album review

Passive Regressive: Superman Revenge Squad Band’s There is Nothing More Frightening Than the Passing of Time Reviewed

Superman Revenge Squad - There is Nothing

I suppose most generations want to pin down some sort of identity for themselves, and many have claimed to be lost or blank or useless. So sometimes I wonder if it is actually a peculiarity of my generation (those born in the early to mid-eighties) to feel particularly infantilized, impotent, and inauthentic. Surely others, including the punks of ‘77 and the fabricated cohort of Douglas Coupland’s Gen-X, have felt powerless and disenfranchised. But then I come back to just how self-aware, but self-defeating many of my generation seem to be; we have a sense of our own dearth of maturity and originality, which holds us in fearful stasis. We relate to one another through shared trivia and measure our worth in inconsequential, obscure details that only render us clever around our immediate circle of friends. The idea of wasted time weighs heavily on my mind, and has done for most of my life. This chronophobic dissatisfaction with how life turned out, paired with a lack of control over any of it, leads me to rehearse and remember negligible things, especially from the realm of popular culture, just so I can cling to something that allows me a pathetic sort of mastery and belonging. So much of my anxiety comes from cultural surplus, the acute unease of being always a curator, never a creator. I’m ashamed of how tragic I felt in discovering that I still know all of the words to Savage Garden’s “I Want You,” but that any other memory of my fifteen-year-old experience is virtually non-existent.

Ben Parker, formerly of Nosferatu D2, now recording solo as Superman Revenge Squad Band, has created an album that eloquently articulates these anxieties and musings with an alarming degree of accuracy. There is Nothing More Frightening Than the Passing of Time terrifies me as much as it comforts me to know that someone else is having these thoughts. Parker’s music itself is lo-fi and acoustic, which is fittingly unassuming. The album rambles, occasionally pauses, and then ends prematurely at under twenty-five minutes. The record is regularly punctuated by gentle drum fills and cymbal shots that propel the album forward whilst also sounding like small ripples of struggle against time, short bursts of energy to fend off the tide. Parker’s vocals are steady, even, and unrelenting, matching the percussion beat for beat. His lyrics are hyper-detailed, and often delivered in a blur of tumbling, stream-of-consciousness soliloquies, paradoxically making them more universal for those in thrall to the tyranny of trivia. We all have our own versions of these stories, filling in the blanks of what amounts to an existential Mad Libs.

Parker’s opening track is the sentiment of Orlando’s “Just for a Second”1 writ large. “Lately I’ve Found Myself Regressing” kicks off with the proclamation of “I’m so indie I could die/I like to underachieve and call it DIY,” and parses the experience of failure, including how it feels to attempt art in the ever-available, ever-expanding glut that already exists. The song effectively encapsulates a passage from Kurt Vonnegut’s Bluebeard, which theorizes why the moderately gifted feel so disappointed and stifled in the mass mediatized world2. The song ends on a slightly more hopeful note with the near-sigh of “But that doesn’t necessarily mean that all of this is a waste of time.” “Paulie in Rocky Three” is another track that speaks very specifically, almost uncannily, to my own paranoid anxieties about information overload. Singing “I don’t remember stuff that matters” over minimal acoustic guitar, Parker speaks poignantly about the bankruptcy of cultural capital. Though his reference points differ from mine–my Rocky III would be Back to the Future, my “Billie Jean” would be “Bizarre Love Triangle”–I feel the same disconnect with the reality of my life and my personal memories, which exists in concert with my propensity to hoard even more “useless” information to guard my identity. His over-cluttered jumble sale of a brain is Bowie’s warehouse in “Five Years,” but crucially without an apocalyptic need for any of it; we hoard because we can. Our intimate knowledge of other people’s fictions keeps us from creating our own. And as we are constantly told that this kind of memory shouldn’t be meaningful–that it is pathological, regressive, and infantile–we only feel more insecure and inept.

This type of “childish” knowledge, which is of apparently no consequence in the real world, continues throughout Parker’s record. “Kendo Nagasaki,” a song which first appeared on a 2009 release, follows the trend which sees British wrestling recently cropping up in music as a nostalgic, albeit kitschy, love and touchstone for UK musicians of a certain age (see Luke Haines’s album 9 1/2 Psychedelic Meditations On British Wrestling Of The 1970s And Early ’80s, and the Giant Haystacks reference in Manic Street Preachers’ “Me and Stephen Hawking”). Parker employs this kind of memory whilst contemplating rage against self-pity and disappointment, and the petty schadenfreude that tries to alleviate feelings of inadequacy. He switches between speaking and singing tautly of being the angriest dog in the world, a David Lynchian reference that resurfaces as the title of the last track, a song first recorded in 2008. Whilst the gritted paralysis of Lynch’s comic strip dog is surreally humorous, Parker’s final song on the album is a bittersweet analysis of a sour relationship. The two-note guitar rhythm ticks away with the monotony of lost time, echoing the frustrated repetition of lyrics. The song builds into a rolling melody underpinned by surging strings as Parker admits defeat: “I’m the angriest dog in the world/But you will always be my master.”

Parker uses more rapid-fire spoken delivery for “I’m Gonna Go To Bed and When I Wake Up I’m Gonna Be Someone Else,” a track that also first released in 2008, and again in 2009, in more lo-fi versions. It reminds me of a gentler Art Brut, and is a brilliant analysis of looking back at yourself and realizing that you weren’t as pathetic as you imagined you were; your only tragedy was being average. “Flavor Flav” is an excellent example of the analogical, tautological trap many of us cannot escape. Parker uses highly specific references to Public Enemy and REM in 1993 to express his thoughts on his fraught relationship; they’re apt, astute comparisons that position the listener who understands them as an insider, but they also display the sad hollowness of resorting to these kinds of allusions. We use extensive analogies to express ourselves because the lives of exceptional others smother us and crowd out our own formulations and conceptions of ourselves. We’re the sum of our cultural consumptions, and it doesn’t measure up, so as Parker concludes, there’s “just a box of old records/a box of old books/and us.” The precise observations of how we occupy and move through time keep coming. “A Funny Thing You Said” addresses the way we grow older, but don’t grow up, and “We’re Here for Duration” embodies the melancholic ennui that surrounds the attempt at making art. When Parker softly sings “I listen to the Afghan Whigs for two hours/and I wrote a song like this,” leaving you to wonder whether this is a failure or not.

There is Nothing More Frightening Than the Passing of Time is a pithy musical exploration of the nagging apprehension felt by those of us who can’t tell whether we’re wasting our lives stranded in the mediated and vicarious, or whether our waste is what binds us to others, with no less meaning than other “worthier” pursuits. In one of David Lynch’s Angriest Dog in the World comic strips, the lone speech bubble says, “If everything is real, then nothing is real as well.” This remark gets at the kind of twisted hope this album offers. Maybe an analogy is always another analogy. The fact I used footnotes in this post only amplifies my incapacity to express myself in my own words, but perhaps demonstrates what I was trying to say better than I could have otherwise. Superman Revenge Squad ultimately functions in much the same way.

1 “Just for a second/you lowered your defenses/and confessed what the world had guessed:/‘Deep down/I fear I might actually be unremarkable.’”

2 “I think that could go back to the time when people had to live in small groups of relatives — maybe fifty or a hundred people at the most. And evolution or God or whatever arranged things genetically to keep the little families going, to cheer them up, so that they could all have somebody to tell stories around the campfire at night, and somebody else to paint pictures on the walls of the caves, and somebody else who wasn’t afraid of anything and so on.

That’s what I think. And of course a scheme like that doesn’t make sense anymore, because simply moderate giftedness has been made worthless by the printing press and radio and television and satellites and all that. A moderately gifted person who would have been a community treasure a thousand years ago has to give up, has to go into some other line of work, since modern communications put him or her into daily competition with nothing but the world’s champions.

The entire planet can get along nicely now with maybe a dozen champion performers in each area of human giftedness. A moderately gifted person has to keep his or her gifts all bottled up until, in a manner of speaking, he or she gets drunk at a wedding and tapdances on the coffee table like Fred Astair or Ginger Rogers. We have a name for him or her. We call him or her an ‘exhibitionist.’”

Purchase the album via Bandcamp.

Lately I’ve Found Myself Regressing – Superman Revenge Squad Band

A Funny Thing You Said – Superman Revenge Squad Band

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‘Til the Clocks Stop Telling Time: The Holy Orders’ For the Ears of Dogs to Come Reviewed

cover

For the Ears of Dogs to Come begins gently, almost tentatively, which entirely belies the ferocity of the ensuing 45 minutes. This debut LP from Hull quartet The Holy Orders was sent to me on the pretext that if we at FAHH enjoy Jarvis Cocker and Jonathan Richman, we may also enjoy what frontman Matt Edible and band of not-so-merry men have to offer. That initial comparison was a little misleading, perhaps, but only in style: there is musical sophistication here not often associated with debut albums. I took them up on the offer and was pleased to discover that For the Ears of Dogs to Come is a well-formed and meticulously made indie rock package, albeit with a few juvenile lyrical slip-ups. The music is great, though: blistering and jagged, incomparable to anything I’ve heard in a while.

