Saturday, 25 December 2010

Fugazi - Steady Diet Of Nothing

'The swarming guitars at the beginning of "Turnover" tell you that Repeater is going to be really different to their previous work.' 'The swarming guitars that kick off "Exit Only" let you know that Steady Diet Of Nothing will be nothing like the band have ever done before.' 'Those swarming guitars at the start of "Facet Squared" are a telltale sign that In On The Kill Taker will be a new experience to Fugazi fans.' Or words to that effect, penned to all three of these consecutive albums. The band's full length releases certainly do all have a unique flavour, but swarming guitars don't separate them.

What makes 1991's Steady Diet Of Nothing different to the rest of the discography? The EPs that made up the 13 Songs compilation are the funky ones, Repeater is the quintessential rocker, and In On The Kill Taker is the violent delinquent. Red Medicine is experimental, End Hits is a mess, and The Argument is the almost mainstream alt-rock sounding one. On the face of it, the defining characteristic of Steady Diet is... that it lacks characteristics. It's the dull one. Look at the drab picture on the cover. Listen to the dreary mix. Hear the lack of energy in some of the songs. Check out the relative absence of these songs from Fugazi's later concerts. It was largely forgettable at face value.

Steady Diet... is not Fugazi's worst record. I'm not going to build it up as an unappreciated masterpiece that turns out to be the magnum opus. It isn't, but it is pretty nifty. "Exit Only" swarms in (sorry!) ominously, and the rhythm section kicks in soon after. Everything ceases save for a few stray notes, almost as if the band is making a sarcastic homage to their well known "Waiting Room", the groovy opener to the Fugazi EP and 13 Songs compilation that pauses more cleanly during the introduction. As with several of Guy Picciotto's songs, the lyrics aren't particularly accessible or interesting (especially once you read up and realise he's chanting "sympatric", not "St Patrick"), but it's all in the delivery, which veers unpredictably between Picciotto's typically flamboyant whine and a relatively gruff, stout output. The music is also varied nicely, switching well between tense and aggressive, making the opener a great track, if you don't mind the way it takes its time getting into gear.

Momentum is lost early on, which always helps a record be ignored. "Reclamation" is a predictably direct Ian MacKaye fingerpointer that follows in the footsteps of "Suggestion". Despite being perhaps the best-surviving song from the album on the Fugazi setlist, it's incredibly dull. The intro builds up in a way that implies a song that's going to contain a lot of energy, but within twenty seconds you've given that up. MacKaye's delivery is not his best, the verses drag on, and the monolinear chorus falls flat as a pancake. It's so boring, that you're almost convinced at first that "Nice New Outfit" is going to be a good track that gets the album back on the rails. It has the upper hand on "Reclamation" in that it's reasonably energetic, but the guitars are still fairly bland, and Picciotto's lyrics are on the inane side. You won't be craving the end of the track like with the last one, but if not for Joe Lally and Brendan Canty, you probably would have given up by now. The drums and bass are relatively strong on this album, and this is only enhanced by weaker songs.

MacKaye's back with "Stacks", which turns things around. It even tricks you into thinking it's going to be slightly boring and threatens to break out a few times without doing so. But even at its slowest, it's a reasonably upbeat track that'll have your head bobbing and your foot tapping, and the chorus is memorable if perhaps not catchy. The track kind of peters out, a sudden stop about 40 seconds early would have worked pretty well, but it's got us back on track. "Latin Roots" sees the guitars get more interesting after what seems like a long period of relative simplicity. It's not a spectacular track, plodding at times, but you do get the satisfying feeling that all four band members are working. More confusion ensues when Picciotto and MacKaye appear to insist that it's time for us to "meet Jamaicans". I'm spared further misinterpretation blunders for a few minutes, as we're treated to the instrumental centrepiece and nearly titular "Steady Diet", which really does see the band all working. It's not the most energetic instrumental in the band's canon ("Brendan #1" pips "Number 5" to that accolade), but it's intricate and urgent, although a touch long.

The record has grown in strength by this point, and despite having the power reined in with "Long Division", it's still a great song. Mellow but dour, and with a tricky rhythm section to complement the easy guitar tune. MacKaye's plain delivery works nicely here too. It's short too, so it isn't very long before "Runaway Return" comes in with relatively brutal effect. If only the guitars had more oomph, it would be a really powerful track. It sounds great on a lot of those live recordings kicking around, but it's a little strangled here. It's still good, but you can tell that it's one of the biggest victims of the dull mix. The chorus is a little flat musically save for Lally's bassline. The disappointment is followed by a mediocre track. "Polish" isn't horrible, and not really deserving of the prize of being that song that the band would never play. It's quite bland though, and just when you think it's going to end with a modicum of strength, that peters out like "Stacks" did.

And so, the album predictably divebombs from there. No it doesn't, I lied. "Dear Justice Letter" is fantastic, with the exception of a brief, languid excuse for a guitar lick just after the song was promising a crescendo. Picciotto's vocals are on top form, he shows off a rolling R, and MacKaye's backing vocals work a treat. Canty's drums pound, and the guitars sneer. Finally, on the last song, MacKaye gives us a real anthem. It's a reworking of an older song that originally had the one guitar, as "KYEO" was conceived long before Picciotto provided the band with his box of tricks. Catchy hooks, a driving rhythm section and MacKaye doing what he does best make the album's closer what "Reclamation" should have been. Powerful, fist-pumping rock.

Steady Diet Of Nothing is by no means a classic, but if you can dig more than just "Waiting Room", you can probably dig this. It isn't consistent, but Lally and Canty keep things together through the weak moments, and provide a great foundation for some real gems from MacKaye and particularly Picciotto.

