THE BRIAN JONESTOWN MASSACRE: REVELATION

(A RECORDINGS; 2014)

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The Brian Jonestown Massacre’s founder (and pretty much the only official member of the group today), Anton Newcombe, has flirted with success, dabbled with drugs (actually, he embraced them wholeheartedly), had mental meltdowns on stage, fought with band-mates and, amidst a litany of self-destructive demons, produced some of the best music of the past 20 years. Most of these demons (including the ones listed above) are chronicled in the 2004 documentary DIG!; what we’re here to talk about is the new BJM album, REVELATION. The release is record number 14 or 15 (or 23 depending on how you count these things) from the band and, to these ears, Newcombe hasn’t lost a step. Even though the overall vibe of REVELATION isn’t as frenetic as earlier albums, it is a more cohesive collection as Newcombe is solely responsible for songwriting and production as well as playing most of the instruments.

The Brian Jonestown Massacre's Anton Newcombe (photo credit: SHOKO ISHIKAWA)

The Brian Jonestown Massacre’s Anton Newcombe (photo credit: SHOKO ISHIKAWA)

Vad Hande Med Dem?” starts off as an upbeat jangle-pop tune before turning into a kind of Arabic sounding psychedelia with buried-in-the-mix vocals and a Stax-style horn chart. With an odd rhythm and blues vibe, “What You Isn’t” is sort of a slow-cooking groove with laidback, almost spoken word vocals. “Unknown” is a modest little groover that would not sound out of place on THEIR SATANIC MAJESTIES REQUEST. The track is short – less than two minutes – and wholly acoustic, save for a mid-’60s style guitar solo. The …SATANIC… Stones are back, hooking up with Donovan at a psychedelic day camp on “Memory Camp.” It’s laconically slow folk music with somehow lazy sounding vocals. The Beatles – John Lennon in particular – get the BJM treatment on “Days, Weeks and Moths.” The song features an echo-laden guitar, with distinct single note picking and eerily haunting backing vocals. The instrumental, “Duck and Cover,” picks up the tempo with a repetitive, slightly hypnotic vibe.

The second half of the album (record two, for the vinyl junkies among us) kicks off with the UK Northern Soul of “Food For Clouds.” The track borders on Ska, but is more akin to latter day Jam (or Paul Weller’s post-Jam group, the Style Council), with the orchestral flourishes offering a nice counter-balance to the funky horns and barely audible vocals, sounding a lot like Dusty Springfield, too. “Second Sighting” is a gentle acoustic tune with an Eastern European, almost Gypsy vibe, with various wind and string instruments floating to the surface before sinking back into the mix. “Memorymix” sounds like a remix (even the name implies it), but I’m fairly certain that it’s just another in a string of typically loopy BJM songs. With the top-heavy synthesized bass, Morris Code-like beeps and blips and nonsensical dance-track lyrics (as best as I can decipher them, anyway), it’s weird but fun. The slightly Gothic feel of the lugubrious “Fist Full of Bees” comes off like a somewhat happier Bauhaus. “Nightbird” is another primarily acoustic tune with vocals that are way more up-front than any other song on the album. It has a nice Beatley vibe (something by George Harrison or John Lennon… maybe even something from one of their solo records). The jangle-pop sound is back on “Xibalba,” the happiest sounding track on the whole record. Horns, keyboards and strings blend together for a perfectly trippy feel. “Goodbye (Butterfly)” has the same kind of vibe as the previous track, but with a much slower tempo.

The Brian Jonestown Massacre's Anton Newcombe (uncredited photo)

The Brian Jonestown Massacre’s Anton Newcombe (uncredited photo)

The surfeit of slower tempo songs can get to you after a bit and, honestly, REVELATION could just as easily have been a ten or (at most) eleven track affair; we could have done without “Goodbye (Butterfly),” for sure. Still, what I said about cohesiveness in the intro stands and, overall, this another enjoyable outing from Anton Newcombe and the Brian Jonestown Massacre. Having said that, I wouldn’t mind seeing the current BJM touring unit take a stab at the next record.


BLOUSE: IMPERIUM

(CAPTURED TRACKS; 2014)

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Three-piece band from Portland, Oregon, a town that produces great bands consistently. Vaguely lumped into a category called “dream pop” cause it’s, well, dreamy and sometimes evocative and features an alluring female voice (in this case, that of Charlie Hilton). Catchy hooks, lyrical phrases that jump out of the mix and sometimes stick with you (like the repeated refrain “Are you one of us?”on the title track and “I’ll give you something for the pain” from “1000 Years.”