Like I said, opener “Walk/Don’t Walk” begins with an almost palpable sense of melancholy, crystalizing in due time into bitterness. Jilted by a former lover, of course. This time, though, the music accompanying the words is compelling and weirdly narrative: while the opening expresses resigned acceptance and bewilderment at his sad state of affairs, Edible goes on to sing about how he feels so sorry for himself and that all he does is cry, at which point the bassline helps solidify the music into plodding backbeat accented by tortured-sounding guitar burps and blasts. After a minimalist section unaccompanied by the band, they rejoin for a brutal and angular refrain that projects ongoing anger and dysfunction. It’s clear that he won’t be over this relationship for a while, which is a common enough subject to sing about, but the musicianship, songcraft, and guitar overdubs make this tune more memorable. Edible also manages to fit in the couplet “there’s a gram of cocaine with your name on it/it’s cut to hell with laxatives but you don’t give a shit”. “Paper/Scissors/Stone” was the first (and, to my knowledge, only) single the band released from this album, and it and its video are what piqued my interest in this group. Spiky, overlapping, and jutting guitars are met by shaggy, charming vocals – when Edible reaches the high notes at the ends of phrases and when he sings the “ba da da…” interval in the middle, his enthusiasm is especially contagious. The lyrics concern his commitment to a girl who’s his equal, who meets him one for one in everything. It’s a fantastic song, and hopefully one that will get more media attention as the band becomes better known.

“Sherlock” alternates jaggedly between densely produced and claustrophobic sections and airier, more melodic breaks. Its distinct sections are differently accented with stop/start dynamics for drama, but the sincere feeling of the lyrics comes through, particularly in sections when he sings “…said things would be different from last time around/when you racked up your troubles and then you skipped town”. For an angry, exasperated song, it’s fairly restrained musically, and expresses its anger more subtly in Edible’s vocal shakes and falters and James Cooper’s persistent percussion work.

“Breathe” combines elements from the previous three songs into a grand journey, utilizing those familiar spiked and interlocking guitar layers, starting with sharply clipped sentences and moving tentatively into harder sounds. There’s a few different tension-relieving sections, an aggressively ragged, rhythmic one coming just before the halfway point, and a more typically melodic and wistful one directly afterward. This is all executed skilfully and effectively, but I’ve got to take away points for the normative, essentialist banality of lyrics like “your body so slim and beautiful and delicate like within…so jaded and yet so pure.” I get that your song is about a lady leaving you for some other guy and that you miss her, but this is verging on infantile. Shape up, dudes.

“Deviants” is better, featuring abrasive guitar lines that verge on the calculated coarseness of The Holy Bible-era Manics. This severe sound isn’t inappropriate, either, as the content concerns two teenagers spontaneously hooking up and then agreeing to run away together. It’s about the juvenile impulse to rebel against anything and everything available, if only for the half-formed craving to rebel against something. “Retina Burns” takes place at a Terrorvision show (“they played ‘Alice What’s the Matter’”) and is, by turns, both relaxed and frenetic. There’s some more problematic lyrics: “I caught her at the bar while her defenses were low”, but apparently it’s okay because this woman he thinks he’s falling in love with turns out to be a kind of drunk illusion. This isn’t the place to delve further into the underlying rhetoric at work here, but suffice it to say that it’s an issue I’m picking up on.

“Somewhere in this World” is brilliantly barbed, marching on with precision but coming apart at just the right times with the shabby charm this band does so well. The refrain also combines the right amounts of wistfulness and anger. As far as break-up songs go, it stands out among the others on offer here. “To the Gallows” is just as sombre as its title suggests, and shows that The Holy Orders can do rock balladry too, albeit in their signature, pleasingly warped style. Closing track “Dance Motherfuckers” is also the barnburner its title smacks of. There’s a lot of material on For the Ears of Dogs to Come that verges on mclusky and Future of the Left territory, musically speaking, but that resemblance reaches its apex on “Dance Motherfuckers”, from the opening guitar squall, to the asynchronous lurch with which the vocals and full-throttle playing begin. Edible’s shout-singing is great too, and when he yells “listen up, listen up, listen up/we’ll start ripping up your children’s toys/for ripping off the girls and boys” you want to yell and thrash along with him. Seriously infectious stuff.

It’s always exciting to hear such an urgent and vibrant debut album, and one that’s clearly had so much work put into it. That work has definitely paid off. The Holy Orders fall a little short in the lyrics department: you can tell they really like and look up to Andrew Falkous, but it’s going to take some more work before they write words that have the same intelligent and yet bilious blast that his do. It’s a promising start, though, and for those who like their guitar rock loud and definitely left of centre, The Holy Orders are a recommended rite.

The Holy Orders – Paper/Scissors/Stone

The Holy Orders – Dance Motherfuckers

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Reeling in the Real: Pale Eyes’ sweatshop Reviewed

Pale Eyes - Sweatshop

Ben McCarthy and Lisa J. Smith, formerly of Archivist (see my earlier review), have formed a new project called Pale Eyes, producing a debut album called sweatshop. It contains songs for the new age of anxiety, in which we feel the claustrophobia of globalization, and the disgust of complicity. Frequently confronting you with ugly feelings, Pale Eyes produce electronic violence; and broken hip-hop, time of fractured joint, when it won’t be long before we all come tumbling down. Their music and lyrics also perform a vivisection on the heaving mass of human need, and its peculiar anatomy of melancholy. sweatshop is comparable, and every bit as important and striking, as The Knife’s Shaking the Habitual. Pale Eyes’ debut is about futility, but also about facing up to that pointlessness. The heavy use of sampling and synth processing stitches together a whole from the disparate, leaving frayed edges that threaten to unravel, embodying the failure to repeat.

The opening track “waves & radiation” is a plunderphonic sound collage of tension, starting with a metronome and ending with “if I didn’t have my art, I would be madder than I am.” It is musically reminiscent of Portishead’s “Machine Gun,” and neatly introduces you to the ideologies working within the entire record, including memories of real protest, and the mental and emotional implications of our current world order.

It’s followed by “kltr kma,” the title of which makes me think of Massive Attack’s “Karmacoma.” It features an earworm chorus, and the breaks mirror the cracking of the pretence of the human pose. McCarthy alternates between rapid-fire wordplay and elastic, cyclical vocals that ply your brain, while Lido Pimienta moans behind him in a fractious, urgent way that reminds me of Sue Denim. McCarthy sings:

These bloody needs the body’s fee;
you must be hungry just to be.
It was the sun that taught your lungs to breathe
for a mesh of metaphor with a mouth for the meat. . . .

So take the fist and take this kiss,
and take our common helplessness,
cause the very very body you resist
is the flesh upon which all this subsists.

Pales Eyes continue to interrogate this schizophrenic human reality that belies the figurative sense of a universal, whole humanity in songs such as “empathy exhaustion (also sprach Sarahthustra)” and “the consolation of action.” A collaboration with McCarthy’s sister, Sarah (who I assume to be the Sarah of the final track “Sarah says”), “empathy exhaustion” is all sharp dissonance tied together with a weaving double helix of a melody line, carried ethereally by Pimienta. The lyrics are begging for release from the fatigue of a debt-laden, neoliberal existence, cleverly tying moral debt to the general debtfare lives of this generation. This track is followed by “the consolation of action,” which takes its title from John Gray’s Straw Dogs, an excellent argument against the idea of Humanism, and its unwavering belief in redemption through progress. (Of course, Pale Eyes is not the first band to draw on Gray’s work; Vanilla Swingers crafted a concept album inspired by it, and the Manic Street Preachers have also referenced Gray in recent years.) In this track, as in Gray’s book, there’s a friction and fear of letting go of the “need” for action and changing the world. The idea is one that I feel is at the crux of Gray’s thesis, one which I return to again and again: “The aim of life was not to change the world. It was to see it rightly.” The attempt to reconcile this possibility for a new paradigm with our own reality leads to additional feelings of lack and guilt. The sacred profanity of this wrecked psychological space blurs into poetry:

wake up the grace has fled
amplified daily dread
first day of the rest of your life
breaking across your head

have you been misinformed?
do you really not know what you do?
what were you crying for?
sweatshop livestock auto-tune?

Pimienta’s vocals are primal and fragile as the minimal sampled background sputters and clatters behind her. Lagging with the weight of conflicting culpabilities, McCarthy languidly sums up the earlier verses with the brilliant phrase “porno kingdom cum,” and then debt anxiety creeps in again as he follows it with “we cannot afford this wealth.”

There are more efforts to ease this cognitive dissonance and its discontents. “figure/ground” is achingly beautiful and soulful, easily oscillating between a foreground of smooth woodwind sound and a background of stuttering, glitchy beats liberated from Radiohead. Trapped between order and entropy, McCarthy’s vocals are striving yet dropping at the end of each line, lapping at and slowly eroding his own footing. In “philosophka,” access, and the choices it presumably offers, only succeeds in smothering you with the ghosts of the “what if” and the circling paranoia of always missing something. Embattled by expectations, McCarthy quietly sings, “Spoiled for choice don’t make me free, this is a necessity.”

