Thursday, June 23, 2005

The Death Knell for Emo

Okay, I know that emo's been sputtering at best for at least the last four years or so, but I don't think the last nail was in the coffin until now. Plenty of groups have jumped on the bandwagon and rehashed stuff with what is at best a slightly personal touch. It's been old for awhile. When A New Found Glory released Nothing Gold Can Stay, I could take the sappiness. It was a far cry from Dag Nasty or Rites of Spring or even Promise Ring, but it was still pretty good in its own right. I could, or at least wanted to, relate. By the time Sticks and Stones came out, I was tired of hearing it. But even then, it wasn't quite dead. Jimmy Eat World didn't really manage to kill it either. Nor did All-American Rejects. It took Hawthorne Heights to finish it off.

I've heard "Ohio is For Lovers" before, but I never paid close attention. It's just another generic emo song, right? Well, yeah, but in the worst way. In a sense it fails because it's such a perfect facsimile of emo. Everything from the melodic versus growling call-and-response of the chorus to the "cut my wrists and black my eyes" drama of the lyrics is so disgustingly fake and empty that there'd be nothing to relate to even if I tried. The bottom line is that the term "emo" is derived from "emotional" and the idea was simply to be bold enough to inject real emotion into hardcore instead of relying on dumb anger and bravado. Some bands took the "emotional" part too far perhaps, but it's only when the emotion was gone altogether that emo died.

Hawthorne Heights uses the phrase "you kill me" eight times in this song. If only someone would...

Friday, June 10, 2005

Battle of the Bands (part 2)

Since Battle of the Bands generated by far the most interest of any recent post I've made (with a whopping 7 comments), here's another shot at it.

  • The Who vs The Kinks: The Who. I really like the Kinks, but the Who have whole albums that are better than any Kinks tune. The Kinks would win for best Christmas song though ("Father Christmas").

  • Johnny Cash vs Bob Dylan: Johnny Cash. All of Bob Dylan's influence and innovation cowers beneath Johnny Cash's sheer honesty.

  • Nirvana vs Pearl Jam: Pearl Jam. One great album, a couple good albums and a bunch of average stuff beats one very good album, one okay album and one crappy album. The luck of being in the right place at the right time doesn't add up to much other than record sales.

  • Allman Brothers vs Lynyrd Skynyrd: Allman Brothers. They were both masters of the Southern rock game, but the Allmans have soul to boot.

  • Ratt vs Twisted Sister: Twisted Sister. Neither band is great, but at least Twisted Sister had two great teen angst anthems. And somehow, I can take them a little seriously. Ratt is pop with guitar solos.

  • Eminem vs 50 Cent: Eminem. 50 Cent, as I said before, is just Britney Spears shot nine times. Eminem is one of the few really good current rappers.

  • The Supremes vs The Miracles: The Miracles. This one is so close, I just made the decision based on each group's best song. "Tears of a Clown" barely edges "I Hear a Symphony."

  • Husker Du vs Sonic Youth: Husker Du. They're melodic chaos was still heavy enough on the melodic part to be listenable. Their influence on alt rock is palpable whereas Sonic Youth is often a token favorite thrown in just to prove that you "get it." Sonic Youth is a great live show though.

  • X vs the Germs: X. I still love the Germs, but X is hands-down the best of the first generation of LA punk bands.

  • The Cure vs The Smiths: The Smiths. The ego-centric whining of the Cure did produce Disnintegration, but they still took their sad self-loathing too seriously. The Smiths were simultaneously depressing and mocking, making the whole self-loathing thing kinda multi-dimensional.

Thursday, June 09, 2005

Review: Nouvelle Vague

Label: Peacefrog
Released: May 11, 2004

There are really two kinds of novelty covers. One is purely a joke. There's no love for the original or for the style into which it's been re-arranged. Richard Cheese's Lounge Against the Machine is like that. It takes 80s/90s alt rock and turns it into lounge music. I doubt Mr. Cheese loves either the originals or lounge music. It's just his schtick. He plops the alt rockers into a lounge format and it's all fun...for about 30 seconds and then it's as stale as the pretzel pieces you dig out from under the cusions of your couch. The second type of novelty cover is just as fun, but also more serious at the same time. There's a real understanding of the songs being covered and there's a serious attempt to translate those songs into a new genre. Nouvelle Vague is of this second kind. And they're very good at it.