Blouse (photo credit: TonjeThilesen)

Blouse (photo credit: TonjeThilesen)

That’s a lazy short review of Blouse’s second release so far, and probably as much as most people would want to know about this trio. But actually, it’s worth elaborating just a little. It’s worth saying that Blouse are sounding good to me on a sunny afternoon when I’m loaded down with worries, with my attention divided, and decisions that I don’t feel like making. Cue the sonic narcotic! IMPERIUM hits me as a kind of pleasant, melodic, vaguely nostalgic jangle pop that doesn’t make me work too hard. Sometimes I don’t MIND when a record challenges the shit out of me, and I have to think about what its intentions are. And other times, damn it, I just want the thing to sound good right away, to quickly justify its existence, in other words. Hilton, producer/multi-instrumentalist Jacob Portrait and bassist Patrick Adams have obliged with a rather lush (reminiscent, actually, of the BAND Lush), shiny sound on these 12 tracks that is unpretentious and sometimes downright stirring. I pretty much instantly took to the off-kilter ’80s-retro psych-out of “Eyesite” and especially the Scandinavian-style emotional immediacy of Hilton’s voice on “1000 Years,” the melancholy “Capote” and the straightforward love plea, “Trust Me.” See the Swedish bands Club 8 and the Concretes for reasonable corollaries.

A Feeling Like This” gives you, or at least it gave ME, a feeling like that… a memory of some past new band I liked and got excited about when I heard them for the first time. Hilton half sings, half speaks some of her lyrics in a most beguiling way on this track, and you can only hope to be the inspiration for this sort of feeling in a significant companion sometime in your life. The rockingest song is “Arrested,” which is all REM-style forward motion, with a layer of shoegaze woven in organically. Hilton sometimes sounds a little detached on tracks like this (not that it doesn’t feel right for the music), and maybe even somewhat samey if you’re seeking cafeteria catharsis. But in their own way, Blouse manage to diversify the sound from track to track – an unexpected bit of echo here, some discordant mixing flourishes there. And “Happy Days,” one of the most atmospheric, compelling tracks, hints at the eccentrically majestic heights this band might be capable of. “I have stars in my eyes,” sings Hilton, and this kinda thing might land her on the soundtrack to an arty European film. But vulnerability and worry are underneath this swirl of sound somewhere. “There is no shelter from this storm/Nothing in nature can keep my body warm,” our chanteuse complains on “No Shelter,” and although she offers a temporary solution in the next verse, she’s definitely all up in her mind here. But that’s okay, the music is still kinda soothing, and it got me out of MY mind. Blouse ON, angst OFF. A little IMPERIUM can’t cure what ails ya, perhaps, but it can push it into the distance. That’s more than most records do, so thanks, kids!


GREAT LIVE ALBUMS (19)

Live recordings have been a part of the music industry since day one of the crude technology of the earliest devices. In fact, since there were really no studios available for recording purposes, all of those early “records” were “live recordings” in the strictest sense. However, the live album, as we now know it, is a completely different animal. That animal came into its own in the rock era and exploded with the release of ALIVE, a 1975 album by KISS, (a career making release with an overabundance of what has come to be known as “studio sweetening”), and FRAMPTON COMES ALIVE in 1976 (also hurtling “the face” and former Humble Pie guitarist to superstardom). With the unprecedented success of Peter Frampton’s fifth solo release, everybody and their brothers were releasing these documents of their latest tours (sometimes used as stop gaps between studio albums; sometimes used as a means to gain an artist’s release from a record label contract, commonly referred to as the “contractual obligation” record).

A lot of people don’t like live albums. I’m not one of those. Some of my favorite records were recorded on the road. Here’s a list of 20 live albums that I think are the best. These records are all official releases, not bootlegs… that’s a whole other list (and one you may see somewhere down the line, as well). I had a hard time keeping this list to 20 (it started out as a “Top10”) and, I’m sure that your list would look very different from this one. But, that’s what makes these things so much fun, right? So, here’s number 19, the next in a series of reviews presenting 20 live albums that you should check out:

(19THE SENSATIONAL ALEX HARVEY BAND: LIVE

(ATLANTIC RECORDS; 1975)