Personal picks: Dear Justice Letter, Exit Only, Long Division
Picks for others: KYEO, Long Division, Runaway Return
Relative weaknesses: Reclamation, Polish

01 - Exit Only
02 - Reclamation
03 - Nice New Outfit
04 - Stacks
05 - Latin Roots
06 - Steady Diet
07 - Long Division
08 - Runaway Return
09 - Polish
10 - Dear Justice Letter
11 - KYEO

Saturday, 18 December 2010

The Bouncing Souls - Anchors Aweigh

Given the name of this page, it's about time a record from The Bouncing Souls was put under the magnifying glass, so we'll go with the first one I purchased, 2003's Anchors Aweigh. And conveniently enough (I say conveniently, you may have noticed that I love a good rant), it brings forth the issue of the Digipak. Who in their right mind thought that this was a good idea in the compact disc era? No protective plastic casing for your artwork, just like in the good old days, and now with double the amount of corners to be easily damaged than vinyl sleeves! That's just the outside, don't forget the flippityflopping opening up of these devices for exposure to even more artwork-corner-destruction brilliance! Who ever said progress was linear? Granted, the content that would be in a booklet is less likely to get damaged than in the classic issue of trying to get it out from those plastic tabs in the casing, and the content is of course easier to access because of the folding. Some say that a broken CD case cheapens the look. Of course it does, but the casing takes the punishment so the content doesn't have to. The corners of Anchors Aweigh are black, so at least you can disguise the exposed corners by colouring the cardboard with a black felt tip like I did.

The Bouncing Souls are best known for their uplifting feelgood anthems. How I Spent My Summer Vacation saw these coming thick and fast in 2001. "True Believers" was among these and is probably their best known song. Anchors Aweigh doesn't exactly leave the Oi! tinged goodness in its wake, but certainly brings in a more bittersweet nature that the songs have often had since, right up to Ghosts On The Boardwalk and likely beyond. You wouldn't think so at first listen though. Bryan Kienlen's bass kicks "Apartment 5F" into a very upbeat and promising life, Greg Attonito's voice soars as high as ever, and it seems like the Souls have picked up where they left off on ...Summer Vacation. There are some differences, though. Michael McDermott's manic drums crash into the mix with a little more malice than before, and the lyrics have a hint of desperation that wasn't seen on the charming, happy-go-lucky predecessor. "Kids And Heroes" brings in the newer sound more acutely. The lyrics carry an accusatory disappointment, and the mellow intro makes you think you're in for a real downer. The music may not be quite as bright as before, but it pounds away fairly dependably once it gets going, and Attonito returns to his motifs of belief (not necessarily the religious way) for a more cheery middle of the song. A nice guitar solo fits well with the song, a few notches down from happy but still hopeful. The solo Pete Steinkopf recorded on Hot Water Music's "Giver" from 2004's otherwise disappointing The New What Next sounds almost like a truncated version of this. "Kids And Heroes" winds down in an acoustic and reflective manner, one of several nuances that make Anchors Aweigh a more dynamic record than its simpler, more consistent elders.

"New Day" is perhaps less intricate than the previous tracks, despite being one of the longest cuts on the album. The verses muse fairly negatively, the chorus tries to bring a fairly slow wave of hope but only half manages it. Some space for the bass prevents the song from going completely stale. "Sing Along Forever" sounds like it's trying to be on the last album, but despite being one of those archetypical little anthems shy of two minutes that crams typical Souls rhetoric with upbeat music, it falls a little flat compared to songs like "Better Life" and "No Comply". Perhaps this is due to the overall sound of Anchors Aweigh, but it doesn't sound like quite enough of an adequate wakeup call. Luckily, we get that with the rolling drums of the speedy "Born Free". About as close to being political as the band had been (a live version was given to the second Rock Against Bush compilation), Attonito points the finger at various powers that be for fifty seconds, then the song briefly slows down and speeds up again on a defiant note, ending as soon as it began at just eighty three seconds long.

The music gets a little serious on “Inside Out”, the mood recalling an anger not seen since the eponymous third album from 1997, but with more restraint. Even Attonito's buoyant vocals sound a bit angry. The backing vocals during the chorus are morose, and the guitars are sullen. A slightly more upbeat ending seems a little bit out of joint. "Simple Man" is one of the better definitions of the bittersweet goodness that was yet to come. A wary outlook on life with a desire to escape to simplicity. The soundtrack doesn't do much special other than nearly stop a couple of times, but is solid and makes for a good overall song that's quite catchy. "Better Days" comes across as trying to be like a faster love-song "Inside Out", and doesn't fare as well, though the first half does serve well to keep a briskness to a part of the album which is relatively slow, which "Night Train" is no exception to. Attonito's vocals are shoved to the back as Kienlen steps up. The music chugs along in between the vocal spurts, which tell of a need to regretfully cut loose and branch out. It's a good track to drive to. "Todd's Song" is also slow, sung mostly by Kienlen, and a bit of a downer lyrically, although the guitar picking is a bit more tuneful and some strings are added into the mix. It doesn't have quite the energy of the previous track, unfortunately. "Blind Date" sounds like it was put afterwards out of a necessity rather than because it was a good song. With seventeen tracks, Anchors Aweigh certainly wasn't in need of padding out. Played at a blistering pace, it's like a blander, faster "Better Days". Having established that that track was itself a lesser song comparable to another, we're left with a pretty weak song.

"Highway Kings" drives right in with a boldness that stands up far better. Upbeat lyrics are back in business, and the music has more attitude than usual. About a minute in the whole song becomes more positive, and the band finally again achieve a moment that rivals that of the last record, without pandering to that formula. "Anchors Aweigh" is a short ballad, like a slightly more relaxed "Inside Out". Despite the moody nature of the music at times, the song benefits from a simple but memorable refrain, and the relenting for a short period of the tireless McDermott's traps. "I Get Lost" sounds like it could have actually fit on How I Spent My Summer Vacation until the distinctively Anchors Aweigh chorus kicks in, but unlike other similar occasions in the album, this song holds its own and doesn't sound like a cheap knockoff, and has a hell of a catchy chorus.

