Saturday, 28 May 2011

At The Drive-In - Vaya

At The Drive-In rose pretty quickly through the ranks of noisy post-hardcore, in a high arc that culminated in a stellar final album and subsequent disintegration. A brief look at their catalogue shows three albums which are incredibly dissimilar. 1996’s Acrobatic Tenement, despite being fairly intricate, failed to avoid sounding a little bit like a pop-punk album with ambitions. 1998 saw the release of In/Casino/Out, which had very little resemblance to the previous full length. Brutally aggressive music with a rough mix contrasted with increasingly complex guitar work meant that this record was a completely different animal. Another two year hop and the critically acclaimed, commercially quite successful Relationship Of Command was unleashed. A lot of the anger remained in the music, but it was tamed by a much slicker production, and strong elements of progressive rock gave a much more textured album.

The band was an unusual case in that they made frequent use of extended plays, and not just as throwaway material. Prior to the release of the band’s first full length, the Alfaro Vive Carajo! EP displayed much poppier melodies. El Gran Orgo was released in the year between Acrobatic Tenement and In/Casino/Out, and while it sounded more like the former in terms of mixing, it neatly fills the gap between those two records which would have otherwise been a non sequitur, showcasing more aggression at times that leant more towards the latter.

The same could be applied to Vaya, a snapshot of the band’s progression rather than scraps. This 1999 release framed them somewhere in the arc between their rawest peak and the experimental direction they were heading in that contributed to their dissolution. The production finds a sweet spot between coarse and slick, the scale of aggression is broadened, and a couple of different approaches are exercised. This sort of description can indicate a lack of cohesion, but the record sounds as cohesive as any of their full albums.

“Rascuache” kicks things off, and instantly draws the listener into a sense of unease. The introductory sequence treads a line been tribal simplicity and an electronic groove. The song explodes into In/Casino/Out-style ferocity, but the elements of the intro haven’t quite left the song entirely, and they’ve certainly made their mark. A complex drumbeat brings in “Proxima Centauri”, and Cedric Bixler-Zavala almost seems to be chanting at first. Some more experimental guitar work separates Omar Rodriguez-Lopez and Jim Ward. The song twists and contorts frequently, perhaps a little too often. “Ursa Minor” is more recognisable as a song rather than a series of experiments, and builds up well. A languid bridge takes out some of the energy, but an iteration of the chorus is all that’s needed to reignite the song.

The half-album’s centrepiece and arguably its peak is “Heliotrope”. From brutal attacks to intricate solos to a single bending guitar string hovering over Paul Hinojos and Tony Hajjar's rhythm section, “Heliotrope” carries a wide range of the arsenal of At The Drive-In, and gels them all together extremely well. The focus track, for which a music video was made, “Metronome Arthritis” follows, and while it isn’t exactly painful, it’s much slower than anything on Vaya thus far, and really sounds like it’s dragging its knuckles. The pace only picks up very slightly at any point, and it feels like the venom that the band is capable of delivering has been diluted rather than sparingly used. This song would foreshadow some of the slower, weaker songs on Relationship Of Command.

An aggressive riff introduces “300 MHz”, which exercises a lot of quiet-to-loud sequencing that we’ve come to expect from At The Drive-In, but unfortunately it doesn’t have the same impact here. With only one track to go, you might be wondering if Vaya is running out of steam after a bold start that could have promised a full length record of solid material. “198d” starts in such a subdued manner that indicates a band going out on a whimper, but they turn it around in surprising fashion, and come up with a great slow song. Bixler-Zavala’s grating bleat is not fashioned for songs like these, which is one reason why the band had struggled to get this right more often than not. Whereas in “Metronome Arthritis” the guitars were a bit on the boring side for the most part and highlighted the depressing drumbeat, on “198d” they sound much more natural at this pace, and the restrained drumming works nicely. Of course, the chorus is louder, but retains the pace and the mood. Even Ward’s backing vocals, which bark even more harshly than Bixler-Zavala’s, are arranged into a relatively pleasant chorus. The mood is sullen, but despite being the gentlest track by a long way, it’s also one of the strongest.

At The Drive-In would have further success with slow songs on Relationship Of Command with the excellent “Quarantined”, and further failure with the marathon “Invalid Litter Dept” that will leave some listeners wincing, greater success in experimentation (“Quarantined” again being a defining example), and matching success in unbridled aggression in tracks like “Arcarsenal”. This is all fine and dandy, Relationship Of Command deserves its place as the band’s widely heralded magnum opus. But for all the accolades the full length gets, Vaya has given us some of the band’s best work. At The Drive-In will always be an acquired taste, but if you’re accustomed to harsh vocals and harsh post-hardcore or whatever they’ve rechristened a subsubgenre that translates to “sounds a bit like At The Drive-In” (which the crap they’re coming up with, probably something like “psychedexperimetal post-screamocore”), then Vaya is a worthwhile addition to your selection. Just make sure you get Relationship Of Command first.

