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Sunday, October 02, 2005

Punk Planet reviews

Here are some of my reviews found in Punk Planet. With each new issue there will be more reviews posted, so check back with this page.

Issue #72
Reviewer Spotlight: Red Animal War, Breaking in an Angel
I always hear stories about how people feel drawn to go out of their way to help a band out because of a certain record or show. For me, that draw came from seeing Red Animal War play live in a renovated car garage in 1999. Seeing them play a powerful blend of post-hardcore and punk so convincingly inspired me to go out of my way to help them out in any way that I could. I had a radio show where I could have bands as guests on the air so I asked them to come by a few weeks later. It was something to at least to get their name out there. Luckily, Deep Elm signed them a short while later and released Breaking In An Angel in 2001. While the band went on to make strong efforts with Ed Rose and J. Robbins, I keep coming back to their first, self-produced album. I don’t think it’s because of nostalgia – it’s because these songs are still really fuckin’ good. While there are traces of Jawbox and Hot Water Music in their sound, the important distinction is that Breaking In An Angel isn’t stereotypical emo or post-hardcore of the day. Sure, there are jumbled rhythms, half-shouted vocals and non-traditional chords, but there is a vast amount of smooth, effortless approach in the delivery. This stuff isn’t too primal for post-hardcore categorization but it definitely isn’t disposable emo cheese.

Against Me! – Searching for a Former Clarity, CD
Seems with everything Against Me! does, certain people get all up in arms and make a big stink about it. I understand music is a deeply personal thing and it’s uncomfortable when a band’s appeal broadens to an impersonal level, but I can’t stop that from happening. As much as people want to talk about what Against Me! is doing what now compared to what they were doing a few years ago, all I can do is marvel at Searching for a Former Clarity in the now, broader appeal be damned. An unapologetic, defiant, but accessible record, Searching covers a lot of lyrical and musical terrain. Lyrics about fan backlash, the war in Iraq and the insides of the music industry don’t come off as misinformed, preachy tirades. Instead, riding in a vehicle built by a strong set of tunes, AM! get their point across. Plus, they have a lot of nice touches to warrant repeated listens. From the dirty brass sounds on the marching stomp of “Miami” to the charging “Justin” to bluesy country of “How Low” all the way to the sparse, requiem-like title track, there is plenty going on here without jumping all over the place. J. Robbins’ production continues to show he is a producer that can do no wrong with the bands he works with regardless of style. Nothing sounds too polished or glossed up to the point where it’s squeaky clean nor does anything sound incredibly rough or dirty. This is definitely Against Me!’s best sounding record to date and thankfully it is nowhere near the kind of pristine/neutered sounds that is presented under the modern day pop-punk banner. I’m not going to claim Against Me! is as important as a band like the Clash, but I will say this: I’m glad a band like AM! can find a broad audience with a record like this and not just an audience oversaturated with pop bands disguised under mainstream pop-punk mechanics. (EG)
Fat Wreck Chords, P.O. Box 193690 San Francisco, CA 94199-3690, www.fatwreck.com

Pathways, The – Boat of Confidence, CD
The Pathways thankfully deliver the goods with Boat of Confidence after the release of their fantastic 7”, Productivity. There is more arty pop with a heavy emphasis on pop, but in an expanded format. The songs are longer and go places (hear the second half of “Just Like a River” for proof). Singers David Yourdon and Evan Kindley aren’t going to win over your average music fan with their rather limited vocal ranges, but they make an incredible amount out of their limits. The Pathways walk a very fine line between sounding like a smart pop band and some art school students getting together and jamming. I’m not comparing them to Pavement here, but if you miss the kind of carefree-sounding (but still serious) pop that Pavement exuded, check out the Pathways. (EG)
Recommended If You Like Records, P.O. Box 2318 Times Square Station, New York, New York, 10108, www.riylrecords.com

Issue #71
Reviewer Spotlight - Kara’s Flowers, The Fourth World
You know the four ex-members of Kara’s Flowers as 4/5s of Maroon 5 these days, but before you groan about Maroon 5’s white-boy pop-funk, give this record a chance. Released well after the post-Weezer major label signing binge, Reprise unleashed this well-polished record that evokes the tuneful pop of Weezer and Superdrag. They say overproduction kills records but in this case, Rob Cavallo’s production raises the quality of these already snappy songs. Organs and strings augment the bright guitars, drums and vocals all for the better. The band did some touring and made an eye-catching video for their first (and only) single “Soap Disco” but then they disappeared. Though Kara’s Flowers were set to record a follow-up to The Fourth World, they found themselves label-less and decided to finish college. Apparently they fell in love with funk, soul and R&B in college and thus became Maroon 5, a band that my friend Nick once perfectly described as, “a boy band with instruments.” Maroon 5’s Songs About Jane is soulless funky pop right up the alley for those that think that music is a throwaway commodity. For me, The Fourth World is a great non-commodity in the world of alterna-pop rock. Hearing the same band that went from The Fourth World into Songs About Jane reminds me of a quote by Woody Allen’s character in Annie Hall: “Everything our parents said was good is bad: sun, milk, red meat . . . college.”

