Monday, June 29, 2009

Michael Jackson

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What will I remember most about Michael Jackson? It won't be moonwalks, his partial plunder of the Beatles' catalog, increasingly eccentric behavior, a sequined silver glove or messy legal proceedings. No, for me it will be Captain EO, the Coppola-directed and Lucas-produced 3-D film shown at Walt Disney's money-sucking theme parks from the mid 1980s to the mid 1990s. For a kid like myself in that Reagan/Bush decade, it was perhaps the first mindfuck I'd experienced, and in 3-D no less. Set in a futuristic industrial world of metal and decay, the story revolved around Jackson as Captain EO, a smooth-dancin' spaceman, and his ragtag bunch of circus freaks (a flying partner, a two-headed pilot and an elephantine helper who warped my dreams for many a night) who are delivering a gift to a wicked queen played by Angelica Huston (not a joke). Eventually, after many special effects that likely made parents feel the price of the park's admission was at least somewhat palatable, the crew escapes a lifetime of torture as EO sings the song "We Are Here To Change The World" to queen. After a bit more brou-ha-ha, magic spells, and Jackson fighting soldiers armed with whips, the queen is transformed into a hot babe, her planet morphs into a lush wonderland and the sniveling kids in the audience like myself immediately begged our parents to stand in the hours-long line again for another viewing of it.

Captain EO was the first 3-D film I can remember seeing, and though the specifics of it are hazy, I can still remember how bizarre and fascinating it was, even if I didn't quite get the story. Which seems an apt, if somewhat cynical, summation of Jackson's life. Michael Jackson entered the public consciousness in many different ways. I'm not ashamed to say that it took a theme park attraction in my case.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Tiny Masters of Today: Skeletons

It's difficult to view Tiny Masters of Today as anything but a prepubescent neo-punk novelty act. Its sibling members Ivan and Ada are just so goddamn young, even by today's post-Britney-in-a-schoolgirl-outfit standards: Ivan is 15 and Ada is all of 13. To put that in perspective, Ivan was born the year Kurt Cobain offed himself, while Ada likely doesn't have any memory of George W. Bush's election in 2000 (if only the rest of us could say the same thing). They're still in public school in New York, for chrissakes. Despite their youthfulness, the band has already released two EPs and now two albums, while much-older garage bands the world over still flail away with a mixture of determination and desperation in mom's dingy basement.

Tiny Masters of Today has garnered some modest critical and commercial attention the old-fashioned way: through MySpace. A few homemade recordings posted on that massive testament to the reach and butt-puckering terrible power of the Internet made the band's bones and turned some media outlets and musicians into blubbering fools. Newsweek Magazine (yes, that Newsweek Magazine) offered up a brief but enamored profile of the band, while the little known Artrocker, in a cover story article filled with the type of masturbatory exaggeration the magazine will surely one day regret and wish to purge from their archives 1984-style, called the band (ahem) "the future of rock and roll." Novelty act or not, the band has likewise since received support from big-name musicians and indie artists alike. David Bowie tossed out the now-ubiquitous "genius" to describe the band's first single, though perhaps Bowie's checkered output over the last 30 years has lowered his standards when applying such a term. Debut album Bang Bang Boom Cake included contributions from Gibby Haynes of Butthole Surfers and a few members of Yeah Yeah Yeahs; B-52 Fred Schneider was even brought out of deep freeze to perform on the album.

Of course with any band who achieves "overnight success" - at least to some degree - the trick for any reviewer is to look past this hype at the band's actual content. Certainly Ivan's and Ada's ages will turn some narrow-minded reviewers off immediately; after all, how can a couple pre-teens connect with critics or listeners who are decades older than them? Though criticizing a couple kids so young feels akin to kicking a terrier in the spleen, the band's age shouldn't absolve them from criticism either. So what can one say of the band's latest album Skeletons? As an example of the oft-mentioned DIY aesthetic, it's passable: according to press material, the siblings wrote the album themselves and recorded most of the tracks at home with the Garageband computer program. Though additional recording and mixing were done later, the majority of the heavy lifting was apparently done by the two siblings. So we'll give them a few points for ingenuity.

