Wednesday, April 30, 2008

R.E.M. makes an album that isn't terrible

I know this old news to most of you.

Like many music fans of my generation R.E.M. was an integral part of my rock n roll education. They're what my friend liked to call a "gateway band", a popular act that could introduce one to non-mainstream music. Despite this I haven't owned a record of theirs since Bill Berry left the band. I'd heard that their latest release, Accelerate, was a "return to form" but I hadn't actually heard any song from it until I heard Bill Kelly play "Supernatural Superserious" on his show on WFMU. At first I wasn't even sure it was R.E.M. but those Stipe/Mills vocals are pretty unmistakable. Intrigued, I picked up a copy of the album.

"Return to form" albums are a fairly dubious proposition. It seems like a very conservative if not retrogressive notion bucking the rock crit mandate that bands "evolve." However, one could also make the case that sometimes bands will lose focus and follow their ambition to points that are not their greatest strengths. (See Young, Neil; 1980s) They need to bring it back to what they do best and that seems to be the case with Accelerate. Those expecting another Murmur will likely be disappointed. Accelerate more evokes the muscular rock sound of Document or Green, though you couldn't mistake its sonics for anything recorded in the late 80s. At 11 tracks in 36 minutes it's a quick, engaging listen that sounds great when it's on even if it only has 2 or 3 very memorable songs. Not exactly reason to rejoice but hell, that's 1 or 2 more memorable songs than their entire post-Berry output up until this point. ("The Great Beyond," in case you were wondering.)

Folks who hold R.E.M. near and dear may find Accelerate to be the 2008 equivalent of Dinosaur Jr's Beyond. And if it generates interest in R.E.M.'s back catalog or 80s underground rock in general that's fine with me. If the the kids were listening to Hüsker Dü instead of Hot Chip, the world would be a better place.

I bought a bunch of 45s

Now I'm going to tell you what I think of them. Truthfully I bought more than 4 but I'm slightly too distracted to articulate my relationship with all of them. Most of my readers complain anytime I post anything longer than 5 paragraphs anyway.

Meth Teeth Bus Rides 7" EP
If you told me these guys began life as a Beyond the Implode tribute band I might be forced to believe you. Meth Teeth revel in the static like many of today post-Messthetics bands but there's a creepy, almost Barrettesque psych vibe going on here. Brings to mind early SPK covering Skip Spence or perhaps the Strapping Fieldhands doing likewise with the Mudhutters. Very impressive. Apparently only 500 copies pressed so don't sleep on it.

Romance Novels "Another Summer" b/w "Quarter to Four"
Romance Novels, one of the few bands not just influenced by Mike Rep's recording techniques but also his songwriting. An inspired notion and pleasant enough listen but I didn't exactly fall in love with this one. Repeated spins might change my mind though. Neat packaging on the sublimely named Pizza Party Records label.

Jay Reatard "See/Saw" b/w "Screaming Head"
I see Mr Reatard is playing the Pitchfork Music Festival. Man, the PFM staff is sure try to make up for ignoring Blood Visions when it came out in 06, huh? Can't appear to be behind the curve. The kids might turn somewhere else to find the next Clap Your Hands and Say Yeah. What do you mean you forgot all about them? I digress. The first of JR's Matador single series sounds like he's still exploring his sensitive side ala last year's "I Know A Place" 45 though in all honesty neither cut here matches that one. Is that going to deter me from snatching up every other single in this series like their pressings are getting progressively smaller (which they are)? Nah. After consecutive home runs a double down the line only seems poor in comparison. After all, you're still scoring position and most of these other clowns can't even bat their weight.

Prisonshake The Nice Price 7"
This 45 is a teaser for Dirty Moons, Prisonshake's first new album in 15(!) years, and is available from the Scat Records website for only $1.50, hence the title. (There's a pricier limited edition colored-vinyl plus CD-R configuration if you're into that sort of thing.) The main attraction here is "The Cut-Out Bin" from the forthcoming LP. Featuring a Doug Elkner vocal in which he assumes the role of cranky old man telling the kids how it was done back in his day, the song actually sounds something like several old Prisonshake songs stapled together. It begins with a classic PS chug ala "Asiento" then goes into a quiet pre-chorus recalling Elkner sung ballads like "Hurry" before moving to a chorus that reminds one of "Fall Right Down". This is followed by a semi-atonal bridge, a scorching Robert Griffin solo, a rest, an entirely different pre-chorus that brings to mind "Quits," another chorus and that's it. A 3 minute long rock opera? Such ambition wouldn't be shocking from a band who released a box set as their debut album. And you gotta love a song whose chorus implores one to "Save a spot for us/Right behind the Pretty Things" in the bargain bins of the world's remaining record shops. The flip "Fake Your Own Death (Hey Asshole)" sounds like the Alice Cooper band playing "Green Onions" on downers until the last 3rd or so of the song which devolves into some weirdo noise/tape cut-ups. Neither song is "2 Sisters" but that would setting expectations way too high. It's good to have you back, boys.

