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Tag: garage 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.

Show Review: Hinds + Public Access T.V. [Lincoln Hall; Chicago; 10/22/15]

In my preview for the Hinds / Public Access T.V. show at Lincoln Hall, I opened with a few remarks on garage rock and how more often than not it tends to have a very gritty, ramshackle-like quality running through every song. A slightly off-key vocal here or a missed chord there is part of the charm. The lack of sheen and perfection also occasionally gives the impression that an implosion could happen at any minute, instilling the music with a precious quality, like something magical was captured that almost didn’t come together. As the crowd at Lincoln Hall found out with sets from the two aforementioned bands on Thursday night, sometimes that sensation extends to live shows too, whether on purpose or completely by accident.

Starting the evening was Public Access T.V., a New York-based band formed and fronted by John Eatherly (ex-Be Your Own Pet). They’ve only got a handful of songs that have been released so far, but their sound has certainly evolved in the year or so since they formed. They played all of those tracks at Lincoln Hall, along with a few others destined for inclusion on their debut full length due out in early 2016. What struck me most about their live show was how tight they sounded. It stood in contrast to the loosely recorded versions of many of their songs, which realistically should have also been messier given their short existence as a band. Many artists take 2+ years to find their stage legs and craft a truly compelling show, so Public Access T.V. are ahead of schedule. Then again, with their members’ past history why wouldn’t they be?

Songs like “Monaco” and the recently released “Patti Peru” sounded quite good and were bouncy enough to dance to, which the crowd seemed to embrace for the most part. Most exciting for me however was the unreleased material they played. For a band who’s sound has undergone a significant sonic shift in the last year, these latest steps take things to a whole new level of excellence. An exceptional amount of talent was on display as Eatherly and guitarist Xan Aird both tore up multiple solos that were eerily reminiscent of modern garage heroes like The Strokes and The White Stripes. It was rather exhilarating to watch, even when mixed with some plainer material. Time will tell if Public Access T.V. actually deliver on the promise shown during this Lincoln Hall set, and if fans will embrace them even though there are probably hundreds of other acts trying to earn attention with a very similar aesthetic.

Buy the Public Access T.V. EP from iTunes

One of the main things I know about Hinds is that they like to party. It’s been evident since their inception, and you can hear it in the recorded versions of their songs too. Therefore it only seems fitting that when I first encountered the Madrid band at Lincoln Hall they had cans of Old Style in their hands. As I was standing up against the stage enjoying the opening set, all of a sudden Carlotta, Ana, Ade and Amber appeared right next to me, dancing, laughing and just generally having a great time. They took photos of Public Access T.V., heckled their bassist, and sang along to most of the songs. It’s always wonderful when touring bands clearly admire and fully support one another, so all credit to Hinds for refusing to stay backstage and celebrating their openers with the rest of the crowd.

When it came time for their headlining set, things suddenly took a turn in an unexpected direction. Opening song “Warning With The Curling” has a fantastic vibe to it complete with complex instrumental flourishes that really give it extra bite, particularly when compared with this early version when Hinds was only a two-piece called Deers. The problem was with the vocals, which started off as non-existent before they were upgraded after a minute to a level that was barely audible. Poor mixing at Lincoln Hall rarely if ever happens, so I’m not sure if someone was asleep at the sound board or the band purposely requested the vocals at that level, but either way I could tell that something was off from the start. The issues multiplied when after two songs the band was forced to put the show on hold because a string on one of Carlotta’s guitars broke. They asked John Eatherly of Public Access T.V. to come up and re-string it for her, which he kindly did. Considering that last year I witnessed a member of the band Blank Range re-string his guitar mid-song without missing a single note, this was a little disappointing by comparison. Still, broken strings happen to every band, and there’s not much you can do about them unless you’ve got a guitar tech/roadie working for you behind the scenes. So bad sound and a broken string struck during the first 10 minutes, and thankfully things didn’t get worse from there.

