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Tag: alternative rock

Show Review: Local H [Metro; Chicago; 4/15/16]

Local H is a Chicago rock and roll institution. They’ve been making music steadily for more than two decades now, with eight full lengths and a handful of EPs under the name. And that’s not even counting side projects. It’s the sort of work ethic many would call authentically Midwestern, built on the back of strength and perseverance. I call it aspirational. Most bands would kill to have well-respected careers that last half as long. It seems only right that Local H be celebrated for all of their accomplishments so far, with a continued eye on where they’re headed next.

While 2015 marked the band’s 25th anniversary of existence, 2016 marks yet another important milestone – the 20th anniversary of their big breakout record As Good As Dead. You know, the one with classics like “Bound For The Floor,” “High-Fiving MF” and “Eddie Vedder“. It’s remarkable how vital that album continues to sound today, to the point where it fits in nicely with other grunge-era notables like Nirvana, Pearl Jam and Stone Temple Pilots. What’s so impressive (and unique) about Local H is how Scott Lucas and Joe Daniels were able to capture all the noise, fury and hooks of their peers with just a single electric guitar and a set of drums. The ability to do more with less has been a trademark of this band since the beginning, and it continues to this very day.
In honor of As Good As Dead turning 20, Local H have turned the tables a little and decided more is more for once by embarking on a three month U.S. tour where they’ll play that classic album along with other catalog-spanning cuts. Things officially kicked off this past weekend, with a pair of sold out shows at Chicago’s legendary Metro surrounding the record’s actual release date of April 16th. I was lucky enough to attend Friday’s show (Night 1), which wound up being the perfect showcase for why this band is so special.

Album Review: …And You Will Know Us By the Trail of Dead – Lost Songs [Richter Scale/Superball]

Don’t let anyone ever tell you that …And You Will Know Us By the Trail of Dead aren’t an ambitious band. They are beyond ambitious, and often to a fault. Ten years ago, they were unfortunate enough to be cursed with an almighty 10.0 on Pitchfork’s richter scale, and they’ve always seemed like a band still trying to recover from that madness. Being told you’ve crafted a perfect work of musical art is enough to make any artist lose his or her mind, because that little voice inside your head essentially teases you with the idea that maybe you can maintain the impossibly high standard you’ve established for yourself. The reality is, you’ve got to keep pressing on like it never happened, and hope that the lightning in a bottle once again shows up at your doorstep. Unfortunately for Trail of Dead, they felt like the next logical step was to take their sound bigger and more robust than ever before. It led to two gluttonous major label efforts, Worlds Apart and So Divided, that left long-time fans feeling like they were standing on the wrong side of the gulf those two titles implied. Those were the days of such sharp backlash and disappointment it sent the band soaring downward in a shame spiral one might never expect them to recover from. After a bunch of in-fighting and stripping down the lineup to just the four core members, 2011’s Tao of the Dead was the start of a real recovery for the boys. They continued to defy expectations with that record, creating a conceptual premise built on two seamless parts that were recorded only in the keys of D and F. In spite of how gimmicky it looked on paper, the record’s pure rock drive and generally shorter songs were a blessing in disguise showing how far they’d climbed back up from a low point just a few years earlier.

Now about a year and a half later comes Lost Songs, a straightforward, pure Trail of Dead rock record the likes of which they haven’t done in 10 years. The high-minded concepts are gone, as is pretty much any song that clocks in at over five minutes in length. If you go strictly by the standard edition of this album, it’s the band’s shortest since their 1998 self-titled debut. Even the cover art, unlike the intense and complicated pieces created by frontman Conrad Keely in the past, is black and white simplicity showing four silhouettes standing in the middle of a desolate town. This is about as basic as the band can get both musically and stylistically, which is why they’re practically hardcore punk once you clear all the debris away. The energy and intensity hits you immediately with “Open Doors,” then refuses to let up or give you a true breather until “Awestruck” arrives 10 tracks in. This heavy punch to the gut almost starts to wear thin after about 30 minutes, but Trail of Dead’s ingenuity and ability to showcase the quiet instrumental builds to explosive finales serves them particularly well here, leaving you satisfied even as you know what curveball is waiting around the corner. Songs like “Up to Infinity” and “Pinhole Cameras” are invigorating in exactly the ways they need to be early on. It’s also extremely pleasing to hear Jason Reece get behind the microphone again a few times on this album, as he’s been largely stuck behind the drum kit the last couple records. He’s a larger than life sort of guy, throwing himself fully into whatever he does. It’s the main reason why the percussion is so strong on this record, and why the songs featuring Reece’s vocals are some of the album’s biggest standouts. “Catatonic” in particular feels like a special moment for him, to the point where you can almost hear a stage dive built into it.