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To say that Alex Harvey was a haunted, damaged soul may be an understatement. It has been well documented that he never really recovered from his brother Les’ onstage electrocution while a member of Stone the Crows. Alex blamed himself because he introduced his younger brother to Maggie Bell, which led to the two forming that band. Alex hid his pain with alcohol and by becoming the jokester, leading his new band, the Sensational Alex Harvey Band, as it winded its way to success via their high-powered, glam-tinged Vaudevillian stage show. I came to the show late, as far as SAHB (as they were called, because… well, their full name does not exactly roll trippingly off the tongue) was concerned… three albums into their joint career (Alex had been performing in various bands since the late ’50s; the other guys – of which, more later – were a band called Tear Gas, who released two albums before hooking up with Harvey). The very first time I heard (and saw) the group was on some late night concert thingy some time in 1974. I was, to say the least, blown away! I remember going on the hunt for anything by the band and, living in Podunk USA, the best I could do was special order a copy of the then-new album, THE IMPOSSIBLE DREAM. And that brings us to the fabulous LIVE album, recorded on May 24, the last night of the group’s 1975 English tour. LIVE was, unfortunately, a single record (around 45 minutes in length; about half of the actual show), at a time when double live albums were de rigueur. But, oh, what a record it was!

The Sensational Alex Harvey Band (Chris Glen, Hugh McKenna, Zal Cleminson, Alex Harvey, Ted McKenna) (uncredited photo)

The Sensational Alex Harvey Band (Chris Glen, Ted McKenna, Zal Cleminson, Alex Harvey, Hugh McKenna) (uncredited photo)

The record starts with a brief “Fanfare (Justly, Skillfully, Magnanimously)” followed by a creepy, Glaswegian voice welcoming the audience, “Good evening, boys and girls. It’s a gas to be here… I would like to take this opportunity to introduce you to my band. The Sensational Alex Harvey Band.” Way better, in my mind, than, “You wanted the best, you got the best!” A pumping keyboard (organ, synthesizer or… ?) and shaker from Hugh McKenna introduces the lascivious “Faith Healer,” before Ted McKenna (Hugh’s cousin), Chris Glen and Zal Cleminson join in, on drums, bass and guitar, respectively. This is as good a place as any to mention that Cleminson is an exceptionally gifted and expressive guitar player with a style and tone that – like Queen’s Brian May and REO Speedwagon’s Gary Richrath – is immediately recognizable; the mime face paint and modified jester’s outfit alongside his rubbery facial expressions only add to the effect. When Alex growls the first line of the song, “Let me put my hands on you,” it is evident that his motives are far from noble. While the focal point of the stage show may rest more on the antics of Zal and Chris, it is quite obvious that this is, in fact, Alex’s band. Hugh introduces the next tune, as well, with a pretty, soft electric piano. As Harvey steps to the mic, he introduces “Tomahawk Kid” as a song “inspired by Robert Louis Stevenson.” The TREASURE ISLAND and KIDNAPPED pirate references abound as the percolating rhythm leads to a great harmony duet between synthesizer and guitar; I’m not really sure that I’ve ever heard anything like it, but I do know that I like it! Zal doesn’t do a whole lot of soloing (which, of course, one would expect from a lead guitarist… especially live), but his lead, rhythm and fill work are masterpieces nonetheless. With the band adding “Yo-ho-ho” backing vocals on the chorus, the song catches fire and draws you into the story. The first side ends with the “Vambo” section of “The Hot City Symphony,” complete with Alex reading from “The Book of Vambo,” delivering a litany of heroic deeds that Vambo Marble-Eye, a being who is “like a cross between Santa Claus and Spider-Man,” is responsible for. There is a manic middle section, which features Alex spray-painting “Vambo Rools!!” on a brick wall to the back of the stage (if you’re unfamiliar with SAHB’s live show, you’ll have to trust me on that) and, yes… that is a frenzied guitar solo from Cleminson. It is a masterful performance, a touch above the studio version from THE IMPOSSIBLE DREAM, but Alex and his boys saved the best for side two.

The Sensational Alex Harvey Band (uncredited photo)

The Sensational Alex Harvey Band (uncredited photo)

