Friday, September 11, 2009

Up With Negativity: Vivian Girls and Meth Teeth

Eight months since the new administration took office, I guess we've given up on this "hope" jive. At least that's what one might infer from the very similar titles of two recent releases: Vivian Girls Everything Goes Wrong and Meth Teeth's Everything Went Wrong.

I've very publicly defended Vivian Girls in this space before but I couldn't help but wonder if their sophomore full length, which follows their self-titled debut album by less than 18 months, would be anything worthwhile. A number of scenarios for any band in their position could have yielded disastrous results.

Under the pressure of sudden notoriety, a band might feel the need to "make a statement" and wind up drowning in ambition. Forcing yourself into new sonic territory in which you're not comfortable can possibly yield interesting results, but often it means you're just not playing to your strengths.

The Vivian Girls could also go the route of simply rehashing their debut. There's nothing necessarily wrong with that but it would augur for the law of diminishing returns setting in sooner rather than later. Future releases might be considered wholly redundant.

Finally, any band for whom amateurism is intrinsic to their appeal might be rendered inert by going "pro." Genuine enthusiasm goes a long way in rock music. Better execution means greater clarity of a band's ideas but could wind up exposing those ideas as not being very good in the first place. Just consider all the hardcore bands who got some chops and started playing shitty metal. Hell, consider Pavement after they kicked out Gary Young.

Fortunately, the Vivian Girls manage to avoid the above missteps. Everything Goes Wrong is neither a huge departure from nor total retread of their debut. Rather, it plays as though the band's moderate success has granted them validation. Their obvious gift for melody remains unabated as they grow more assured and confident, freely adding new wrinkles to their sound.

Moments on the album are both more sophisticated ("Can't Get Over You") and harder rocking ("The End," which recalls their heroes, The Wipers) than anything on the debut. The band's songwriting is tighter and and, while no one is going to mistake them for math rock, their playing has gotten more assertive. They even engage in a bit of Velvets-style stretching out on "Out For The Sun." This more varied approach is mildly obscured by the samey production, which also makes the record feel a bit overlong. At one and a half times the length of the debut, this might have been inevitable.

I've never considered the Vivian Girls to be novices bashing away without a clue but there's no denying that a lack self-consciousness and pretension is part of their appeal. It seems fitting that any sonic expansion they've made on Everything Goes Wrong feels unforced, and that is key to the album's success.

Meth Teeth released one of my favorite records of last year, the Bus Rides 7" EP. I've been looking forward to their debut full length tremendously and it does not disappoint. The Portland band offers a noisy, aggressive take on psych-tinged folk rock. In an earlier review, I compared Meth Teeth's songs to the to the quiet, ominous psychedelia of famous acid casualties Skip Spence and Syd Barrett. Those are fairly apt comparisons but neither were ever so brazen. Much of Everything Went Wrong sounds as though internal demons have been driven outward and thrashed about. The band is capable of more harmonious, less foreboding moments as well. The album's opener, "Never Been To Church," sounds like the jangle of the Byrds if Crosby's connection had given them weed laced with roach killer.

I suspect that the general reaction to the release will be something along the lines of "Another lo-fi record of Woodsist. Ho Hum." It's understandable that one might suffer from lo-fi malaise at this point. However, Meth Teeth stand above the fray and Everything Went Wrong is worthy of your attention.

Monday, September 07, 2009

The Unblinking Ear Podcast: Punk Rock for the Workers!

Happy Labor Day, everyone. I thought I would treat all you laborers to a special podcast of that most proletarian of art forms, punk rock. Never mind that my last all punk rock podcast was on Valentine's Day. Or that the first one was for no real reason at all. Or that most of the songs on this podcast have little to no political content. Or that punk rock as the music for and by the working class is pretty much a total fallacy. Or that this is the absolute most inappropriate thing to listen to while relaxing at a BBQ.

Yeah, just forget all that and, um... I had a point, didn't I?

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Wednesday, September 02, 2009

Dancing About Architechture (Again)

For the past few days, I've been thumbing through one of my all-time favorite books, A Whore Just Like The Rest: The Music Writings of Richard Meltzer. Lest you think the title is an indicator for some kind misogynist rant, it's actually an ironic comment on Meltzer's status as a music scribe, mocking the cozy relationship between the rock press and record label publicity departments. Despite a chapter entitled "Quid Pro Quo," Meltzer was nothing like the rest. Like his peer (and friend) Lester Bangs, Meltzer wrote about rock in the first person. Time and time again, directly and indirectly, he argued that there was no way to experience music outside of the context of your life. You can call it "new journalism" or "gonzo" (Meltzer hates both terms), and point to it as the parent of the navel-gazing and pseudo-sociology that passes for music criticism these days. (Yours truly, guilty as charged.) However, the difference is that Meltzer spoke a language of high ideas in a voice that was consistently funny, insightful, opinionated and engaging. There's a full chapter entitled "Prime Wallow," which contains record "reviews" from a period in 1973 when Metlzer made a point of not listening to the records he was reviewing. It's probably the book's most entertaining section. Lester Bangs died young and became the rock crit role model and martyr, but Meltzer was the better writer.