But Trail of Dead want Lost Songs to be about more than just a forceful collection of rock songs. They have every intention of using their power as musicians to consistently challenge both themselves and their audience, which is why much of the new album revolves around world politics. This isn’t the same sort of politics that the new Local H record is about, though. On a much closer level they’re trying to take up the mantle left behind by a band like Rage Against the Machine. The goal seems to be less of a commentary on our leaders and more of an effort to cure social injustices. The band dedicated their single “Up to Infinity” to Pussy Riot, even though the song was written about the Syrian Civil War. On “Pinhole Cameras” they empathize with those that appear to be “starving, living in this land of plenty.” In other parts of the record they spit venom at despots and try to slap people out of comas of ignorance to serious world issues. Heroic though these efforts might be, and as much as it fills a void in the current music climate, it’s unlikely to truly spark a revolution. You’ve got to give them credit for trying though, and if that’s what fueled the post-hardcore aesthetic of this album, so much the better. Trail of Dead have reclaimed the spark they lost many years ago. In the best sense, that makes this record full of found songs, for they are lost no more.

…And You Will Know Us By The Trail Of Dead – Catatonic

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Album Review: Local H – Hallelujah! I’m a Bum! [Slimstyle]

Scott Lucas is something of a film buff. In 2004, he titled Local H’s fifth studio album Whatever Happened to P.J. Soles?, which referenced the actress known for her roles in films like Carrie, Halloween, Rock and Roll High School and Stripes. His 2010 record with his “solo” project Scott Lucas and the Married Men was called George Lassos the Moon, a call back to It’s a Wonderful Life. Local H has been playing shows in Chicago on New Year’s Eve for over a decade now, and they always have themes to them with movie connotations. 2001 was their tribute to Stanley Kubrick, for example. Here are the intro videos the band showed before their themed NYE sets in 2010 and 2011, the former which pulls from 1930s musicals and the latter which is a mixture of a Rush concert film and Terence Malick’s The Tree of Life. So yes, it should come as little surprise that Local H named their new long player Hallelujah! I’m a Bum!, inspired by the 1933 Al Jolson musical of the same name. The plot of that film essentially glamorizes and satirizes the hobo lifestyle during the Great Depression. Considering the current state of our economy and that we’ve got a big election coming up, these are the topics that Lucas and drummer Brian St. Clair have chosen to focus on for this record. Like almost every Local H album, the unifying theme makes it a concept record, complete with seamless song transitions and reprises of melodies and lyrics at various points throughout. Listening to the whole 60+ minute, 17 track affair from start to finish in one sitting is pretty important to grasp all that’s being done, however there are a handful of songs worth focusing on if you don’t have the time or fortitude to take on the whole enchilada each and every time.

The first half of Hallelujah! I’m a Bum! is largely focused on how we’ve been trained and indoctrinated to believe lies perpetuated by authority figures, designed to keep us calm, complacent and to hold us back from achieving our full potential. “Cold Manor” is about how our education system lets us down in that regard, feeding us with the wrong information when we’re kids so we don’t ever know better. “They Saved Reagan’s Brain” is an indictment of the GOP and Wall Street greed, attacking the idea of trickle down economics and using the aforementioned President’s own words against him in sound clips from his 1983 Evil Empire speech. The focus shifts to Chicago for “Blue Line” and “Another February,” both songs about trying to survive the city’s harsh winters when you don’t have a warm bed to sleep in or a car that will start. The former track actually uses both El train sounds and a clip of a homeless person riding the rails, explaining he does it to avoid freezing to death at night. There is a clear divide in this album via “Cold and Mannered,” which reprises “Cold Manor” in a slower, more resigned lo-fi fashion. The band originally said they were going to make this a double album, and while press releases along with the extensive track listing certainly promote that idea, if you buy it on CD you’re still getting one disc or if you buy the mp3s in bulk it won’t cost you more than any other single album. Call it Local H taking the politics of this to the next level by keeping costs down in a tough economy.

When the second half of Hallelujah! I’m a Bum! kicks off with the 75 second guitar-and-horns stomp of “Trash Fire Bummers,” things feel a little different. Okay, so the introduction of horns is something new for the band and make for a nice touch, but there’s also a shift in perspective that permeates the rest of the album. Now that we’ve learned how the government, politicians and the economy have led us astray in our formative years, it’s time to examine the further damage we’re unknowingly causing ourselves and others in the present because nobody told us otherwise. “Get it out of neutral/ Make yourself useful,” Lucas demands amid frenzied guitars and staccato horns on “Here Come Ol’ Laptop.” He’s trying to slap people out of their fevered delusions and back to reality. “Ruling Kind” gives a rather fair and calm assessment of how we need to get rid of politicians that don’t have our best interests at heart. But then the Republican party gets hit with more barbs on “Limit Your Change” and “Paddy Considine.” The first predominantly features sound bites from people like Mitt Romney and Sarah Palin with their famous quotes like, “I like being able to fire people” and “How’s that hopey-changey stuff workin’ out for ya?” All of it is intended to expose their supposed hypocrisy, that in a quest to destroy President Obama they’re actually harming our country too. Following that is an indictment of the conspiracy theorist middle-aged white man, both believing and spreading misinformation about how the President is a “secret Muslim” or that only people of color are allowed to have a say in government.