There were a couple of small alcohol-related issues that emerged over the course of Hinds’ set, but nothing worth noting except to say all the band members were pretty drunk from the start and the multiple beers and shots they drank between songs most likely didn’t help anything. Of course they didn’t really hurt it in the end either. When you’ve got a bunch of quality songs that for all practical purposes sound like they were recorded on a multi-day bender in the first place, playing them live while drunk just highlights that aspect even more. Plus they’ve probably been playing wasted for so many shows by now they have it down to a science. Still, that didn’t stop Carlotta from apologizing towards the end of the set, telling the crowd, “Sorry, we usually aren’t this sloppy.”
Despite being largely a collection of accidents, errors and alcohol-fueled terrors, there was something irrevocably charming about Hinds. Call it stage presence or generally mischievous attitudes, but when you throw heaps of personality on top of a dozen very good or great songs, a certain amount of leeway is given that both the band and crowd fully acknowledge. No matter how often things went wrong, everyone on stage and off was smiling and having a great time. The cheers were loud and passionate. At one point during “Chili Town” somebody climbed on stage and then crowd surfed just for the hell of it. When it came time for the encore, the band invited everyone to join them on stage for their cover of Thee Headcoatees’ “Davey Crockett,” despite the protests of Lincoln Hall security and management. Halfway through the song somebody stepped on a cord and unplugged Ana’s guitar. They paused for 20 seconds while she plugged it back in, and then picked up right where they left off with everyone singing and dancing along. It was the perfect way to end a gloriously imperfect night.

Preorder Hinds’ debut album Leave Me Alone

Album Review: Sleater-Kinney – No Cities to Love [Sub Pop]

87Heat Wave
Oh thank goodness Sleater-Kinney are back. It’s been 10 years since they chose to take an “indefinite hiatus,” and a whole lot of wild things have happened in that time frame. To quickly sum up, Corin Tucker started a family, then released two lovely yet quiet records fronting the Corin Tucker Band. Carrie Brownstein became something of a celebrity, grabbing attention for her acting chops in small films and TV shows, most notably Portlandia. She returned to music briefly in 2011 with a new band Wild Flag, which also included S-K drummer Janet Weiss. One album and one tour later, Wild Flag called it quits. Lastly, for her part Weiss has kept very busy playing in a variety of bands, most notably a stint with Pavement’s Stephen Malkmus as one of the Jicks. The reasons behind Sleater-Kinney’s 2005 break-up included Tucker’s decision to focus on raising a family and Brownstein’s serious health issues due to constant touring/recording, all of which seemed to imply a reunion would be unlikely. Yet maybe the time off was enough for the trio to recharge their batteries and begin to miss what they had together. After 10 years on and 10 years off, let’s hope that this new album No Cities to Love also marks the beginning of a new era for the band.

The primary concern with Sleater-Kinney, as with any band that reunites after a significant period away, is whether or not the new music will live up to the old catalog. 2005’s The Woods ultimately reflected a band going out at the top of their game, with everything prior building to that momentous record. A decade later, it’s very comforting to know that they haven’t forgotten how to write a song, nor have they mellowed with age. In some respects it’s like they never left, which is just about all you could ever ask for from Sleater-Kinney. Even John Goodmanson, who produced every one of the band’s previous records except for two, returns to the fold. Yet there are a few notable changes on No Cities to Love that are less apparent on the surface but become more obvious the closer you look. Brownstein has said in interviews that the trio began recording sessions for the album in 2012 with the intention of finding a new approach to the band, and by many measures that appears to be the case. They’ve never sounded cleaner or more focused. Clocking in at just over 30 minutes, the 10 tracks fly by without stopping for breath or even a ballad. The acidic and highly aggressive grit of their last couple records has been replaced with something a bit more accessible and mature, even though it’s by no means quieter or less vicious. Tucker’s vocals still show more power and range than most, Brownstein’s guitar solos remain vibrant and complex, while Weiss’s intricate rhythms keep everything held together quite nicely.