Still, that's about as generous as I can be here. Skeletons is agonizingly repetitive and dull, a computer-generated album that favors software trickery over something - anything - worthwhile, meaningful, or, shit, even humorous. There's simply no soul or conviction here; it's imitation lo-fi music awash in technological overindulgence. Like a hooker going through the motions on a busy night, every song follows the same basic approach and is equally predictable and disappointing: heavily distorted vocals are used constantly, while software-created fragments of everything from hip-hop to punk, dub, electronica and disco suffocate the songs quickly. Every song consists of repeated lyrics and phrases - "Drop the Bomb" and "Big Stick" are the most egregious offenders - that are tinny as hell and layered slightly above a muddled and cluttered musical sludge that suggests the band relied on a checklist of 20th-century musical genres, deciding to implement pieces each one at the same time. Though some songs might work as innocuous background noise for a video game or as filler for one of MTV's mindless programs, in an album setting they become increasingly monotonous and mind-numbing.

Do I feel like a bastard for panning this album? In a way, yes. It's no great joy in trashing a couple of young teens' sophomore album. Assuming the band is serious and not just playing a joke on us - judging by the artists lining up to support them, they are serious - Skeletons suggests the band is long on hype and short on substance. Maybe there's a generation gap here - I still can't seem to get the humor of the bland and limp "Abercrombie Zombie" - but poor music transcends all ages. Give the band's members a free pass because of their age if you like, but be aware that Skeletons is a clinical and entirely lifeless album, an uninspired also-ran that will endear the band to very few listeners.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Patterson Hood: Murdering Oscar (and other love songs)

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Patterson Hood's Murdering Oscar (and other love songs) will likely sound familiar to the legions of PBR-swillin', trucker-hat-wearin' Drive-By Trucker fans. Like Hood's work with DBT, its songs are deceptively simple, straightforward and full of rough edges: searing guitars wail and shred, understated strings and piano melodies add some tenderness and heartache to the fray, background harmonies offer texture and Hood sings in his usual scratchy, countrified drawl. Many of the lyrical obsessions of DBT's best work are here as well: kin (er, family), Southern culture and its various "quirks," mortality and aging, booze and no small number of men and women of questionable moral character.

Though Oscar contains a solid collection of songs, it likely won't convince non-believers who have never gotten on board with Hood or who haven't followed DBT since masterpiece Southern Rock Opera, and is best left to those deranged DBT fanatics living among us. In some ways Oscar has the feel of an odds-and-ends closet-clearing project. Essentially a mixture of songs originally penned by Hood in the early 1990s and more-recent songs, many of them were planned for release but were eventually shelved for various reasons. This isn't to say that the songs are glorified outtakes or b-sides; despite the years that separate some of these songs, the album is quite cohesive, both in sound and Hood's alternately humorous and dark lyrics.

Many of the songs trod familiar ground. "Pollyanna" is built around interweaving guitars and piano as it depicts the age-old story of a relationship in shambles, while the droning "Heavy and Hanging" was written in response to Kurt Cobain's suicide. A number of songs deal with domesticity. The old-timey guitar and strings of "Granddaddy" paint a picture of familial contentment; Hood notes that the song was written shortly before his daughter was born. It's not all New Morning bliss though; the wistful nostalgia of "Pride of the Yankees" is offset by a 9/11 reference and Hood's foreboding lament that "the sky is falling," while "Screwtopia" unfolds like a pissed-off satire of home life, its decidedly un-PC narrator clearly not having bought into feminism ("Keep you pregnant all the time.../ Keep you happy and sedated/ Who need to be liberated?"), and embracing the NRA's favorite amendment ("Son here's a loaded gun/ Try not to hurt no one").