If these sorts of topics sound a bit depressing and unpleasant to deal with, remember that the last Local H record 12 Angry Months was a very personal look at the crippling issues dealt with in the year following the end of a long-term relationship. Lucas and St. Clair also aren’t Japandroids, the similarly loud duo working hard to make rock and roll a celebration. The slog through this dark take on American living in 2012 is intended to get people angry about our failings and equally inspired to fight for actual change in our system. In other words, this is Local H’s pseudo take on Rage Against the Machine, and perhaps surprisingly, they wear that hat well. After looking inwards for so many records, it’s refreshing to hear them make music that truly speaks to millions of disenfranchised Americans. They become the voice of the middle class, deeply unsatisfied with both political parties (it’s worth noting there are a few criticisms aimed at President Obama on this album too) and frightened at the idea that we’ve been lost as a nation for so long we might never find our way back. Hallelujah! I’m a Bum! is an essential record to listen to as we prepare to vote this November, but its intentions and aspirations expand beyond that expiration date. Whether we hit another recession or not, America will likely remain in turmoil for many years to come. It’ll be good to have this around to remind us why and help vent some of that anger. Or you could completely ignore the lyrics and bang your head to some heavy garage rock for an hour. Sometimes ignorance is bliss.

Click here to watch the video for “Cold Manor”
Click here to watch a video of “Night Flight to Paris” being performed live in the studio

Buy Hallelujah! I’m a Bum! from Amazon

Show Review: Silversun Pickups + School of Seven Bells + Atlas Genius [Aragon Ballroom; Chicago; 9/21/12]

Friday, September 21st was officially the last day of summer 2012. You wouldn’t know it had you gone outside in Chicago though, as temperatures were in the 50s for most of the day and the skies were gray and rainy. Sometimes you just want one more warm and sunny day though, before it’s too late. In spite of the weather, life goes on and good things continue to happen in other aspects of our lives. A show where the bill is Atlas Genius, School of Seven Bells and Silversun Pickups sounds pretty dynamite, right? Well, that tour made its way to Chicago on Friday night, stopping at the Aragon Ballroom for some end of summer fun. Here’s a quick look at how things went.

Have you heard of Atlas Genius yet? If not, now’s probably the time to start paying attention to them. Their debut EP Through the Glass has already yielded a budding hit with the song “Trojans,” and a debut album is in the works for early 2013. As a band on the rise, of course they have to pay their dues, though fortunately for them that means playing at the Aragon to a couple thousand people rather than at a small club with only a couple hundred. The peril of being on a big tour though is always that you go on first, and with this being an all ages show, that meant hitting the stage at about 7pm. The average start time for a concert in Chicago is probably about 9pm, and even then a venue typically isn’t full until an hour or two later. So the Aragon was close to half full when Atlas Genius started their set, which for all practical purposes was pretty decent. They started with “Back Seat” off their EP and powered through a few new songs before very naturally ending with “Trojans.” They were arguably the most energetic and entertaining band of the entire night, playing with the sort of carefree joy that young and hungry artists have if they’re doing it right. Sometimes you will show up early and encounter a band that’s not quite ready for primetime but still has a little spark that suggests great potential for the future. In the relatively short time they’ve been around, Atlas Genius have exceeded reasonable expectations. They worked the crowd at the Aragon with charm and enthusiasm, and they responded in kind. It’s just a shame there weren’t more people around to witness it.

Atlas Genius – Trojans

Buy the Through the Glass EP

One of the more fascinating dichotomies of this particular show was that while Atlas Genius has only one EP and a budding radio hit, School of Seven Bells have three full length albums and zero radio hits. In this increasingly digital and mp3 world, you’d think such stats wouldn’t mean much, but it turns out more young people are listening to terrestrial radio than you might think. There were large portions of the crowd that had at least heard of Atlas Genius but didn’t know School of Seven Bells. It created that much more of a challenge for SVIIB to win people over. The enthusiasm didn’t quite carry over into their set, and it didn’t help that they started a little shaky. “Windstorm” is actually a single of theirs and certainly isn’t one of their weaker tracks, but it trod a midtempo ground that left the audience at attention but not exactly inspired. That frontwoman Alejandra Deheza and guitarist Benjamin Curtis stayed pretty glued to one spot for the entire set certainly didn’t give you much to look at on stage either. I’ve seen SVIIB a couple times in the last few years, always at venues about a third the size of the Aragon, and those shows were far more visceral and inspired than what they were dishing out this particular Friday night. Perhaps it was the set list or the absence of Alejandra’s sister Claudia, or even the sheer size and poor sound of the venue that caused things to be off. Maybe they just needed some time to warm up, too. After the first few songs, things started to click in place by the time “Lafaye” hit. Their final few songs were more beat-heavy and pulsated with an intense energy that started to get a lot of heads bobbing in the crowd. They finished with the song “Half Asleep,” their only nod to their excellent debut album Alpinisms, and there was a certain irony to the title. After spending much of the set with a positively lethargic audience, they were finally able to bring many out of that comatose state and into semi-consciousness. So they had that going for them, which was nice.

