Monday, November 23, 2009

Real Estate: Real Estate

spend your Thanksgiving visiting

Patience is a virtue, and listeners will likely need plenty of it throughout Real Estate's self-titled full-length. It's not that the album is overly long; at just 10 songs and right around 40 minutes, it's not particularly over-indulgent or tediously meandering. It's not that the album is awful or directionless either: clearly the New Jersey band knew what type of sound they were going for throughout the record. Nearly every song consists of opening and closing instrumental sections of varying lengths, fluid guitar lines from Matt Mondanile and the echoed and mostly buried vocals of Martin Courtney.

Only one small problem: the band repeats that formula for the entire album with the type of narrow-minded determination usually reserved for zealots and psychopaths. Individual songs mostly work by themselves, but when evaluated in an album context, this release quickly becomes monotonous and repetitive. To be sure, Real Estate has its moments - "Black Lake" is the album's standout track, its languid pace and distant vocals undeniably evocative and mysterious - but mostly the album crumbles under the weight of its own predictability. The album's charm doesn't last for long: "Fake Blues," "Green River," "Let's Rock the Beach" and "Suburban Beverage" are all built from a remarkably similar template, as each begins with an instrumental lead-in before giving way to various guitar/bass/drum patterns and Courtney's frequently hazy vocals.

Most of the tracks on Real Estate unfold gradually, with no peaks or valleys or moments of tension or resolution. Quite simply its parts are greater than the whole; on their own, songs like "Snow Days" and "Suburban Dogs" offer carefully crafted arrangements and ghostly vocals that sometimes sound like they were recorded underwater. That these songs offer various moods, tones and textures is undeniable. Yet there is just not enough variation to complement these songs' ethereal and nostalgic qualities, and eventually the album collectively becomes fairly ponderous and plodding. Courtney's vocals, buried in the mix to varying degrees, are essentially treated as another instrument, a trick that likewise works for a while before feeling a bit played out.

Of course, we're living in a digital music age where a solid song or two can be isolated from an album and added to a listener's iPod playlist, with those songs sounding all the better for it. Still, Real Estate likely isn't meant to be a collection of singles. There's a logic and consistency to its songs - not to mention plenty of references to beaches, water, lakes, seasons and suburbia - that musically and thematically link its tracks. Yet there are landmines with such a defined scope, and if you're a band that locks into a specific formula, the arrangements and vocals sure as hell better have enough wrinkles to remain interesting and unconventional. All too often such variations are missing from Real Estate, the result being an album whose deliberate pace and mostly uniform sound eventually overstay their welcome.

Monday, November 16, 2009

The Jesus Lizard Reissues

The major labels who treat album reissues as just another way to cheaply recycle and profitably repackage an artist's most celebrated work could learn a thing or two from Touch and Go. Quite simply, the indie label's Jesus Lizard reissues are about as flawless as such releases can be. Though the timing of the label's campaign might make cynics take notice - the original releases aren't out of print, the remastering job by Steve Albini and Bob Weston isn't really noticeable and these reissues come at a time when a reformed Jesus Lizard is performing live to receptive audiences - the care and attention paid to these reissues more than offset any reservations listeners might have about shelling out for the albums. For those not familiar with the Jesus Lizard, the reissues will serve as an ideal overview of the band, while hardcore fans who know there is no better insult than calling someone a mouth-breather should be satisfied with the bonus tracks and the releases' overall aesthetic.