The band was promoting a new album, TOMORROW BELONGS TO ME and, while a few tunes from that release were played on the 1975 tours, only one made the LIVE record: “Give My Compliments To the Chef.” It’s an ominous tune with a heavy bass riff and a moody piano leading to the first line, delivered in a sad and resigned fashion: “Mother, dear, did you hear/How they are teaching me to do the goosestep?” The song is a wicked, veiled reference to a certain menu item… SOYLENT GREEN, anybody? The tune starts slow but, by the second half, Alex has worked his band into a lather, driving them hard to the finish. If you listen closely, you can hear him panting during the applause after. The Sensational Alex Harvey Band were always known for their use of the well-chosen cover tune. The point is proven on a wild, waltz-like take of the Tom Jones hit, “Delilah.” The version used on LIVE was so powerful that it was released as a single itself and became the group’s biggest chart success. Again, Hugh’s keyboards seem to lead the band, though the others, especially Zal, do have their moments. The slow middle section features (again, you’ll have to take my word… no… wait… just check the video evidence!) Cleminson and Glen prancing across the stage in an approximation of a waltz, leaving Alex to his own devices amid a pile of mannequins. His vocals are weird and menacing, made more so by the backing vocals by the others. The album finale is another cover, the Leiber-Stoller chestnut, “Framed.” Harvey’s intro, while sticking fairly close to the original, is classic: “I’m walking down the street, minding my own affair/When two policemen grab me and I’m unaware/They said, is your name Alexander/ And I said, well, why sure/They said, well, you’re the cat that we been lookin’ for/But I was… FRA-MUH-DUH!/I never done nothin’!” SAHB’s version has a hard rock/glam feel, with some great boogie piano running through it and… guess what?… another awesome solo from Cleminson. The second “monologue” from Alex is a garbled mess… mostly because he’s wearing a pair of panty hose over his head. As the band kicks it back into high gear, Mister Harvey begins to plead his case to the audience. He asks them if they believe him, if they are on his side. “Do you believe me? No? You don’t believe me? The concert is canceled!” He pits the audience against the band, blaming them for all of his woes and emerges victorious, slamming into one of the more bombastic finishes ever recorded. I would certainly like to hear the complete, uncut concert but, I find it hard to believe that they could ever improve upon the sequencing and pacing of this one record; it’s that good! And, that’s why it sits at number 19 on my list of great live albums.


SWANS/XIU XIU

(June 24, 2014; THE READY ROOM; Saint Louis, MO)

The Ready Room (photo crdit: JASON STOFF)

The Ready Room (photo crdit: JASON STOFF)

At some shows I’ve been to in recent years, particularly smaller ones, I’ve looked at the audience as much as the performers, trying to gauge people’s reactions and suss out what kind of experience they were having. When you’re dealing with a noncommercial act like Swans, the Michael Gira-led entity that inhabits one end of the post-punk spectrum, you can’t help wondering about the fans and why this kinda assaultive sonic maelstrom appeals to them. This is not to pass judgment, as I AM such a fan. It’s just… why? How can long, discordant, punishing slabs of dark drone and indecipherable lyrics be life-affirming? Do you leave such an experience in a good mood, and just say to your concert-going pals, “Man, that was great!” the way you would after a normal concert? I dunno. But I did indeed utter “That was pretty amazing” to MY companion for the night, and I did experience SOME kind of catharsis. But I’m not sure what it was. I do know I won’t forget it.

Xiu Xiu (uncredited photo from June 20, 2014)

Xiu Xiu (uncredited photo from June 20, 2014)

I wasn’t overly familiar with Swans going in; I’d heard a few bits and pieces, and read some articles about them. But never had a chance to experience their sound up close before. Warning was given via a sign on the door that the concert was going to be extremely loud (helpful hint, that!), so ear plugs were clearly in order. But actually, I’ve been to louder, even though it WAS a punishing volume throughout. Things kicked off with a bizarre half hour opening stint by an incarnation of Xiu Xiu that included only founder Jamie Stewart. I’d been looking forward to hearing some songs from Xiu Xiu’s early CDs that I happened to own, but it was not to be. Stewart sat at a synth console and delivered a piercing monolithic tone that gradually got louder and louder, and gradually added other drone elements until it evolved into a squall of noisy dark ambient matter that was alternatingly hypnotic and tedious. He never said a word and never looked up, and I wouldn’t have even known this had anything to do with the Xiu Xiu I once listened to unless I’d done some research the next day. One thing’s for sure; you don’t see this kinda thing on stage in Saint Louis very often.

Swans live, May 28, 2014 (photo credit: ANDREW NOVELL)

Swans live, May 28, 2014 (photo credit: ANDREW NOVELL)