Perhaps the best way to get a sense of Sleater-Kinney’s more mature headspace across No Cities to Love is to take a microscope to their lyrics. These are some of the most personal songs the band has ever written, and that’s clear right from opener “Price Tag”. Acknowledging her status as a mother with a family, Tucker has harsh words about the recent economic recession and the challenges of trying to make a decent living wage when a lot of larger corporations are out to exploit their workers. Abuse of power is one of the primary themes of the record, and the biting “Fangless” along with the charging “No Anthems” address the issue in smart yet explicit ways. It’s also great to hear the trio sing about inter-band workings as well as their decade-long absence across multiple songs. The bouncy and fun “A New Wave” is about making your own path and not allowing the “venomous and thrilling” voices to change or shape you. They’ve got each other’s backs and will continue to do their own thing even if it drives them into obscurity.

Speaking of obscurity, the two main songs that deal with their hiatus show up right at the end of the album. Of the pair, “Hey Darling” is the most confessional, serving as a bit of a letter to fans. It also happens to be the one song on the record that sounds most like classic Sleater-Kinney. “Explanations are thin, but I feel it’s time/ You want to know where I’ve been for such a long time,” Tucker sings in the very first verse. What follows from there goes into how fame isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, and sometimes even playing music for a room full of people can leave you feeling lonely. There’s not much subtext to be interpreted, except the idea that band life can become a bit of a drag if that’s all you do for a decade and sometimes you just need a break. “Fade” really plays that through to its fullest and most realized conclusion. “Oh what a price that we paid / My dearest nightmare, my conscience, the end,” wails Tucker over Brownstein’s heavy 70’s-style guitar riffs. There are dimming spotlights, a loss of a sense of self, and the question of whether or not the torture was ultimately worth it. The mere existence of No Cities to Love implies that the answer is yes. Considering how it all went down the first ten years, it’s probably best to assume things will be handled very differently from here on out. Who knows how long it might last, but as Tucker herself puts it, “If we are truly dancing our swan song, darling/ Shake it like never before.”

Buy No Cities to Love from Sub Pop

Album Review: Dum Dum Girls – Too True [Sub Pop]

It’s been fascinating to hear the evolution of Dum Dum Girls over the handful of years that they’ve been around. They’ve gone from a lo-fi garage pop band to a slick, synth pop juggernaut, and it only took three albums and two EPs to make that transition. Basically Too True picks up where 2012’s End of Daze EP left off, which is a great thing since that was the best work they had done to date. The sound and spirit are there, particularly on tracks like “Cult of Love,” “Are You Okay” and “Too True to Be Good,” which are smartly structured and perfectly mixed to put Dee Dee’s powerful and rich vocals up front. Unfortunately, this album also falls prey to a lot of the same issues that former Dum Dum Girl Frankie Rose was met with on her latest (and similar sounding) record Herein Wild. You can hear greatness, and may have even witnessed it on a track like “Lord Knows” from the last EP, but for whatever reason on this album it feels like Dee Dee is holding herself back. Maybe it’s an artistic integrity thing or a desire to defy expectations, but it’s slightly frustrating to think that she’s wasting so much potential. For example, a song like “Rimbaud Eyes” takes the easiest and most expected structure, then trips up in its attempt to be lyrically unique thanks to difficult phrasing. In a sense the entire record is a small mess just like that, with nearly every track getting about 90% of the way to perfection, only to be undone by one aspect or another. One thing it doesn’t lack though is beauty, and thanks to some very clean production work it all sounds great on the surface. It’s when you start digging deeper that the issues present themselves. Here’s hoping Dee Dee can push past all of that mess to rediscover exactly what has made Dum Dum Girls such a compelling act these last few years.

Stream: “Rimbaud Eyes”

Buy Too True from Amazon

Show Review: Japandroids + Crocodiles [Metro; Chicago; 6/11/13]

Japandroids like to refer to themselves as a touring band. They’ve said in many an interview that if they could get away with it, they’d simply tour all the time and never actually record new albums. As such, in the last year since the release of their second record Celebration Rock, they’ve been around the world and back a couple times. They’ve played shows in Chicago at least three, if not four times in the last 365 days and show no signs of slowing down. Crowds love the band, and in turn the band loves the crowds. Their albums purposely sound like their live performances, because they design them that way to achieve maximum quality control. A Japandroids show at this point has become less of a concert and more of an event. You don’t just go to a Japandroids show, you experience it, and that requires preparation. They’re such a thrilling live act, especially for a duo, that they can sell out the 1,100 capacity Metro well in advance, even though they already came through town a few months earlier. The people that love this band truly LOVE them, and their dedication shows when they turn up in force time and time again.