Enough clever metaphors have been used over the years to describe Goat and Liar to make additional commentary redundant. It's enough to say that both albums contain the band's blend of deranged vocals and scathing, stop-start arrangements at their most precise and tense; filled with ugly sentiments and even uglier characters, these albums remain essential pieces of 1990s indie rock. Only a fool would bother to argue that one album is significantly stronger than the other. If this reissue series suggests anything, it's that the records that bookended Goat and Liar deserve a bit more attention. Very few sane fans will argue that the Pure EP, Head and final Touch and Go album Down belong in the same class as Goat and Liar; still, these less-celebrated releases have aged remarkably well and offer traces of the sound the band perfected on those two classic albums. Though Yow's vocals don't quite have the maniacal frenzy of tracks like "Boilermaker," "Seasick," "Karpis" or "Rope" and the EP sometimes exposes a tentative vocalist, the singer's guttural howls and strangled cries on "Bloody Mary," "Starlet" and "Killer McHann" are the stuff of loony bins and state penitentiaries and hint at the unhinged and uncontrolled vocal spasms Yow would employ throughout Goat and Liar.

In contrast the band's taut and sharp arrangements in many ways were solidified early on; starting with Head and continuing through Down, the three-man wrecking crew of David Wm. Sims, Mac McNeilly and Duane Denison delivered music free of frills, extraneous notes or other needless diversions. Of course, the most focused and violently concise songs are found on Goat and Liar, but early songs like "Good Thing," "Waxeater" and "One Evening" all bear the trio's machine-like efficiency. Select tracks from the erratic Down - with its relatively audible vocals and somewhat polished sound, it's arguably the band's most straightforward record - likewise feature the trio's propulsive rhythms and textures. The contrast between Yow's meandering vocals and the band's exact instrumentals still sounds jarring and disorienting.

If there are any complaints to be made, it's that each disc includes a scant number of bonus tracks and that a complete live show might have been preferable to the few live songs captured here. Yet these drawbacks are minor and forgivable. Yow sings like an untreated schizophrenic on live versions of "Bloody Mary," "Killer McHann," "Seasick," "Lady Shoes" and "Monkey Trick;" perfunctory demos of "Dancing Naked Ladies," "Gladiator" and "Boilermaker" are nevertheless intriguing and Down is rounded out with four tracks that would have fit in nicely on that album, particularly "Glamorous" and "Deaf as a Bat." Each reissue is nattily packaged with vintage photos, reproductions of posters, ticket stubs and other miscellany and anecdotes and ramblings from Yow, McNeilly and Denison. Even the requisite mythologizing essays are worth reading, even if the authors' somewhat-fawning superlatives stop just short of arguing that the band could turn shit to gold.

Ultimately, what we're left with is a heavyweight band whose records now get to take the victory lap they were never afforded in the '90s, at least commercially. Goat and Liar still stand as the band's finest works, but for those interested in diving into the aggression and depravity of these songs, either for the first time or once again, all of these reissued albums are required listening.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Song of the Decade: Tom Waits - Barcarolle

"Barcarolle" by Tom Waits (2002)

Trying to pick one song as the aughts' best is a fool's task: for every song a critic chooses, at least one reader will likely wonder why the hell the writer made that bizarre selection. Setting all this aside, the criteria I used was simple: of all the songs I heard this decade, Tom Waits' "Barcarolle" is the only one that I can still listen to at any time, in any mood, at any place and never even become momentarily bored or underwhelmed.

At first glance (hell, even at second and third glance) "Barcarolle" is an unlikely candidate for this feature. The song didn't define the decade in any appreciable way, nor did it bend, reshape, or obliterate any genres. It wasn't created against the backdrop of the past 10 years' key events - 9/11, wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, a crippled economy - and didn't capture the bleakness and dread that defined most of this fucked up Bush-Cheney debacle of a decade. Even in the Tom Waits catalog the song is routinely dismissed as a decent song and not much more. Except for a few performances in 1992's coolly-received play Alice, Waits didn't get around to releasing it until 2002's album of the same name, and even then it was tucked away toward the end of the record. Still, the song carries with it a beauty and fragility that was rarely matched throughout the decade.