Fizzle Like a Flood – Golden Sand and the Grandstand, CD
Falling somewhere between the fun pop of the Flaming Lips and the utter ridiculousness of the Danielson Famile, Fizzle Like a Flood is parts joy and parts pain. Hearing Golden Sand and the Grandstand reminds me of the first few times I heard Space (best known for “Female of the Species”), as in, goofy sounding songs that have some really memorable melodies. The production sounds incredibly thin here as there’s barely any low-end. The lack of low-end isn’t the litmus test for how good an album is (anyone heard The Clash or Four Minute Mile?) but with all the programmed drumbeats, keyboards and guitars, there’s very little in the way of density to the scope of the recording. This doesn’t help the case for seriousness but maybe that helps the fun factor. I would recommend this for people that enjoy the music of Ween and Wally Pleasant but I definitely wouldn’t compare this to the caliber of those artists. (EG)
Ernest Jenning Record Co., 68 Cheever Place #2, Brooklyn, NY 11231

Jet By Day – The Vulture, CD
For some reason, I keep hearing the ghost of Samiam’s Jason Beebout in Jet By Day’s David Matysiak’s voice on The Vulture. I say this only as a reference point because guitarist/vocalist Matysiak has a good voice and the band he fronts is really good. Jet By Day sounds atmospheric on The Vulture but they aren’t drowning in reverb. The songs go places with various changes while being straightforward at first listen. Touches of pianos and electronic programming bode well for the softer interludes as they don’t come off as cheeseball gimmicks. Jet By Day sound like a relatively darker straight-ahead rock band with some traces of poppy post-hardcore/emo more than anything else. Yes, there are some bendy guitar leads but there are plenty of good tunes overshadowing them. This kind of band is a welcome change from the soulless, fleeting junk that is peddled to “the kids” these days. (EG)
Future Farmer Recordings, PO Box 225128, San Francisco, CA 94122, www.futurefarmer.com

Issue #70

Reviewer Spotlight - Errortype:11, Amplified to Rock
Errortype:11 was only around for a few years in the late-‘90s/early-‘00s, but their second record is still a pearl. The funny thing is, I discovered this band purely by a mix-up of names: I thought they were Isotope 217. When I saw ET:11’s Crank EP in my college radio station’s “crap” box, I picked it up thinking I would hear some wild electronica. Well, I was pleasantly surprised by this rockin’ kind of hardcore. Amplified to Rock showed up at the station a few months later and I was even more impressed. The band delivered on the title track by avoiding rock and hardcore boundaries. (Yes, those are acoustic guitars, effects-laden guitar solos and gang handclaps that you’re hearing.) At only nine songs, most on-lookers could cry about sense of being short-changed. Well, when all nine songs slay, would you really want a couple extra songs that don’t? Vocalist/guitarist Arthur Shepherd’s strained voice perfectly fits in with the music: it’s not very abrasive nor is it very clear. John Agnello’s pristine sound quality gets high regards too: it’s glossier than the average hardcore record but it’s not glossy by major label standards. Amplified to Rock would be ET:11’s final album before the band essentially morphed into Instruction (who released their debut, God Doesn’t Care, in 2004). Compared to ET:11, Instruction is a cockier and angrier version of their former selves that is, unfortunately, less than desirable. Regardless, if you want to hear some great rock anthems, check out Amplified to Rock.

Pathways, The, - Productivity, 7”
Arty pop with a heavy emphasis on pop. The a-side is the jewel as it beautifully ties twinkling piano lines with jazzy-but-jangly guitar lines together. The only problem is that these three songs are short. More songs please!

Vibration White Finger – 5 Minutes to Live, CDEP
Believe it or not, but VWF is able to incorporate keyboards and horns to guitars-bass-drums set-up and not sound like a ska band or Chicago. This is some pretty grooving rock n’ roll that doesn’t wuss out in the delivery. Flamboyant vocals owe some debt to glam-era Bowie and Terry Hall’s stuff with the Specials, but this works incredibly well with their style of rock.

Issue #69

Reviewer Spotlight - Centro-matic, Redo the Stacks
Already a legend of sorts in the Dallas/Fort Worth/Denton area, Centro-matic’s debut album demands more attention outside of the area. Boasting 22 tracks with songwriter Will Johnson playing almost all of the instruments himself, this is statement in lo-fi indie rock. The songs were recorded on a variety of things (from small tape recorders to multi-track machines) in a lot of different places (from a home studio to a small bedroom). You could complain about the crusty sound quality of some songs, but just like how people praise Guided by Voices’ lo-fi material, sound quality is second to song quality. A song like “Cannot Compete” offers a very intimate feel with just a ragged voice and acoustic guitar, drowned in tape hiss. Then there are full-on barnburners like “Parade of Choosers,” “Tied to the Trailer,” “Am I the Manager or Am I Not?” and “Hoist Up the Popular Ones” that recall the wild and fuzzy days of the Flaming Lips. Everything in between these extremes is represented on this disc and it laid the blueprint for Centro-matic’s music. While the band and its side-projects have released a number of solid releases, Redo the Stacks is the one that got the ball rolling.