Yet there are few "Holy Shit" moments here, no "Days Of Graduation" or "Plastic Flowers On The Highway" to make the listener take notice. It's reliable yeoman's work to be sure, but the album simply meets the listener's expectations and rarely exceeds them. There are also a few clunkers that are curiosity pieces at best; "She's a Little Randy" sports a few cringe-worthy lyrics, while "Walking Around Sense" sounds uncomfortably similar to early Uncle Tupelo-era Jeff Tweedy. As a document that traces Hood's development as a musician and songwriter, DBT fans most in need of psychiatric treatment and a heavy chaser of pills could spend countless hours analyzing these songs and how they tie in to Hood's previous work. Hood seems to realize this, as his detailed liner notes provide fans with a map, compass and a bit of spare change to help them along. Casual DBT fans - if such a thing even exists - will still find enough to like about Oscar, but it's not required listening by any means.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Dinosaur Jr.: Farm

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As reunions go, Dinosaur Jr. is one of the few bands that hasn't fucked its legacy like a pack of overzealous and craggy-faced necrophiliacs. It's easy to understand why the long-awaited band reunion has become its own punch line; despite the ludicrous sums of money big-name reunited bands have received and the touchy-feely warm fuzzies fans have experienced as their heroes plod through the back catalog of their glory days, few of these endeavors have enhanced said band's legacy. The list of offenders is long, with the fossilized remnants of the New York Dolls and The Stooges recently hitting the live circuit. True to the official reunion handbook, both acts have likewise released truly heinous studio efforts that killed whatever little mystique they still had. And the less said about that 1993 Velvet Underground reunion the better.

Most disconcerting is that a club that was previously largely the domain of such grandfather acts now counts a few indie bands among its members. Though the results haven't been entirely disastrous - while the jury is still out on My Bloody Valentine's resurgence, The Jesus and Mary Chain's rebirth was a surreal letdown and the Pixies' self-desecration that was "Bam Thwok" was abysmally awful - fans could be forgiven for finding such resurrections needless and pointlessly nostalgic.

Yet the classic Dinosaur Jr. lineup of J Mascis, Lou Barlow and Murph has managed to successfully dodge these landmines. Shows in 2005 were both commercially and critically well received, while 2007's Beyond was better than anyone expected, even if it did owe more to the more restrained style of the band's later major label releases than to the swirls of noise and distortion on landmark album You're Living All Over Me. It was, quite simply, an exception to the rule: no legacies were shattered and no studio atrocities were committed. It was a graceful and promising relaunch for one of music's most sorely missed bands.

For the most part, the Dinosaur Jr.'s latest album Farm continues this momentum, melding elements of the band's abrasive classic sound with the somewhat subdued vibe of Beyond. Most songs adhere to the template that has made the group objects of obsessive worship and shameless imitation throughout the music world: soaring guitar workouts, steady but somewhat muddled bass, insistent drums. Opener "Pieces," "I Want You To Know," and "I Don't Wanna Go There" all feature serious guitar muscle-flexing from Mascis, with Barlow and Murph's mid-tempo rhythm pushing the songs forward. The trio's studio chemistry is as good as ever, with each song playing to each member's strengths.

Mascis' vocals are what's most startling though, his paper-thin voice expressive without sounding overwrought. Indeed, with this delivery some songs sound as bleak as anything the band has done. A sense of regret and disappointment is implied in "Plans," "Ocean In The Way" and "Over It," with Mascis's vocals as mournful and evocative as they've ever been. It's not fair to flippantly brand these as wounded love songs, though some tracks could fall into such a category. "See You" and the nearly eight-minute "Said the People" find Mascis stretching out his vocals with a subtle country inflection, suggesting everything from vulnerability to bitterness. "I'm about to crack...didn't see you for a while," Mascis says in "See You," while "Said the People" plays like a slow-burning lament of "all the people who let me down."

There are a few flaws with Farm. At 61 minutes the album at times feels a bit too long, with those meaty guitar workouts sometimes a bit too overindulgent. Barlow's lead vocals on "Your Weather" and "Imagination Blind" are mechanical and wooden, with both songs feeling awkward and out of place. Still those shortcomings are minor. While the album is more mellow, pensive and controlled than the band's genre-defining early style, that's not a bad thing. Unlike other reunited bands, Dinosaur Jr. is likely not interested in digging up the bones of their past. Now with two solid recent albums to their credit, Dinosaur Jr. will likely be of the few such bands whose victory lap won't end with them hacking and wheezing as they approach the finish line.

