly. I mean, sure, 2007's Hey Venus! wasn't so much "speaker blowing"-- lead singer Gruff Rhys' advertisement-- as "hey, SFA still don't suck yet." But before that, 2005's Love Kraft was a multi-layered psych-funk-folk-samba epic about love, war, and "no more romantic comedies." Since then, the Welsh quintet's offbeat side projects-- such as Rhys's Delorean-themed Neon Neon partnership with Boom Bip, or keyboardist Cian Ciárán's electronic-leaning Acid Casuals-- have kept the Super Furry faithful well-supplied.

Dark days? Uhh, have you picked up a newspaper lately? Me neither, which I assume is part of the problem. "People that go out and murder people don't read The Wall Street Journal," New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg told CNN's Wolf Blitzer the other day, on whether the shitty economy added to gun violence. And yet all of a sudden a lot of liberal-arts-damaged hipsters seem to know a hell of a lot about the financial sector. Call it a capital infusion: SFA's ninth album in almost two decades as a band, Dark Days/Light Years, is also their most playful since 2001's Rings Around the World. Full of paradoxes and loving parodies, honeyed psych-pop harmonies and shaggy vamps, it's just the sci-fi groove-rock mindfuck to shake us out of our no-fun times.

First, the grooves: SFA assembled Dark Days/Light Years-- nine years in the making, 40 days in the recording-- largely out of riffs and ideas that for one reason or another had gone unused. The results are as free-wheeling and inspired as the group has sounded in years-- Super-er and Furrier. Heavy blooz schoolgirl-ballers from Grand Funk Railroad to Eric Burdon can keep their puds and their guts squeezed tight into their bellbottoms after opener "Crazy Naked Girls", a three-part song that reclaims wah wah and a whole lotta lovin'. Groove turns to stomp on Ciárán-fronted "Mt.", which places Donovan folk mysticism over glam-rock schaffel.

Then, when the machines groove, it's motorik. The Super Furries meet the ensuing depression with... more wryness. "Let us make the best of a difficult situation," Rhys intones on first single "Inaugural Trams", the album's top stand-alone track. In a utopian universe where it would've been politically feasible for President Obama to announce, upon his inauguration, a plan to reduce emissions ("by 75!") and restore the economy through a public-transportation moon race, "Inaugural Trams"-- with Franz Ferdinand's Nick McCarthy rapping some of the only German words I know that aren't "Kraftwerk" or "hefeweizen"-- would be the summer jam. If "Inaugural Trams" is "the definitive krautrock song about railcars," as New York magazine's Vulture blog wondered recently, it's only in the way Rings Around the World's "Juxtaposed With U" was the definitive Philly soul sexx jam. In other words, it's something else.

And it's not alone. Lester Bangs once recommended a young punk band call their album The Monkees' Greatest Hits; the biggest disappointment here is that the Super Furries didn't make "The Very Best of Neil Diamond" the title track. The song's ancient licks and sweaty percussion might suggest early 00s R&B, or some kind of Eastern thing, but far from it: The chorus of "trust but verify" swipes a favorite Cold War catchphrase of Ronald Reagan. Somewhere before the guitar-gnashing bridge, I guess there's also this narrative about a Neil Diamond tape playing in the aftermath of an apocalypse. (And I'm told you can hear quotes from Vivaldi and Beethoven in Metal Machine Music, too...) Right after "The Very Best of Neil Diamond" takes us to "Sweet Caroline" and back, "Helium Hearts" drops us off in Eden. With perfect hippie-dippie non sequiturs about wedding rings, togetherness, and vegemite, it's probably the closest SFA's latest comes to the swooning, ELO-lite psych-pop of past highlights like 1996's "Something 4 the Weekend".

Just because a band sticks to the old-fashioned idea of an album as a cohesive piece of work doesn't mean it has to get all stuffy about it: Dark Days/Light Years begins with casual chatter and ends, after the "Beat It" meets "Livin' on a Prayer" bass lines and burbling vocal nonsense of Ciárán-penned quasi-instrumental "Pric", with three minutes of droning electronic tones. (SFA have played this kind of prank before, burying career highlights on hidden tracks or non-album singles.) Guitarist Huw Bunford's "White Socks/Flip Flops" makes up in wet synths, blistering guitars, and taut rhythms what it lacks in fashion sense; fuzzed bass-guitar duel "Inconvenience"-- not an Au Pairs cover-- goes from "what the fuck?" to jihad and pirate ships (timely!). Even the least exceptional tracks here, twinned songs "Where Do You Wanna Go?" and "Lliwiau Llachar", still offer raucous drumming and catchy Welsh-language vocals.

Remember when columnists predicted the death of irony after 9/11? Didn't happen, but between the whole everybody-losing-their-jobs thing and having an actual well-meaning grown-up in the White House, deadly seriousness is more of a threat now than ever. At least there's Glenn Beck. In the meantime, Dark Days/Light Years brings some good vibes for everyone "from middle-aged sophisticates to stone-aged reprobates," to borrow a line from the rhythmically restrained, Spoon-like "Moped Eyes". It used to be called "Hot Nuts".

Friday, April 10, 2009

Thieves Like Us - Play Music

Album Reviews
April 10, 2009

Play Music

Sensitive clubbers of the world, unite. Thieves Like Us singer Andy Grier, an American, met keyboardist Björn Berglund and drummer Pontus Berghe, both Swedes, when they all lived in Berlin. The Tron-loving filter-house electro-poppers now call Paris home, and French label Kitsuné picked up their big single, the euphoric but also melancholic downtown-metro ride "Drugs in My Body". Debut album Play Music was variously conceived and created in Berlin, Vienna, New York, London, Rio de Janeiro, and Stockholm.