Personal picks: Heliotrope, 198d
Picks for others: Heliotrope, Ursa Minor
Relative weaknesses: Metronome Arthritis

01 – Rascuache
02 – Proxima Centauri
03 – Ursa Minor
04 – Heliotrope
05 – Metronome Arthritis
06 – 300 MHz
07 – 198d

Wednesday, 18 May 2011

Social Distortion - Hard Times And Nursery Rhymes

After a few decades of deaths, retirements, and comings and goings of an innumerable number of musicians, the easing of the more extravagant posturing, and the growing acceptance that 2004’s Sex Love And Rock N’ Roll was a return to stylistic nature rather than an experimental foray back into rock and roll, it’s just about safe to say that Social Distortion is a rock and roll band fronted by Mike Ness. After writing punk songs in the band’s youth, culminating in one of the most well regarded punk albums to come out of California, Mommy’s Little Monster, Ness decided to move on. The record was released in 1983, and you can count on one hand the number of punk songs that Social Distortion has put out since then. Songs like “Indulgence”, first played as early as 1984, demonstrated Ness shifting genres, and after a few years and some prison time, Prison Bound was released in 1988, and it was essentially rockabilly. This wasn’t entirely surprising, however, given that the sort of covers that Social Distortion do hasn’t changed (the likes of Johnny Cash and The Rolling Stones were always in the odd setlist). Nevertheless, the band signed up to a major label, released a couple of albums in a similar vein but with a slightly fuller rock production, had one of them eventually go gold, and made a fan out of Bruce Springsteen. After an aborted attempt to produce another similar record in 1994, most of the songs were shelved, and we were given White Light White Heat White Trash two years later, which brought a heavy alt-rock element into the mix, and a few hard songs. Yet throughout, Ness had always insisted that Social Distortion were punk rock, and just played a bit of rockabilly. Live shows featured recycled tough-guy punk rhetoric used unwaveringly for years. “Back when punk was dangerous”, “when society wasn’t ready”, “take all your fingers and stuff them up your arse”, “I hit the biggest one of them”, only laden with profanities, and variations of all of these can be heard on 1998’s Live At The Roxy release. Time passed, members moved on, and records weren’t released. Eventually, Sex Love And Rock N’ Roll came out, and it was, as the titled suggested, a rock and roll album, and everyone loved it. A dab of Hammond organ wasn’t everyone’s taste (it wasn’t mine), but it was mostly subtle and blended well.

A number of years later, it was evident that the wait for a new Social Distortion record was going to be a long one again, and after seeing the band in London in the summer of 2009, I could see for myself that the punk charade had been dropped. A banner proclaiming “30 years of underground rock and roll” hung behind the band, and after opening with a couple of classics from Mommy’s Little Monster (I think it was “The Creeps (I Just Wanna Give You)” and the title track, but don’t hold me to it), it was all rock and roll and their 90s rockabilly. A couple of years of loosely following the loose information regarding a release, early 2011 saw the band employing an unusual gimmick, streaming their entire album online pre-release and offering an increasingly reduced price on Amazon on release if song streaming milestones were met, and that got me my first taste, whilst also wiping out the impression they’d given that they were going to put out an acoustic album.

The biggest surprises are served up straight away, and the album kicks off with a rock and roll instrumental. “Road Zombie” is a hard-driving, snarling number that almost recalls White Light White Heat White Trash, if not for the production style, which dates the guitars if nothing else. The dynamics suggest that it was originally designed to be a verse-chorus-verse-chorus song, and the lead guitar almost acts as a substitute for the vocals. Regardless, it’s a rocking track that’s a nice way to set things off. Following that is the definitive departure from Sex Love And Rock N’ Roll, “California (Hustle And Flow)”. The B-3 Hammond organ has been replaced by the “ooh” of female backing singers. It’s not really my cup of tea, and it comes across as a little generic, but the quickening of pace towards the end gives the song a longer life in the memory. “Gimme The Sweet And Lowdown” returns to the pace of the opener, but has a more upbeat feel to it, not too dissimilar to “Don’t Take Me For Granted”, the number three from the previous record. There’s a little more restraint, keeping it in check with most of the album better, which Ness generally did a good job with considering how old some of the songs on here are.