In “little rain,” apocalyptic fervor dissipates into an honest message to a future generation, in this particular case, an infant son. McCarthy’s vocals are soothing in their melancholic glissandos, as the synth sounds drip and drop, rolling like tears from beneath a blindfold. It’s a refreshing conception of “the child,” resisting the simple purity/innocence/hope for the future trope; McCarthy sings, “I’m disinclined to see you for the dream you are, little boy, for I know what dreams can become.” The further lament of “cry out your goddamned eyes at the movies” spins through slices of distortion as it bisects, dissects, intersects, intertexts, sexes, vexes. There is only a superficial catharsis. The self-aware-monster-inside motif, similar to that of Kevin Barnes’s more recent material, does not provide relief or a way forward. “cry out your goddamned eyes at the movies,” along with the track “Trust,” warps Marvin Gaye references into a brittle rendering of passionate resignation.

Rather than a desensitizing lyrical crutch, the extended use of “fuck” on five out of the eleven songs displays a nuanced polyvalence, placing carnality on a parallel plane with ruin, hopelessness, frustration, manipulation, and hostility. You get the feeling that we are all being endlessly violated by circumstance, and that sex and intimacy are just other parts of the broken system. Many of the comedown moments in sweatshop feel like coiling up in an empty, post-coitus position after being consentingly fucked by capitalism.

sweatshop sounds like inner war, the struggling and juggling under the weight of hypocritical, perhaps nonsensical, guilt. It asks the question of how we can truly protest, especially when the technologies that allow for pockets of protest to form around the world are the same that devastate the environment, exploit others’ labour, and depend on the corporate states. As we all move toward immaterial labour, playbour, affective labour, etc., which is often overlooked in terms of capitalistic value, we are ever more implicated. At the heart of this first question, is another one: What do we truly “need”? Perfection is impossible, happiness is temporary, and progress is a myth. Is seeing the world rightly enough? I’m inclined to think so, especially as I see despair as more productive than joy, and depressive people as having a firmer grip on reality than anyone else. When all of the manufactured stabilizers, like the nation state, religion, science, time, Humanism, and monogamous relationships, are removed, there could perhaps be an opening for a new model; however, as sweatshop intimates, we will probably make new fictions to cope. At the same time that so many British musicians are exploring the failed utopias of modernism and social welfare, the Canadian Pale Eyes have moved in a different, less nostalgic, way to try to take up the same challenges. They have also succeeded in penetrating my general numbness, making me feel bad, and then making me wonder why I should feel that way.

sweatshop is released on August 6 via Bandcamp. See the Pale Eyes website for further details and updates.

kltr kma – Pale Eyes

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Howling at the Moon: Matt Berry’s Kill the Wolf Reviewed

matt berry kill the wolf

There are few surprises here from Matt Berry on his latest solo outing. Kill the Wolf picks up precisely where Witchazel left off two years ago, plunging listeners right back into the dreamy and psychedelic world of ‘60s prog-folk where he last led us. However, far from regurgitating the songs and style of Witchazel, Berry offers new explorations into his finely honed and lovingly constructed retro-verse, deftly combining gentle folk-pop with more brooding, atmospheric prog-like meanderings. His intentions are crystal clear with opening song “Gather Up”, an archaic sounding chant using lute and a women’s choir to join him in imparting an almost eerie sense of displacement in time. That, and the lyrics listing a multitude of herbs and plants that wouldn’t be out of place in a witch’s arsenal, combine to set the stage for Berry’s mystical sonic journey into some very satisfying and unusual pop. “Devil Inside Me” offers an upbeat contrast from the prior track, with gently thumping percussion, subtle electronic flourishes, and another backing choir. Lyrically, he speaks literally about duality and the haunting asynchronicity between his inner and outer selves. The music reflects this, jumping from melancholy self-pity to major key smooth lightness, broken up with an electric violin solo that rocks in a way only a violin solo in the middle of prog-folk song can – that is, satisfyingly.

“Fallen Angel” continues gently through lilting and airy verses, moving into a madrigal-like refrain. “Medicine” is where we first really connect back to Witchazel’s easy pop charm: the guitars gleam and sparkle and there is a choir featured again, cavorting with Berry in metaphorical sunlit pastures. It’s a fully enveloping, warm autumn day in song form, completely surrendering to curiosity, new experiences, and unrestrained pleasure. All of a sudden, we are thrown right back into the rabbit hole of self-doubt and darkness with “Wolf Quartet”, a woodwind instrumental that suggests the come down after a psychedelic drug trip. The reference to polyphonic madrigals is revisited at the beginning of “Solstice”, the album’s centrepiece. Berry’s vocal line is interspersed with the opening bell figure, both repeating themselves as washes of sound gradually bury them and then stop altogether. The second part begins like a reprieve of sun breaking through clouds, but it too is quickly dispersed by that haunting line, this time augmented with unsettling ornamentation and played by woodwind and keyboard. Following some progressively driving instrumental sections, an electric guitar solo is unleashed on this moody scene, capped off by Berry’s lyrics about the shortening daylight. The song indeed has the same claustrophobic feeling as the rapidly shortening days of autumn and of yule: there is less time to accommodate the same daily tasks, but more importantly it’s a pagan pact between nature and humankind to renew light and agricultural abundance for the coming spring. This reference to pagan spirituality is depicted perfectly in Berry’s capable hands.

“October Sun” is light and pleasant on the surface, with some lovely finger-picked guitar, but its lyrics depict a darker scene. Biblical themes become apparent with lines such as “Michael, Peter, Mark, and John/Please forgive me for I have done you wrong/I sense evil, I fear it here today/Like a bad dream that never goes away”, likely also a reference to the Black Paternoster. “The Signs” delves into groovy ‘60s pop without a trace of the psych and folk influences so prevalent elsewhere on Kill the Wolf. It even has a short saxophone solo that I don’t hate and don’t mind calling groovy…again. “Knock Knock” has a languid, laid back strut to it that strangely complements the strings used for accent and atmosphere. Pagan rituals are again the subject in “Bonfire”, which instructs the villager to “clear the field, make a circle/a gift to those for watching over/marks the end of October”. Something’s going to happen, he admits it (albeit with tongue in cheek): “there’ll be smoke, and lots of magic”. That’s taken up with “Village Dance”, following closely on the heels of “Bonfire”. Reprising the musical figure from “October Sun”, Berry leads us into a kind of saturnalia festival, a beautiful and joyful time of hope and promise, led by strings, chiming bells, and warm voices. Finally “Farewell Summer Sun” brings the album’s disparate elements together: after some instrumental intervals, Berry’s sonorous voice returns, once more with choir, along with folky guitar and soft percussion. The lyrics tie up the pagan winter festival themes of looking to nature for social and material promise in a time of winter scarcity, comparing the wait for the next summer sun to waiting for a lover who will return from a journey. The tune is mellow and soothing, calming relying on nature to provide what is needed as well as accepting the inevitable change of the seasons and cyclical nature of life.

A very subtle, textured, multi-layered, and engaging album, Kill the Wolf effectively expresses its themes of pagan spirituality, reliance on nature, dualities of good and evil in everyone, and the joy of new experiences equally in both its music and words. Berry’s ever-impressive musicianship (and versatility!) mean that he can fully pull off such a specifically themed album as this one, full of references foreign to much of the mainstream pop climate. That’s not to say it isn’t enjoyable on a surface level, either: he’s an incredible pop songwriter as well as a canny stylist. Basically, you can get as much out of Kill the Wolf as you want, or as much as you’re willing to put in, perhaps. It’s more rewarding with more time and energy, but it’s a fantastic pop piece any way you devour it.

Matt Berry – Medicine

Matt Berry – Solstice

Matt Berry – Farewell Summer Sun

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Nobody Actually Wants a Fucking Martyr: Amanda Palmer & The Grand Theft Orchestra’s Theatre Is Evil Reviewed

Amanda Palmer hasn’t released a proper full-length studio album since Who Killed Amanda Palmer in 2008.  Since then she has left her former record label, Roadrunner Records, released albums of cover versions of Radiohead and Velvet Underground songs, comprised one half of conjoined twin singing sisters Evelyn Evelyn, released a corresponding album and book to go along with the Evelyn Evelyn project, formed a new Melbourne-based band called the Grand Theft Orchestra whose name was coined via twitter crowdsourcing, made a bunch of new enemy/critics due to crowdsourcing musician/fans for her current tour who weren’t initially to be remunerated with anything other than “hugs, beer, and merch”, released a combination studio/live album with an Antipodean theme which was inspired by a tour and much time spent in Australia and New Zealand, reneged on her decision to not pay her crowdsourced bandmembers, and likely made several times as many fans as enemies due to her positivity and generosity and enthusiasm and high rate of output and fucking incredible work ethic.  Maybe that’s why it took so long for me to write this review.  She did all those things and I got mildly tired writing this paragraph.  She kind of exhausts me.