The wait for Swans was short and, it’s pretty clear when you lay eyes (and ears) on a crazed codger like Michael Gira that you’re in the presence of a twisted original. It seems almost irrelevant to mention song titles, because at a show like this, only hardcore fans would care about such a thing. Swans “tunes” are really long, really repetitive and singularly immersive; variety is not what you’re in for at a show like this. But, okay… “Frankie M” and “A Little God in My Hands” were the first two tunes. Layered gongs kicked off the former, and your ears had no choice but to instantly surrender to the onslaught. I was distracted almost immediately by a comely young woman swaying to the sound, yes, swaying to a sound that most of my friends would’ve bolted from within minutes. Heck, I thought girls liked dancing to stuff with a beat and a sing-along chorus. But damn, even the weirdest and most anti-commercial of bands gotta have their female followers, I suppose. “ …God… ” began with a slashing, repeated chord or whatever you’d call the combination of tones that kicked this one off. I was reminded of Eno’s oblique strategy card, “Repetition is a form of change,” a notion that Eno pioneered and that Swans have seemingly taken to another level. No one would be able to lose themselves in this kind of sonic overload if it was truly just one continuous, unvarying tone but, the fact is, Gira’s band conjure a gargantuan symphony of strident yet structured noisetronica that is ferociously willful and ultimately transfixing. The crowd was apparently riveted, although one girl sitting next to me was peacefully reading a paperback novel half the time, and I wondered about her temperament. I wouldn’t have been able to get through a single page of any book with this kinda music in the background.

Swans live, May 28, 2014 (photo credit: ANDREW NOVELL)

Swans live, May 28, 2014 (photo credit: ANDREW NOVELL)

Gira has a trademark way of holding his hands out to each side, shaking them a little, symmetrically, sometimes with eyes closed. He’s a curious figurehead with his long hair and piercing gaze, and seems genuinely appreciative that he gets to do this sort of thing. My companion and I chatted about how this sort of music can only exist and, in fact, progress, if its makers are utterly serious and committed to what they do. Not an issue at all with Swans. The cacophonous “The Apostate” was next, and it was thunderous, with atonal chord play, primal sludgy ambience and a sound that struck my ears as “Da U WOOM/ Da U WOOM!” It went on for a long, long time and, again, I couldn’t help watching the Ready Room patrons, most of whom watched with rapt attention and, a few of whom attempted to move their bodies in one way or another to this crazed sound. I wouldn’t want to hear this sort of thing every day, but experiencing it live was a pretty singular experience. Something almost approaching “tonal variety” came with the song “Just A Little Boy,” which made me think of the eerie Talking Heads song, “The Overload.” Straight-up dirge-y angst, the lyrics go, “Now I sleep in the belly of woman/And I sleep in the belly of man/And I sleep in the belly of rhythm/And I sleep in the belly of love.” Maybe not manifesto territory here, but Gira is clearly saying SOMETHING, and trying to do so in the context of a long, assaultive drone makes it brave and interesting. It was actually one of the more emotionally resonant moments of the evening.

Swans live, May 28, 2014 (photo credit: ANDREW NOVELL)

Swans live, May 28, 2014 (photo credit: ANDREW NOVELL)

Fire trucks appeared in fromt of the Ready Room two different times, once early in the evening, and once during “Don’t Go,” when the flashing red lights got the attention of anyone near the windows (including yours truly) and made me wonder whether a fire code violation had occurred, or whether the crew outside had been tipped off about something that needed to be “watched” at this show. No doubt the attendance was amazing; the line waiting to get into the RR was thrice longer than I had been anticipating. Gira gets good publicity. Anyway, the sound slabs during this number were particularly intense, with two or three bass notes played insistently while granite chunks of guitar, percussion and keys were hurled out into the crowd with abandon. My mind wandered (and a few Shock Top drafts added splendidly to the mood), and I thought that if Gira’s story was ever made into a movie, either Michael Madsen or Guy Pearce would have to be cast as the lead. Scruffy intensity was definitely called for. The one-two climactic punch of “Bring the Sun/Black Hole Man” was sometimes evocative and haunting, sometimes poundingly nasty, with lyrics almost impossible to decipher (although I’d swear I heard the phrase “Joseph is riding” once or twice). But, hey, lyrics are not the point of a Swans song. Immersive surrender to the darkest of dark waves is more in order. And, actually, I left in admiration for the perverse, primal simplicity of what Swans have to offer. Though there is little pleasure or comfort to be had in a show like this, the catharsis is real, and the visceral release is palpable. It’s important for music to stake out EDGES to explore, places where few dare go and declare, “Okay, this is what’s out here in THIS place, check it out if you’re so inclined.” I’m grateful to have experienced that thing that Swans do, even if I’ll be scratching my head for a long time over what it means, and how that girl could’ve gotten through a good portion of her book with Swans as the background soundtrack. Each to their own in this world, truly…


SWANS: TO BE KIND

(YOUNG GOD RECORDS; 2014)

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Have you ever liked something so much that you have a hard time describing it to your friends? Yeah, me, too. As a matter of fact, I’m finding it really difficult to put words and phrases in an order that will convey how utterly smitten I am with the new Swans record, TO BE KIND. To say that it’s “awesome” may just be the understatement of the century and, anything I do say will not give the sprawling (over two hours on two CDs or three records… there’s also a “deluxe edition,” which features a live DVD), majestic beast its just deserts. However, that is my job, so I’m going to try, song by song, to describe the wonders that are Swans’ TO BE KIND. Forgive me for the comparative shopping that I offer in an effort to give you, at the very least, a small reference point in the history of music that you may better grasp the scope of what Michael Gira and band have accomplished here.