Before getting to the intense and dynamic show that Japandroids put on this hot summer night in mid-June, I want to turn the attention to the band that opened the show, Crocodiles. If you’ve never heard a Crocodiles song before, you’re missing out on one of the great lo-fi, garage rock revivalist bands of this current era. That’s intended to be a compliment, however this band hasn’t exactly won the affection of a lot of critics as they draw unfavorable comparisons to The Jesus and Mary Chain and Echo & the Bunnymen. The basic reaction from many seems to be that they’re a one trick pony who have found their sound and plan to stick with it, each new album providing slight variations on the same melodies. It’s not hard to agree with that sentiment, however the real truth is that this band has been refining and focusing their talents with each new album on a quest to be the best at what they do. Their situation (and sound, actually) remind me a lot of Black Rebel Motorcycle Club, another band that’s been critically misunderstood over the years, but who have managed to establish a strong, loyal fan base anyways. We can’t help what attracts us to a particular sound, even when we know plenty of others will disagree with us. While I’ve heard their first three albums as well as their fourth coming out in August and can definitely verify that they keep getting better on record, what I can’t tell you is if the same thing is true for their live shows. This was my first time seeing Crocodiles perform live, and in that regard I can proclaim it a rousing success. The band sounds absolutely great, not only accurately recreating the sound of their records, but doing so with additional energy and aplomb. The four guys on stage appeared to be having a good time, and with a set that featured old favorites and a couple of intense new ones, the crowd seemed to soak in that same vibe. While most were undoubtedly there to see Japandroids, there were some that already knew what Crocodiles was capable of and wanted to make sure they were present for that set as well. Those such as myself who had never seen them before but had heard good things were pleasantly surprised at how accurate the rumors truly were. These guys remain a band to keep an eye on, with the thought that maybe sometime soon they’ll be able to sell out a venue like Metro all by themselves.

Buy Crocodiles’ Endless Flowers

The first thing I realized when watching Japandroids launch into their song “Adrenaline Nightshift” at the start of their set was that this would mark the very first time I’ve ever seen the band perform a full set. I’d seen them three times prior to this, but each took place at a music festival or radio session, meaning they had limited time and could essentially only play half-sets. Granted, those 45-minute half-sets were really damn good, but suddenly now that they’ve got 90+ minutes to do whatever they’d like the focus automatically turns away from the immediate new album concerns and instead towards the breadth of their seemingly small catalogue. But despite the fact that they’ve only got two full lengths to their names, they made sure to give each one its due while also tossing in non-album cuts and covers to keep it spicy. So while there was “Heart Sweats” and “Wet Hair” off the Post-Nothing record (those song titles also describe how the band and crowd would feel by the end), there was the great inclusion of “Art Czars” and the brief reference back to “Press Corps” off the band’s little-known 2007 EP All Lies which also later appeared on the Japandroids compilation No Singles. So there was quite a bit of diversity in the set list, with the requisite Celebration Rock cuts like “The Nights of Wine and Roses” and “The House That Heaven Built” fitting right in next to “Rockers East Vancouver” and such.