What is definitely clear in all of this is that not being on a proper record label suits Amanda Fucking Palmer.  It suits her very well.  Despite the fact that Who Killed Amanda Palmer was one of my favourite releases of 2008 and that I like it better than her output with The Dresden Dolls, she has blown that record out of the water with Theatre Is Evil*.  The people who talk about Palmer becoming more famous for funding her album through Kickstarter than for the album itself don’t seem to have taken a very close listen to it.  I mean, the Kickstarter experiment was spectacular.  If you haven’t seen the video she posted in order to promote Theatre Is Evil and gain backers, please take a look at it below.  Palmer is absolutely at the forefront of selling independent, interesting music and art in a post-music business world.  She believes in digital files to be shared as widely and freely as possible, she promotes beautiful and collectible physical copies and art objects as supplementary to the music, and she uses the internet to actually engage with her fans and get a sense of what that market wants.  She is now doing precisely what it is she wants to do in both artistic and business senses and succeeding wildly at both.  Of course, we are here for the music first and foremost, so let’s get to that…

Cabaret performer Meow Meow introduces the whole shebang, with a grainy, practically sepia-tinted flourish auf Deutsch, of course.  “Smile” is immediately distorted and maximalist and sounds very much like it was made on the cusp of the 1990s.  Not just an invitation to enter the world of Theatre Is Evil, “Smile” acts like an eddy into which the listener is pulled.  It’s magnetic.  Also it’s about partying and living in the moment and just living.  It captures the paranoia of being stoned and worried about the end of the world which could maybe happen at any time and the magic of being alive at the same time as other people who are alive and being alive together.  It is smeared and distorted and swollen.

If we’re going to continue to talk in years and decades and nostalgia which I think maybe we will, “The Killing Type” is the new wave of 1979 done AFP style.  A personal treatise on what a person who’s “not the killing type” would kill for, it was released as a single on Theatre Is Evil with an accompanying video a couple months back that crystallises the kinds of passion that can quickly turn violent.  Likewise, the self-aware control of the song’s beginning gradually gives way to angry aggression and complete loss of control.  “I just can’t explain how good it feels” is overlaid with “die die die die die” while a short burst of machine gun noise signals the end and climax of the song.  “Do It With a Rockstar” picks up in the same violent vein.  Pianos crash, drums and guitars squelch, and voices echo as Palmer contrasts the supposed glamour of being a “rock star” with the reality that is so much more boredom and loneliness than dancing, drinking, and making out.

“Want It Back” is Theatre Is Evil’s first single, released way back in spring, and it’s one of Palmer’s best songs to date.  She has said that it’s about the expiration date on a relationship and how it would be nice to rewind and re-experience the best parts of that relationship again, but the joy of this song is its walls of words and the way they tumble and conjoin and roll around with the bouncing, jubilant piano.  Again, the video clip for “Want It Back” is a perfect visual expression of this, with inky animated words scrawling themselves all over Palmer’s body to form curlicues that migrate to the band and then outside the house she’s in, decorating red bricks and pipes before returning to her body and to bed.

“Grown Man Cry” may be the only song here that’s of a lesser calibre, but it nonetheless has something to say.  It’s a criticism of fake sensitive dudes that are only really trying to get laid, and while musically it’s a good song, the subject matter is perhaps a little juvenile for my taste.  This is potentially because this song reminds me strongly of an old article from Bust magazine that maligned said dudes and coined the term ‘wimpster’ to describe them and their whiny, ultimately vacuous attempts at feminist sensitivity.  It’s not an irrelevant or even unnecessary topic, but it feels slightly beneath Palmer to approach it in this literal way.  “Trout Heart Replica” is another song that other people seem to like more than I do.  It’s again on the literal and sentimental side for me, but the whirlpools of piano that accompany the verses are lovely.  Accented with claustrophobically close string lines and Palmer’s raw voice, shifting less than seamlessly between registers and ranges, the music to me is more triumphant than the words.

“Lost” is loud, jumpy, rhythmic, and textured, with stabbing piano knives, occasionally shifting into beautiful harmonies that never last for more than a few bars.  Its delivery is joyful, though primal and brutal, and it promotes a more nuanced reading of the lyrics, which are about moving on with life after losing someone.  “Bottomfeeder” is more minimalist, a synth- and piano-driven song with a subtle but unmistakeable strut that makes it addictive.  It breaks halfway through for a country-tinged guitar solo that slides and swoops while the beat stays cool and sharp.  Palmer’s imperfect voice is particularly beautifully showcased here, catching on the jagged edges of larger intervals and quivering with emotion.  The mix even works well when all the instruments rise in volume and intensity and her voice is swathed in echo, overdubs, and noise.

Reverting back to Dresden Dolls and vintage AFP territory, “The Bed Song” is old-fashioned and terribly sad.  The piano part sounds like sun, filtered through clouds and dusty curtains, into a bedroom with a hardwood floor.  Palmer’s voice inhabits the story, becoming sweeter and softer or darker and bitterer as each scene dictates.  The scenes progress from content and happy to hopeless and confused while the corresponding beds move from tiny and filthy to luxurious and overlarge to six feet under and topped by headstones.  It is fraught with feelings, many of them contradictory, but it stays away from sentimentality with its fixation on honesty and reality.  “Melody Dean” is, in Palmer’s words, “my first out and proud song about being bisexual” and it’s breathtaking.  It’s a tale of being caught under someone’s thumb and revolting against that with every fibre in your being except the part that actually makes you cheat.  When she’s not shrieking about her sexuality (“I like to spread her out on different crackers, yeah, I like the way she looks”) Palmer becomes more solemn, repeating “I get torn to pieces for the stupidest reasons.” Perhaps strangely, my favourite bit is immediately after the first refrain, when the punky guitar is replaced by a buoyant classical-influenced synthesizer that tumbles through an interlude and is shortly joined by blindingly bright horns.  It is magnificent.

“Berlin” is full-on melodramatic piano wallowing.  It starts slowly and poignantly but in the second part becomes full and stomping and resentful.  Palmer shouts “WHAT?” as the song then becomes an exquisite cabaret finale, swaggering so heavily that it has no choice but to return to the heartbreak of the opening.  It cries into its own arms in the rain.  “Olly Olly Oxen Free” reverses all of those things and instead wallows in joy, freedom, and letting go.  She sings “olly olly oxen free, all the people you will never be, see no evil, hear no evil, capture me and throw the key away” like it’s a manifesto, and it really is.  Art doesn’t have to kill you.  Art doesn’t have to be serious.  Art doesn’t really matter that much if doing it makes you miserable.  Art is about pleasure and joy and sharing things and confidence and bringing people together.  This is sometimes explicitly stated but largely between the lines of every single note and word on this record.  It really couldn’t have been expressed better.

*A quick and nerdy note on the album’s title: when Palmer announced the title on twitter, fans from all over the world were quick to query as to whether the word ‘theatre’ would be spelled the American way or the British/Canadian way.  A twitter poll was quickly dispatched to help answer this question, and it seems the answers and final decision are rather evident from Theatre Is Evil’s title.  This makes me even more glad than I’m willing to admit, and I’m willing to admit quite a bit.

 

Amanda Palmer & The Grand Theft Orchestra – Want It Back

Amanda Palmer & The Grand Theft Orchestra – Lost

Amanda Palmer & The Grand Theft Orchestra – Melody Dean

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Stepping Out of Timelines: The Melting Ice Caps’ Permissible Permutations Reviewed

The Melting Ice Caps - Permissible Permutations

I’ve been writing about David Shah’s post-Luxembourg project, The Melting Ice Caps, since 2008, and after a couple of reviews of singles/EPs, I have the opportunity to review a full debut album, Permissible Permutations, which released digitally via Corporate Records in June. The Melting Ice Caps fall somewhere between John Howard, The Divine Comedy, The Magnetic Fields, Morrissey, Noel Coward, and a more understated Scott Walker; Shah has a genteel, wry style that ruminates on London melancholia and epitomizes the intelligent, outsider observer. His emotive vocals are allowed a generous space, as the music never intrudes on the thoughtful lyrics, which are full of pathos and humour. In this particular collection of songs, there’s a fair bit more contentment and pay-off for romantic yearnings than in earlier material. Of course, even this complacency is complicated and tempered by an overactive mind and a stiff upper lip often set over an uncertain, quivering bottom lip. Shah crafts a musical and lyrical identity that is part careful pose and part bleeding vulnerability, the stance of those who are painfully aware of their own difference. This album is an articulate exploration of how we try to resist time and defy the randomness of our lives even if we have to bend over backwards to match perspectives to objectives. It is also an album about love.