Swans (publicity photo)

Swans (publicity photo)

The first disc starts with “Screen Shot,” a minimalist, loopy (as in circumlocutious) track with a great poly-rhythmic drum coda that turns into an unrelenting cacophony of buzzing guitars a little over six minutes in. Gira’s vocals here remind me of Mark E Smith’s very early work with the Fall. Referencing another avant legend, “Screen Shot” very well could have been the great, lost Residents song. “Just a Little Boy (For Chester Burnett)” is a much harsher affair. This is the Swans sound that I was introduced to, lo, these many years ago. The next track, “A Little God In My Hands,” is the funk number. Imagine a brasher, much more abrasive Public Image Limited. “Bring the Sun” is paired with “ToussaintL’Ouverture,” but don’t feel like you’re getting slighted by this coupling… the track is right at 34 minutes long. Now that is bang for your buck! But… is it any good? Let’s examine, shall we? “Bring the Sun” is a shamanistic “Black Juju” filtered through the Cult stopping by for a drink at a Doors reunion at Morrison’s grave, with liberal doses of trance-inducing Middle Eastern chanting. As the name implies, “Toussaint L’Ouverture” is a Satanic church service evoking the name of the Black Napoleon, leader of the 1791 slave revolt in what would become Haiti. Think of it as the New Orleans Hoodoo soundtrack for the Zombie Apocalypso, with disturbing slices of buzz and drone and clatter to up the creep factor. This single, 34 minute track is never dull and never lags; it is as compelling a listen as anything on the album. To follow that up with the shortest song of this collection to end disc one may seem a little odd, but… we are talking about Michael Gira and Swans! “Some Things We Do” clocks in at an economical five minutes. The already claustrophobic feel of the track is enhanced by the low key arrangement, with Julia Kent’s strings adding an odd sense of dread. The song is a litany of, well, some things we do and Gira’s droning vocal delivery is further enhanced by Little Annie’s haunting voice shadowing his own.

Swans (publicity photo)

Swans (publicity photo)

She Loves Us” kicks off disc number two. The first four or five minutes of the piece is yet another minimalist blast of metallic power, featuring Residents-like vocals during the chorus. This leads into an evil sounding instrumental section, very reminiscent of the instrumental section of “Dream Lover” from the 1980 Plasmatics album NEW HOPE FOR THE WRETCHED (in that version, all five members of the band recorded a solo in different rooms… without knowing what the others were playing… it was a beautiful, discordant racket!). The final half of the track slowly settles into the main theme in the form of another mantric, slightly Asian sounding underbelly with a heavily processed tack piano repeating the hypnotic coda. Again, I am reminded of Public Image, with strong vocal and bass similarities, as well as guitars that slash and buzz throughout. A shaker fades in and out of the mix adding to the brutal cacophony of sound, with the final minute and a half coming on like Alice Cooper’s “Killer.” Next, “Kristen Supine” is ten minutes of an ever-tightening web of nightmare-inducing white noise drone from a variety of stringed instruments, guitar and violin being the most prominent. In an album of minimalist performances, the vocals here give the term a new meaning. “Oxygen” is a ludicrously over-the-top James Brown funk workout. And, isn’t that always the best kind? An odd Bedouin throat-chanting kind of thing opens “Nathalie Neal.” Layers of equally odd instrumentation are added – including a repeating guitar riff that could have come from an early Queen record, bells, timbrels and similar percussion instruments, a voice that sounds like an English schoolmarm teaching her students a dance – before the drums and a squadron of swirling, dive-bombing guitars turn up the heat. The title track (“To Be Kind,” in case you’ve forgotten) features an almost recognizable song structure (what could be considered a ballad) before devolving into an angry crescendo of noise over the last couple of minutes. The lyrics, like the first part of the song, are kinda starry-eyed love song stuff. The dichotomy of this track against the sheer brutality of the rest of the album is as jarring as anything else.

Swans (publicity photo)

Swans (publicity photo)

So, there you go. Like the album, it wasn’t easy, but I tried to give you a feel of what TO BE KIND is like. It will most certainly make, not just my top ten of 2014, but most such year-end lists… and, deservedly so.