School of Seven Bells – The Night
School of Seven Bells – Lafaye

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When it comes to headliner status, the conditions are almost always just right. That is, the place is fully packed and there’s one act you know everybody is there to see. In this case it was Silversun Pickups, who like School of Seven Bells have three records to their name, but unlike School of Seven Bells have a handful of radio hits to back them up. If you haven’t heard songs like “Lazy Eye” or “Panic Switch” on your local radio station, then perhaps you heard them in a TV commercial or on a movie soundtrack, because they’ve kind of been everywhere. Back when they were first starting out, people compared them to the ’90s version of The Smashing Pumpkins, reasoning that if Billy Corgan hadn’t strayed from that path he was on to go more psychedelic it’s what the Pumpkins would sound like today. Considering how successful Silversun Pickups have been thus far, such a reference feels pretty apt. The size of the crowd on Friday night seemed to be a testament to that success too, because if the show wasn’t sold out it sure looked like a sell out. Frontman Brian Aubert marveled at how many people came out, particularly because the last time they played the Aragon it was only about 75% filled. That sort of humility and overall kindness towards the crowd actually went a long way as a counterbalance to the ferocity of their songs. With bassist Nikki Monninger sidelined for the moment while she’s pregnant with twins, Sarah Negahdari from The Happy Hollows filled in for what was her very first time in Chicago. That seemed strange to me because I thought The Happy Hollows have toured nationally at least a couple times in recent years, but whatever, she seemed genuinely excited to be there and the crowd made her feel more than welcome. After starting with the opening track “Skin Graph” off their new record Neck of the Woods, the band peppered much of their set with the hits people clearly wanted to hear. “The Royal We,” “Little Lover’s So Polite” and their latest single “Bloody Mary (Nerve Endings)” all showed up early on, quickly driving the crowd into a frenzy. Aubert moved around the stage with his guitar whenever he wasn’t locked behind a microphone, which also lent the show some extra energy that a rather pretty array of rainbow colored lighting couldn’t otherwise do. Overall it was about what you’d expect from a Silversun Pickups live show, and that’s not a bad thing. Better to meet expectations rather than fall short of them. The band has definitely improved with time, and Aubert has grown as a performer and ringleader too. Of course there’s always room for improvement, but for where they are in their careers right now they’re doing just fine on stage. Nobody walked out of the Aragon at the end of the night disappointed. Even the rain had the good sense to go away.

Silversun Pickups – Bloody Mary (Nerve Endings)

Buy Neck of the Woods from Amazon

Album Review: Bloc Party – Four [Frenchkiss]

It’s been four years since Bloc Party released their last album Intimacy, and a couple things have happened since then. Frontman Kele Okereke took the more electronica leanings of Intimacy and explored them fully on his own with his 2010 solo album The Boxer. The response from critics and the general public was largely mixed, but in spite of that there were suggestions Bloc Party might not return or would return but with a different singer. Okereke recounted in an interview how he observed all the other guys in the band entering a rehearsal space without him, getting him worried they might be continuing on without him. That was quickly followed by a comment from guitarist Russell Lissack saying they wanted to make new music and decided to have a few jam sessions without the very busy Okereke to try and figure out where they wanted to go next. Hours after it was reported that the future of Bloc Party might be in jeopardy, a post appeared on the band’s website denying that any lineup changes were happening. Now nearly a year later, they’re back with everyone intact and a new full length, Four. If you think they’re going to pick right back up where they left off though, you don’t know Bloc Party.

By calling their album Four, Bloc Party are reminding us of a few things. First and foremost, there are four members of the band. Secondly, it’s been four years since their last album. And thirdly, this is their fourth album of original material. There’s probably a fourth point, just to keep the whole number theme going, but exactly what that is could be considered open for debate. More important than any number games though are the songs themselves. The electronica leanings of Intimacy? They’re almost completely gone. In some respects, so are the dance rock leanings of their first two records Silent Alarm and A Weekend in the City. They’ve been there and done that, more often than not with mixed results. Dance rock mostly died off years ago, and the electronica scene is dominated by dubstep, which isn’t such a good idea for a full band to try (see: new Muse). So for a band that’s made their name on those sounds, what’s the next step on the evolutionary chain? Take what you’ve got and use it to the fullest. Say hello to Bloc Party: alternative rock band.