Friday, June 19, 2009

End of the Aughts: Disappointments

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Lucinda Williams-Essence was saddled with heavy baggage from the start. As the follow up to Lucinda Williams' career-defining Car Wheels on a Gravel Road, it had very little chance of surpassing its predecessor, at least in the minds of fans and critics who developed a borderline-obsessive devotion to that 1998 album. To Williams' credit, she didn't try to repeat Car Wheels' formula, instead abandoning that album's folk and country hybrid for Essence's atmospheric ballads. Though Williams didn't do her studio perfectionist/diva reputation any favors by taking nearly three years to release Essence, it was mostly worth the wait. It found Williams in a somber mood, with the mostly optimistic nostalgia and childhood memories of Car Wheels replaced by dark broodings about mortality and aging ("Bus To Baton Rouge"), loneliness ("Lonely Girls"), general sad shit ("Blue") and, of course, fucked up relationships ("Out Of Touch" and any other song you want to mention). A haze of regret and disappointment hung over most songs, with Williams' often-mangled vocals restrained, controlled and evocative of such moods. It remains Williams' darkest record to date; though Car Wheels still casts a long shadow over her entire career, Essence proves that the popular image of Williams as an alt.rock folkie is largely inaccurate.

It's also the last consistently good album Williams released this decade. Essence was followed in 2003 by the erratic and plodding World Without Tears, a meandering album that lacked much of the emotional resonance of the artist's previous work. Although Williams' unflinching lyrics were solid at times - especially in the used-like-a-cheap-whore laments of "Those Three Days" and "Minneapolis" - at least half the album was cluttered up by tedious vocals and bloated arrangements. "Righteously," "Sweet Side" and "Atonement" would have been best served relegated to the b-side shitbin, while "American Dream" and the title track were both preachy and pedantic.

And then the proverbial downward spiral really kicked in. The obligatory live album followed in 2005 with the dull Live @ The Fillmore; showing the complete lack of imagination we've come to expect from music labels, the release simply culled tracks from several different Fillmore shows, offering up bits and pieces instead of a complete show. The dual studio atrocities of West and Little Honey rounded out the decade and did nothing to offset this slipshod live product; taken together, they are underwhelming, self-indulgent and remarkably forgettable. West's songs were at least partially doomed by the album's lengthy running time - more than half its songs clocked in at over five minutes - though the stilted production did them no favors either. Little Honey was disturbingly lousy, with Williams offering up 13 mostly sappy odes to Love and that's with a big fat fucking capital L. It was everything fans thought Williams could never be: maudlin and melodramatic. The nausea countless listeners experienced wasn't due to a bad fish taco.

In interviews Williams has often bristled at such criticism, attributing the poor reception that greeted most of her albums this decade to a variety of reasons, commonly suggesting that fans and critics haven't given the albums a fair shake and simply want her to create Car Wheels on a Gravel Road Part II. It's a trite yet common complaint from musicians with lengthy careers - Dylan and Costello could pen on a book on this - but it's little more than a smokescreen. Few fans (or critics, for that matter) with an active interest in an artist's work want to hear mailed-in rehashes of that artist's masterwork. Of course there will always be musos stuck in a particular time and place; these are the people who keep nostalgia tours in business. The hard truth is that while Williams has admirably refused to settle into a particular style, most of her releases from this decade have been mediocre at best and inessential at worst. - Eric Dennis

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Revisit: Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds: Murder Ballads (1996)

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Revisit is a series of reviews highlighting past releases that now deserve a second look.

Murder has long been a central character in Nick Cave's albums. Acts of bloodshed frequently drip from his songs, often with very little subtlety and usually with no apologies or sense of remorse from its killing hands. Heads are wrapped in pillowcases, flies hum and buzz around mad John Finn's carved-up corpse outside a sweaty and seedy dancehall, a shit-broke booze hound is comforted by a fantasy of a woman groaning in the dirt as she finally dies of thirst. Still it wasn't until 1996's Murder Ballads where Cave set aside his other lyrical preoccupations to singularly focus on this topic. The album blends songs penned by Cave and sundry Bad Seeds with traditional songs that are drastically reworked or bludgeoned, depending on one's point of view. Taken as a whole, the album fits nicely within the bizarre and often surreal world of such murder songs.