Some nasty feedback gives way to Kienlen's country-flavoured rocker "The Day I Turned My Back On You". The drums are typical, but the vocal delivery and the guitar solos are just a little bit yee-haw. It's not an album highlight, but it's energetic and intriguing without deviating too heavily from the album's sound. "I'm From There" is the last listed track. A long way of saying goodbye, "I'm From There" is a nice if unspectacular track that rounds off a string off strong tracks that end the album before fading out. Oh great, more of that annoying crackling found on 1999's Hopeless Romantic. The last song on that album had a whole minute of it for some reason at the end, and we're in for more here. Whoopee. However, if you hang on for a minute and a half, this time you actually get a nice bonus track. The half-acoustic percussion-free "The Fall Song" is a sweet little bonus number that makes the wait worthwhile. I daren't guess the number of bands that try something like it, though this one could be the more buoyant sibling to the version of "Meaning" found on China Drum's Goosefair album. I just wish it had its own track, I hate all the silence and near-silence you get with some of these bonus track things. Waste of time, and a waste of hard disk space once it's ripped, too.

Anchors Aweigh is a good album, though not a great one, as are many records that demonstrate a band in transition between sounds. I'd recommend How I Spent My Summer Vacation as the record to try out, or Ghosts On The Boardwalk if you think that you'd prefer better examples of the direction that Anchors Aweigh started the journey to.

Personal picks: Highway Kings, Kids And Heroes, Inside Out, Apartment 5F
Picks for others: Kids And Heroes, Simple Man, Anchors Aweigh, Night Train
Relative weaknesses: Sing Along Forever, Blind Date


01 – Apartment 5F
02 – Kids And Heroes
03 – New Day
04 – Sing Along Forever
05 – Born Free
06 – Inside Out
07 – Simple Man
08 – Better Days
09 – Night Train
10 – Todd’s Song
11 – Blind Date
12 – Highway Kings
13 – Anchors Aweigh
14 – I Get Lost
15 – The Day I Turned My Back On You
16 – I’m From There…The Fall Song

Thursday, 9 December 2010

Dag Nasty - Wig Out At Denko's

Dag Nasty are best remembered as the main band that Brian Baker worked on in between his Minor Threat days and joining Bad Religion, and for their 1986 debut album Can I Say, a concise and powerful record featuring a sound distinctly derived from the eastern US coast hardcore sound, and Dave Smalley's very melodic vocals that went hand in hand with the direction that several protagonists in the Washington, DC scene were taking since the "Revolution Summer". For me, this is a shame, because while Can I Say is a fine record, Dag Nasty's catalogue consists of several great records, most of which aren't entirely congruous with their first album.

The band's sophomore effort, Wig Out At Denko’s is my personal favourite. Smalley had left the band before the tour for Can I Say, and the band decided to recruit Peter Cortner, who had briefly played in a band with Joe Lally, who went on to play with Baker's Minor Threat bandmate Ian MacKaye in Fugazi (and, briefly, Colin Sears, who left to return to Dag Nasty), who produced this record. Degrees of separation and all that. Cortner's voice was lower and less of a presence than Smalley's, and this appears to have contributed to a slightly slower, moodier pace on Wig Out At Denko’s at times, a trend expanded upon on 1988's Field Day. Unlike Field Day, Wig Out... maintains a significant dosage of the heavy guitars from their earlier work, giving it a recognisable energy.

I remember reading in an interview of Cortner in the Big Takeover where he cited the last four tracks of the original ten, along with the opener, as being the ones that sounded most like Wig Out At Denko’s. "The Godfather" kicks off the album, and as Cortner suggested, this is distinctly not Can I Say material. Longer than anything on that record by virtue of not being shorter than three minutes, it begins as still recognisable Dag Nasty material. The guitar's there, but a little more sparse and negative. Colin Sears' drums are still driving, but just a smidgen more sparse and the tempo seems a little slower. Cortner's entrance is a fairly softly sung verse, and while it strains at times, it's clear that he isn't going to mimic his predecessor on this track. The lyrics here are a little more narrative than the previous record's more direct, dictating content. (On a side note, this song contains one of my worst misheard lyrics in terms of "that couldn't possibly make sense" - I was convinced that "the biggest train of all, speeding closer towards the bridge" was actually "speeding closer towards the fridge"). When "The Godfather" crashes out, we're greeted with some rapid guitar thrashing, and suddenly we're in Can I Say territory. That can be easily explained, for "Trying" was conceived before Can I Say, featuring lyrics that ended up on that album's first song "Values Here". Here we have those lyrics removed, and the remaining lyrics largely recycled. "Trying" seems out of place on the album, though you wouldn't know it at this point, and Cortner seems out of place on the song (if you heard the demos of Cortner singing Can I Say material, he doesn't seem to fare too well there either). Consequently, the song comes out as one of the two low points on the album.

"Safe" appears to be in the same vein as "Trying", featuring relentless drumming, angry guitar, and some shouting vocals. Twenty seconds in, however, all bar Baker stop, and he and then the rest of the music all spread out a little. It's still a reasonably hard rocking number that leans towards older material, particularly during the chorus, but Cortner sounds like himself again rather than a Smalley substitute, and the slight but only slight reining in of the music during the verses makes "Safe" one of the album's most powerful cuts. "Fall" follows in a similar vein, and is very nearly as good. There isn't much vocal difference between the verse and chorus. Doug Carrion's bass is a little more noticeable here, though Baker's guitars continue to dominate the mix.