The song, like most tracks from Alice, takes as its subject the devotion/illicit obsession Lewis Carroll carries around for the young Alice Liddell. It forgoes the vocal barking and musical clang usually associated with the musician in favor a beautifully subtle approach. The arrangement is wonderfully understated and among the most evocative Waits has recorded; a perfect blend of bass, piano, violin, and saxophone, each instrument is used to evoke a definite mood. Waits' vocals are likewise restrained, with none of the lunatic wailing that has sometimes bordered on self-parody.

In addition to the song's larger themes of devotion and obsession, "Barcarolle" is a moving rumination on mortality and aging. The idealized girl "skating on the ice/ In a glass in the hands of a man/ That she kissed on the train" will be young but for a moment, a truth the older narrator has already discovered but of which the girl seems naively unaware. Set against images that surface in Waits' songs like clockwork, time passes indifferently and the simple joys of youth give way to the effects of time: "...the branches bend down/ To the ground here to swing on/ I'm lost in the blond summer grass/ And the train whistle blows/ And the carnival goes/ Till there's only the tickets and crows here/ And the grass will all grow back."

With an arrangement that could soften even the most jaded heart, "Barcarolle" offers a poetic take on life's fleeting nature and little tragedies. Time moves on, with or without us, it suggests, with a steady indifference. It's also, quite simply, the one song from this decade I'd choose to listen to above all others. - Eric Dennis

Friday, November 06, 2009

Bad Santa

go read the rest of Spectrum Culture's review of the best films of the decade at

Few movies have managed to turn a tried-and-true genre on its head as irreverently and successfully as Bad Santa. The 2003 comedy is everything that It's A Wonderful Life and other maudlin, sentimental holiday drivel is not: unrepentantly crude, excessively lewd and cynical even as it embraces, however slightly, a bit of yuletide optimism. Along the way there are countless other incidents to remind viewers that this isn't your mother's Jimmy Stewart Christmas movie and that Clarence sure as hell won't be getting his wings: anal sex, a suicide attempt, murder, attempted murder, massive amounts of greed - among other vices - and copious amounts of unique and colorful profanity.

The main character - the perpetually drunk and horny con artist/thief Willie Stokes, played with convincing lasciviousness by Billy Bob Thornton - subverts the popular depiction of the everyman hero that has defined most holiday films. While almost every other such character has a flaw or two, Willie's are magnified to the point of comedic excess: his gig as a mall Santa is punctuated by drunken violent outbursts (on one occasion he waylays a reindeer display), blatant ogling of the mall's female customers, one self-pissing incident and a nihilistic streak that lessens but never really goes away.

Any concessions to the Christmas spirit come with perverse and violent twists. As the movie unfolds we see through several simple acts of kindness that, underneath the crusty, booze-soaked exterior, Willie just may be a caring person after all: he teaches The Kid (later revealed to have the unfortunate name Thurman Merman) how to defend himself by beating the tar out of a bully, while his relationship with bartender Sue progresses from him grabbing her ass as she hangs up ornaments to one of home-cooked meals and other trappings of domestic bliss. Hell, he even takes a hail of gunfire from the Phoenix Police Department as he delivers a stolen stuffed pink elephant to the boy's home, risking his life to fulfill Thurman's somewhat bizarre Christmas wish.

As the Christmas season seems to start earlier each year - my local Target broke out the decorations, artificial trees and obnoxious ornaments in early September - Bad Santa speaks to the dread and pessimism countless people feel as Christmas consumes various aspects of daily life. For such contemporary viewers the film is both hilarious and sobering: it's easy to see something of ourselves in both Willie's boorish behavior and his eventual redemption. While most Americans have been raised on a steady diet of innocuous and inane holiday movies, Bad Santa shows that films from this genre can be vulgar and obnoxious without resorting to overly emotional characters and weepy holiday sentiments. - Eric Dennis

Thursday, November 05, 2009

Concert Review: Built to Spill

plenty more good stuff at

If there was ever a band whose sound and stage demeanor perfectly fit the now-dead and practically buried Mississippi Nights (there's always talk of the venue reopening again in a new location, but it won't be the same), it's Built to Spill. Like a shitty and humid St. Louis summer followed by an equally shitty but freezing St. Louis winter, a Built to Spill show on the Landing was practically a given. And without exception these concerts were always memorable: a well-worn and smoke-filled venue packed to the point where you just knew fire codes were being violated, a temperature that seemed to hover around 120 degrees, alcohol flowing like water, a disturbing number of bearded Doug Martsch wannabes all intent on headbanging the night away and the band onstage absolutely pulverizing their songs at tinnitus-inducing volumes.