The old-timey "Henry Lee" is sung as a duet with PJ Harvey and features a flittering piano arrangement, with the poor Henry Lee, content with his true love "in that merry green land," refusing a woman's advances and paying for his faithfulness as she offs him with a penknife. Although written by Cave, "Where the Wild Roses Grow" contains some well-worn decades-old motifs: a murder whose motives are uncertain and an incredibly naïve and innocent girl who describes her final moments from beyond the grave. A duet with Kylie Minogue, the track relies on strings to set the mood for its account of a strangely poetic killer and his target. Its events echo those of much older songs- "Ommie Wise" immediately comes to mind - as the man sweet talks the virgin-for-not-much-longer Eliza Day and eventually kills her for no reason other than his belief that "all beauty must die."

If the thematic elements of "Wild Roses" are ripped from the pages of a dusty 1920s music folio, "The Kindness of Strangers" is the album's most contemporary and unsettling track. Starkly framed by Conway Savage's piano, the song recounts the final moments of the prophetically-named Mary Bellows, a small-town Arkansas girl who leaves home to see the ocean - big aspirations - and meets the mysterious Richard Slade. Soon after she's dead, "Cuffed to the bed/ With a rag in her mouth and a bullet in her head." Though the killer is never named, we can only assume it's Slade, perhaps enraged that Mary refused his sexual advances. The young girl is a true victim in the most tragic sense; Anita Lane cries in the background as Cave details the murder almost like as a journalist, both of whom successfully avoid being overwrought and melodramatic. The effect is chilling and the song ranks among Cave's darkest and most emotional.

Other songs batter the listener with the chaos, noise and gothic arrangements for which Cave and the Bad Seeds are best known. A parade of psychopathic butchers tears through large parts of Murder Ballads, leaving a bloody trail of carnage in their wake. In some cases these killers are so exaggerated that it's hard not to view them as comical caricatures or as Cave's way of upending the intense seriousness and social commentary found in many folk ballads. In "The Curse Of Millhaven," little 14-year old Loretta, with her green eyes and yellow hair, is a peerless and indiscriminate embodiment of evil as she offs Handyman Joe with a circular saw and places his severed head in the mayor's fountain, burns the town to the ground ("a wee little girl with a can of gasoline") and generally makes a nuisance of herself. The song's circus organ swirls and overly dramatic choir suggest it isn't meant to be taken at face value, in sharp contrast to "The Kindness Of Strangers." Likewise, the 14-minute splatter fest of "O'Malley's Bar" includes an over the top villain whose actions play like something out of a lousy Dean Koontz novel or laughably gory slasher film. It's a delicate balancing act between pastiche and tastelessness, yet everything about the song - its sad-sack bar patrons, an overly verbose yet philosophical perpetrator who's apparently well versed in biblical saints, Cave's vocal delivery against the Bad Seed's stutter-stop instrumentation - hints that its excessive death toll is meant not to frighten or give scathing social commentary about a violent society. Instead, it's meant to evoke at least some laughter, albeit uneasily and even if the listener feels like a soulless bastard for laughing at such things.

The tone is decidedly different on "Song Of Joy" and "Stagger Lee;" the first two tracks on the album, they're also the album's most provocative songs. While artists like Woody Guthrie, Bob Dylan and The Clash have each interpreted the story of Stagger Lee and his killing of Billy Lyons - supposedly over a goddamn Stetson hat - none match Cave's vulgar, F-bomb-laden version. Built around a stabbing piano, Blixa Bargeld's and Mick Harvey's tense guitars and eventual gun shots after Stag's dirty deeds have been done and drawing from an obscure transcription, the song imagines the man as a divorced Depression-era drifter, sexual deviant and supreme badass. Here the fabled Stetson hat is already in Stag's possession before anyone is murdered; in a further break from both these older versions and historical accounts of the event, Lyons is reworked as the hapless Billy Dilly, either the pimp or boyfriend of a local prostitute. In Cave's version the hat is incidental; Stag kills the bartender in a test of just who the biggest hardass is and then kills Billy while being orally pleasured by him. No motive is given. While previous songs and books have offered everything from a wronged sense of honor to political differences between Stag and Lyons to a combination of alcohol and macho boasting as the catalyst for their dispute, here Stag seemingly kills simply because he enjoys it.

