Album Reviews

The Smiths “Strangeways Here We Come” (Rough Trade, 1987)

0f14733c89d93d64beea7e7a6079347773c61194The last album by The Smiths may be the last one you’ll pick up. And while popular consensus would rank “The Queen Is Dead” and “Meat Is Murder” as their best full lengths, I’d vouch for this one. This decision didn’t come overnight, rather, it came after my formative years of Smiths-fandom in a moment of clarity, when Morrissey’s rants seemed to have less wallop but a bit more pronouncement.

Not that Steven Moz has become any less angsty on this release. If anything his wit is at it’s most refined here, just before his solo career dulled it, turning him into a caricature. His musical foil, Johnny Marr, shows off more chops than ever as well. “Strangeways…” puts the studio to use more than ever before, but don’t let that scare you into thinking this was a last-ditch effort assembled in post before the fall. Studio adventuring leads The Smiths to some of their most spacious and interesting recordings yet, like “Death of a Disco Dancer” and “Last Night I Dreamt That Somebody Loved Me.”

Lyrically, Moz touches on themes that you’ve heard before, but there is more humor here that may touch long-haul fans of Morrisey’s work rather than those jumping into Smiths albums during adolescence. The key here is time, not for wisdom gained but for longing, even for those dour times. Life is funny like that. – Wade

Fugazi “Red Medicine” (Dischord, 1995)

090-webHearing “13 Songs” today and identifying it as a punk milestone isn’t too hard. But when it was released reception was a bit different, even to the ears of folks dedicated to Dischord. Joe Lally’s dubby basslines probably had something to do with it.

After further experiments with dub production on sharp rhythms (courtesy of ex-Rites of Spring members), Fugazi took an artier route on “Red Medicine” that rocks most of the time and power-plays the studio for stints and segues. Early straightforward blaster “Bed For The Scraping” is a fun bass-propelled track that’s hard, aggressive and danceable. It’s probably the most uplifting rock track they got. Then on the production side of things, instrumentals arranged behind a board like “Combination Lock” or “Version” further push musical ideas. The trick pulled here is that these songs sound fine right alongside their rock numbers.

What makes this piece worthy of placing next to “13 Songs” or “Repeater?” It’s another fully realized album, for one, and while more musical ideas are explored Fugazi never spread themselves to thin. And while the members of this esteemed group share morals and standards set staggering high, lyrically you’ll catch a break. The album is chock full of personal political points, but delivery here is generally less declaratory, more obtuse except where it sounds great (Lockheed! Lockheed!).

On “Red Medicine,” Fugazi are miles away from where they started, with bars set even higher on playing, producing, boundary pushing… -Wade

Ric Ocasek “Beatitude” (Geffen, 1982)

ea9234a756d1d56c2875efae1a5Very much a studio creation and a work evoking distillation and sanitation, “Beatitude” might as well be Ric with Kraftwerk as his backing band, if they’re willing to add stadium-worthy guitar, lovers bass and shmoozy sax all over. Since The Cars made a bit of a weak Rock effort (with a capital R), going New Wave was probably Ric’s most viable option, and it has to be said, he didn’t hold back during his solo year.

A drum machine (affectionately named “Miss Linn” in the liner notes) beats metronomically, and a series of vocoder chirps kick off Ric Ocasek’s first solo effort. Seems like a great foil for his brand of punchy New Wave… “Jimmy Jimmy” and “Prove” are pure electro-pop nuggets of the freshest variety. And “Connect Up To Me” looks like it would fit next to Gary Numan’s “Cars” or anything by Wang Chung on FM band. Well, maybe a radio edit, it’s all sequencers and drums with Ric riffing over chimes and crisp keys, going for about seven minutes plus… It’s not even a dance track, necessarily.