As great as it is to see a crowd sing and sometimes shout along with the band, the set list itself didn’t matter nearly as much as the band’s blitzkrieg approach in their live shows. See, the duo of Brian King and David Prowse make a whole lot of noise and perform with a whole lot of force to the point where you refuse to believe that they didn’t leave everything out there on the stage that night. No wonder they love performing so much, because the crowds soak it up like what they’re doing is magic. In many ways it is, because so few bands play with such intensity and vigor. Well, maybe passion is the right word to use. How anyone can get excited about performing almost the same set of songs night after night is a mystery to me, but in the end it probably has more to do with the fans than anything else. They want to make sure that when you walk away from their show, you’re going to have a lasting memory of it etched into your brain. Hopefully all the moshing and other intense movements the crowd was doing for most of the show didn’t give anyone brain damage (though if you ask me, if you’re in a mosh pit your brain might already be damaged). Normally those sorts of things are frowned upon at shows, but as King himself yelled at the start of the set, “Tonight there are no rules!” There were even a couple of people that climbed over the barricade and took stage dives, because I’m sure the band is used to it by now. Overall it wound up being a crazy yet incredible evening of live music, and one I certainly won’t soon forget. If you have the chance to see either Japandroids or Crocodiles perform live, jump at the opportunity, for the very reasons I just described.

Buy Japandroids’ Celebration Rock

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

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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Snapshot Review: Ceremony – Zoo [Matador]

Ceremony are old school punk rockers. They take pride in avoiding social media of any kind, emphatically stating on their website that they do not have Twitter, Facebook or Myspace. When preparing their new album Zoo, singer Ross Farrar chose to write a letter using traditional pen and paper to outline for fans what the music was going to be about and how things had changed since their last album. “There are songs on the record that sound fast, slow, eerie, full, or abrupt, each one different, but at the same time very similar,” he wrote. That’s a very accurate way of describing it, and for the band’s biggest fans, that’s probably not good news. Quick and dirty has been Ceremony’s ethos for their first three records, and that’s not quite the case anymore. Moving from underground punk label Bridge 9 Records and onto indie superlabel Matador certainly didn’t win them any cheers either. Yet punk band labelmates Fucked Up have done a nice job proving that you can have success without losing any of your edge. The same can be said of punk supergroup OFF! and young upstarts Iceage, both of whom have been doing great work in reviving a genre that once called Blink-182 a member. That said, it’s a little unfair to call Zoo a hardcore album. It lacks the sharp edge and white knuckle energy to earn such a descriptor. The easiest way to describe this record is to slap a post-hardcore tag on it, which is a fancier way of saying the music is heavy but not quite heavy enough to kick you in the teeth. This more tempered approach enables the band to experiment a bit without ever straying too far from their base. Only “Citizen” really sounds like classic Ceremony. Most of the time the band seems like they’re aiming for garage rock and using early 00’s bands for inspiration. At any given moment a track bears the markings of The Hives, The Vines or The White Stripes. “Quarantine” does a surprisingly good job of re-creating the sound of pre-Dookie Green Day, and the driving bass on “Hotel” gives it a very Joy Division feel (who, of course, they’re named after). There are also potions of Zoo that pay tribute to the godfathers of punk rock. You can absolutely hear the influence of Pink Flag-era Wire, This Nation’s Saving Grace-era The Fall, and even a little Metal Box-era Public Image Ltd. on bits like “World Blue” and “Community Service”. The worst part about the similarity is that Ceremony isn’t quite in the same league as those heavy-hitters. There are a lot more hooks on this album compared to the band’s older material, yet most of the songs are shockingly unmemorable. John Goodmanson produced it, and he turns out to be a positive influence on the overall sound of the record, adding depth and color to even the most plain-sounding songs. Unfortunately, there are quite a few of those plain songs on Zoo, and it causes 12 tracks and 36 minutes to sound like something much longer. Ceremony may have broken free from their hardcore punk habitat to try and explore other options available to them, but this record is evidence enough that some animals truly belong in cages.

Ceremony – Hysteria
Ceremony – Adult

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Album Review: The Black Keys – El Camino [Nonesuch]

In many ways, bands should be restricted from releasing albums of new material during the month of December. That last month of the year is pretty strictly reserved for the holiday album, the live album or the compilation album, all of which make for good gift-giving or as soundtracks to your Christmas parties. It’s also very much a list-making time of year, where everyone takes stock of the music they heard in the 11 months prior and admits to their favorites. Put out your record of original material in December and risk not being included in year-end countdowns, either because they’re already written and published in advance or there’s not enough time to give your record enough listens for proper consideration. Exceptions will always be made though, speaking specifically to 2010 and Kanye West’s super late release of “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy”. It was a year-ending blind side that essentially kicked the ass of virtually everything that came before it. A year later, do you think anyone regrets slotting that album at the top of their “Best of” list despite probably only hearing it a half dozen or so times? Sure it’s brilliant, and definitely Kanye’s most accomplished work to date, but is it “perfect”?