The album begins with the titular track, which is a brief piano ballad with the forsaken quality of “Shipbuilding.” It sets up a manifesto of sorts, in which Shah delicately maneuvers through his upper register to eschew a life within acceptable parameters. The following track, “In Bloom,” is slightly more strident as it recounts a south London spring that defies rebirth and new beginnings by dwelling on loss and regret leftover from the summer before. With the addition of guitars, it reels a bit like a pub shanty but keeps it reined in for a statelier turn on the dance floor. The first chorus asks the question “how could a mind be quite so unlike the body in which it resides?” whilst the second chorus muses, “how could a moment be quite so unlike the life in which it resides?” Together, they are eloquent expressions of disappointment. Amidst the otherwise romantic connotations of the blossoming wisteria, the narrator’s mood is an exhausted, bittersweet one, which is beautifully rendered in the metaphor near the end of the song: “I’m the bicycle left on the end of the pavement at the end of a perfect day.” Shah returns to London spring for “A Week of Warmth,” providing a counterpoint to, or perhaps an alternate reality for, the self-deprecating circumstances of “In Bloom.” Shah’s fluttering vocals bask in the comfort of prosaic, domestic bliss, whether found in ivy cutting or gutter cleaning. Rather than a straightforward sentimental ballad, it sets up the sweet contentment as a solipsistic, knowingly ignorant fortress against the incendiary violence and dissatisfaction of the outside world; Shah half-heartedly chides himself: “Let the scope of my cares expand a little.” He wonders at his own happiness “while Britain is rashly burned.” I can’t help but hear the oscillated synth noises licking up the sides of the soft piano ripples and languid drums as a reference to the relatively recent unrest of English riots encroaching on a lovers’ refuge.

The fear of the fragility of a relationship that seemed to linger at the edges of “A Week of Warmth” reemerges in “Umbrellas,” a track which features droplets of piano and synthesizer, fingers falling on the keys in gentle hesitance. Between the airy cadences of Shah’s voice, the narrator worries his new-found love will blow away just as he has found it. “Umbrellas” is followed by the warm bath that is “Join the Dots,” which seems to continue the story into a brighter, golden tomorrow that is still tinged with self-doubt. Shah sings of his lover sleeping in his arms during a lovely idiosyncratic “Sunday afternoon, as Jarvis plays Doris Day, and a hundred grown men swoon.” You can feel the glowing relaxation in imagining Jarvis Cocker’s Sunday Service as a soundtrack to the rather heavenly mise-en-scène. The music also takes on a softly triumphant tone as Shah’s vocals rise and fall in harmonious breaths, delicately keeping the embers going. The plea for the amnesty of ambiguity is aptly put in the chorus’s lyrics: “love is here/where the lines fall/let the dots disappear.” The narrator pursues this dot metaphor to a delightful, heart-rushing build in the closing lines, “there’s nothing to see here/just photographic dots/but if you don’t stand too near/you might see a portrait/there’s nothing much to fear/just stories to be told/and if you don’t look too hard/then I don’t look too bad.” We leave this hovering, ephemeral moment as it dissolves into “Indian Summer,” another appeal for more time and a desperate desire to keep reality from intruding. A pervading buzz of synths envelop the piano line in an amber-like aura as the narrator hopes to preserve the moment and declares “we won’t be disturbed.” There’s a heady energy to this track, and as the narrator’s lover pulls back the curtain to let the outside in, the music becomes wobbly with bass and sharp cymbals, briefly destabilizing the cozy picture.

One of my favourite tracks is the bossa-nova-inflected “Keep Both Hands Behind the Cutting Edge.” A scenario of Tuesday morning shop class and particularly witty bullying unfolds against mechanistic, snare rim ticks and what sounds like a harpsichord. The brilliant chorus sweeps in on the swells of violin and twinkling glockenspiel:

Keep both hands behind the cutting edge
Nobody wants to see your fingertips detached from your piano fingers
Keep your hands gripped tightly on the ledge
Nobody wants to see you splattered on the pavement
At least not yet…

The depth implied by the details dancing across surfaces and insinuations is wonderfully droll. The seemingly backwards individual is even patronized in methods of suicide.

Another one of my favourite songs on this album is “Ghost Writer,” which is the closest to a dance track for The Melting Ice Caps. It begins with a light disco beat as played by a baroque Pet Shop Boys before bursting into a theatrical chorus that wittily offers a way to make more sense of one’s life, ultimately seeking to make more of one’s life. Purpose trumps cause as Shah sweetly croons, “We just need to turn it into a story/Teleology is oh so consoling/Give me three acts/I’ll give you how your life could be.” Mocking the tenuous power of progress through narrative, Shah craftily echoes the opening track’s alphabet analogy (“a-b-c/b-c-a/why/I have no real need to see a world that’s full of these permissible permutations”) by promising a way to order the meandering of life. He demonstrates how we can justify and elevate decisions and events by creatively connecting points “a” to “b.”

The topical song “Young Man in a Hurry” breaks somewhat from the inner commentary and romantic entanglement to cover the political soap opera unfolding in London around Julian Assange’s extradition. The music during the verses is quite dramatic and urgent, detailing Assange’s unique upbringing and his monumental trip-up. The chorus is more tender and melodic as Shah sings “You won’t say you’re sorry/you won’t show you’re scared.” The theme of time running out is carried into this track as well as the narrator compares himself to Assange: “When you break in/you leave things as you find them/but time won’t leave you as you are/When I break in/I leave things as I find them/the time won’t leave me as I am.” Two clever men who can’t outwit or stave off time in refuges-turned-prisons.

The dissolution of a relationship haunts the heartbreaking track “I Go All the Way.” It’s a wistful, yet stately song that seems to place a stoic face over tremble and failure whilst relating a cancelled romantic holiday. The music ducks, stumbles, and weaves the way people do when they force themselves through the unreality of a traumatic situation, shell-shocked and attempting to go through the motions without others’ detection. The crushed loneliness is conveyed so simply and poignantly in the heating of a ready-made meal. Then the bitterness darts out in the lyrics “take to the land/where a daytrip is planned/with no map and no one to please.” The song ends by wading through an undercurrent of brambly guitars, beating a hasty, stinging retreat. The final song on the record, “Medical Advice,” is set to a rather martial drum machine as the narrator finds the strength to fight back. Shah clips his lines in brusque, sarcastic apologies worthy of an angry exchange in a musical: “Sorry/ I’m truly sorry/if you wish that you had never even met me.” Then his vocals unfurl back into fluidity as he once again lets his guard down, leaving unanswered voice mail for an ex who treats him as pathology. In another refreshing analogical turn, Shah uses medicine and illness to critique the deterioration of a love affair. As a banjo plays the record out, it feels like the slightly manic unraveling of stitches in time.

Permissible Permutations is an achingly exquisite love letter to the self-pronounced undeserving, to those who are always waiting for the other shoe to drop. Moving gracefully between intricate details and big pictures, it’s about the allure of self-constructed realities and self-fulfilling prophecies. I can’t help wondering if the album can be read as a group of possible permutations, a narrative to be arranged as you choose and read against the rigidity of expectations and cause and effect. There’s no rule saying you have to view this record as a move from love to loss. Conversely, there’s no guarantee that the golden afternoons and rainy trysts aren’t the past perfect moments of the previous Indian summer. All we have is an assemblage of moments. Points to be connected, vectors to move through rhythmically, arhythmically, or even algorithmically. And hanging on when it counts.

Buy Permissible Permutations at Corporate Records.

Ghost Writer – The Melting Ice Caps

Join the Dots – The Melting Ice Caps

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A Carnival Is Calling You: Eugene McGuinness’s The Invitation to the Voyage Reviewed

I haven’t been listening to Eugene McGuinness for very long.  I was really only barely familiar with his self-titled 2008 album and 2009 effort Glue under the name Eugene + The Lizards when his latest and third release, The Invitation to the Voyage, dropped a couple of weeks ago.  But one thing’s for certain whether you’ve been listening to him since his early days or only more recently: the man can write a fucking pop song.  On his first two albums these gems were largely unpolished and raw, but with the release of his third album there’s a sheen present that actually doesn’t detract from his songs’ quirky, satisfying melodies and sharp lyrics.  Of course, to go along with his change in sound there’s also a drastic change in image.  His messy, mushroom-y mop top has been replaced by a sleek and slicked-back ‘do and his turtlenecks and black jeans by sophisticated suits.  With this look he channels a ‘60s crooner or mod and provides a strong hint at his influences and idols.  McGuinness’s songwriting has only gotten better with time and The Invitation to the Voyage is by far his best and most singular album to date, crammed with brazenly catchy rock ‘n’ roll that doesn’t once sacrifice its weird, funhouse vibe for dance floor playability.