Four opens with an element that a lot of bands try when they’re trying to sound raw and underproduced – they insert some “sounds of the studio.” In this particular case a comparison can be drawn to the beginning of Radiohead’s Hail to the Thief, where you’re greeted with the sound of a guitar being plugged into an amp. That was to signify their move away from the electronic-based textures of Kid A and Amnesiac and their return to more guitar-based rock. Bloc Party are making a similar move, which is why you hear some guitar scrapes amid a snippet of dialogue before the band launches into “So He Begins to Lie.” The effect is not nearly the same however, especially since Bloc Party are coming off a streak of increasingly mediocre records. While you’d expect their return to rock music to perhaps reinvigorate their creativity like it did early in their careers, they trip and fall right out of the gate. “So He Begins to Lie” has some angularly heavy guitars that wind up sounding like a mixture of 311 and early Muse. There’s nothing particularly inspiring about it, as it’s missing a brisker pace and a hook that genuinely grabs your attention. First tracks are designed to suck the listener in and make them want more, but this comes off sounding like a Silent Alarm b-side.

When Four truly begins is with “3×3,” a very meaty and metal-inspired track that races with fury matched by a heroic vocal performance from Okereke. The bridge, with a whispered “no means no” building to a cathartic scream of “Yes!” makes for one of the album’s early highlights. Okereke also does great work on “Kettling,” his voice cutting like a hot knife through the dirge of what feels like a cross between The Smashing Pumpkins and Stone Temple Pilots. But his singing aside, much of the record actually does seem like a collection of influences from the ’90s and early ’00s. The acoustic guitar first half of “Coliseum” is an almost blatant rip-off of one-hit wonders Days of the New, with the nightmareish punk-metal second half might best be classified as Arctic Monkeys with a Metallica twist. Soundgarden are channeled on the album closing “We Are Not Good People,” in what might be the most intense and loud songs Bloc Party have ever made. That doesn’t make it good however, because what Four really suffers from is an identity crisis.

Mixed between all the heavy stuff are softer songs and the lighter dance numbers that bear the familiar markings of the earliest and best Bloc Party material. Four‘s first single is “Octopus,” a track that seems designed in every way to convince you that the band you know and love is back. The jittery guitar riff that’s the basis of the song feels eerily reminiscent of Portishead’s “Machine Gun,” and while it’s ripe for remixing, it doesn’t quite have a high enough BPM rate to make it dance-worthy on its own. The chorus isn’t as instantly memorable as some of the band’s greatest hits either, likely leading to its inability to gain the massive sort of popularity the band wants and needs right now. By contrast, “Team A” does have the energy and instrumental groundwork to succeed, but it sorely lacks transitions and an actual chorus. Where the band fares best are in the moments when they don’t come off like they’re trying too hard. “Day Four” may fall somewhere in between The Temper Trap and Minus the Bear with its stylistic references, but it’s a genuinely beautiful and heartfelt moment that recalls a Bloc Party classic like “Blue Light” and nearly lives up to its high bar. Fans of “This Modern Love” can probably find plenty to love about “Truth,” which is one of the few moments where it seems like the band is being honest with us about who they are. If only the record’s other ballads “Real Talk” and “The Healing” were as creative and interesting.

The one trump card that Bloc Party unleash on Four is “V.A.L.I.S.” It might not be a barn burner equivalent to say “Banquet” or “Helicopter,” but it’s an intelligently crafted, catchy song with a healthy bounce to it. That foundation is really the basis for what made Bloc Party such a well-respected band in the first place. The off-kilter guitar work of Russell Lissack and driving drum hits of Matt Tong are at the heart of what makes the band great, and not using either to the best of their abilities as on Intimacy causes the overall results to suffer. For this album, Lissack is relegated to loud and heavy riffs instead of punchy hand-picked creativity, while Tong exercises brute force trying mostly to keep up with everything going on around him. The record’s unsettled variety pack of styles doesn’t do them many favors either. In other words, Bloc Party sound lost. Perhaps they made the conscious decision to throw a bunch of things at a wall to see what would stick. While it is nice to hear them taking some real risks, it’d be even better if they would jump in with both feet instead of dipping a toe in the water. Hopefully their next one will do exactly that, even if it is unlike anything we’ve heard them try before.