With momentum starting to build on Wig Out..., we're thrown a real odd one. Supposedly a consequence of the album running a bit short, a song meant to be a mimic of Bad Brains' stop-start "Re-Ignition" appears here with an acoustic guitar and a relaxed vocal delivery. Surprisingly enough, it works rather well, and you easily forgive it for not rocking out and slowing everything right down. In fact, you'll wish it stayed that way, as the album's other real disappointment, "Simple Minds" is a fast, thrashy, largely tuneless number both musically and vocally. The only thing worth taking from the track is the line "like being in bed with a porcupine, a thousand pricks against one", an amusing simile that sounds even more ridiculous given the earnest ferocity with which Cortner tries to deliver it. What follows are the rest of the songs that were hinted at being more akin to the band's newer sound. The title track starts fairly aggressively, with rolling drums and a scream, but the guitar seems annoyed rather than particularly angry. The vocals aren't trying too hard, and the refrain is quite poppy. The solo works about as well as any Baker solo, despite not being very quick at all compared to on most other Dag Nasty records, and the first half of this one.

We're eventually treated to the album's finest (and longest) cut, "Exercise". A hollow guitar/vocal intro sets the tone, and gives way to cruising rock akin to "The Godfather" but with a more full-bodied guitar sound and better hooks. The drums just keep on driving, and a rare bass solo is given a little room, which is a welcome cameo. "Dag Nasty" (the song) is much more upbeat, though the lyrics and occasional sneering guitar keep the track sulky enough to be another good Wig Out... number. Another bass solo comes here, and while it's nothing special, there's a very curious sound of a woman crying in the mix. Who put that there? Was it you, Ian? It's very odd, but it certainly gives "Dag Nasty" some extra character. The album closes on the slow, moping "Crucial Three". Almost a shame to end on such a sombre note as the album's built up in strength again, but it's no throwaway mood piece. Sears' drums calm right down, and Baker's guitar rings out, as Carrion's similarly attenuated tune plods underneath. A choppy guitar solo steals the show and, along with the preceding few tracks, demonstrates a more mature, less predictable band, that overcame the issues of multiple personnel changes, a change in musical direction, and an apparent lack of material to punch out an album that, while being short (there are EP's longer than this, like Sugar's Beaster) and perhaps having too many weak songs out of a small number to be considered a classic, still serves up some great rock.

Some silence at the end of "Crucial Three" (why? I hate that!), and quite a few bonus tracks. Egads, this dilemma again. We're given most but not all of the demos recorded before the album (I think "All Ages Show" was recorded then as well) featuring Roger Marbury, the band's previous bassist. Less polished but decent performances of "Safe", "Trying" and "Fall" don't particularly outdo the album versions, but aren't disgraced either. "Roger" is an amusing punk rock "Ghostbusters" theme. "Mango" is an instrumental that eventually surfaced with Dave Smalley providing vocals on the temporarily-reformed band's 1992 album Four On The Floor. Smalley completes the song, but this version isn't without its merits. While a minute or so shorter, it is more than just a song without vocal. More intricate drum fills are scattered through the song, and the echoing guitar fills are more interesting here. Finally, two live acoustic throwaways finish off the bonus round. "When I Move" was acoustic anyway, and "I've Heard" is just plain weird, being spoken rather than sung. All in all, not the weakest complement of bonus material, but not great, and not a selection that I would say you have to listen to along with the album proper, by any means. Wig Out At Denko’s proper is a short album with some inconsistency and failings, but is well worth a listen whether you're familiar with the band's other work, or a fan of related bands like Bad Religion (with or without Baker) and the Descendents (with or without Carrion). I'd even recommend it as an introduction to the band, as it shows off a less boisterous Dag Nasty while still providing hallmarks of their well-received debut.

Personal picks: Exercise, Safe, The Godfather
Picks for others: Exercise, The Godfather, Dag Nasty
Relative weaknesses: Simple Minds, Trying

01 - The Godfather
02 - Trying
03 - Safe
04 - Fall
05 - When I Move
06 - Simple Minds
07 - Wig Out At Denko's
08 - Exercise
09 - Dag Nasty
10 - Crucial Three
Bonus tracks
11 - Safe [Demo]
12 - Trying [Demo]
13 - Fall [Demo]
14 - Roger [Demo]
15 - Mango [Demo]
16 - When I Move [Live]
17 - I've Heard [Live]

Saturday, 4 December 2010

Jawbox - Novelty / Tongues

In the year 1992, Jawbox released Novelty, a 10-song LP, on Dischord in their native Washington, DC. This record tends to exist with the Tongues single as bonus tracks tagged on the end. Me, I love the idea of getting two records in one. But while I also like the idea of getting all the songs I can, I don't like the idea of bonus tracks. But I'm cool with the twelve tracks above ten here for two reasons. The bonus tracks don't suck, and as far as my computer is concerned, they can easily be organised as two separate records. More on that later.

I love Novelty. I love For Your Own Special Sweetheart, which all the critics say is their magnum opus, but I love Novelty more. Novelty is mixed atrociously, which would turn people away in droves. It has the same low master volume that Grippe has, and here the band are cramming an extra guitar into that limited field, so you're often really struggling to pull out two individual guitars and a bass. However, within the murky depths of this record you can find a number of good and great songs that are woven into a fine album piece. If you like having music on in the background, don't buy this record, spend the money on a cheap, second-hand, noisy washing machine for the same effect and gain the ability to clean your clothes in an extra convenient place. If you like to have music in the very foreground of what you're doing, think again. If you like to just listen to a record and call that an activity, then definitely think again, because that's when this record becomes something of a treasure trove.

A whirring guitar introduces us to the album opener, "Cutoff", and is soon accompanied by rhythm guitar, Kim Coletta's bass, and some drumming with the snare very prominent in the mix, courtesy of Adam Wade's last recording for the band before moving on to Shudder To Think. The verses see J Robbins' droning vocals, accompanied throughout by the subdued instruments of Wade, Coletta, and Bill Barbot's rhythm guitar at the very bottom of the guitar range, with Robbins' guitar doing some jangling for the second half to add a little something else. The chorus is vocally just a couple of mentions of the track title, but the guitars surge into the middle and keep things interesting. And to cap it off, as the guitars sink back down for a growling riff, some haunting background harmonies juxtapose against it in a way that strangely works. No foreground vocals for the last minute and a half see more of the post-chorus and a little guitar soloing. The opening track takes its time to melt away, but the next cut rears its head in no time. "Tracking" kicks and snarls, and Robbins' vocal delivery is that bit rougher than in the proceeding track, and indeed most of the record. The intro storms in with real purpose, but flows seamlessly into the first verse. That the rest of the song isn't quite as intriguing as songs like "Cutoff" are made up for with its pounding energy.