In any case, there's nothing quite like reading the work of one your heroes to make you contemplate your own work. (Or betray its influence. Just take a look at all the parenthetical phrases, one of Meltzer's favorite techniques, in the preceding paragraph. I'll stop now.) The frequency of my posts has slowed to a crawl of late. At first, I simply figured I had little which moved me to put pen to paper. However, upon review of some of my more prolific periods of blogging, I discovered that I used to be content to throw up a link to some other website and write a little commentary. Or if I felt particularly desperate for material, I'd simply embed a YouTube clip I found worth sharing. Nowadays, I tend to save this sort of activity for my Facebook wall and my circle of friends therein. Synergetically speaking, this makes no sense. If I were a more industrious type, I'd start a Twitter account where I'd share my hit-and-run musings with subscribers while promoting the blog and podcast at the same time. I'd save the meatier bits for the blog and use Facebook for its proper function of spying on girls I think are cute.

It's not that I think my FB status updates are without worth or wit. A recent example: "Paul Bruno can't follow the logic behind naming the Marlins' stadium after the first Fang album." Funny stuff, if I do say so myself. However, given the lack of substance in the world of music blogging, and the fact that I've complained about this lack of substance on more than one occasion, I feel the need to say something about something. Having a point is usually a good thing. I'd like to think one thought-provoking essay is worth a dozen paraphrased-from-the-publicist "This Week's New Releases" posts. (Which is why I should post at least once every three months.) While my posts have been less frequent, the ones I have written are generally pretty long, which I suppose makes up for it. Length isn't a virtue in and of itself, of course, but when trying to use premises and reasoning to form a valid argument, one might as well take advantage of the lack of mandated word count. It's using the 21st century for the best, I figure.

There's no getting around the fact that effectively writing about music is a difficult task. When I say "effective," I don't mean getting someone to buy an album, which if you know your audience, is relatively easy. Keyword + signifier + comparison to better known band + thesaurus = a tidy prop to generate interest and possibly move some units. This approach maybe conveys the general aesthetic to the probable consumer but says nothing about execution, which is ultimately what's most important.
Oh, it's a movie about superheroes? Well, is it The Dark Knight or Fantastic Four? "It ain't what you do/it's the way that you do it," Mark E Smith sang in "Copped It." Above all else, music is evocative and how it goes about the task of evoking is the source of its power. I try my best to convey this, fully aware that no matter how much verbiage I spill, it's nowhere near an equivalency for actually listening to the damn thing. I can only hope to add some depth to the experience or perhaps shed some light on some artists who have evoked enough in me that I can't help but feel they should be part of your lives as well. Yes, I file my tax returns under "enjoyment enhancer."

While 2009 has been a fairly lean year for quality releases thus far, there's a whole bunch of new product out now or soon that shows potential. Through purchase or promotional freebie, new releases from the Clean, Times New Viking, Polvo, David Bazan, TV Ghost, Meth Teeth, Vivian Girls, Yo La Tengo, Pissed Jeans, Grass Widow, Box Elders and Kurt Vile are all in my cue for listening. I'll either write about them or I won't.
I'm not getting paid to create propaganda pieces to promote the health of the music industry. (Actually, I'm not getting paid at all.) If I think they're worth sharing, I'll undoubtedly play them in my podcast, which neatly sidesteps the whole dancing about architecture conundrum by giving your ears direct access.

Still, there's one recent release I feel I should have covered and that's the latest Reigning Sound album, Love and Curses. The band's first new release in 5 years should have been enough to qualify as noteworthy. I nearly tacked on my thoughts about the album to the Jay Reatard review I did last week. There are more than a few parallels to link JR and Reigning Sound's Greg Cartwright. They're both from Memphis. They both emerged from the same garage-punk scene. They both were previously in bands of whom I was aware but considered less than spectacular (JR's Reatards and Cartwright's Oblivions). They both released one of the decade's best records (Reatard's Blood Visions and RS's Time Bomb High School) on the same label (In The Red). Hell, they even worked together, as Reatard engineered the Reigning Sound's Too Much Guitar album. However, I ultimately felt that treating Love and Curses as an addendum to anyone's else release would be doing it a disservice. It's a fully realized statement which has little to gain and nothing to prove via the crutch of association. (So I just tacked it on to a
solipsistic rant instead. Way to go, author.)

More importantly, I felt that there's just no adequate description for the Reigning Sound for someone who hasn't heard them. Writing about them was an daunting propostion. In the most basic sense, they play garage rock heavily influenced by soul music. For many, this may conjure visions of affected white nergoisms played over 60s-inspired raunch, and that's simply not the case. For the Reigning Sound, soul music isn't window dressing, it's deeply encoded into their musical DNA. It's got soul. And depth and nuance and smarts and all the other qualities of great music that are easy to hear but hard to define. The group rocks forcefully and convincingly but it's on their frequent slow jams where it's plain to see the band is something
special. Cartwright is simply the finest writer of the rock ballad since another Memphisian, Alex Chilton. The guy is a national treasure but nothing I can say is going to convince you the way his music does.

So instead, I'll just fall back on that old CMJ standby of "Recommended If You Like."

RIYL: Stax Records, the Rolling Stones' very best work, essential art, affirming existence, owning one of the best records of this (or any) year, rock music.