The real meat of this album is in the middle, just like a meat sandwich should be, but enough about my expertise on the heirarchy of light lunch architecture. “Diamond In The Rough” is on the slow side, and quite charming. The lyrics and verses aren’t spectacular, but the chorus is awfully catchy, with backing vocals that recall the 2004 album. Indeed, parallels can be drawn to the number four track there too, as “Footprints On My Ceiling” was a slow song that didn’t leap out straight away but turned out to be one of the best tracks on the album. One of the few tough guy songs follows, but we can forgive “Machine Gun Blues” for that, and the strange tinny vocal section (why do singers like to do bits that make them sound like they’re on a cheap walkie-talkie?), because the song rocks, and because Ness hasn’t spent the majority of the album telling us what a hard as nails, down on his luck gangster he is. It’s a wonder how he got out of the Prohibition era in one piece. Hard Times And Nursery Rhymes showcases a lot more introspection and vulnerability, and there’s no better example than “Bakersfield”, the album’s centrepiece, and longest song by some way. Opening with a downtrodden groove, with some subtle touches of piano and backing singers in the chorus, it’s a well-layered slow anthem. The sparse and conversational stop-start section near the end even features a little of that organ we thought had been eschewed. There’s a lot of layering, as there is on a fair number of songs, but it’s all put together discreetly to add to the sum rather than distract from it.

“Far Side Of Nowhere” is unremarkable, but provides a welcome cheery vibe from the music to get us out of the last ten minutes of slightly droopier tunes. “Alone And Forsaken” sees the band try to emulate what they did with Johnny Cash’s “Ring Of Fire”, but while the criminal horn section in Cash’s version was morphed into a neat guitar riff, this Hank Williams cover doesn’t fare as well as a hard rock and roll tune (a wolf howl at the end sounds quite juvenile here), and is probably the most stark misfit on the album. From the more pronounced piano at the beginning of “Writing On The Wall”, you might think that that conclusion was premature, but the song matches the mould of some of the other slower songs on the album. Lots of “ooh” ensures that lament is combined with melody, and that the album is back on track.

“Can’t Take It With You” sees a slightly pushier and driven guitar groove, the return of the gospel backing singers at their most prominent, and a piano solo, giving us the impression that Ness wanted the album to have a little fun on the way out. Incidentally, that’s what the song’s about, and it is fun, so you don’t care too much. The album closes out on “Still Alive”, an upbeat number from Ness that lets us know that he’s not dead, which is a courtesy that most musicians only provide for their fans on their newfangled twittery facebooking gadgets, and that gives us something to be upbeat about too, because it’s not the album’s best song, sounding a little samey. A piano solo for an outro lets us know that the album is at an end.

Deluxe version bonus tracks, oh how they annoy me. Are they gimmicks to get you buying a certain way, or even to buy the album twice? Where do they belong? Single B-sides to be released on some B-side compilation down the line? Are B-sides still a viable commodity in this new world of digital music sales? Regardless, you can see why “Take Care Of Yourself” wasn’t included on the album, it runs on a different groove. It’s not a show stealer, but it more than holds its own, and sounds fresh after an album of largely similar material. There’s a poppier element to the guitars and melodies, some vocal echoes, and backing vocals from the band fill out the sound. Maybe it’s too poppy for the Social Distortion brand to be included on a proper album, but I like it a lot. “I Won’t Run No More” sounds a little harder, but the same reasons for not being included spring to mind. You wonder if having the pair of songs both included in the album would have nullified the accusations of not gelling with the album whilst also alleviating the feeling of being given a lot of the same. There’s an acoustic version of “Down Here (With The Rest Of Us)”, the guitar’s really different and I’m not a fan, but I usually prefer acoustic versions of electric songs to resemble them a fair bit. Call me a stick in the mud if you will.

Should Social Distortion have followed through and put out an acoustic album instead? Certainly not, they’ve largely done a good job. This record is not as powerful and packed with hooks as Sex Love And Rock N’ Roll, but it’s a good record. The band showcases an evolved sound, and the way the album sound and packaging has all been made to look dated adds to the charm. I wouldn’t say this is essential Social Distortion, but if you like any of their albums aside from that old punk debut, you won’t have any regrets about getting your mitts on this one. It was a sure signal that 2011 would be a better year than 2010.

Personal picks: Bakersfield, Diamond In The Rough, Take Care Of Yourself
Picks for others: Writing On The Wall, Diamond In The Rough, Gimme The Sweet And Lowdown

01 – Road Zombie
02 – California (Hustle And Flow)
03 – Gimme The Sweet And Lowdown
04 – Diamond In The Rough
05 – Machine Gun Blues
06 – Bakersfield
07 – Far Side Of Nowhere
08 – Alone And Forsaken
09 – Writing On The Wall
10 – Can’t Take It With You
11 – Still Alive
Bonus tracks
12 – Take Care Of Yourself
13 – I Won’t Run No More
14 – Down Here (With The Rest Of Us)