This year’s artist playing the late release game is The Black Keys with their seventh long player, “El Camino”. If you follow along with the details surrounding the recording of this album, you know the band entered guitarist Dan Auerbach’s new Nashville studio back in March and announced they’d completed the new record this past July. Apparently it takes close to six months to put a whole campaign together prior to an album’s release. That includes making a comedic promotional video starring Bob Odenkirk, setting up a hotline for people to call and coming up with your own viral music video. Admittedly, it’s a pretty smart and fun strategy to adopt, certainly better than a traditional album release. When you take such a novel approach, giving a little release date leeway is practically required, and better the first Tuesday in December than the last. The Black Keys have also been dealing with the “problem” of immense popularity. Their last album “Brothers” was a game changer for them, earning all kinds of radio airplay and higher billing on summer music festival lineups thanks to songs like “Tighten Up” and “Howlin’ for You”, the latter of which was still blasting from car stereos this past summer, a year after that record’s release. Not a minute had gone by towards lowering the band’s visibility when they struck again with “El Camino”‘s first single “Lonely Boy” a couple months back. It continues the tradition of infectious blues-driven garage rock they’ve been feeding us steadily over the last 10 years.

Arguably one of the biggest changes and best moves The Black Keys have made in the last few years was recruiting Danger Mouse to produce their records. After producing their first few records entirely on their own, Danger Mouse first got behind the boards for 2008’s “Attack and Release”, which actually yielded moderate success and some radio airplay with singles like “I Got Mine” and the psychedelic “Strange Times”. Though a slight variation on the style they had established with their previous records, “Attack and Release” was ultimately a strong example of a band still largely within the clutches of a creative slump. The hip hop infused Blakroc certainly suggested there was more to the duo of Dan Auerbach and Patrick Carney than previously believed, but the boys were also having some personal issues that fueled the sonic stagnation. After taking some time away from the band and pursuing other projects, they reconnected and rebuilt their relationship with one another. Their last album was titled “Brothers” to emphasize that they continue to love one another in spite of the difficulties they sometimes face. The record itself was also a bit of a challenge as well, but more in how it tackled preconceptions of the “Black Keys sound” and worked to revamp them. They had clearly learned something from their time with Danger Mouse and it showed both with slight twists on their style as well as a renewed energy that had been largely lost after 2004’s “Rubber Factory”. And while success certainly followed along with that, the record was still a bit clogged up with 15 tracks and a running time of nearly an hour. Sometimes careful editing and cutting the wheat from the chaff can be a good thing. Almost as if they’ve been listening to their critics, “El Camino” spans 11 tracks and 37 minutes, attempts to expand on the best elements of “Brothers” and appears to have forgotten that chaff even exists.

Given that “Tighten Up” was the big song that catapulted The Black Keys to a whole new level of popularity and it also happened to be the only track on their last record produced by Danger Mouse, the band sought to recreate that success across the entirety of “El Camino” by putting all of those elements together once again. The result is the band’s most energetic, poppy and generally fun record to date. Those concerned a buzzy earworm like “Lonely Boy” might be a lone standout needn’t worry. So many times on past records the band has tried to temper their approach by throwing a few quieter or more spacey psychedelic numbers into the mix, and more often than not those wind up being the weak spots. The only slow thing you’ll find on the new album comes courtesy of “Little Black Submarines”, which starts with just a plain acoustic guitar and some world-weary blues vocals, providing a nice respite from the ramshackle rock and roll of the first three tracks. The break only lasts a couple minutes though, because by the halfway point the electric guitars wake up with an intense fury that goes unrivaled on the rest of the record. Just because nothing else on the record slams quite as hard, don’t go thinking that the band’s fuzz pedal isn’t cranked up to 11 most of the time or that there’s not a whole lot of ballsy rock songs on “El Camino”. “Dead and Gone” hammers down a martial drum beat and then accents it with some xylophone, handclaps and a choir to back up Auerbach in the chorus. The choir and handclaps hold strong on “Gold On the Ceiling”, which incorporates some synths and has the chug of “Howlin’ for You” but plays it to more of a glam rock effect. The hard crunch of “Money Maker” has the heft and subject matter to soundtrack not only a million pole dances at your local strip club, but probably a couple dozen movie scenes in which some sexy girl character is introduced and you watch all the guys lower their sunglasses down their noses to get a better glimpse as she strolls by in slow motion. Yes, that scene happens in like half the movies released each year.