"Song Of Joy" is terrifying as hell and one of the Bad Seeds' best ensemble performances. Its tension builds slowly and never really recedes, first established by Cave's almost symphonic piano melody, Bargeld's understated guitar and a menacing atmosphere maintained by Martyn Casey's and Mick Harvey's rhythm. What unfolds is the narrator's tale of how his wife and three children - Hilda, Hattie and Holly, nice alliteration - were brutally murdered by a John Milton-quoting killer who's still on the lam. Coupled with Cave's sinister spoken word vocals, it's immediately apparent that this man might be something far different from the mourning husband and father he portrays himself as. His alibi is shady and probably complete bullshit, his arrival on the doorstep of a "family man" is accompanied by howling wolves and hissing serpents, and like the murderer he quotes Milton more extensively than Donald Sutherland. Practically every lyric can be read with drastically opposite meanings - "all things moved toward their end," "my bones are cold right through" - and the listener is left to determine what happens next as the song ends. Given all the bloodlust that follows as the album progresses, one can only hope this family man locked his door that night.

Though Murder Ballads might not be Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds' best work, it is their most focused and as close to a conceptual album as they've come. It pays homage to the spirit and subjects of the often fascinating and morbid world of traditional ballads while its original songs likewise fit within this scope like few other modern songs. It's a dark and darkly comic world in Murder Ballads, where its killers are variously frightening and unbelievable, and its victims, most of them anyway, are viewed with empathy, pity and sorrow.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Revisit: The Jesus Lizard: Liar

Sometimes an album inspires our most romantic and sentimental of sides. It makes a gray cloudy February sky sunny, makes crows sounds like melodious songbirds of love and makes a love-struck fool completely insufferable to anyone who crosses his merry path. It makes a man sit through that goddamn awful The Notebook for the eighth time and spend grotesque sums of money on dinner and drinks. It makes the object of his affection realize that at the end of the night, she's pretty much gonna have to give it up.
Liar is not that album. Released in 1992 by the Touch & Go label, The Jesus Lizard's third album stands as their best, a manic and deranged tromp through life's seediest back pages, mental insecurities, physical depravities, and psychopathic tendencies. It contains all the hallmarks that separate the band from all those industrial two-bit hack impersonators who would follow in their wake: David Yow's tortured and barely-understandable vocals, Duane Denison's jagged and pointed guitar work, and David Sims and Mac McNeilly's headache-inducing rhythmic backing. Though it lacks some of Goat's grime, sludge and sleaze, it straddles the line most effectively between the band's somewhat inaccessible early sound and the stylistic "progress" shown on their later Capitol releases. Though the makeup of Liar certainly isn't to everyone's liking - those who offend easily or like their music smooth, optimistic and incidental should stay the hell away - it is the band's most enduring work and also the best starting point for anyone with a passing interest in The Jesus Lizard.
The instrumentals on Liar leave no room for subtle textures or gray areas. Most songs are blasted out in relentless spurts and abrupt stops, the album's 10 songs crammed into 35 minutes of twitching agitation. Denison's guitar is unflinching and persistent, while the bass and drums pile on top and underneath to form something that's oddly noisy and melodic in a perverse way. Coupled with Yow's various shouts, yelps and screams the effect of this onslaught on the listener is disarming, especially on songs like "Boilermaker," "Puss" and "The Art of Self-Defense." Yet it's the arrangements' control and precision that separate it from that horrific glut of 1990s industrial/noise-rock albums that were vomited from countless dorm room speakers not so long ago. There are no wasted or extraneous notes here, a lack of such deviation suggesting that there was little room given for improvisation as the album was recorded. With the exception of the nearly six-minute "Zachariah," the album's tempo never really changes. An unforgiving and explosive machine-like efficiency dominates the album, but never does it sound manufactured, artificial or overly produced. There's also an interesting and slightly disparate contrast at play throughout the album, as Yow's unhinged and meandering vocals threaten to suffocate the band's pin-point but abrasive arrangements, most notably on "Gladiator."
What Yow does on Liar cannot be termed singing; it's a brutal massacre of anything even remotely soothing or comforting. A lot of cute metaphors that music journalists love to use have attempted to describe Yow's vocals over the years, most likely because they defy easy categorization. Easy descriptions aside- Yow as some type of street-corner religious madman or simply a stark raving lunatic - the vocals are about as subtle as tire iron upside the head. They're frequently incomprehensible, due to producer Steve Albini's now ubiquitous technique of burying them in the mix as well as Yow's determination to howl for a half hour like he's on borrowed time or hauling a corpse into the woods. The album starts with a grunt on "Boilermaker" and devolves from there, with Yow spitting out sounds that sometimes roughly approximate English.
So what happens in these songs? Though a lyrics sheet is needed to fully make sense of what Yow is ranting about, enough words and phrases bleed through to realize that all sort of nasty shit's going down. Fingernails are torn off, sexual perversions are equally indulged and suppressed, drug and alcohol fueled-paranoia runs rampant, murder and suicide tear ass across the album, and the bodies keep piling up. Yet for all this mindless violence, the lyrics frequently show a truly strange and unsettling poetic rhythm and cadence, particularly on "Boilermaker" and the ambiguous murder/suicide graphically described in "Rope." The lyrics compliment the band's instrumentation and make obvious what Yow's garbled wails imply.
Now with The Jesus Lizard reformed and back to touring and recording new music, it's a good time to pound through their back catalog, even the late Capitol releases. Of course this album isn't for everyone; if its often graphic subject matter doesn't turn people away, its punishing sound likely will. Though a case could be made for its predecessor Goat, Liar is more focused in its musical approach and more jarring in its lyrical content. While other noise-rock bands have since been tossed into the shitbin of history as well as countless record store bargain bins, Liar is still required listening for music fans with even a passing interest in 1990s indie.