Buy Four from Amazon

Album Review: The Smashing Pumpkins – Oceania [EMI/Caroline/Martha’s]

Plenty has been said about Billy Corgan. Too much, probably. The man has been and continues to be a polarizing figure in rock music, and when he’s not being judged for antics on stage or on records, he’s running his mouth and provoking critics or other bands. He also has the phrase “difficult to work with” tacked onto his resume, something he’s not apologetic about so long as his personal vision gets fulfilled. It’s why the original Smashing Pumpkins fell apart, and every project he’s done since then has failed to gain as much traction. Even when he reclaimed the Pumpkins moniker several years ago and unleashed the relatively forgettable Zeitgeist in 2007, the new people he was working with all eventually abandoned ship. That includes drummer Jimmy Chamberlain, the only original Smashing Pumpkins member left besides Corgan. You could almost audibly hear eyes rolling when the search for Chamberlain’s replacement became an online contest that ended with fresh-faced 19-year-old Mike Byrne earning a place alongside bassist Nicole Fiorentino and guitarist Jeff Schroeder as Corgan’s “hired hands.” These people are faceless entities compared to James Iha, D’Arcy Wretzky and Chamberlain. It’d be wrong to say they’re not good musicians though, and the last couple years of touring with this lineup has gone remarkably well for the Pumpkins Version 2.0.

Never one to sideline his ambitions, in 2009 Corgan announced the Smashing Pumpkins were embarking on a project he dubbed Teargarden By Kaleidyscope. The plan was to release the 44 tracks comprising this gigantic album in multiple pieces parsed out over time, all of it available for free download. The first two volumes, four tracks apiece, were released in 2010. A third volume was started, but has yet to be completed. Apparently the whole concept is undergoing a little bit of a makeover, as releasing music on a song-by-song basis wasn’t quite as successful as the band hoped it would be. Part of that makeover is the new album Oceania, marking a return to the full length format while still feeding into the conceptual Teargarden… whole. Maybe it’s the personnel shifts, maybe it’s the fact that they took the time to road test most of these new songs, or maybe it’s something else entirely, but these 13 songs are surprising because of the way they bring new life and a level of intelligence back to the Smashing Pumpkins name. For the first time in a long time, Corgan and friends have stumbled upon rock’s sweet spot.

Perhaps the biggest reason why Oceania is such a successful Smashing Pumpkins record is because of lowered expectations. On Zeitgeist, Corgan was creating the first Pumpkins record since 2000’s Machina II: The Friends and Enemies of Modern Music. His attempts to restart his career via Zwan and a solo record both fell flat, and reclaiming his old band name was a somewhat desperate attempt to remain relevant and prove his talents to a now jaded group of fans. It didn’t help matters that Zeitgeist was an overblown affair of psychedelic proportions as songs went longer and featured more solos than ever. Call it a case of trying too hard. After that point it became easy to write off the band as an act built for a certain time and place, both of which had long since passed by. Plenty of the die-hards stuck with them, and all the touring the last few years certainly didn’t leave many or any tickets left to sell at the door. Yet such devotion seems to have paid off, as time has allowed wounds to heal, people to forget and Corgan to get his memory back. The drive, wisdom and talent it took to craft amazing records like Gish, Siamese Dream and Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness have largely been reinstated, and the entire band plays like they’re out to prove their worth and worthiness. Only Byrne doesn’t fully succeed, simply because Chamberlain was such a powerhouse of percussion he’s irreplaceable.

Things start off strong with the acid rock riffage of “Quasar,” which bears an almost eerie resemblance to the guitar work on “Cherub Rock.” The religious affirmations he makes in the lyrics, “God right on!/Krishna right on!,” are very “Siva”-like in nature too. Such calls back to classic Pumpkins material are enough to at least inspire a little hope that maybe the band has found their mojo again. “Panopticon” holds that idea steadfast, surging ahead with confidence and intricacy before soaring into a massive chorus. “There’s a sun that shines in me,” Corgan sings at the end of the song, and for once you can almost hear him smile as he sings it. The acoustic guitars and sawing violins of “The Celestials” bring in some nice balladry reminiscent of “Disarm,” but as with almost every Corgan record, there’s a questionable lyric or two. “I’m gonna love you 101 percent,” is not one of his better moments.

What really makes Oceania tick are the transitions it goes through while you listen. It’s impeccably structured with some tracks bleeding into one another, and logical sonic progressions that never seem too far out of left field. The movement from the lighter pop-rock of “My Love Is Winter” into the synth-heavy pop of “One Diamond, One Heart” feels almost organic – their connective tissue bound by the same lyrical topic and a keyboard. Where such sonic glue is most prevalent is within the three tracks at the center of the record. The steady and beautiful “Pinwheels” flits around in its intro with some twinkling synths and cello, devolves into introspective acoustic folk then incorporates some gorgeous female backing harmonies. It feels like an appropriate slice of bread before the sandwich meat reaches your tastebuds in the form of the nine minute epic title track. Instead of simply descending into swirling psychedelic rock that was largely explored on Zeitgeist, the song instead sustains itself by continuously shifting sounds every couple minutes to keep the listener engaged. The final two minutes or so do get a little gratuitous with the guitar solos, but by that point they’re pretty much earned. The final piece of this mid-album trilogy is “Pale Horse,” a sad, pleading piano ballad that plays like a mellow version of “Thru the Eyes of Ruby.” It’s not Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness that best ties into these three songs though, it’s Adore. They might not have the electro-pop vibe of that record, but they do have the darkness and self-loathing in both lyrics and melody.