So perhaps it was inevitable that the band's recent performance at the Pageant - one of the most antiseptic and bland concert night clubs any city has to offer - lacked much of the edge and atmosphere that characterized those Mississippi Nights shows. Certainly there were a few remnants of that old Landing vibe: nearly every song was greeted by hollers of approval and a disconcerting number of air guitarists perfecting their technique, the bearded legions of Martsch disciples turned out in force again and many fans in the pit seemed involved in some test of mortality to see who could chain-smoke their lungs tar-black the fastest. Still, the Pageant's stilted and utterly lifeless environs had the predictable effect, as it often felt like the band was being observed as if specimens under glass.

This isn't to say that Built to Spill gave a lackluster or underwhelming effort. The band itself again demonstrated why they are so strong in a live setting, even if Martsch and co. are about as nondescript and unassuming as it gets. The band dipped into its back catalog often throughout the 90-minute set, with songs like "Distopian Dream Girl," "The Plan," "Sidewalk," and "You Were Right" all featuring furious guitar arrangements, a fairly bouncy and twitchy Martsch and drums that somehow cut through this guitar onslaught. Martsch's reedy-thin voice usually takes a backseat to his guitar work, but the singer's expressive vocals carried more restrained tunes like "Reasons" and "Car," both songs reminding the audience that Martsch is a damn good songwriter and not just one of music's finest guitarists. The band did what they could to let the music speak for itself against the Pageant's clinical setup: new track "Hindsight," from new album There Is No Enemy, offered something new for the lifers, there were no ornate backdrops or wild light shows and Martsch didn't patronize the audience with reminders to visit the merch table and didn't even bother to shill for the new album. The band clearly wanted to focus on the music - Martsch said little to the audience aside from a few sincere words of thanks - and it was refreshing to see a band that still puts substance over flash.

Though this wasn't the first time Built to Spill has played the Pageant, it still feels like an awkward fit. The Pageant's spartan aesthetic might suit other bands well, particularly those who clutter the stage with props and other gimmicks. Although no one is likely expecting this mid-size club to have the personality and charm of the city's smaller, more intimate and undeniably more inviting venues, there is very little that gives the Pageant any local flavor at all. To the sound crew's credit, the sound was as good as I've ever heard at the Pageant, with Martsch's vocals clearly audible and the songs' lengthy instrumental flights sounding particularly balanced and precise. Yet a dull setting has a way of sucking the life out of a room, despite an audience's rapt attention and the band bringing some of its best songs to the dance. Perhaps it's at least partly nostalgia for one of St. Louis' most sorely missed venues, but it's likely that more than a few fans left the Pageant wishing Mississippi Nights was still around to give the band its proper due.

Tuesday, November 03, 2009

Nirvana: Bleach (reissue)

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Bleach remains Nirvana's most inconsistent and least appreciated album, a tiny and wobbly baby step for a band whose legacy and permanent pop culture presence are both assured (as long as Kurt Cobain's likeness continues to be used for grotesque commercial purposes, at least). Certainly, Bleach is flawed like no other Nirvana release, with both circumstances and Cobain himself contributing to the record's unwanted bastard child status. Two different drummers (neither of them named Dave Grohl) were utilized during the recording sessions, while Cobain was consistently dismissive of the final product, attributing its sludgy sound to label pressures for the band to conform to a specific rock style and frequently discounting the lyrics as little more than hastily thrown-together words that he didn't particularly agonize over. If Cobain never exactly disowned the record, his attitude toward it was ambivalent at best. His self-deprecating introduction to "About a Girl" during the band's 1994 MTV Unplugged performance - besides making the track seem far more obscure than it actually was - nevertheless contained an element of truth: in the wake of Nevermind blowing up, scorching the musical landscape in its wake, Nirvana's awkward and occasionally clumsy debut album would always be overshadowed by the behemoth that was Nevermind.