This is New Wave in it’s truest capital form, far from the streets, floating somewhere in space. Interestingly enough, it’s when New Wave as a genre gets further from it’s source material (punk template, let’s blur no lines), when it’s clean, detached and empty, that it really becomes it’s own thing. Play this with Gary Numan’s “Dance” or Japan’s “Gentleman Take Polaroids” for maximum posh. And watch out for rockets! – Wade

The Sonics “This Is… The Savage Young Sonics” (Norton, 2001)

This+Is+The+Savage+Young+Sonics+This+is+The+Savage+Young+SonicOh boy! I’m sure most of us are familiar with Tacoma’s pride and joy, The Sonics, but this release is a real special collection of demos. It’s like opening up a shoebox of baby-pics, or popping in a VHS of your kid walking for the first time, then running bases, or putting on a play. Really cute stuff.

That comparison isn’t too far off from the truth either, since it was some of the members Proud-Father recordings that are enclosed. For starters, we have the barely together but pleasant early studio (or living room? Sock-hop?) work of “A-Rab,” and plenty of standards like “Rumble,” “Mashed Potato Time,” “Louie Louie” etc; etc;

Live recordings, radio ads and homemade demos all collected here make for pleasant listening, all of a growing garage band before they had their attack-stances down. And it’s a great time to pick it up, since the Sonics just released their first album after nearly, oh, fifty years. Look at how good they turned out. -Wade

The Fall “Grotesque” (Rough Trade, 1980)

Grotesque_coverHot on the heels of the immortal “Totally Wired” single, The Fall dropped “Grotesque” and really outdid themselves. Right out of the gate you get the rocking “Pay Your Rates” and a 180 turn into the chipper sounding “English Scheme,” a seemingly jolly number with an absolutely dirty electric keyboard bouncing throughout.

Mark E. Smith really becomes Mark E. Smith here as well: “New Face In Hell” and “C ‘n’ C-S Mithering” spews broken working man poetry over obscene instrumentals embellished by kazoos and backing tapes of who-knows-what. Side one ends with a more straightforward rocker, “The Container Drivers.” It may seem odd, but then Mark has cited Bo Diddley and Link Wray as some of his favorites, right alongside Damo Suzuki. He’s not afraid to not be weird and rock proper.

Side two kicks off with a militant rumble in “Impression of J. Temperance” and works it’s way in a similar fashion (apart from the incomprehensible mess of “WMC-Blob 59”) toward the closer of “The N.W.R.A.” or “The North Will Rise Again.” Being from Manchester and proud of it, Mark E. had to end with a near ten-minute opus to declare it. Rough and tough, Manchester and Mark E. may be synonymous in most ways. You can say that for The Fall too. -Wade

TV On The Radio “Return To Cookie Mountain” (4AD, 2008)

61Q190HN53LDrones, loops, samples, plus plenty of live instrumentation create the defined sound that TV On The Radio engulf themselves in. Tracks can be made in a hip hop foil, but don’t really convey the feel, and they rarely rock out (except on the well-arranged radio fodder of “Wolf Like Me” and few other album tracks), so what is it exactly that they do?

On the opener for “Return To Cookie Mountain,” fractured samples create an eerie and depressive mood for vocalist Kyp Malone and troupe to spill their souls on. In truth, “I Was a Lover” really could be the centerpiece of the album, but they decide to hit us with it first. Samples stutter, horns and sitars create a morose atmosphere and lyrically, it’s all about cycles, days going by. Maybe getting a grip when it looks like good days are long gone. This cycle of sound and repetition flows through the whole of “Cookie Mountain,” and gives something for Kyp to ride his observations over.

Repeated listens may reveal meaning behind their mostly esoteric lyrics; all in all it’s very self-conscious stuff. TV On The Radio can be lumped in with the Arcade Fire / LCD Soundsystem camp, where an inability to stop being cognizant prevents them from being a conventional pop group, or a sweaty id-driven rock band… If a group can be carried on sound alone though, TV On The Radio have a unique niche locked down at some musical crossroads that’s worth a look. -Wade

Neil Young “American Stars ‘N Bars” (Reprise, 1977)

American-Stars-n-Bars-thumb-500x500The cover art here was the first thing that caught me. Neil has fallen, his face smooshed down on some glass floor. But from your vantage point you can see all the action above his head; an obscured girl with a bottle, bright stars and crescent moon. Pretty disorienting, and it doesn’t give clues to the content inside…