An interesting twist to the Nouvelle Vague novelty is that their name is French, but it means "new wave" when translated into English and "bossa nova" when translated into Portuguese. As implied, the band offers us bossa nova versions of new wave hits of the 80s. The originals were done by everyone from the Dead Kennedys to Depeche Mode. From the Cure to the Clash. Modern English, Killing Joke, Joy Division, the Specials and others get bossa nova-ed as well. Nouvelle Vague doesn't nail all of them, but they certainly do a few and come very close many others.

While they struggle with Modern English's "Melt With You," it isn't horrible. It's the worst track on the album only because they just fail to fully make it their own. The Joy Division classic "Love Will Tear Us Apart" is another weak point, but it's not for lack of effort. Here they do an admirable job in what might be an impossible task. Their bossa nova new wave works well with most of the rest of the album, resulting in tracks that are listenable in their own right such as Killing Joke's "Psyche" and the Cure's "A Forest." Never having been much of an XTC fan, I honestly don't remember "Making Plans for Nigel," so it goes a long way to show the strength of Nouvelle Vague's art that it's one of my favorite tracks with the novelty part essentially stripped away for me.

The album's most amazing moments though occur on two tracks that alone make it worth your time and money. First, their cover of the Clash's "Guns of Brixton" maintains all of the incendiary nature of the original and adds a layer of pure sex. It's like an orgasmic moment of revolution. It can't repalce the original, but it certainly holds its own. The other jawdropping track is "Too Drunk to Fuck," originally recorded by the Dead Kennedys. It was a snarling, sarcastic punk rock social criticism when the DKs did it, but Nouvelle Vague turns it into something like an evening with a high-paid hooker, so sexy you'll feel dirty listening to it, but it still has a certain touch of class.

Nouvelle Vague is a novelty, but not they're so much more than just kitsch. There is some kitsch to be sure, but there's a great deal more substance based both on a complete understanding of the original versions as well the care taken in the translation across genres. The band is so good that I would expect an album of originals to eqaully as compelling.

Rating: 8/10

Tuesday, June 07, 2005

Just a note...

I realized that I left ratings off of my reviews. I dunno if that's a good thing or not, but I'm going to go back and them to the most recent ones if anyone's curious. If anyone thinks it's better off without ratings, let me know and I'll reconsider.

Review: Foo Fighters - "Best of You"

Label: BMG
Released: May 2005 (on Rhapsody)

I've listened to this track a few times now and it's good. Just like every Foo Fighters song is good. But it makes me realize why I always find my way abck to the first two albums when I feel like listening to them. All the albums are good, but they're also all very much the same. Foo Fighters have become a bit of a one-trick pony. Everything from the songwriting to the production has changed very little (if at all) in the last ten years.

Of course, it's still better than listening to Nirvana.

Rating: 6/10

Monday, June 06, 2005

The Worst Albums...

At Amanda's request, I thought I'd try a worst albums post. Same deal as the best albums game, just the opposite pick. I'll start with some easy ones and see how it goes:

  • Beatles - Magical Mystery Tour. It falls between the excitment of Revolver and the polish of Sgt Peppers. There's a lot of great stuff on the album, but it's a bit erratic for the Beatles.

  • The Clash - Cut the Crap. I'm cheating a little bit here, because this was the Clash in name only, but it is a terrible record. If I had to pick a real Clash album it would be Sandinista, which is oddly their most under-rated album as well.

  • Led Zeppelin - In Through the Out Door. I think this would be seen as a transitional album if it hadn't been for John Bonham's death making it their last, but it's a weak outing for them nonetheless.

  • Pink Floyd - The Final Cut. It's just a little worse than the Wall. At least the Wall has a few good songs. Final Cut has zero.

  • U2 - Zooropa. It's just an experiment gone awry. They should have scrapped it rather than releasing it.

  • Prince - Pretty much the whole catalog is weak after Sign O the Times. I think I'll pick Batman though. There may be stuff that's worse, but I gave up listening after Grafitti Bridge or so and Batman was the lamest before I stopped caring.

  • Beastie Boys - License to Ill. It's fun, but it's just a novelty.

  • Ozzy - Ozzmosis. The album is as bad as the title. Besides, that's when they started manipulating his voice since he couldn't hit the notes he could before.

  • Rolling Stones - Steel Wheels. For a band that hasn't done much but suck for 30 years, this album is a shining example of how much they can really suck when they put their minds to it.

  • Ramones - They released the same album over and over again for 25 years. How could any of them suck?

Sunday, June 05, 2005

The saddest song...