Next up we have "Dreamless", featuring swirling guitars and a far more melodic Robbins, and this probably explains why this was the one song from Jawbox's years before they signed to Atlantic that really caught the attention of music lovers that weren't into the ever-evolving Washington, DC sound. While the song certainly isn't a simplistic attempt at a radio hit, the pop sensibilities of "Dreamless" do help it survive the poor finish of Novelty relatively unscathed, because the song's strength is its tunefulness rather than its complexity, and that tunefulness is not lost in the mix. It's still a moody number that fits into the album well enough, and features Bill Barbot adding a layer of flat backing vocals that don't run parallel underneath Robbins' crooning chorus, to remind us that the band have still given this song a piece of Jawbox complexity to keep the record from going stale, which they manage well despite the incredibly dulling effect of the mix. The song finishes with a bit of an angry little flourish, and screeching but friendly-seeming guitar feedback announces the arrival of "Channel 3", which at times seems to be giving us a more lighthearted take on the wall-of-sound played much more vehemently by Jawbox's contemporaries as well as Jawbox themselves. While you wouldn't find yourself singing along to it, "Channel 3" is annoyingly catchy. Both Robbins and Barbot are being all nice and tuneful vocally, and you have to be paying attention to detect the occasional presence of a grim undercurrent that ties this song into Novelty's dark tapestry. Barbot's increasing vocal presence on the record comes to a head as he delivers lead vocals on the next cut. "Spiral Fix" leaks into existence, as some guitar plucking drips in, and Barbot's paranoid voice seeps in just over the top. The full band fall into the mix at times to add some aggression whilst keeping the song tempo treading at a nervously slow place. While "Channel 3" isn't one of Novelty's faster songs, "Spiral Fix" really shoves the mood down and, being one of the album's longest pieces, pins it there firmly.

The second half of the album gives us "Linkwork", which greets us with a more grudging feedback than "Channel 3". The paranoia of "Spiral Fix" is maintained and further darkened, and the pace is only picked up marginally, as Robbins sounds out the least lyrically abstract lyrics on the album (though still more veiled than your average rock band), and Wade throws in a lot of bass drum. The chorus vocals hark back to the aggression of "Tracking", though more consumed by the evil of "Linkwork". The guitars hover at similar levels throughout, and never relinquish the song's murky nature that epitomises Novelty. "Chump" signals a structural change in the album, where it and the remaining songs of Novelty proper see Robbins' vocals jump straight into the breach with the first verse without an instrument-only introduction, his voice having bided its time in the preceding tracks. Novelty is not a fast record, but after some particularly slow songs, the presence of the most urgent track here is particularly welcome. Also the shortest, "Chump" doesn't really do much in terms of sonic agility relative to its longer and more artistic neighbours, but the instrumental bridges and the presence of a guitar solo easily distinguished in the mix keep things themed but fresh. Ending as soon as it starts, we're treated to a novel concept on the record. "Static" begins with no guitars, and Coletta's bass guitar is actually audible beneath Robbins' gentle singing and Barbot's muted shouting. After the subdued start, the band comes to life and delivers another of the album's poppier cuts. While Robbins' vocals are strained with bitterness at times, this is largely a tuneful performance. Much like "Dreamless", "Static" comes out of the mix sounding relatively intact. Some more audible bass comes out near the end of the track, followed by a relatively predictable guitar solo outro. Some guitar harmonics compete with a sullen Robbins to introduce "Spit-Bite", which almost makes it seem out of place on Novelty. The chorus with its almost too sweet vocal harmonies doesn't do much to help, although the prominence of that omnipresent snare drum keep the track woven in, and if you hold on through the second chorus, the song takes a violent moodswing, relenting only once for another chorus, and the last minute of the track sees the guitars gradually crash and burn from the outgoing riff into a wall of feedback, that ends rather suddenly.

"Send Down" was recorded earlier along with the two cuts released on the Tongues single, but released as the last song on the original release of Novelty. I'm not entirely sure whether its inclusion at the end of the record was just to get the song released on petroleum, or whether it was one of Robbins & Co's more sharply defined dynamic shifts. If you look at the reasonably well seamed but ultimately still noticeable feature of Grippe, the band's debut album, that seems to suggest that they recorded a bunch of songs in a session and released them all, you might lean towards the former, and believe that the howling feedback that "Spit-Bite" leaves us with is the spiritual closer to Novelty. However, you might just as well look at some of the shifts in Jawbox's subsequent album pieces, such as from the relatively sedate and melodic lead single "Savory" to the immediately attacking "Breathe" featuring Bill Barbot on lead vocals, as found on 1994's For Your Own Special Sweetheart, or on their self-titled swan song from 1996, where we fade out from the sweet minimalistic ballad "Iodine", only to be charged down by the blistering "His Only Trade" that sees Barbot playing the response in a violent vocal call and response with Robbins before we realise what hit us. If you do look at these, you'll look at "Send Down" as a final kick in the teeth as Jawbox break the slight clichéd idea of ending on a wall of feedback to land a few more blows on the way out. And this track certainly does that, although the song doesn't stand too well on its own among the plethora of gems crafted by the band. Robbins is almost screaming for most of the song, taking the mantle of aggression from "Tracking" with real malevolence, and it isn't the most lyrically or musically interesting. The bridge in the middle of the song hints at a little melody, but it lasts all of three lines. Not that I mind, the song was too aggressive to turn into a pop song halfway through, but the ability of Jawbox to squeeze melody into dissonant cacophony is why we love them more than just another indie band.