INCAN ABRAHAM: TOLERANCE

(WHITE IRIS RECORDS; 2014)

Incan Abraham

I never trust music reviewers who sound like they know every single similar artist when they try to describe a new band to the reader, and it would be literally impossible for any music scribe to hear even a majority of the stuff that comes out these days; there’s just too much of it. An honest, well-intentioned reviewer, which yours truly would like to be considered, can at best hope to give you a general idea of a new group’s sound, and then offer up a few similar artists as loose references. What you need to know about Incan Abraham, and their debut album TOLERANCE (well named in these intolerant times) is that it’s melodic, stately rock bent on achieving a casual grandeur, rock that is friendly, communal and very inviting, with high male vocals and pleasing harmonies. You want reference points? Well, there is a Norwegian artist named Magnet that comes to mind but I’m guessing you don’t know that artist or the singer, Evan Johanssen, who powers it. So let’s go with a touch of Coldplay, a few dollops of Beach House and a vague smidge of Sting, arranged in such a way that it could go prog on you if the group had a ton of money, but they don’t yet, so they stop just in time to be melodically solid and easily accessible. Comparisons aside, the main thing about Incan Abraham is that they sound familiar, something that reminds you of other stuff you’ve heard, but in a good, reassuring way.

Incan Abraham (publicity photo)

Incan Abraham (publicity photo)

Giuliano Pizzulo, Teddy Cafaro and Spencer Mandel have evidently been friends since grade school, and you can practically hear that kind of tight-knit vibe in the close harmonies and unity of purpose here. Pizzulo’s vocals soar, typically against lush, synth-generated backdrops that never go on too long, and are always melodically winning.”Midwife,” “Concorde” and “Forgiveness” have that easy accessibility that’s elusive for so many bands, hitting the right buttons not just for a presumed mass rock audience but for jaded critics that look for something oh so different but will normally surrender to great vocals and high production values. On “Tram,” Pizzulo has the confidence in his range that allows him to hit high notes perfectly, and the resulting emotional clarity is very pleasant indeed. “Desert Hold,” a brief truffle of a tune, is sparsely arranged, with just a slightly off-center vocal, acoustic guitar, and sweet harmonies to give it a bit of company…very becoming. But “Peers” is a real highlight, a warm, lovely bit of songcraft in which the vocal harmonies wrap you in a soft blanket of comfort, outdoing Beach House by a degree or two. When the band sings “Oh, oh, oh” a few times at the end, you might be inclined to do the same at the sweet sound emanating from your player. And the jaunty keyboard figure of “Spring House”, with another breezy arrangement in tow, should seduce the majority of just about any genre audience out there save hip hop or metal. It’s easy listening for uneasy times. In short, there are two ways you can approach this kind of record: the stuffy, “oh look at me I’m a critic” way, which will have you concluding that this is a listenable, but not very original debut. Or, the way most listeners SHOULD respond to something: does it sound good? Are the vocals strong? Do the tunes invite you in and incite some emotion here and there? On that level, Incan Abraham have definitely got it going on; they are attentive, emotionally present musicians who aim to pull you right in for 45 minutes, and then let you go, feeling a good measure better. In my book, that’s a solid musical goal, and TOLERANCE is likely an understated word for what you’ll achieve by experiencing this lovely record start to finish.


LIARS: MESS

(MUTE RECORDS; 2014)

liars_mess

Anxious times require anxious music. For some of us, anyway. Oh sure, it’s great to put on a platter that soothes and comforts and makes you forget all your dreary, unsolvable problems, while giving you a false sense of hope that all will most likely be well. But if you’re really tensed up about things, and pretty sure the human race is on a downward spiral, and you just want to hear a band that not only soundtracks that MESS of a mood, but somehow makes it exciting and even a communal, deliriously cathartic experience, well then, Liars are your band. Honestly, these guys are one of the most hypnotic, darkly alluring rock acts putting sound to disc these days, and whether you know about them or not, I’m here to tell you they’ve made seven straight fantastic albums in the new millennium, and there ain’t many who can make that claim. Based in LA these days (but having originated in Brooklyn), the trio of Angus Andrew (one of rock’s most ferociously original presences), Aaron Hemphill and Julian Gross embody an aesthetic that’s hard to pin down; they stray away from formula as a rule, and try to make each album as different as possible from the last one, yet the truth about Liars is that the music occupies a “post punk” sort of realm which allows for clang-banging industrial grooves, atonal freneticism, evocative ambient, danceable rock/techno riffs and witchy, twitchy, tribal chants to co-exist in a unified, original blend. No album is exactly like the last one, but none are as radically different as the band would sometimes have you believe. They are consistent in the mesmerizing, unsettling brew they serve up, owing to Andrew’s memorable vocal style (he can careen from snarling low tones to gorgeously evocative falsetto in an instant), insistent rhythm tracks throughout their recorded oeuvre, and a willingness to experiment with electronica in a mostly rocking context. No one song is necessarily all that original, but Liars seem to accumulate a more and more unique sonic perspective as time goes on. They have attitude a-plenty.