The second half of “El Camino” plays out a lot like the first, with plenty more riffage and uptempo numbers, though the use of the choir as backing vocals becomes far less prevalent. As the album works its way towards the finish line, there are moments that feel a little repetitive. “Hell of a Season” isn’t a bad song, but comes off almost like The Black Keys on autopilot. They’ve done songs like it before and will probably do songs like it again. The same can be said for the final two songs, “Nova Baby” and “Mind Eraser”, the latter of which might as well function exactly as its title suggests. The oft-repeated hook in that last song, and ultimately the last words spoken on the entire record are, “Don’t let it be over”. For something that started off so promising, by the time the full 37 minutes are up there’s this unerring sense that wrapping it up is probably a good thing. Basically the record teeters on the edge of becoming too long in spite of being one of the band’s shorter efforts. It’s that constant drive just hitting you over and over again with fuzzy guitars that pretty much tires you out. It is worth noting there are some fun second half bits. Carney gives his kit a severe lashing on “Sister”, which also happens to be one of the record’s bluesier cuts with a buzzing guitar and some sparkling keyboards snaking their way between the chords that make up the overall base melody. The light as a feather “Stop Stop” is a whole lot of fun as well, largely excelling thanks to some well-placed xylophone in the chorus. It’s a great late album reminder that the band does oh so much right on this record.

There’s a very good chance “El Camino” is the finest Black Keys record to date. To some of their most fervent supporters, i.e. all those “passionate” people that suddenly became aware of the band through “Brothers” and now call them “the new White Stripes”, this is the justification they’re looking for. Commercially speaking, there’s not a bad song on here. You could name virtually any track a single and it will do well on radio and in concert. That’s kind of the point, right? This is what the Black Keys wanted, or at least what their army of fans demanded of them. They are a better band because of this record, even if it distills their all-too-familiar sound and rather bland lyrics down to their core elements. This is the quintessential Black Keys album. Now that they’ve reached such a career peak, let’s hope they know what to do with it.

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Album Review: Black Lips – Arabia Mountain [Vice]

Two years ago, Black Lips reached an impasse. The fickle world of music lovers spat them out in a violent fashion akin to how the band members themselves often do with their own saliva on stage. If their 2007 album “Good Bad Not Evil” won them legions of new fans, the follow-up two years later with “200 Million Thousand” had close to the opposite effect. It seemed as if they were destined to become victims of the dreaded hype cycle, once beloved but soon after abandoned. Part of the problem with that last album (their fifth) was how content it seemed to be staying the course. The lack of ambition and conscious choice to maintain the same fuzz-riddled lo-fi sound from their last few records reeked of uninspired madness. Essentially it was a “fuck you” to those that thought Black Lips would change their sound now that they’d found success. With that plan having backfired, the band’s next move would need to be smart not only if they wanted to reclaim what they’d lost, but save what they were in danger of losing, which was their record deal. That explains why their new album “Arabia Mountain”, coldly calculated though it may be, is exactly the thing that Black Lips needed to revive everything they’d worked so hard to gain up until that point in time.