And to the Tongues single, or "tracks 11 and 12", depending on how you choose to view it. "Tongues" is a neat song, and was a great demonstration of how the band was changing from the Grippe era. Bill Barbot had joined the band, and brought his vocals along with his guitar, and the music produced by the band was getting a little more complex. Barbot isn't quite as good a vocalist as Robbins, and Robbins, while certainly listenable, isn't the world's best singer, but this is no Mould-Barbe type vocal pairing (which should be considered as "acquired taste" paired with "squeaky door hinges") in any way other than the recorded output proportion. Barbot leads vocal duties on "Tongues", and the pair harmonise quite well during the chorus. A guitar effect chimes in a fairly relaxed demeanour to start with, but before long, the rest of the instruments kick in and the song starts cruising. One guitar works its way up the frets, and before long Barbot gives us a minimalist verse, and quickly rolls into the simple but great chorus. The guitars swarm in the mid range for a bit, Robbins delivers a line or two, Barbot does another couple of lines, and the song rolls through another verse, chorus and this bit again. Cue some more nice vocal harmonies about tongues, and the guitars gradually fade out once all that's done. Very deserving of a single release, and if anyone were to listen to a Jawbox discography and pulled up "Tongues" after finishing with Grippe, they would agree that Barbot was a sound addition to the Jawbox line-up, before Novelty and subsequent albums could even confirm it. I think the version yielded from the BBC session for John Peel is also great, despite being different. I usually have a very distinct favourite between different versions of songs, but the official version is only a marginal pick for me. The Peel version has a different intro, and Barbot and Robbins aren't harmonising as much in the outro. The vocal performance, as is typical with Jawbox recordings outside of their main releases, was a bit below their best, but doesn't suffer from the poor mix that plagued Novelty and the single. Check it out on the My Scrapbook Of Fatal Accidents comp released in 1998 after Jawbox broke up. Returning to base to finish up, we're given "Ones And Zeroes" as the B-side. I'm probably in a minority in actually preferring it to "Tongues", but I do prefer the increased intensity of the song, which helps make the changes in the song stand out more in the flat mix given to the dozen tracks. Lots of catchy harmonic vocals, trademark melody without an entirely obedient song structure, lots of snare akin to Novelty, and one guitar can be heard doing something distinctly different to the other strings for most of the song. Lots of energy that's not entirely aggressive, kind of like "Chump" but in a better mood. Whether you're into bonus tracks or not, be grateful that these two tracks can be yours with the album, and learn to forgive Ian Burgess for not giving the record the sound it deserved. If Ted Nicely was in the production seat as he was for For Your Own Special Sweetheart, Novelty still wouldn't get the widespread accolades of its successor, which is packed to the rafters with hooks and melodies accompanying the Jawbox dynamic oddities and tricky songwriting, and is deserving as the favourite of the many fortunate enough to be clued into the bands catalogue. But Novelty showcases the band at their darkest, and is a brilliant record for anyone familiar with Jawbox. Like 1993's In On The Kill Taker, the most cathartic record in the Fugazi discography, Novelty would make a poor introduction to the band that made it, but can be seen as perhaps the best artistic achievement, by a whisker.

Personal picks: Cutoff, Tracking, Ones And Zeroes, Linkwork,
Picks for others: Dreamless, Static, Tongues, Cutoff
Relative weaknesses: Send Down


01 - Cutoff
02 - Tracking
03 - Dreamless
04 - Channel 3
05 - Spiral Fix
06 - Linkwork
07 - Chump
08 - Static
09 - Spit-Bite
10 - Send Down

01 - Tongues (11 on Novelty release)
02 - Ones And Zeroes (12 on Novelty release)

Friday, 3 December 2010

Sugar - Beaster

Extended plays...why? What exactly are they for? Are they trying to give us more than a single, or less than an album? One has to wonder why bands bother with these releases, they're rarely given the credit of full lengths or singles of similar quality. This is often why it's usually a mystery of whether you're going to get anything good. Some of these are like miniature compilations. Moonpies For Misfits is a combination of Hot Water Music's Moments Pass and Where We Belong singles, and China Drum's stateside Barrier release was a selection of tracks from their singles up to that point, and was a real missed opportunity to make a full length compilation. Some are mere scraps from recording sessions for an album that weren't suitable for that album, but were granted a separate release. Beaster is one of these. If you've heard Sugar's commercial debut hit Copper Blue, you'd be surprised at this release. It's obvious at first listen why most of these six tracks weren't included on the long player. A complete mismatch to the melody-saturated and relatively upbeat collection of songs that made up the majority of Copper Blue, these follow in the footsteps of the two gloomier cuts, "The Slim" and "Slick", only with a naked aggression that, while not entirely absent, was well veiled on the album. Even the lighter moments on Beaster are often cut with an unhealthy severity that set them apart from the instantly catchy Copper Blue.

Does this make Beaster a gruesome delinquent sibling? This recipe has all the ingredients of a small disaster. However, Bob Mould and his chums have managed quite the opposite. What they have turned out is a collection of songs that recall some of the finer moments in Hüsker Dü's SST catalogue in which hints of melody work their way through aggressive hardcore, whilst keeping some of Mould's pop sensibilities that had come to the fore on Copper Blue and Hüsker Dü's swansong, Warehouse: Songs And Stories, aided by the solid rhythm section courtesy of David Barbe and Malcolm Travis. The songs have even been fashioned into something more than just a collection of songs into a sonic experience, and at over half an hour in length, you feel like you've listened to an entire album.