There are plenty of sad, sad songs out there. "Eleanor Rigby" has its title character who "keeps a smile in a jar by the door" and Father McKenzie who writes the "words to a sermon that no one will hear." "Jane Says" has Jane who doesn't know what love is, but only knows "if someone wants her." "Wish You Were Here" has its "two lost souls swimming in a fish bowl year after year." "I Am a Rock" has the cold solitude of a "freshly-fallen, silent shroud of snow." I could go on and on with the genuinely sad songs out there without even touching on the ones that want to be sad, but can't pull it off. But over the weekend, I listened to one I'd heard so many times before and just now realized it had them all beat.

The Violent Femmes' "Country Death Song" might be the saddest song ever recorded. It might be so based just on the story it tells, a story of a man so crazy with poverty and desperation that he murders his family, not in a fit of rage, but in a patient and in a sense almost gentle way. What really gets me though is the delivery. Most songs have their haunting minors or strained vocals or maddening dissonance to convey grief, but the Femmes take things a step further. In their peculiar hybrid of punk rock and hillbilly gospel, they manage to conjure up something on par with snake-handling fundamentalists, stirred into a mad frenzy that is both righteous and terrifying. And in doing so, they show this poor, poor man as both the fragile father and husband and as the vicious monster that he was. Other songs have loneliness and loss and confusion, but I can't think of another that has good and evil doing doing battle inside someone like this. No other song has a man destroying his family with their own trust in him as he leads them to that dark well into which he will push them, a well whose darkness is only exceeded by the darkness eclipsing his soul.

Saturday, June 04, 2005


There was something about the last two shows that I went to that was kind of unique: neither featured an encore. Typically, I'm there cheering right along with the rest of the crowd for one more song after a band finishes their set, but at these shows, I left more satisfied than usual even without the expected addendum to the regular set.

The first of these shows was Mars Volta at the Electric Factory in Philly. They played for 2:30 straight. No breaks, no pauses, no banter. Just music. And an amazing performance. An encore would have been anti-climactic. Everyone else must have agreed, because there were no chants or cheers. Everyone just turned around and left. It was kinda like the silence after a profound speech. Their set was so well-conceived that an encore wasn't only unnecessary, it would have been unwise.

The second show was Mastodon at the Recher Theatre in Towson, MD. They played about 1:15 without much of a break. The crowd kind of milled around for a few minutes and then the closing track of Levithan came over the PA and then the house lights came on. The show was over. The set was brutal in its heaviness and, while there was some noise for more this time, I can't imagine anyone left without their fill. An encore would be unlikely to improve upon the evening.

I never thought about it before, but after seeing it twice in a row, I kinda think that might be the way it should be. Just give me a full, solid set and then cut me loose. Don't make me stand around and stomp and yell and clap like an idiot to get you to play a song you intended to play anyway. Every now and then a band will come back out and play another 30 minutes or so and the encore takes on the quality of a second set. That might be the exception to what may become my new "no encore" rule. But bands who aren't willing to do that ought to just pack it up. If they didn't win me over with the regular set, what makes them (or me for that matter) think an encore is going to improve things? Maybe it's just a tradition, but a lot of encores are anti-climactic anyway. The buzz of the show has begun to wear off before they return to the stage. Finish strong and be done with it. I'm not 100% sold on this, but the last two shows have finished with a blast and I've left at least as satisfied as I ever have with an encore. It's just something to think about.

Friday, June 03, 2005

Review: Oasis - Don't Believe the Truth

Label: Epic
Released: May 31, 2005

Oasis has expanded their boundaries considerably by stealing from far more than just the Beatles these days. Now, that sounds like a dig, but it's not. I've wondered ever since falling in love with 1995's (What's the Story) Morning Glory why Oasis can get away with being unrepentant thieves while other bands get dinged for far less flagrant offenses. I think the answer is simply that Oasis takes their plunder and subtley makes it their own. No matter how Beatle-esque or whatever an Oasis song might be, it's still very much an Oasis song.

Don't Trust the Truth is a perfect example, finding Oasis doing the Velvet Underground ("Mucky Fingers") and the Stones ("Lyla"), with occasional touches of CS&N ("Guess God Thinks I'm Abel") even. Sometimes they swing a little ("Love Like a Bomb") and sometimes they rock a lot ("Turn Up the Sun"). Sometimes it's cabaret ("The Importance of Being Idle"), sometimes it's snearing garage ("The Meaning of Soul") and sometimes it's alt rock ("Keep the Dream Alive") or jangle pop ("A Bell Will Ring"). But they're always subtley and uniquely Oasis with well written, well performed songs and beautiful production. Interestingly, they're even gentle as is the case with the closing track, the serious and rather poignant "Let There Be Love." The ghost of their old friend Lennon is all over it, but, like the rest of the album, it's completely Oasis. And it shows they can be serious once in awhile and pull that off too.