Opener “Harlequinade” is cocky and swaggering, a Commedia dell’Arte-themed late night romp through masked characters and a lot of dancing.  In it, Harlequin and Columbine are caught having sex, ecstasy is procured, and Clown and Pantaloon trade lipstick.  It’s a night out gone wonky and comedic, with you and your friends becoming these stock characters and behaving increasingly wildly.  Correspondingly, the song starts relatively minimally and becomes more bombastic as it progresses, adding horns and lots of backup vocals.  It’s an enormous song and more than accomplishes the task of announcing to listeners that it’s an even more confident McGuinness who’s behind the next 35 minutes of music.  Next is “Sugarplum”, an equally upbeat number devoted to celebrating the present (“For tomorrow we will rush and crush on the underground/And sure enough the wheels on that bus will go round and round and round”).  Of course, this is Eugene McGuinness’s world and so it’s not as perfect as that, particularly when he sings “I should have said it when I had credit/I should have just let it all out/We could be painting this town red/Instead of dwelling in these dungeons of doubt.”  How does he escape these oppressive thoughts?  By imagining a night out with his sugarplum that’s so transcendent all of his insecurities and indecision are crowded out by lust and confidence.  His opening lyric gives it all away: “Come Sugarplum, where we are bold as brass/Cartwheel to our kingdom through the looking glass/Drink until you’re drunk and in an ultraviolet flash/You’ll be catapulted to us, now what you think of that?”  Again, his lyrics allude to escape in the style of famous literary works and the swagger he’s trying so desperately to channel shows up in the music, with a driving, practically disco beat that kicks into overdrive when he repeats “I want you as you are.”  It’s a dance song, yes, but like all the best dance songs are, it’s a reprieve from monotonous daily routine in its lyrics as well as its style.

“Lion” is even more manic and aggressive than the preceding two songs, and the lyrical knives are apparent right from the start:

I’m sitting on the ventriloquist’s knee/

Allowing his hands somewhere they shouldn’t be/

My disgraceful quest for immortality/

An adventure in an airship inflated by my ego.

Behind the bookcase, start to study/

I’m stitching up freaks in my secret laboratory/

The subtext is dire and the sex is not on fire/

But if beauty is truth that makes you a l-l-liar.

It’s an absolute gut punch of an opening sequence and song, and the fact that McGuinness can turn his likely emotional turmoil into such clever and incisive wordplay is particularly impressive.  Perhaps the most exciting part of the song is after the second refrain, when the speed relents for an elegant but no less energetic interval in which he sings about wolves and “brutal wilderness.”  This is dramatically capped off by a solo guitar lick and then the angry bombast resumes, only to drop off for good forty seconds later.  The video clip for “Lion” is equally frenetic but in a different way; in it, McGuinness sings and stares while four vaguely alterna-girl dancers in blue and red follow him around and invade his personal space.  For all that it distracts me from the actual content and excellence of the song, the video is an accomplishment in itself – a very stylized and contemporary take on the old theme of a well-dressed male singer who is accented and surrounded by beautiful women.  In this case, though, the dancers definitely represent the person in the song who ignited his anger.  He doesn’t often acknowledge them but they don’t go away – they’re a physical manifestation of the bullies in his head.  It’s not a groundbreaking video or anything like that, but I think it does deserve a watch as it adds another dimension to the song.

“Videogame” isn’t angry and it isn’t played at breakneck speed, but the energy and drive on this album doesn’t relent here or anywhere.  It begins ballad-like, with drawn out phrases and a classic pop sensibility, but picks up ornamentation and drums along the way, culminating in a refrain that includes the lyrics “let’s fuck it up one more time.”  McGuinness sounds sad but determined, angry and yet committed to enjoying his youth whatever way that pleasure comes.  “Shotgun” is all bravado and sleaze, at first listen distinctive because it samples the theme from Peter Gunn but on subsequent revisits it proves special because of what McGuinness does with such a familiar theme.  It’s definitely still got that James Bond arrogance and danger, but the images invoked – Cleopatra, pens and swords, a flaming skull, and Mack the Knife – are more complex, and again, literary in a particularly British way.

“Thunderbolt” is overwhelmingly wordy and packed full of ideas, and there’s also a needy, masochistic element in the way that McGuinness repeats “Strike me like a thunderbolt/Strike me with a billion volts/I’m a commoner gagging out for common assault/Strike me psycho/Thunderbolt.”  This song also includes some lengthy intervals of fuzz guitar set against dramatic orchestral parts in the style of a ’60s crime film.  The end is particularly beautiful in its crazy culmination of all of these parts.  As McGuinness speak-sings “We’ll burn rubber, baby, with the boy racers through town” the horns slow and burn out languidly and evocatively.  The title track is lush and retro in the same way that McGuinness’s look is reminiscent of smoky lounges and old fashioneds in rocks glasses – in a word, lovely.  For a song dedicated to the way McGuinness loves his guy friends, “Joshua” is pretty goddamn sexy.  It’s sweet, too, and perfectly charming in its slight awkwardness and reliance on drama (that special agent-y bassline gets another go-round here).

If this album were predictable, it would end on another ballad like the frankly mediocre “Concrete Moon” that appears early on the album, but “Japanese Cars” is another dance-rock track that really doesn’t have time to be tentative.  For a person who wrote the lyrics “We said farewell and we synchronized our watches/Arranged for the meeting of our crotches” the subjects here are the next logical step.  About a tryst with an heiress, McGuinness knows he’s getting himself into trouble as her brothers follow him in the cars of the song’s title.  There’s the aforementioned car chase, there’s cocaine and sex in a bathroom stall, there’s the subsequent blaming of the girl and some self-pity to follow.  I don’t feel sorry for him, but that’s not the point.  It’s an excellent song and another fabulous interpretation of action film archetypes, with McGuinness casting himself as the protagonist and giving the well-worn story a personal feel.  That’s all on top of his mastery of the style, an electro-pop anthem with the danger and suspense of the action films he’s referencing.

It’s true that I’m not generally a fan of ballads and that I prefer my music to be upbeat, but I think this album stands out even if you don’t have the same musical tastes and inclinations as me.  I also love wordplay and vivid imagery and twisted versions of reality, but I really feel that it’s a through a feat of marvelous and prodigiously talented songwriting that all of these things coexist on this album.  I suppose on the surface it can be appreciated simply for its incredible pop prowess, but nearly all of these songs on The Invitation to the Voyage offer a heightened, almost hallucinatory experience of young adulthood: filtered through the over-imaginative mind of a kid still obsessed with James Bond and fast cars but combined with the jaded experience that comes from having taken too many drugs and being broken up with by too many girls.  As well, his interest in books, culture, and history come through in fascinating ways, making this an album that is highly enjoyable from the first through eighty-second listen (actually, it’s probably still good after that).  The Invitation to the Voyage is an enduring pop album for smart people.

Eugene McGuinness – Lion

Eugene McGuinness – Videogame

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Springing Back: The Monochrome Set’s “Platinum Coils” Reviewed

The Monochrome Set - Platinum Coils

The Monochrome Set, formed in 1978 out of the ridiculously nutritious ooze of the post-punk milieu, is most often described as a grievously underrated band that should have become much more famous, and whose impact is written all over the style of later bands. Their story also often includes their connection to Adam and the Ants. At the end of the day and the beginning of the twenty-first century, I think we all know who aged more gracefully and with more dignity; whilst The Monochrome Set’s frontman Bid has remained a dandy gentleman, Adam Ant has become a hostage to nostalgia and his own highwayman persona. Despite the Ants’ massive success in the early eighties, Bid’s band, including core members Lester Square and Andy Warren, was always the more interesting and intelligent one. And they steered well clear of the peculiar, postcolonial posturing in which several of the New Romantics indulged. Admittedly, I’m most familiar with the first phase of The Monochrome Set’s output, which includes “Strange Boutique”, Love Zombies, Eligible Bachelors, and The Lost Weekend, and several brilliant pre-Strange Boutique singles released on Rough Trade, but I hope to get more acquainted with the Japan-release-only years of the band’s second phase. Those first four classic records pulsate with ideas and lyrical genius, and contain stylish, avant-garde pop poised between surf rock, jazz, vaudeville, baroque, doo-wop, Spanish guitar, rockabilly, gospel, and circus music, casting sharp, post-punk shadows with the tension of a perpetual showdown at high noon.

It’s been seventeen years since The Monochrome Set released an album. In the meantime, I’ve been busy enjoying Bid’s other band, Scarlet’s Well, another aesthetically pleasing project, but with a different group of musicians and a more fantastical narrative structure (the album art is as exquisite as the musical concept, images of a dream-world that recall art nouveau, Aubrey Beardsley, medieval illuminations, and children’s book illustrations). Nonetheless, I was very excited when The Monochrome Set self-released “Platinum Coils” a few months ago. The shiny mirror-like sleeve features Lester Square’s wonderful monochrome illustration of Bid’s head effectively exploding with a surreal collage of objects, many of them from previous centuries and decades, and spouting ephemera like a cornucopia of medical references and human figures. The cover art also deliberately echoes their debut album, from the arch quotation marks around the title to the image of the diver in full flight, which has now shifted from the front to the back cover. The three inside panels of the sleeve are filled with “The essence of Platinum Coils.” At first glance, this fundamental nature of the album seems to be an alphabetical list of word association; a stream of consciousness meets a series of weirs to shape it into a selective dictionary. It begins with “A” and “Aardvarks,” and ends unexpectedly with “Yum.” You come to realize that these are the words that appear in the lyrics of the record itself; they become representative of an attempt to impose order on randomness, thus, ironically making less sense. The album’s content is appropriately eclectic and dream-like, that latter adjective not pertaining to woozy gentleness, but to synapses firing conflicting flare signals into the night.