Dirty Moons will be out on July 29th. You can preview it here.

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Last Friday at Southpaw...

...Homestead's roster circa 1987.

To promote the release of their 3CD retrospective Supercluster, Big Dipper reunited for a handful of shows bring with them fellow Wailing Ultimate contributers Great Plains and Antietam.

In front of a crowd featuring many men who wore thick glasses out of necessity rather fashion and many women who bore a resemblance to Joyce Brabner, Great Plains opened the show. I've written about Great Plains' snarky but unpretentious punk rock before and they did not disappoint me. Singer/guitarist Ron House had easy, natural charisma but commanded the stage with the energy of someone half his age. The band was sloppy at times but lack of precision couldn't detract from from the overall experience. Hearing them knock out songs like "Dick Clark" and "Our Love to the Third Power" was a joy to say the least. Mr. House was sitting at the bar for most of the show following his performance and I had to resist the urge to go up to him and yell "You and Mike Watt are my punk rock heroes!"

Antietam's records never really moved me one way or another but seeing them live definitely raised my opinion of the band. That guitarist Tara Key is a skilled player is no secret but this night she played the guitar hero role to the hilt, dropping to her knees a couple of times to deliver some seering solos. The rest of the band bashed away without restraint in a way their studio recordings (at least the one's I've heard) never captured. I read somewhere that Antietam always had trouble holding on to a drummer but whomever was on the skins tonight was more than capable of driving a mighty rock machine.

I have to admit that by the time Big Dipper took the stage I was fairly spent which is pretty pathetic considering I was probably among the youngest members of the crowd. I know I'm feeling my age when I think to myself "Why can't rock shows ever start on time?" They were a lot of fun though, running through most of their "hits" and climaxing with the whole crowd singing along to "Ron Klaus Wrecked His House" before closing their set with "Mr Woods." For an encore they were joined by a couple of the Great Plains to sing "A Song to Be Beautiful." With its (tongue-in-cheek?) chorus of "The artist must be free!!" and singer/guitarist Bill Goffrier goofily holding up signs ala "Subterranean Homesick Blues," it capped off the night with an appropriately gleeful smirk.

Now when is Phantom Tollbooth getting back together?

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Make this Band Your Myspace Friend: Thomas Function

I know I haven't updating this blog in a while and certainly not with anything very worthwhile but when something's this good you've just got to let the people know about it. If you're like me and you think Pavement peaked with "Box Elder" or if you've ever wanted to hear what a cross between Great Plains and the Art Attacks might sound like, boy have I got the band for you.

On Tuesday night I had the pleasure of seeing Thomas Function perform at the Annex here in New York in front of a crowd of maybe three dozen or so. Lately I've been verbalizing to anyone who will listen that I think bands should only do 20 minute sets. This probably started shortly after seeing Jay Reatard, who blasted through a set of about a dozen song in about that time. I get bored easily I suppose and usually about halfway though many bands' sets I become restless and wonder if I couldn't be spending my time better elsewhere. But damn me if Thomas Function didn't keep my attention for the duration. So much so, that without hesitation I plunked down $20 for their LP and both 45s they had for sale (All on colored vinyl! Take that, digital age!) despite the fact that I have about $25 in my bank account until my next payday. Hell, if that's not a recommendation, I don't know what is. I've seen the band compared to Television and the Modern Lovers but that's really only telling half the story. They're nowhere near as punctilious as the the former or as coy as the latter. Thomas Function play their off-kilter pop songs with an unabashed enthusiasm that's won that them a following with the usually suspicious of anything cleaner than scuzz garage crowd. I know it's only April but the band's debut album Celebration is going to be hard to beat for record of the year.

Also, a quick word about the headliners Live Fast Die. I caught them for a couple of songs as they went on way after my bedtime but they were thoroughly entertaining as well. And not just for their songs either as they displayed some funnier on stage banter I've heard in a while. I suppose a band with song titles like "Camero Shit the Bed" and lyrics like "I like weapons for killing stuff" should have a good sense of humor. Their debut LP Bandana Trash Record is recommended for fans of Rip Off Records, "Kicked Out of the Webelos"-era Queers or anyone who thinks GG Allin is hilarious.

Make Thomas Function your myspace friend.