The crunchy heavy metal guitars on “The Chimera” suddenly whip Corgan and the rest of the Pumpkins out of their funk like somebody waking up from a nightmare or a bad drug trip. It’s an invigorating kick in the teeth worthy of future single status, as Corgan comes to the realization that, “All you need is you, lover/so please need me too.” Ignoring the romantic implications of the song and those lines, you could well interpret this as his desire to have the love and support of a larger and more avid fan base once again. While he’s maintained in interviews that such things aren’t important to him and all he wants to do is maintain his artistic integrity, the reach backwards and near copying of material from classic Smashing Pumpkins records on Oceania appears to suggest otherwise. Either that, or he’s just out of fresh ideas. Whatever the cause or reason may really be, there’s still something inherently exciting about having such a great ’90s band rediscover what made them great and prove there’s still plenty of life left in them. Then again when you’ve got a lineup of all new members, it’s not so much a rediscovery as it is just a discovery. If they can keep this going, we could well be looking at a new era of Smashing Pumpkins excellence. Let’s just hope Corgan remembers the many lessons he learned the first time around.

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Snapshot Review: Japandroids – Celebration Rock [Polyvinyl]

Japandroids are a band with an expiration date. The Vancouver duo crafted their last album Post-Nothing with the thought they’d be breaking up soon thereafter, having not found success in the relatively unsupportive music scene of their hometown. That record was in essence a mission statement from two guys that had nothing left to lose and wanted to go out in a blaze of glory. Well, it seems that glory found them, because their song “Young Hearts Spark Fire” did as its title described and ignited the passions of rock fans across the globe. The entire album actually did wonders for the band, and two years of touring with large crowds suddenly made returning to a much more normal, non-music life a far less appealing option. As much as they dislike recording, it remains an essential part of any artist’s shelf life to keep generating new material. So with the exact same collection of people, instruments and rules they had on their last album, Japandroids set out to see if lightning could strike twice. Celebration Rock is the result. While the artwork, 8 song track list and running time might well have been photocopied from Post-Nothing, the songs themselves represent a very important progression for the band. First and foremost, the very internal and personal nature of the songs has been excised to focus on bigger emotions and an outward projection. The tortured thoughts of two guys on the verge of imploding their band have been replaced by songs about other people, possibly you, that want to live and party and lust and take revenge – sometimes all at the same time. The music plays along with that vibe too; there’s a distinct hunger and energy present in Brian King’s guitar riffs and Dave Prowse’s drumming that’s designed for bigger and better things. Whereas before they were making music for themselves, now they’re making it for their fans. Opening track “The Nights of Wine and Roses” sets the tone perfectly for the rest of the record, saying we’re all drinking and smoking and spending time with friends while waiting for the big and important moments in our lives to finally arrive. The lesson learned in the end is that those big and important moments are the ones where you’re waiting. The supercharged kick in the teeth that starts the album holds up in all its headbanging, devil horns and mosh pit glory through “Fire’s Highway”, “Evil’s Sway” and an effervescent cover of Gun Club’s “For the Love of Ivy”. They truly epitomize what the album’s title is all about. At the halfway point however, a shift takes place that changes the dynamic of the record. Rather than racing for the finish line in blistering fashion, they temper the energy only slightly and go for more of an emotional and nostalgic approach. “Adrenaline Nightshift” evokes some of the best moments The Replacements ever had sonically while tapping into abstract imagery like “a blitzkrieg love and a Roman candle kiss” and espousing that “there’s no high like this.” A similar mentality is tackled in “Younger Us”, reflecting back on youthful indiscretions with a bunch of “remember when”‘s and “thinking that this feeling was never gonna end.” But those two tracks really wind up as stepping stones for “The House That Heaven Built”, a crossroads at which the band’s intense instrumentals and recent lyrical prowess collide at their peaks. As the song chugs along with sheer purpose, King sings like he’s just achieved a newfound clarity and confidence in his life and wants to pass such wisdom onto us. “If they try to slow you down/tell ’em all to go to hell,” he professes like a man that has broken through all of his boundaries and is utterly ecstatic at the possibilities that lie before him. If that doesn’t suck you in, the hook most assuredly will. Celebration Rock ends on a ballad, or at least something that turns the speed and noise down from 11 to maybe a 9.5. “Continuous Thunder” is about the electricity between two people and the question of whether they can salvage their tenuous relationship. It might not be the happiest song on the record, but it does strive to keep the same sense of boldness and conviction as everything else. As the guitars finally drift off gently into that good night, the album’s final seconds are the same as its first: the sound of fireworks. We use those pyrotechnics only in the most joyous and exclamatory circumstances, such as weddings or after a home run in baseball. On Celebration Rock, Japandroids knock one out of the park.