"Come Around" is first on the list, and qualifies as something of a curveball. Recalling the title track that opened New Day Rising for its lack of lyrics and relative increase in intensity, "Come Around" is nonetheless a fairly lighthearted affair that sounds at first like it could have fit on Copper Blue. The jangly opening guitar sounds like the one used on some of the poppier moments on the album. There's something less than cheery in the other guitar work this track that somewhat justifies its separation from the long player, but it's more likely the lack of lyrics making it more of a mood piece that didn't make it quite concise and commercial enough. Nonetheless, it serves well as a great way to mislead you. More jangling at the end of the track gives way to some feedback, and then all of a sudden you get "Tilted" barging into you. Released as a single in the UK, "Tilted" is the best song on the track. Charging at a blistering pace throughout, it begins with a violence that kicks the opener from memory and grabs your attention by the throat. Mould's vocal delivery is the only thing that really stops "Tilted" from sounding like a song that could have made a fine addition to Metal Circus. The odd layered guitar adds a little flair to the verses, but it's after the chorus, a repeat of the opening riff that ends with Mould being drowned out by his own guitar solo. This one is mental, and the highlight of the EP. A long, scratchy feedback and a tellysavalasangelist soundbite leads to more on the next track.

Three songs over six minutes follow. "Judas Cradle" slows the pace drastically, and what tunefulness Mould's voice brought to "Tilted" is left there for the most part, and instead we see a match with the darkness of the music. The notable exception is with the chorus, which is a bit catchy, and will be the main thing you take from the song even though it contrasts with the rest of it. Ominous drumming introduces "JC Auto", which saw a live version of which was the flipside to "Tilted" on the single, and was used in its own right for promotional purposes. More interesting than the preceding track, "JC Auto" spits more violently and takes the pace back up a notch. There's also a lot more in the way of melody, which frequently appears and disappears from both the vocals and the guitar. After treating us to a rollercoaster, it ends on a rather aggressive thread, which "Feeling Better" tricks you into thinking is continued for another long slog. Soon enough, the opening note gives way to a descending hook laden with synthesisers recalling "Hoover Dam" that come across at first as kind of annoying, but you soon realise that they actually work rather well. While the song has its moody moments and keeps more in tune with Beaster than Copper Blue, it's ridiculously catchy and packed with melody. It even has noticeable bass. Perhaps a minute or two less wouldn't do any harm, but "Feeling Better" is just about good and varied enough to warrant its lengthiness, as most of these bouncy numbers don't work too well over six minutes and repeat themselves too much.

As if this EP wasn't a weird and distorting enough experience, after giving us the meat of it from "Tilted" to "Feeling Better", Mould sandwiches it by eschewing his guitars for some organ keyboard synthesiser thingies. "Walking Away" almost sees Beaster come full circle, serving as the churchbound brother of "Come Around", with its relativety pleasant nature and minimal lyrics. It's a very distorting end to a very distorting little record. Stay the hell away from it if you like Copper Blue and Warehouse: Songs And Stories, but don't like Hüsker Dü's earlier material. If you are a fan of the Metal Circus/Zen Arcade era, but don't like Sugar's commercially successful debut and File Under: Easy Listening, then approach with caution. If you like most of what Bob Mould put out in the 80s and 90s, then you might find some of the stuff on here to be among the best material in that timespan.

Personal picks: Tilted, JC Auto
Picks for others: Feeling Better, Tilted
Relative weaknesses: Walking Away

01 - Come Around
02 - Tilted
03 - Judas Cradle
04 - JC Auto
05 - Feeling Better
06 - Walking Away

Tuesday, 30 November 2010

Gang Of Four - Shrinkwrapped

If you got this far, you've probably heard of Gang Of Four. They're big enough to have played festivals fairly regularly without having to write anything new (Content was finally wheeled out a couple of months after time of writing). Nothing more than a couple of genuinely new songs surfaced for over a decade since their last record. More or less living off the fat of the critically acclaimed and highly influential debut album Entertainment!, the Gang's initial run lasted only a few years after this release in 1979, disbanding after descending from a tense and jarring rock that stemmed from punk and funk to dancefloor mediocrity, the only common thread being the politically charged leftist lyrics. The creative protagonists, lead singer Jon King and guitarist Andy Gill, resurfaced twice in the 90s with guest musicians, punching out an album called Mall that leaned heavily towards their dancefloor days but with a bit more rock involved and a harder funk. Then they did some work for an independent film (the three or four digit numbers at the box office sort of independent) and fashioned it into 1995's Shrinkwrapped. Shrinkwrapped has been accused of trying to emulate Entertainment!, which is a load of tosh. It is true that Gill and King made a significant shift from rock-tinged dance music back to rock music, so of course Shrinkwrapped would sound more like a rock album they crafted than disco material put out in the early 80s and early 90s. Oh, and there are some words on the cover, just as there were on the blood red cover of the debut. This doesn't really mean anything, the Gang have always been political and social commentators, and there was writing on the Mall cover too, and that sounds as much Entertainment! as Snoopy The Dog, 50 Percent, and all that gangster speakmusic shizzle. Maybe a little more, but you get the idea.

The difficult second paragraph, where I attempt to transition between what this album isn't and what you can actually find on it. Andy Gill's famous guitar work is back in the saddle at last, having been running alongside for over a decade (at least when Gang Of Four were running). It has changed from the 70's, but this is no bad thing. The heavy staccato that gave space for Dave Allen's funky basslines in the old days is gone, perhaps due to the band not having a dedicated bassist at this time. You do get a feeling of sparseness on the record, but it's not that blatant anymore, as Gill uses the guitar to fill more gaps. Of course, this is Andy Gill, so he did this with harmonics and feedback. His forays up the frets are still there, but they don't always sound quite so random, and are more often in feedback format rather than panicked picking. The rhythm section is a subdued affair and, while occasionally rearing its head, is relatively low in the mix. The rock may be back, but the punk and funk that fuelled Entertainment! and Solid Gold are as good as gone. The lyrical content's main beef is consumerism, and it makes viewing this album at this time all the more appropriate, and I wonder whether the band are privy to the clip of "Natural's Not In It" that's being used on a television advertisement for that XBox Kinect toy.