With the opening explosion and spry guitar line of “Hip Kitten Spinning Chrome,” you’re plunged directly into the quick-witted world of The Monochrome Set. I find it a bit difficult to describe their signature sound, but it’s all over this album. It’s post-punk skiffle. Or indie quickstep. Or rockabilly tango. At any rate, their music is a far more colourful affair than their band name would indicate. The chorus, which features the lines “There’s a kitten on my hip, and it’s going on a trip/Up a river to my head, where it’s purring,” is beguiling and playful, yet its medical subtext belies another less frivolous level. In the surfy dance number “I Can’t Control My Feet,” the dreamscape features a cast comprised of a nurse, a porter, and a man with no hands “tripping the wax fantastic,” echoing the medical undercurrent of the first track. In doing so, this song reveals a second theme running alongside the surreal quality of slumber and dreams: incarcerated madness. The import of the album’s title, then, becomes clearer: platinum coils are medical instruments used to treat brain aneurysms. After a little research, I had a better understanding of the context of the title and the album’s content. Bid had apparently undergone this procedure for a brain aneurysm a couple of years ago. It turns out that “Hip Kitten Spinning Chrome” actually creatively refers to the catheter used to deliver the platinum coils to Bid’s brain, which shows just how fortunate we all are that his sharp brain remained intact.

Upbeat, easy-going songs like “Free, Free, Free,” “Mein Kapitan,” and “Cauchemar” are humorous with their extensive, bizarre wordplay, but they, too, paint a more pathological picture of institutionalization. “Free, Free, Free” is a dialogue between a patronizing nurse and a patient craving liberty; the June Bridesian shuffle of “Mein Kapitan” narrates a story about a patient who seems to believe he’s in the military and is being coaxed back into his cell with an inventive array of things, including Immanual Kant, Lou Reed, and peaches (it incorporates the magnificent line “if he plucks with plastic pick a minor sixth, over which, lunatic licks”); and “Cauchemar” is a mandolin-scintillated song about nightmarish, pill-induced delusions, ranging from sergeant major to vampire viscount to Grand Inquisitor, and the pleas to be restrained for fear of shooting a buttock in the trench, sucking arteries, pricking sinners in the sacristy, and any other tongue-in-cheek, euphemistic misdemeanours. The latin-infused, slinky “Waiting for Alberto” is one of my favourite songs on the album because it embodies dream logic in its hyper-realistic, but ludicrous details:

I’m waiting for Alberto
Will he bring me pears or apples or a bag of exotic
I hope it’s not bananas, bananas make me ill
With his mental pencil moustache, in a minute, he’ll be here
Smoking with curses; pinching the nurses’ bottoms
Oh, haven’t you met him

At the same time, the song represents the real mundanity of waiting for entertaining visits from friends whilst in a hospital bed. This experience is transformed into a fantastical, classy composition via Bid’s elegant turns of phrase and artful storytelling; for example, the chorus is sung in French and can be translated as “Oh, heavyweight, climb the thirty-nine steps/One shoots the shit here,” beautiful Hitchcockian reference and all. Bid’s jaunty, rich vocals convey the knowingness of the lyrical dexterity over top of the plinking, advancing guitar, sighs of Helena Johansson’s violin, and a wonderful guitar solo that mimics flamenco and shady French alleyways.

The tempo slows in “On My Balcony,” a jangly ballad that feels like drifting down a tributary of oblivion. There’s a mournful anonymity in the narrator’s position of watching from a lofty, unnoticed perch, which, due to Bid’s brilliant lyrical skills, could be a hospital balcony, but also a romantic, lonely tower in a dark fairy tale. This detached vantage point resurfaces in “Streams,” in which the narrator watches people slip by to excellent guitar and bass lines bobbing along with the ride cymbal.

The remainder of the album is more quick-paced. “They Call Me Silence” is a sinister creeper of a song as Bid’s vocals slip and slide in a menacing wraith formation. The music glides along like a spy tango as Bid sings of a sense of immobility and muteness, and a sabotage of the senses. It makes me think of what is left when the voices in a person’s head cease. The cinematic purview shifts as the spaghetti western facet of the band comes to the foreground in “Les Cowboys.” It features some excellent guitar twang, side shuffle bass, and clopping percussion; however, even the strange adventures of the “cowboys” are corralled by surgeons, nurses, and the day ward. The penultimate track, “I’m Happy to Be Here,” is a jolly, rolling track with periods of energetic syncopation, and ultimately, anticipation. The poignant imagery of “Slide down slowly to the floor, lie at my bony feet/Curl up like a fawn upon a grave, you’d look so sweet” takes on further meaning when you read about Bid’s brief collapse due to decrease in blood pressure whilst in hospital. The music flickers with life and celebratory fervor. The song’s last line is “Waves are lapping at your feet, come, sweet, and leave the shore,” which evokes freedom and the relief of release. The album ends with the brief track “Brush With Death,” a loose, wonky instrumental, which was penned by Andy Warren and appropriately features brushes across the snare. It sounds a bit like elevator music for Bid’s trip through levels of recovery. And it sounds like a variety show conclusion, complete with rim shots and soft shoe shuffle. Both connotations are appropriate.

“Platinum Coils” is a truly welcome return. Despite the fact that the record is replete with consciousness lapping at the edges of trauma, it is equally funny and witty, conveying the lucidity and profundity to be found in mental interruptions, half-sleep, and near-death experiences. In a way, this album is about taking stock. Gratitude for Bid’s recovery, check. Breadth of The Monochrome Set’s career, check. Refreshing musical hybridity, check. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest antics, check. Language acumen akin to Edward Lear and Lewis Carroll, check. Clever clever band, check.

Order “Platinum Coils” from The Monochrome Set’s website.

Hip Kitten Spinning Chrome – The Monochrome Set

Waiting for Alberto – The Monochrome Set

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Righteous Anger: Future of the Left’s The Plot Against Common Sense Reviewed

The Future of the Left that released their third album The Plot Against Common Sense last month is a rather different beast than the one that surfaced with their last full-length album, Travels With Myself and Another, in 2009.  Founding member and guitarist Kelson Mathias announced his departure from the band in 2010, and after some temporary members came and went FOTL emerged late in 2010 as a quartet, with Million Dead alumnus Julia Ruzicka on bass and keys and Jimmy Watkins, also of Strange News From Another Star, on guitar.  What hasn’t changed, of course, is Andy “Falco” Falkous’s skill as a lyricist and frontman.  The person who penned such mclusky classics as “Collagen Rock”, “Alan is a Cowboy Killer” and “Without MSG I Am Nothing” has matured after more than 10 years into…well, still a really angry dude.  This is true, but he has become more articulate and adept at incorporating the things that infuriate him into songs with a dark sense of humour instead of into vaguely angry and outright ridiculous songs.  Not that I don’t adore mclusky, but FOTL is a different matter entirely, as it should be.

Practically foaming at the mouth with twisted, snarled anger right out of the gate, “Sheena Is a T-Shirt Salesman” sees FOTL pass judgement on multinational chain stores like H&M that co-opt and appropriate the logos and imagery of punk bands in order to sell t-shirts.  They also take a stab at the hyper-sexualized adverts used to move those t-shirts with lines like “But Sheena is a clever girl/She paid for our equipment with her tits/She tore off her t-shirt/Dumb is the new black.”  The assumed artistic and philosophical purity of The Ramones and others of their ilk is contrasted starkly with the now-commonplace landscape of corporate greed, and the effect is jarring.  This contrast is brought home by the music – a driving bassline anchors a squall of noise, topped off by Falco’s signature scream and sneer.  There’s a little bridge squeezed into this roar that repeats “Autistic autistic autistic radio/Artistic license” while the synths are given a little breathing room, but on the whole it’s a war cry of an opener and an excellent window into what Future of the Left have done and continue to do.

“Failed Olympic Bid” kicks off with those industrial synthesizers and a syncopated guitar rhythm, lending a very post-punk vibe.  Falco spends the whole song on a single note, hammering away at words while guitars and shrill electronic pulses fight for prominence.  Here, the guitars add depth and fury while the electronics suggest monotony and repetition; the day-to-day life in England’s poorer towns, their citizens watching as money is poured into the 2012 Games, making London the star and lesser cities the economic and social victims.  “Cosmo’s Ladder” is slightly milder in sound but not sentiment: a comment on celebrity culture and its associated self-absorbed fixation on personal beauty, it contains lines like “Promise you’ll be there when age plucks out my hair/And pins it to my chest, please don’t get too depressed” and “I have seen into the future/Everyone is slightly older.”  It still contains dissonant electronic touches and a menacing bassline, and the song as a whole has more than a passing similarity to Dead Kennedys’ classic “Holiday in Cambodia.”  There’s the same sarcasm, a similar tongue-in-cheek and simultaneously vicious vocal delivery, and a strong resemblance in the reference to foreign holiday destinations popular with Americans.  Instead of annoying me though, I think the references are obvious enough to serve as a tip-of-the-hat to Dead Kennedys’ song, and “Cosmo’s Ladder” is definitely original enough not to be seen as derivative or unoriginal.  The song’s a success to me both before and after I noticed these similarities, so I think that’s another win for FOTL.