Japandroids – The House That Heaven Built

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Album Review: Silversun Pickups – Neck of the Woods [Dangerbird]

The alternative rock genre is in a painful state these days. Radio stations around the globe that play the genre are dying or already dead, even as bands like Linkin Park and AFI press onwards like there’s nothing wrong. So long as they’re still doing well and playing to huge crowds, they don’t see any problem. That, or they’re aching to grab whatever semblance of popularity they have left. When persons of a certain age get tired of the angst-ridden, guitar-heavy rock, there’s always another generation of pubescent teenagers to take their place. Your teens are a very emotional time, and sometimes you need that angry, scream-riddled music to connect and help you through. And some people never get past that phase. Not to generalize, but the construction worker population of America seems to really like rock music, possibly because it’s the only thing that can cut above the noise of power drills and buzzsaws. Others still prefer it to hear songs from the genre’s heyday, as 90’s songs from Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Bush, Deftones and Korn all continue to get the bulk of airplay on the remaining radio stations committed to the format. The good news is that not all is lost, and a number of more independently-minded rock bands have been working hard to keep people listening. The rise of The Black Keys, Cage the Elephant and Silversun Pickups have all breathed new life into old sounds, while Mumford & Sons, Foster the People and Death Cab for Cutie have created more sonic diversity. While these groups may be sharply lacking in truly experimental sounds, they’re proving that like some mainstream pop artists, you don’t need to sacrifice tried and true elements to make good music.

Silversun Pickups have had a remarkably easy time reaching mainstream popularity. Their 2005 EP Pikul was quickly adopted by a number of music blogs and independently-minded radio stations, where comparisons to the Smashing Pumpkins were evident from the get-go. Brian Aubert’s singing voice is strikingly androgynous, though it has a nasal quality reminiscent of Billy Corgan. The swirling, heavy guitars and power chords bring to mind mid-90’s records like Siamese Dream or Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness. The band has confessed that the Pumpkins are an inspiration, though their second full-length record Swoon attempted to break free from that familiar mold just a little bit. Mostly that meant incorporating a more pristine production structure complete with a string section, and extending the lengths of most of their songs to somewhere near the five minute mark. What it lacked was real conviction, and genuine movement or shifts in tempo to justify the song lengths. The band was smart in choosing singles for that record though, as both “Panic Switch” and “Substitution” were probably the best two tracks on the entire record.

For their new one Neck of the Woods, Silversun Pickups pretty much pick up exactly where they left off. Clocking in at almost 60 minutes, over half of the album’s 11 tracks make it to at least five minutes and two more cross the six minute mark. They can’t get a single idea across in under 4.5 minutes. If your material is good and interesting enough to sustain those sorts of lengths though, it’s not a problem. For this record they brought famed producer Jacknife Lee (U2, R.E.M., Bloc Party) on board, and it appears he holds the key to making Silversun Pickups a better band. A very cursory and inattentive listen to the album might not reveal its unique charms or make the changes from the band’s first two long players evident. Indeed, they still pummel you with a wall of sound, and Aubert’s voice isn’t about to lose its Billy Corgan-ness. However the closer you examine these songs the more you notice the creative and interesting choices made when putting them together. The band has tried out plenty of shoegaze sounds before, but they’ve never come so close to the excellence of My Bloody Valentine as they do on first single “Bloody Mary (Nerve Endings)”. Opening number “Skin Graph” has a very familiar flair to it as well, yet does an excellent job managing tempo changes, electronic experimentation, and a memorable hook. Even a very cut-and-dry track like “Mean Spirited” fares better than you might expect because it foregoes a hard-edged and clinical approach in favor of something warmer and more organic. Credit to Lee for softening the production and taking off the excess of polish that was all over Swoon. The band sounds much better when they’re bathed in a choppy fog.

Aubert’s vocals gain a different perspective on Neck of the Woods as well. The past couple Silversun Pickups records he was always at the very top of the mix and leading the way without hesitation. On this album his voice slides where it’s needed and gives other instruments center stage at times. He’s also apparently taken some notes to heart and succeded in taking a bit of the androgyny out of his vocals. The deeper register suits him better than you’d think. So too does incorporation of synths in the band’s overall sound. Listening to “The Pit”, it becomes easy to recognize that for their next record they might explore the possibility of using later period New Order as a source of inspiration. The balladry of “Here We Are (Chancer)” is impressive as well, taking electric guitars somewhat out of the equation in favor of skittering electronic beats, piano and even a touch of piano. All these sonic adjustments across the record don’t amount to a world of difference when all is said and done, but they are very important in how they push Silversun Pickups beyond the flaccid label of being an alternative rock band forever indebted to the Smashing Pumpkins. On Neck of the Woods they’re finally starting to truly separate themselves from the formless pack and earn their place among the remaining and true devotees to the genre. They’re not yet ready to save mainstream rock, but for once they appear to be moving in the right direction.

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