Capes, The – Taste, CDEP
One of my biggest complaints about bands that utilize keyboards in a rock setting is that they don’t really rock. The Capes, with keyboard in tow, are an exception. They definitely rock but they know how to write infectious, catchy pop songs too. While they could be grouped in the same genre with a lot of these 80s-post-punk-styled bands being sold at wholesale by England’s hype-driven press, the Capes aren’t clones of clones. Combining the energy of post-punk with the sunny pop like bands like Super Furry Animals and Travis, the Capes have a lot room to expand.

Millencolin – Kingwood, CD
I find it very interesting that I’m reviewing a record whose title is also the name of my old hometown. I can’t escape the place, no matter how far away I live from it. Just like anyone’s old hometown, you can’t escape pop-punk when it was the doorway to the music fan you are now. Call it yesterday’s news, but you can’t forget where you came from. With Millencolin’s latest outing, this is more of the same stuff, but it is an improvement from their earlier material. Sure, it’s still standard issue Epitaph pop-punk, but this shouldn’t be filed under the “Mall Punk Only” file. The songs blast off thanks to strong production and catchy song hooks. Maybe this will restore your faith in pop-punk.

Picastro – Metal Cares, CD
Downbeat, but not down and experimental but not so experimental that it’s unlistenable, Metal Cares is another great release from Polyvinyl. Featuring soft female vocals, gentle acoustic guitars, old pianos, moody string arrangements and minimalist drums, these combined ingredients are very interesting (in a good way). While a collection of spare, folkish tunes filled with a dark atmosphere may not make people jump out of their seats and dance, you must sit and soak this stuff in to enjoy it.

Starflyer 59 – Talking Voice vs. Singing Voice, CD
It’s another year and like so many years before, there is another new release from Starflyer 59 out on the streets. Jason Martin and company create yet another spacious record built on the foundation of echoey guitars, straightforward drumming and Martin’s breathy voice. The strings, pianos and horns give the album a classic feel in the right spots while synthesizers give certain songs a very ‘80s feel (think New Order). More immediate than previous efforts like Leave Here a Stranger and the Fashion Focus, these songs get to the point. What’s even more welcome is this time out, Martin’s voice is more prominent in the mix. Still a strong vocalist with a melodic conversational voice, you clearly hear what he’s saying. At nine tracks total, the album leaves you wanting more. Knowing Starflyer’s release schedule, you won’t have to wait very long.

Issue #68

Reviewer Spolight - Ash, Nu-Clear Sounds
The Fair Warning/Ignorance is Bliss of their career, Ash’s Nu-Clear Sounds stands apart from their other records. The band’s pop-punk-by-way-of-grunge-upbringing took on a dirty lo-fi sound for their third LP, but Nu-Clear Sounds is still very worthwhile. Rockers (“Jesus Says,” “Wild Surf,” “Projects,” “Fortune Teller”) give way to pretty ballads (“Folk Song,” “I’m Gonna Fall”) while also boasting pure raunch (“Numbskull,” “Death Trip 21”), but it works. When the record was released stateside on DreamWorks (while the label also had Elliott Smith, Creeper Lagoon and Rollins Band on its roster), Ash fans I knew didn’t like it. Nevermind the fact that the sublime “A Life Less Ordinary” is a bonus track on the US edition, people told me that this wasn’t the Ash they loved. I’m not sure if my friends gave the record any more plays but I think they should (especially since Nu-Clear’s follow-up, Free All Angels, is very similar but with a more polished gloss). Ash continues to elude the masses in the US and their records get US distribution well after their UK release dates, but they are definitely worth hunting down. Highly recommended for people annoyed by kiddie-centric pop-punk.

Hanna Hirsch – Fireworks in Daylight, 7”
This five-piece from Sweden says they listen to a lot of Blondie and Discharge. Upon listening to this 7”, put Blondie way ahead of Discharge. With Dan Panic-styled drumming, head-bopping rhythms and tasty melodies, these two songs kick major ass. They remind me of why I got into pop-punk in the first place: hummable tunes rooted in Top 40 hooks played at a faster-than-average speed. Singer Siri has a very accessible voice that is not abrasive or wimpy. Coupled with the tuneful guitar melodies, probably the nicest addition is the presence of keyboard. Using a subtle Hammond organ line as a background melody really works in the songs’ favor. With all the distilled pop-punk we’ve been drowning in the last few years, early-‘90s-Lookout! pop-punk hasn’t sounded this welcome in a long time.

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