Rating: 8/10

Thursday, June 02, 2005

Review: Killing Joke - Ha

Label: Editions EG
Released: 1982

The near cacaphony of Killing Joke's music that seems to often be on the verge of being out of control would lead one to believe that they'd be a great live act to see, but a difficult live act to record. Never having seen them myself, Ha does nothing to diminish my belief in the former, but completely dispels my belief in the latter.

Recorded over two shows at Larry's Hideaway in Toronto in 1982, the set kicks off with "Psyche," a dark song that may be the band's strongest song after "The Wait." I say this without ever hearing a studio version if that's any indication of the quality of this recording. To the already dark atmosphere, they add the tribal rhythms of "Sun Goes Down" and on top of that they add a layer of dissonance in "The Pandys are Coming," almost as if the first side of the EP is a single piece seperated only by a bit of crowd noise.

The second side steps back a bit with the sparse (and otherwise unreleased) "Take Take Take." But that's just a set-up for the simultaneous throb and drone of the vaguely Joy Division-esque "Unspeakbale." They come full-circle as they finish up with the more straightforward yet still unsettling "Wardance."

This album escapes the trap that many live recordings fall into as they try to navigate between the Scilla and Charybdis of too live and not live enough. Ha completely captures the energy of an intense live performance without losing the clarity of the songs. It's such a good live recording, you can even listen in the car (but be careful you don't get too wrapped up in it and run off the road).

Note: The original 10" EP is long out of print, but it was included on a CD issue of Killing Joke's Fire Dances album. It appears that that may also be out of print, but I'm not sure. Either way, it'd probably be easier to find that than the 10".

Rating: 9/10

Wednesday, June 01, 2005

Battle of the Bands

Here's another fun game that Mark came up with. Just pick your favorite band from each pair. My answers are hidden as they were in the best album posts.

  • The Clash vs Sex Pistols: The Clash. This is an easy pick. The Pistols might be important in the grand scheme of punk rock, but they really weren't that good and they never stretched any boundaries (musically anyway). The Clash transcended punk, taking its ethic and energy to the masses without compromising themselves.

  • Madness vs The Specials: Madness. While the Specials were a great ska band, they were only a ska band. Madness on the other hand, took ska with a healthy dose of soul. The Specials were more textbook ska, but Madness was closer to its spirit.

  • Aerosmith vs Kiss: Aerosmith. Kiss had outside writers helping them from the get-go. It took Aerosmith almost 20 years to rely that heavily on outside sources.

  • MC5 vs the Stooges: MC5. Both band released three albums and called it quits before their time. But the MC5 had more breadth in their work. it went from trippy psyche to punk rants to candied pop on any given album without losing cohesiveness. The Stooges changed a bit over the course of their albums, but they weren't able to jump around as much.

  • Iron Maiden vs Judas Priest: Maiden. I was listening to Screaming for Vengeance yesterday and it still holds up pretty well, but even as one of Priest's best albums, it has more filler than the first five Maiden albums combined.

  • Public Enemy vs NWA: Public Enemy. In the late 80s, rap was at a crossroads: There was the Public Enemy path of intelligent socio-political commentary over dynamic, jazz-influenced backing tracks and there was the NWA path of mindless gang-banger idiocy over more straight-forward funk influenced rhythms. Unfortunately, NWA won out. But that doesn't make them better, it just means the listeners are dumber. Too bad for all of us.

  • Marvin Gaye vs Aretha Franklin: Aretha. Even up against Marvin Gaye, she gets more respect.

  • Guns n Roses vs Motley Crue: GnR. Their best albums are pretty close in quality, but even the all-covers Spaghetti Incident wasn't as bad as Girls Girls Girls. Besides, GnR never killed anyone and made light of it later.

  • Great White vs Whitesnake: Battle of the Led Zep clones! But who cares? They both suck. Maybe Whitesnake wins since they never burned up a bunch of people in a nightclub.

  • Replacements vs REM: Replacements. I think there's a valid argument for REM, but the Replacements were never as self-righteous and self-important as REM. Tehy never stretched as much as REM, but there's a lot to be said for their straight-forward, honest, anti-rock star brand of rock n roll.