If you want to call anybody a hero in working to give Black Lips the kick in the teeth needed to make the necessary sonic adjustments for “Arabia Mountain”, Mark Ronson is the guy to point the finger at. The guy has worked with tons of people, most notably plenty of pop stars, to which he’s added a certain sheen to their sound that more often than not comes off as over polished. Still, he knows how to pull back on those reins when it’s warranted, and in the case of Black Lips, it absolutely was. You can’t go from super lo-fi to super clean without doing some serious damage to your long-time fans that love that no frills aesthetic. Yet the pairing of the two entities wasn’t nearly as earth-shattering as one might believe. Dust off some of that poorly recorded fuzz and buried underneath you’ll find a bunch of guitar pop songs. That and a mutual respect for the classic sounds of the 60s ultimately proved to be the bond necessary to bring out the best in Black Lips. Cleaner but not overly polished, lighter with more of a smirk than a frown, supercharged, addictive and more wide-ranging than ever, this is the band upgrading to version 2.0. Ronson may have had a fair share to do with it, but this record is still distinctly Black Lips through and through. These dynamic songs didn’t write and compose themselves, though somebody did throw a nice coat of wax on top to reveal the diamonds hiding underneath.

Saxophones really spice up opening track “Family Tree”, bringing a little madcap retro spice to a track that’s not only energetic, but downright danceable. One can envision girls in go-go boots on multi-colored dance floors doing what might otherwise be lovingly referred to as “The Pulp Fiction” (peace signs across the eyes). The buzzy guitar on “Modern Art” is eerily reminiscent of The Beatles or The Yardbirds, but the light touches of xylophone help bring a more contemporary feel to what’s ultimately a song about taking the wrong kind of drugs and wandering around an art gallery. If only all bad trips were this good (and addictive). The acoustic guitars providing the assist on “Spidey’s Curse” are a great addition to the track, and something that would likely have gotten lost in the mud of poor production quality in the past. If you’ve seen enough episodes of the old cartoon version of “Scooby Doo”, you’ll feel a special kinship to “Mad Dog”, primarily because it feels like one of those songs they’d play during a lengthy chase sequence where the mystery solving team keeps running and hiding from the monster that’s after them. That association isn’t brought up by the title of the song either, it’s mere coincidence, and matching that 60s-era sound doesn’t hurt either. Continuing to pull from that direction, “Raw Meat” sounds like a long-lost Ramones gem and the opening to “The Lie” comes weirdly close to copying Zeppelin’s “Babe I’m Gonna Leave You” before taking a decidedly more psychedelic direction. And you’d be hard pressed to not think of The Rolling Stones when “Dumpster Dive” arrives, it apes that style oh so well. Even when their songs don’t recall specific and classic bands from the past, there’s plenty to get hooked on. “Go Out and Get It” and “New Direction” are hyper-catchy songs that will stay with you despite having so many other memorable highlights. It’s relatively easy to imagine massive crowds hearing songs like these when walking past the stage at a music festival and stopping in their tracks to keep listening.

Very legitimately, “Arabia Mountain” has suddenly become the piece de resistance for Black Lips. The winds have changed direction and now more than ever they’re on track to take over the world. They sound completely reinvigorated and more vital than ever. It’s amazing the creative spaces some artists will reach when the right sort of pressure is applied. Alternatively, “200 Million Thousand” is where an artist might go when the wrong sort of pressure is applied. When truly fighting for their livelihoods, these guys have stepped up and knocked one out in the best sort of way. Even completely ignoring the circumstances behind how they got to this point and judging this record as if it were some unknown band from Anywhere, USA, this is an album that is such a joy to listen to. Above all else, that’s the point: to have some fun, bounce around a bit, and go home tired but with melodies still running through your head. The only real issue “Arabia Mountain” has is with the sheer amount of music that’s on it. Clocking in at just over 40 minutes, it’s definitely not too long of an album, but there are probably a few too many tracks. A couple of the album’s 16 songs sound pretty similar and could have been cut without much of a problem. 12-14 songs would have been ideal, even if a 30 minute run time might have felt a little short. Quality over quantity, as the phrase goes. Other than that though, this is Black Lips operating at a level that nobody thought they could effectively reach, which is why “Arabia Mountain” is one of the most pleasant and best surprises of 2011 so far.

Black Lips – Modern Art

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