Saturday, April 30, 2005

Against Me

Back in 2002, Against Me released an album called Reinventing Axl Rose. The little blurb on the label's website said that it was folk/punk in the same vein as Billy Bragg, Stiff Little Fingers and the Clash. I ordered it on the spot. it came, I listened and, though it was good, I was disappointed. It was certainly folk/punk, but it didn't really have any of the great traits of the bands mentioned. Of course, when their next album, ...As the Eternal Cowboy, came out, I jumped right on it (it was colored vinyl after all).

This time I was pleasantly surprised. They moved from the always interesting No Idea label to the rather plain vanilla punk Fat Wreck Chords label, but their sound is now anything but run of the mill. This time around, they nearly fulfill the claim made about the previous record. They have some of the humanity of Billy Bragg, the raw energy of SLF and the eclecticism of the Clash. And they have some of the political edge of all three. The album was so strong that they actually recorded some songs both acoustic and electric, but only used one version on the album. The alternate versions are available on EPs from No Idea and are every bit as good as the album tracks.

If you have any interest in left wing politico-punk with a strong musical base rooted in great American music, check this one out (and EPs as well).

Tuesday, April 12, 2005

Kill Your Idols - From Companionship to Competition

As I promised when I wrote the review of the KYI show with 7 Seconds, I bought their new album, From Companionship to Competition, and gave it a listen. First of all, stop reading if you don't like hardcore, because this album won't build any bridges into your world. While it's a considerable step forward from the cacophony of 2001's Funeral for a Feeling, it's still a straightforward hardcore album that doesn't stray far from things that were happening 15 to 20 years ago. This album finds KYI polishing their sound, but interestingly, this actually increases the energy of the album. It's more focused and from front to back has more punch than its discordant predecessor. I found that this lets me focus more on the righteous anger of the lyrics which, while they're nothing really new under the hardcore sun, still ring with the truth of good rock n roll and that makes them worth hearing. If old school hardcore is your thing, put down your old Gorilla Biscuits albums and check this out. You'll go back to Gorilla Biscuits without a doubt, but KYI is a worthwhile diversion even if it's kinda the same old stuff.

Monday, April 11, 2005

Selling Out, Part 1

When I first got pretty serious about music, I remember the idea of "selling out" being a big deal. I said it a lot about bands that I didn't like and bands that changed their sound or signed a major label deal. But I never really considered what I meant when I said it. It was just a nice catch-all for bands I was mad at.

I don't want to use this post to point the finger at who I thought did and didn't sell out, so I'll try to leave the verdict as open-ended as I can. What I really want to do here is to establish (or at least start to establish) some kind of criteria for what it really means to sell out. Since I'm not 100% sure what it really means, I'm going to throw my thoughts out there a little at a time and try to revisit the topic every once in awhile, so that I can rethink things and take any comments into account. At some point down the road, maybe the whole idea will be fleshed out, but for now I'm just going to throw random thoughts out there.

The first point I want to make is that in order to sell out, the band or artist has to sell in. So we should first determine what a band really sold in to. For instance, the Clash sold in to rock as activism and Kiss sold in to rock as a good commercial product. We can't hold the Clash responsible for the commercial inviability of Sandanista and we can't hold Kiss responsible for their lack of substance. However, we can say former Clash members sold out when "London Calling" showed up in a Jaguar commercial (if they still owned the rights at that time) and we can say Kiss sold out based on the sad facsimile of their 70s heyday that they've become. Interestingly, a band like Limp Bizkit could only sell out if they actually did something of any substance, socially or musically, since they've only sold in to the cash cow of make-believe rock n roll rebellion and are obviously interested in neither music nor ideas.

Okay, so maybe the first thing to consider is, "What did the band sell in to in the first place?" I don't think that even comes close to answering all the questions about what it means to sell out, but it's a start. More on this later...

Sunday, April 10, 2005

Queens of the Stone Age

Stoner rock is largely thought of as a sub-genre of heavy metal, but Queens of the Stone Age, perhaps its most prolific band, far transcends its limitations. This has been increasingly true as they've regenerated from the ashes of Kyuss. Now that they're really just the Josh Homme show on their new album, Lullabies to Paralyze, it's more true than ever.

