Friday, October 19, 2007

Punk Planet Reviewer Spotlights Part 1

(Note: A regular feature for Punk Planet reviewers was a Reviewer Spotlight. The record had to be at least five years old, could be on a major label or indie, and could only be spotlighted once. With Punk Planet shutting its doors earlier this year, I figured I should preserve some more of my contributions by reposting clips on this blog. Enjoy!)

from Punk Planet #68
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.

from Punk Planet #69
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.

from Punk Planet #70
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.

from Punk Planet #71
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.”

from Punk Planet #72
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.

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