Friday, June 05, 2009

The Courtesy Tier: Map and a Marker

tell yourself: I will visit at least once a day.

In this current indie landscape where countless bands seem intent on churning out inaccessible albums in the name of experimentation, The Courtesy Tier's straightforward blues/garage rock hybrid sounds out of place. Of course there are still plenty of indie bands who understand that muddying the water just to make it look deep doesn't always work, and that sometimes lyrical and musical directness and a lack of bullshit frills is the best approach. Still - to these aging 31-year old ears at least - too often modern albums fail because they try to accomplish too much, with too many studio tricks, synths, layers, reverbs, bells, whistles, cocks and weenies thrown into the mix. If I sound like a Luddite, so be it, but it's hard to argue that such studio and software program excesses haven't hindered more albums than they've helped.

Although it won't spawn any new musical genres, The Courtesy Tier's Map and a Marker succeeds because of its direct and organic approach. Its five songs pulse with ringing guitars, insistent drums, soaring lead vocals and occasional background harmonies. A Brooklyn-based duo consisting of Omer Leibovitz (guitar/vocals) and Layton Weedeman (drums/vocals), the band approaches each track quite similarly, reducing the songs to their most basic elements. From opener "Buddy Casey" to closer "While I'm Gone," the songs' momentum never really lets up. There are few wasted notes and no extraneous filler here; even the sometimes-lengthy instrumental breaks found on most songs (especially "Friend") do not sound overindulgent in the least.

The mix is likewise punchy and vibrant; in a welcome break from the incoherent sludge that too often comes across this reviewer's ears, the vocals are up front and entirely audible. Leibovitz's voice is strong and fits in nicely with the songs' arrangements, avoiding those ticks and histrionics that tend to invite parody and well-deserved derision from indie fans. While not remarkable, the lyrics avoid gut-wrenching poetics and are solid enough, with "Cold" heavy with fatalistic undertones and "While I'm Gone" ambiguous in its narrator's intentions (why does the narrator keep advising someone to not leave the porch light on?). Map and a Marker sounds labored over and crafted but not excessively so; the duo's instrumental proficiency is apparent throughout but never makes the songs feel clinical or predictable.

At a shade over 20 minutes, Map and a Marker is brief, but as an EP it offers a great introduction to The Courtesy Tier. Though the duo's style is not revolutionary and other bands mine similar musical territory - I can already see the inevitable comparisons to The Black Keys - the songs here are both unpretentious and uniformly excellent, with an economy of playing that bypasses fluff in favor of substance. While there's always pause for praising a band too much based only on an EP, Map and a Marker shows a band playing to its strengths and foregoing those studio embellishments in favor of something immediate and direct.

by Eric Dennis