On this album, Neil stirred up songs that were really intended for other projects and put them on a single platter, making this a looser album made in a pinch. When it was first released that was probably the main gripe of critics, lack of consistency. So, steel guitar and country twang take up a bit of the first side (The Old Country Waltz, Hold Back Your Tears), with spots of heartland rock breaking through (Saddle Up The Palomino, Bite The Bullet). Side two has more of the same; zig zags of country and rock songs, especially the guitar showcase of “Like A Hurricane,” probably his most impressive longplayer after “Cortez The Killer.” Maybe even better. Another great standout on this side is the affecting “Will To Love,” which could put a tear in your beer.

A great smattering of Neil Young material, “American Stars N’ Bars” touches on many a feeling from previous albums like “Zuma” and “On The Beach,” really well at that. I guess he had too many good ideas falling out of his head and this is where they ended up. – Wade

LCD Soundsystem “LCD Soundsystem” (DFA, 2005)

R-472821-1118681571.jpgTen years old! And hardly a blemish on this self-titled LP by everyone’s favorite party group of NYC hipsters. James Murphy (alleged Mark E. Smith impersonator, former Six Finger Satellite sound guy) did most of the work on these tracks, with a little help from his friends and future live players.

Spotted with hits, tracks of mashed up genres come together in a mix of dance, punk and psychedelia drenched in electronic residue. After the release of the totally-meta “Losing My Edge” single, Murphy still had opportunities to sport irony and pretension. “Daft Punk Is Playing At My House” kicks side one off and from there takes you to the bonafide pop of “Tribulations” and the Suicide-esque pummel of “Movement,” which probably has the most lyrical heft of the record’s time:

“It’s like a movement/without the bother of the meaning
it’s like a discipline without the discipline of all the discipline”

Bands have to try so much harder these days, not to succeed, but to avoid pastiche. Or in LCD’s case, work to rise above it and approach music making in earnest. What can all this familiar music mean? Or, what can it be perceived to mean? Real or imagined, these are the pitfalls that LCD manages to dance around. And you get to dance around too, especially on “Thrills,” “Disco Infiltrator,” etc;

Hardly being lumped in with other dance-rock diminished returns of the day (and there were a lot of them, oh boy), LCD’s first release manages to harken back and still sound fresh. And moments like “Never As Tired As When I’m Waking Up” shows that Murphy is just as good a songwriter as he is a studio head. He loves his music, and if you like his long list of refs and citations, chances are you probably will too. -Wade

Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti “Before Today” (4AD, 2010)

homepage_large.8df288c5Previous releases and performances by L.A. iconoclast Ariel and his rotating players (which sometimes included R. Stevie Moore and John Maus) had a feel of pop songs gone astray, drifting into listless hiss, or maybe fragments and collages akin to Throbbing Gristle. But eventually he found the musical foils necessary to breathe new life into his bedroom rock and roll fantasies, and the results really culminated on the 4AD released “Before Today” and haven’t stopped since.

Many tracks are reworked and given a new sheen, like “Beverly Kills” and the totally anthemic “Round and Round,” and each side includes interesting choices of cover songs such as garage rocker “Bright Lit Blue Skies” and the African guitar pop instrumental “Reminiscences.” Ariel and co. string together Jackson Family-funk, power pop and soft rock songs, all of high quality. The most important change isn’t even the recording fidelity, but the fact that this may be Haunted Graffiti’s first release that comes across as a genuine album… Each track is put in it’s proper place from front to back, and despite all the genre leaps it feels like a real cohesive piece of work.