“City of Exploded Children” is actually a lot more mellow, and has a circular structure that suits its themes of war and the casualties of it.  Just after the halfway point bagpipes and snare drums are added to the simple guitar line, building slowly and poignantly until the last line “Fall in lines on the common sheep/He is one, he is two, he is nothing to our thousands.”  “Camp Cappucino” gets back to the jutting angularity similar to “Failed Olympic Bid” and offers plenty of sharp digs at the middle class and some classic Falco nonsequiturs to boot.  And “Robocop 4 (Fuck Off Robocop)”?  Well, it’s got a fabulous title.  While the music here leaves a lot to be desired, this comment on the seemingly unending sequel machine that is Hollywood is apt and clever.  And it ends with the brilliant line “(the first director died)”.

“Polymers Are Forever” lands squarely in the middle of the album and is another of its more interesting tracks.  It has a synthetic sheen to it that underlines its title.  Again, there’s not a lot of musical variation, but its repetition serves to compound Falco’s vitriolic attacks on the myriad subjects in his crosshairs.  “Sorry Dad, I was Late for the Riots” takes aim at the media and the appropriation of activist, leftist symbols by hipsters who don’t care about or understand the deep social iniquities that cause riots and protests.  The accompanying music leans in a bit more of a pop direction than do other songs on this collection, and there’s a catchiness that’s boosted by a synth line that’s more synthpop than industrial in tone.

“A Guide to Men” is both completely ridiculous and deadly serious, questioning the direction that civilisation has taken since its very beginning.  That dichotomy is put particularly well in the phrase “Were they holy emperors?  Or were they horny actors?/Holy emperors? Holy actors?/Holy? Horny? Emperor penguins?/This is a song about total war.”  How much of what we know about our history and origins is influenced by movies?  If history is written by the winners, how much don’t we know about?  Are we curious enough to find out?  There’s some electronic processing added on the vocal lines above, and it’s quirky and haunting at the same time.  How do we call ourselves civilised at all, with the catastrophes we’re collectively in?

Closing number “Notes on Achieving Orbit” is a kind of amalgamation of all the subjects covered thus far on The Plot Against Common Sense and over its 6 and a half minutes, builds to an overwhelming intensity.  Invoking the kind of memories indelibly caused by the announcement of catastrophic world events and traumatizing personal information, “Notes on Achieving Orbit” turns those moments on their heads, posing questions that would instead be prompted by a complete takeover of gossip and celebrity/entertainment media.  Of course, this future doesn’t seem remote at all anymore, giving it more power to scare and intimidate as opposed to simply being laughed off.  Again, for all its ridiculousness, it’s a very grave song and an appropriate end to this album of anger and concern.

As a capsule of and commentary on our damned and damning times, The Plot Against Common Sense is wholly a success.  Personally, I’ve preferred some of FOTL’s previous musical directions, but a quibble like this is really just redundant hair-splitting.  The fact that this kind of indignation is a product of its writers’ being well-informed and highly articulate is a delight to me.  The album is more than solid: the music captures and carries the meaning of its words farther than they can reach, and the oblique, thoroughly contemporary way FOTL has of sculpting their words and questions into uncompromising and yet funny songs is excellent to see on each successive album they make.  Future of the Left, please consider this a handshake and definitely a job well done.

Future of the Left – Cosmo’s Ladder

Future of the Left – Polymers Are Forever

Future of the Left – Notes on Achieving Orbit

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Impossible Space and Suspension: The Rest’s Seesaw Reviewed

The Rest - Seesaw

I first encountered the brilliance of Adam Bentley and Jordan Mitchell when I wrote a review of their album, Surreal Auteur, created in their incarnation as Allegories. That record made it to number twelve in my Top 40 Albums of 2008. Then I received the album Everyone All at Once, created by their more recent band The Rest, by accident. I wrote a review of it. It went on to occupy the number three position in my Top 40 Albums of 2009. I took a blog hiatus, and The Rest produced a weirdly wondrous EP, including a cover of Robyn’s “With Every Heartbeat,” called The Cried Wolf, which came with a book: a twisted retelling of the cautionary tale of lupine lies, naming the tale’s eponymous boy Hans Horatio Stickypants, and casting him as a con artist who inhabits places such as Souplandia and Dragon City. After three years in the making and unmaking, including the untimely death of their friend and producer, The Rest have now released their second LP Seesaw; they unveiled a track each week leading up to the album release date on June 19. When a song was introduced, it was available to download for free until the next song was posted. They still often sound like a Canadian version of the Scottish band Meursault, Bentley’s vocals also sometimes careening into tones similar to Zac Pennington of Parenthetical Girls. Seesaw evokes perpetual movement, a coordinated flow that feels effortless and dreamy. Bentley’s golden-throated vocals ululate with panoramic abandon and punctuate lines with ecstatic sobs that are uplifting rather than mawkish. Whereas Everyone All at Once seemed slightly more shambolic and more minimal in arrangement, Seesaw is urgent, ambitious, and playful, and Bentley’s voice becomes more abstract as lyrics become less distinct in an atmospheric turn back to the language-defying Allegories.

Opening track “Who Knows” is the perfect example of the exhilarating end of The Rest’s sound spectrum. It begins as a distant oscillation that blossoms into an easy, but exciting conversation. The melodic lines tilt back and forth around a humming fulcrum, sometimes stretching to arc and crisscross their crescendos like well-timed fireworks or a beautifully constructed fountain. Bentley’s reedy fragility gently nudges rhetorical questions along before gliding beyond them into the stratosphere. For “Hey! For Horses,” the rhythm picks up and bolts in syncopated jubilance. There are small crests repeated over a ticking, light percussion, turning an idiom about politeness into a rollicking high-speed chase. Then the ballad “Always On My Mind” elevates shoegaze beyond the dense cloud of distorted guitar into lighter territory as Bentley tenderly sings of “incredible mercies” and the simplicity of human touch.

In the carnivalesque “Laughing Yearning,” guitars mimic steel drums, and Bentley belts his way through the months like the flag-bearer of a celebratory procession. The song hints at Vampire Weekend, which of course means a debt to Paul Simon; however, The Rest casts the style in more ethereal terms. Making the cinematic quality of their music even more pertinent, their track “John Huston” continues the theme of yearning as Bentley addresses the director with passionate pleas, and this sweeping sound continues in the slower “Could Be Sleeping,” which also features the epic expanse of Bentley’s high register. The most subtle of the songs on this album is “The Lodger,” which reverberates with hymn-like serenity. Of course even this lover’s lullaby eventually pushes itself into elegant peaks, quivering and hanging amidst feedback. Returning to an appropriately youthful tempo and flourishes of organ, “Young and Innocent” flirts with childish and adolescent exuberance by playfully using the introduction of The Crystals’ “And Then He Kissed Me” and satirizing “Do-Re-Mi” from The Sound of Music. Its bracing, almost puppyish, pace and controlled cacophony reminds me a bit of early Los Campesinos, too.

Despite the fact “The Last Day” begins like an angelic solo, the song unfolds into a rushing bittersweetness propelled by an insistent kick drum, shimmers of cymbals, and entwining guitar figures that seem to build arborescent patterns in the air. Though Bentley begins the track with the lines “Glory days/And I know it’s the end, but I’m tired/On top of the hill/the town below is on fire,” the song is anything but fatigued and flagging. Energy continues to fizz and pop until the music drops out behind the faded echoes of vocals. The final track, “Slumber,” casts back to the first half of the twentieth century with its lazy ride cymbal and strains of violins. Like a boyish crooner, Bentley sings the starry-eyed refrain of “how am I supposed to slumber?” Just as songs like “Young and Innocent” and “Hey! For Horses” appear gleefully to mock youth while imitating its most exciting bits, “Slumber” shuffles its feet in an almost lugubrious salute to awkward school dances and the obsession of teenage dreams and tear-stained pillows.

Seesaw is available in several formats on their Bandcamp page, including a limited edition on clear 180gram vinyl (it comes with a one-of-a-kind handwritten note about the songs and/or recording experience by individual members of The Rest). This latest record from The Rest is anything but static and at rest. Sleep and the act of reclining figure often in the lyrics, but Seesaw is definitely more about the fight against slumber and reverie and the rebound into breathless wakefulness. They seize every dimension through their sound, teetering acrobatically out on limbs. The balancing act of these musical and lyrical dynamics works as a series of cantilevers, crafting seemingly impossible space and suspension throughout the record. Seesaw is a frontrunner for my 2012 list. Welcome back.

Hey! For Horses – The Rest

The Lodger – The Rest

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