Finally getting a belated U.S. release, the disc justifies some but not all of its carbon footprint. New Order's 1984 hit "Thieves Like Us" exemplified how those UK synth-pop icons could take something "so uncool"-- like love of tech gadgetry-- and give it a certain expensively wasted glamor. "Drugs in My Body" adapts this strategy for our post-Daft Punk ears. It's hyper-urban strobe-pop, with aching vocals and a tightly coiled Durutti Column sample that could appeal not only to don't-call-it-blog-house LastNightsPartyers, but also to Factory-worshiping indie bedwetters like me. The full album should be an okay soundtrack for a hoverbus tour of some retrofuturistic metropolis, but it's somewhere just outside of track 3 when the Dramamine starts to kick in.

Play Music slows down more often than your Justice Mobile Digitalisms, and when it does it tends to lose some focus. Unfortunately, the horn-haunted nighttime cityscape of "An Easy Tonight" sounds less like the City of Lights than the City That Makes Me Kinda Sleepy; the solid but unremarkable kosmische of "Lady" needs something a little more distinctive alongside its tasteful woundedness. Most of the singing was recorded at home, which helps it sound sincere, but also helps it sound like a specific, time-fixed notion of sincerity (won't anyone just let Ian Curtis rest in peace?). Shoulda-been instrumental "Program of the Second Part" suggests, "Sing along to Suicide."

Of course, smuggling open-hearted vocal frailness into ecstatic electronic dance-pop can still have thrilling results, as New Order showed, and the likes of the Tough Alliance continue to demonstrate. Thieves Like Us are usually best when they're giving us a spoonful of sugar to help the miserabilia go down-- feeling low at a higher tempo on "Your Heart Feels", for example, or daydreaming about David and Angela Bowie on the similarly faster-paced "Miss You". "Drugs in My Body" B-side "Fass" also does all right despite meh meta lyrics about crossing "scene lines." But the second-best thing here actually has to be finale "Sugar and Song", a sure-enough slow breakup ballad that's as depressive as so much good Spiritualized. Although Play Music drags more than I would've hoped, it's still a reasonably lustrous place to be sad now and then-- without drugs in my body, but not without "Drugs in My Body".

Monday, April 6, 2009

The Coathangers - Scramble

Album Reviews
April 6, 2009


If the only good reason to overturn apple carts is for the fun of it, how 'bout them apples? Like Athens' Pylon before them, all-grrl Atlanta quartet the Coathangers are making sure the revolution will not be such a drag. On a rough 'n' rowdy self-titled 2007 debut via local label Rob's House Records, they swapped "Suck My Left One" for "Nestle in My Boobies", "Oh Bondage, Up Yours!" for "Shut the Fuck Up", hating Margaret Thatcher for sympathizing with "Tonya Harding". Word is their ramshackle live shows-- alongside the likes of Deerhunter, Black Lips, Jay Reatard, and, next month, Calvin Johnson-- have included loogies and My Little Pony.  Cue the premature backlash.

The Coathangers keep the back-alley post-punk party going strong on a scratchy, shrieky, foul-mouthed sophomore album, Scramble, their first for Seattle-based Suicide Squeeze. The call-and-response vocals-- split between guitarist Julia Kugel, drummer Stephanie Luke, keyboard player Candice Jones, and Meredith Franco on bass-- are shrill. The politics aren't, even though technically everything-- from their beyond Fucked Up name to their overall fuck-you we're-not-the-Donnas stance-- is kind of political. Nope, the Coathangers aren't ones to let good intentions stand in for a good time.

As with fellow Georgians the B-52s, their best songs play like should-be novelty hits. The Coathanger with the chirpy Snow White voice sings lead on a couple of the catchiest, including upstairs-neighbor rant "Stop Stomp Stompin'" and unrequited-love-at-first-sight song "143", both of which have enough quotidian sloganeering and goofy-but-true detail for UK shouters Art Brut. Pretty sure it's the same band member who threatens to break our "fucking face" on caterwauling garage-rocker "Gettin' Mad and Pumpin' Iron", too. But the Coathangers can also drop the tempo-- slow dancing with a dude who "ain't no sissy" on "Dreamboat", or missing a boy from outer space on keyboard-driven "Sonic You". There's even one for the olds: "Arthritis Sux". There's even one for tUne-YarDs: sloppy sound-effect collage "Bobby Knows Best".

Put together enough novelty hits, and you have a pretty solid album. If off-kilter percussion can't quite overcome the whispery false ending on "Pussywillow", or "Time Passing" gets a little lost up its own indecipherable sci-fi squall, there's always the scuzzy pink frost of "Toomerhead" (he ain't an asshole, he's just sick), or the get-off-my-back hoarseness of "Bury Me". Particularly given the neanderthal sexual politics of much of the current indie music scene-- looking at you, Brooklyn Vegan comments section-- it's good politics when a girl group can declare, as a deeper-voiced Coathanger does on "Cheap Cheap", "You can just go fuck yourself." It's good entertainment when they can make us pretend they're not talking to us-- and that's probably smarter politics, too. As the Long Blondes once sang, you could have both.

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"Goes over the top and stays there to very nice effect."
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