Most of these numbers would be oddly enjoyable to the average listener, but if there is any real insight into Ariel’s head it can be detected on “Menopause Man,” a sub-grooving number about being who you are, with emphasis on gender identity. Shades of Genesis P-Orridge maybe? Perhaps a few notches off… Anyway, all tracks within come across as slightly askew pervo-pop, but “Before Today” is an example of how punchy and professional Ariel and his Haunted Graffiti are these days. -Wade

Black Moth Super Rainbow “Dandelion Gum” (Graveface, 2007)

Black-Moth-Super-Rainbow-Dandelion-Gum-album-cover-artworkComing out of nowhere (actually, rural Pennsylvania), Black Moth Super Rainbow are quite an enjoyable anomaly. Working with samples, synths, vocoders and a living, breathing rhythm section, BMSR produce a sort of electronic psychedelic pop informed by all sorts of contemporary sounds.

On “Dandelion Gum,” a mid-period release, it all comes together in the best possible ways. “Jump Into My Mouth and Breath The Stardust” is meditative with it’s acoustic guitar samples and sounds somehow folky, despite vocoders heavily transforming vocals. “Melt Me” is a pure sugar rush for your speakers with fat electronics, maracas and a killer bass line. And “Rollerdisco” sounds as if it was disco-edited library music from a PBS channel; hipped-up space age material reminiscent of Stereolab.

Side one is chock full of these meshed, unique tracks. Side two has a few detours; many of the songs are simple demos or snippets. One is even called “Untitled Roadside Demo,” and just off the cuff you can tell that the players here have found something special with each other. Recommended if you’ve ever liked a Ghost Box release, The Books, or library music in general. – Wade

John Coltrane “Ascension” (Impulse! 1966)

albumcoverJohnColtrane-AscensionOh boy, don’t let the opening blowout scare you, there is plenty of great form and “fun” to be had listening to this transitional album from Coltrane. Since the members recorded here run a list as long as my arm, I’ll just let you know that this was a big band of all-stars veering into free jazz like a great ship running through a tropical storm.

Crewman here can obviously play, and every last one of them went on to do great things (apart from one young trumpeter who, apparently not long after this recording, lost his mind). The album itself is made up of two long takes, two sides only. It’s the same piece performed with some solo changes. When the ensemble is working together it’s often claustrophobic, difficult finding room to breath, but just as often solos open up for a minute to two, giving each member a chance to grate their timbres.

And once in the midst of a beautiful solo from Hubbard or Tyner, or in the final duet between Davis and Garrison, you may find your own footing and wonder how you arrived where you are. A feeling you get when your overstressed mind finally makes a realization that whatever the challenge, it’s all just noise and it’s all of no real consequence. Tension and release. It’s what makes this music so appealing to those that charge on. -Wade

Black Dice “Mr. Impossible” (Ribbon Music, 2012)

mrimpossibleIf I was hard-pressed to name a group important in music after the turn of this last century, live or on record, then Black Dice would probably make that list, near the top. Not quite affiliated with any subculture in the DIY/noise/hardcore contingent, they have always been carving their own path, going after what sounds good to their particular ears.

That’s good, because taking a feedtube of straight punk, or avant-garde, or whatever “out” material that’s lying around is a sure way for a group to marginalize themselves these days. The Black Dice instead listen to Carly Rae Jepsen or Cheap Trick or AC/DC or a local Disco station around Brooklyn… And that’s how we see what’s beneath all the tones, feedback and strange electronic romp; skewed and fragmented pop and rock hooks otherwise recognizable across America.

So here on “Mr. Impossible,” the last offering we have by the Dice who are now a trio, we have probably their tightest and most accessible album to date. It can still have people running from a room, but the hooks made by their strange machines are all live, and sometimes they can swing, even appearing conventional at times. And there be lots of hooks! Opener “Pinball Wizard” could rival the Peter Gunn theme if 30 seconds of it were inserted into some new crime series. “The Jacker” is a whirring, back-to-the-start groover that eventually breaks out and escalates wildly. And “Spy vs Spy” harks back to their older material; more cerebral, full of druggy loops.

It’s quick and easy to compare the Black Dice at a glance to the No Wave camp of artists that made NYC home. And the ultimate aftermath of that: groups and individuals working with anything, taking shape and eventually regressing/progressing to either rock-out or groove. Yeah, Black Dice do that, but it’s a new century and there are new forms to mesh. -Wade