Though Bleach is still an uneven and fumbling album 20 years after its initial release, Sub Pop's superb reissue suggests a re-examination of the record is in order. Although time hasn't transformed this debut into a lost gem, it hasn't hopelessly dated these songs either, and several tracks are (almost) as good as anything that would later surface on Nevermind and In Utero. First the obvious: the thick-and-plodding instrumentation, bloated big-rock riffing, barely-competent pre-Dave Grohl drumming and affected vocals that doom certain songs show all the markings of a band struggling to find a unique voice. Bleach's second half, from "Swap Meet" through album closer "Downer," continues to feel monotonously repetitive and aimless. Still, there are traces of brilliance here, and with the benefit of hindsight, several songs - "About a Girl," "Negative Creep," "Blew" and "School" - clearly point towards the mostly mainstream-ready sound (let's be honest) the band would achieve on its next two studio releases. If this reissue doesn't exactly wash the stink off the album as a whole, it does at least make the case that its best songs offset these duds.

More revelatory and satisfying is the February 9, 1990 live show that immediately follows. A soundboard recording from Portland's Pine Street Theatre, the sound quality is flawless, easily surpassing previous versions of this show that have circulated on bootleg, revealing a vocalist and bassist who have both outgrown the sonic confines and stylistic constraints of its budget-conscious debut album. Though six of the 11 songs come from Bleach, they differ significantly from their album counterparts; gone are the metallic, muddy arrangements, Krist Novoselic's oppressive bass and Cobain's exaggerated vocals, replaced instead with the first hints of the more focused and direct live sound the band would effectively employ until its demise. Though the band hadn't yet hit upon its classic lineup - the much-maligned Chad Channing is still on drums - the duo's progress, at least in this live setting, is striking. Most noticeably, Cobain's guitar is less grimy than it was on Bleach, and his scorched vocals surpass the tortured and sometimes clownish singing style of that debut album.

Though this show likely won't ever enter the Nirvana pantheon as among the group's best (Reading 1992, Halloween and New Year's Eve 1991) or most infamous (Rome 1994), there is still plenty to like throughout this brief 40-minute, feedback-laden set, in particular Cobain's sing-screaming on "School," "Blew," "Spank Thru" and "Dive," as well as the aggressive cover versions of "Love Buzz" and "Molly's Lips." It's a glimpse into a mostly unknown band playing toward the bottom of the bill, before the massive commercial success of Nevermind briefly made them The Single Most Important Band in the History of Recorded Sound. Skeptics who still can't get past Bleach's shortcomings will find little to gripe about with this show; trimmed of that album's fat, it's simply a blistering rock show and essential listening for any Nirvana fan.

The reissue is rounded out with a booklet of previously-unreleased band photos that should tickle the buying bone of fans who expect such reissues to do more than just thoughtlessly repackage the original release. Coupled with a clearly audible remastering job from Bleach producer Jack Endino, the original album and Portland show offer a fairly complete picture of Nirvana circa 1990. Although this reissue likely won't change the popular consensus of Bleach as the band's least consistent work, it does show how quickly Cobain and Novoselic had moved past that album's limitations, especially in a live setting. The band isn't yet the mighty beast that would be unleashed in 1991, but this reissue offers a compelling snapshot of a band whose creativity, ambition and, for better or worse, mainstream success would soon reshape the 1990s musical landscape.