While most stoner rock takes its cues from either Black Sabbath or Ted Nugent, QOTSA seems to have a much broader view of music. The first track, "This Lullaby" is best taken as simply an intro that sets a tone of dark irony. It's one of Mark Lanegan's two vocal appearances on the album, but his haunting voice is unsettling over the otherwise soothing music. Unfortunately, the transition into the rest of the album is abrupt and might be one of the album's few bad moments.

The rest of the album keeps that underlying (and perhaps slightly tongue-in-cheek) darkness while jumping all over the musical map. The album relies a lot on fuzz-soaked, falsetto-voiced 70s hard rock mixed up with the driving energy of its very antithesis, punk rock, on tracks like "Medication" and "Little Sister," but while its the album's staple, it's not its real strength. They mix this up with a bit of laid-back swing in the intro to "Everybody Knows That You Are Insane," giving the song a bit more depth. Things are scaled back a bit for the shuffling "Tangled Up in Plaid," a potential single in my mind. Lanegan returns on the Doors-like spookiness of "Burn the Witch," which gets some wonderfully understated bluesy guitar work from ZZ Top's Billy Gibbons (maybe the king of fuzzy 70s guitar). "In My Head" is a pulsing, layered song that might be the best example of one of the album's strongest points, its ability to vary itself in layers over a rather redundant rhythm (kind of like an organic techno in a very loose sense or like blues in a very real sense). It's another great possibility as a single. Another influence pops up in the lighter, "I Never Came." It never ceases to be a clear stoner tune despite its power-pop ballad leanings. QOTSA dabble in almost Zappa-like prog rock with "Someone's in the Wolf" and then up the freak-out factor (and the fuzz factor) on "Skin on Skin," an insane ride through echo-laden sludge that never ceases to groove. "Skin on Skin" is one of the album's best tracks, but they can forget it as a single. The soulful, sultry "You Got a Killer Scene There Man" finishes up the overtly dark aspects of the album. The boogie and hooks of the album's final track, "Long Slow Goodbye," might let you miss its darkness on a superficial listen, but will still leave you with a strange uneasiness, especially with the horn part after the false ending.

Lullabies to Paralyze is yet another step forward for Queens of the Stone Age. It probably lacks the break-out single that they had with Songs for the Deaf's "Go with the Flow," but what great rock album can be judged by singles anyway? They perfect the droning pulse that puts the stoner in stoner rock, but unlike their contemporaries, QOTSA incorporate a broad understanding of disparate styles into a cohesive whole. Often this occurs in layers to their music that is simply absent even in the music of other very good bands. Will QOTSA save rock n roll? Well, I'm not sure it needs saving, but if it did, they'd have as good a shot as anyone.

Friday, April 01, 2005

Future Soundtrack for America

Barsuk Records released a political fundraising comp last year called Future Soundtrack for America. At first glance, the track listing looks almost too eclectic. It includes the avant-garde pop of David Byrne and They Might Be Giants, the pop-punk of Jimmy Eat World and Blink-182, the alt-folk of Bright Eyes and Elliott Smith, the Americana leanings of the Old 97s and Laura Cantrell, the novelty of Tom Waits, and that's less than half of the 22 tracks. I was intrigued and unsure at the same time. Was this just a grab-bag of any artists they could get to support the cause or was it a well-planned comp? As it turns out, it's the latter. The album hops from track to track (and genre to genre) with smart transitions that result in a record united by much more than just a common political cause. It's good enough that a die-hard Democrat-hater should be able to pick it up and put the politics aside, because it benefits the cause of good music as much if not more than it benefits the cause of its politics.

Key tracks:
  • David Byrne - "Ain't Got So Far to Go"
    This one is quirky enough to have the clear stamp of Byrne's work, yet has enough pop sense that it could easily get radio play.

  • Death Cab for Cutie - "This Temporary Life"
    I'm beginning to think Death Cab does no wrong. This is just another example of perfect indie rock.

  • Blink-182 - "I Miss You"
    Of all the tracks on the album, this is the one I was least looking forward to, but Blink surprised me with something that sounds nothing like their regular pop-punk silliness. They pull off a peculiar little indie gem here.

  • They Might Be Giants - "Tippecanoe and Tyler Too"
    As usual, TMBG manage to be way out there and incredibly infectious at the same time.

  • Laura Cantrell - "Sam Stone"
    Cantrell sings this John Prine classic with conviction that make it still ring true today.