Liars (photo credit: ZEN SEKIZAWA)

Liars (photo credit: ZEN SEKIZAWA)

So, what of this new MESS recording? Well, it’s got a lot of catchy synth-based electronica grooves, a veneer of angsty (yet often comical) dismay at the state of things, and a fairly polished production (despite that title). If you remember that news item from a few years back about a drug-addled nutcase who tried to eat another man’s face off, the distorted spoken word spook-chants that open “Mask Maker” won’t put you in the most ebullient mood, but the basic track is standard electronic riffage that you can tap your feet to. In general, the lyrics on Liars recordings aren’t what you notice; you probably won’t pick out verses such as “I can’t get better/I want the best though/If I’m running out of lifetime/You should just say so” on the track “Vox Tuned DED,” but you’ll be bobbing your head and taking note of the gripping aural atmosphere that is beginning to build. Check off references like Depeche Mode, Joy Division, Ultravox and Underworld if you want, but this is Liars’ world; you just stumble around in it. “I’m No Gold” is a relatively long track (six plus minutes), but the rockin’ is solid and the distorted vocals will take you prisoner fairly quickly. And “Pro Anti Anti” is genuinely a hypnotic track, with some minimal keyboard sorcery, a proggy latter section and a lyric that seems rather emblematic of these guys: “They brood in ecstasy, a thought to wrap your head ’round.” Yeah, CHECK! “Can’t Hear Well” features Andrew singing through a voice-muddling device over a repeating 3-tone synth riff that you simply can’t ignore; It’s even kinda sad. This music is just NOT like other music. Tune it in, mofos, or get da ef outa here! But if you’ve been sorta “meh” up to this point, “Mess On a Mission” will lasso your full attention with its contrapuntal rhythms, a Talking Heads kinda vibe, Andrew’s going both full falsetto (on what passes for a chorus here, something like “our next solution” repeated over and over) and the inescapable refrain, “Facts are facts and fiction’s fiction,” pounded at your eardrums like it’s the most important utterance ever made, and who knows, perhaps it is. This is one damned memorable slab of music. “Darkslide” is a creepy instrumental that harkens back to THEY WERE WRONG, SO WE DROWNED, the group’s maligned but underrated 2003 opus on all things witchy and witchcrafty. “Dress Walker” is danceable and irresistible, just simple, captivating modern electro-rock that does its thing efficiently and evocatively, with the bonus of interesting lyrics such as “From the floor, another new passage, another exit/I refused, I was exactly where I belonged/When the world sings from the halls and the demon’s at the door/Let the one inside and sing along,” if you care to read the booklet while you are listening. Liars, by the way, do NOT usually feature the lyrics on their releases. “Perpetual Village” is quintessential Liars: weird, trancey, dark and long (nine glorious minutes!), doing a wonderfully Bowie-esque job of keeping your attention through its determinedly insular electro-murk. And then things close out with the downright haunting “Left Speaker Blown,” which seems to evoke both Brian Eno in its ambient overtones and Joy Division in its underlying bleakness. But ear pleasing, nonetheless. Liars really can’t be pigeonholed; though they can be dissonant at times, they are NOT all that abrasive, and they are drawn to hypnotic, recurring sounds and rhythms, which serves them well. They behave like a tribe, honestly, and their music has always had tribal elements in it. If you happen to wander into their part of the sonic jungle, which is a bit of an unsettling place, they won’t hurt you or “eat your face off,” despite whatever fears you might have. In fact, they’d probably invite you to their camp for some homemade beer and mad late-night dancing. Just don’t expect them to stick around or see to your accommodations, though. Liars are on the MOVE, driven by some force that only they truly understand. A decade-plus of their sonic sojourns has been a compelling thing for us fans of adventurous music. Sure, the results may be a MESS at times, but there’s pure MAGIC just as often. As for me, I’m puttin’ on the face paint, drinking something potent and getting ready to dance around the fire. In my head, anyway, which Liars have sent me far down the twisting corridors of. Anxiety may be pressing in from the darkness, but ya know what? I ain’t that scared no more! Liars got my back…