"Tattoo" takes us from the platform in style. Piercing feedback soon slides underneath Jon King's vocals, which are pinned as reliably as ever to the mid range for the most part. King scribbles out the persona of a creepy stalker type in the verses. The chorus, though, is crooned gently, and the guitar croons with it. A bright, catchy pop chorus, albeit a disturbing one, in a Gang Of Four song? They were rarely completely devoid of tune, but that's unheard of, so savour it. Some creepy vocals embedded in the outro fuzz take us to "Sleepwalker". No sarcastic cheer here, the guitar buzzes above and the rhythm ticks quietly below, leaving King's voice vast space to echo in the middle. the chorus is sung similarly, but it's a sulky line set to moody harmonics. "I Parade Myself" sees Gill work the guitar down low for the core riff, and King singing softly in the guise of an unjustifiably bold and proud so and so in characteristic Gang Of Four sarcasm.

"Unburden" is like most tracks that Gill lends his vocals too. With the exception of the classic "Armalite Rifle" and the comedy affairs on 1983's attempted bumshaker Hard, "Is It Love?" and "Woman Town", the songs tend to suit Gill's extremely monotonous delivery and are downbeat and gloomy. "Paralysed" will likely remain Gang Of Four's best Gill song, and "Unburden" is nothing spectacular. It has the edge on several Gill songs in that King isn't taking a break from smashing up microwaves and doing those weird routines that I should probably assume are stage dancing. That obscenely annoying eardrum-sandpapering harmonica melodica thing that ruined some great Gang Of Four classics like "Ether" is not present here, or at all on the album. Hurrah! Instead, we get a phone conversation of sorts. Gill talks to himself like a dejected old geezer who's lost the plot (intentionally) in studio voice, while the phone sex girl on the other end speaks through the wire, being predictable and paying no attention to the decrepit rambling. Musically it's fairly unsatisfying, but it works well enough as a mood piece to bring us down yet another notch, and as a vehicle for another of Gill's tales that assume the position of a man beaten down by society.

Surprise! After sending us spiralling down a case of increasing depression with the heartbeat ebbing away, we're now given a swift kick in the nuts. Loud rhythm guitar and urgent drumming usher in a return of the sort of shouty King that we're all familiar with. "Better Him Than Me" is not a great track, but it gives you enough of an adrenaline rush to sit up and pay attention. Next up Gill gets all middle-eastern on us on "Something 99". I was strongly reminded of about five minutes into "Pay The Man" by The Offspring, which came a few years later than this, where it kicks into life. King stays loud. If it wasn't for the unusual guitar hook, I'd say "Something 99" was too similar musically to "Better Him Than Me", which is a bit of a letdown on the otherwise varied and dynamic experience. This doesn't happen again, fortunately.

We're taken back down with some slow drums and an easygoing guitar. "Showtime Valentine" soon darkens to an interesting song, and King assumes the role of another loser, and goes out on a limb with both low and high notes. There's a bit of old funk coming through here too. The song gets up and starts, and ends with the fall of a wall of noise. "Unburden Unbound" is a disjointing affair. As the title hints at, it's not really a musical number. King and Gill discuss the characters briefly from "Unburden", a bass plods at times, and a guitar jangles sadly at times. That's it. Like the song it discusses, "Unburden Unbound" is followed by an assault to the privates. "The Dark Ride" is a little more exciting than the last wakeup call. Gill makes the guitar screech and squelch, and King eschews yelping some, and croons out another tuneful but haunting chorus. It doesn't soar like "Tattoo", but it works well.

Got us again! Gang Of Four get acoustic on yo ass, and yes, it sounds as soft and sappy as any rock band that's so used to pummelling our ears relentlessly with feedback and electricity that decided to get all sensitive on us. These chaps are sarcastic and biting enough that there's presumably some sort of message buried in there condemning society, making the gentle setting all the more contradictory, and I'm not sharp enough to catch onto it. Regardless, it's perfectly listenable, quite nice in fact, and if you've been riding the album with its ups and downs, it's easy enough to take in your stride. Even if you're a disappointed consumer looking for something more coherent, a) it's an easier pill to swallow than "Unburden Unbound" and b) well done for sticking with it this far.

"Shrinkwrapped" seals the deal. It's a pity that it couldn't be used to cleave the too similar "Better Him Than Me" and "Something 99", although I should be grateful that the Gang decided to avoid the hackneyed acoustic goodbye and gave us a strong end to the album. Drums lead the way, and a miserable King muses on how he's been swallowed up by consumerism. The backing "ahh" during the chorus and middle of the song is quite memorable. Perhaps it's because it's very unlike them, or perhaps it's because it goes down a treat with King's empty delivery, which is among his best performances here. Gill reins his instrument in, which allows the vocals in the mix to shine.

Not all fans of Gang Of Four's influential early work will like this album. They may have come three quarters of the way to full circle, but the circle has widened. It's too sensible at times, and lacks the consistent venom and groove. Those who appreciate Gill's style but also slightly more conventional rock sense will like it. How much those people like it will of course be hit and miss, as this isn't an album that you can easily put your finger on. If you listen to the record a few times, you do start to catch on to the groove. If you let it, Shrinkwrapped could easily grow into your second favourite Gang Of Four record. No prizes for guessing what record will be forever rooted as everyone's favourite.

Personal picks: Tattoo, Shrinkwrapped, Sleepwalker
Picks for others: Shrinkwrapped, Tattoo, The Dark Ride
Relative weaknesses: Better Him Than Me, Unburden Unbound

01 - Tattoo
02 - Sleepwalker
03 - I Parade Myself
04 - Unburden
05 - Better Him Than Me
06 - Something 99
07 - Showtime Valentine
08 - Unburden Unbound
09 - The Dark Ride
10 - I Absolve You
11 - Shrinkwrapped