Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Seven Deadly Singles #41: Sapville

A gruesome 2007 so far, with a shit Shins album, The Fray crowned as iTunes monarchs, and lotsandlots of Pre. Grammy. SAPS.

Mandy Moore - "Extraordinary"

It's so cute when tween popsters discover the big, bad machine behind them, do a few faux-indie flicks, and ditch those evil, evil blonde roots that made them whores in the first place (yeah, right), to start thinking outside the box and add. . .guitars and drums. Was that pause dramatic to you? I bet Ashley Parker Angel and Nick Lachey chortled in their soups. Look where it got LFO. Always more likeable than Jessica Simpson if less feisty than Xtina or iconic than Britney, Mandy Moore's gotten damn far playing the nice girl. At least as far as Liz Phair. Except Phair has an edge to fall back on, as exemplified in her own "Extraordinary," and talent only matched by PJ Harvey, who's so far in the opposite direction by now that she's left Vincent Gallo's cum streaked across a Shepherd's Bush highway somewhere. Moore, unfortunately, is going to have to fall back on A Walk To Remember's DVD royalties when this one politely flops. B-

Common feat. will.i.am - "A Dream"

What many have accused Common of and I've always feared would actually happen now conjoin as will.i.am burns himself a fresh new circle of Hell. It's one thing for Mr. i.am to confirm the worst there is to believe about his own blandalicious "conscious" rap with the occasional inextractible pop hook, and even to live his dreams by burning out Nas and Michael Jackson like the out-of-touch geezers they are. But to aid and abet Common's always-threatened banal instincts without ?uestlove or Kanye in attendance to save him is just cruel, a black mark he just didn't need on a fairly solid permanent record. Here he's a living, breathing, boring hack, letting will.i.am repeat the MLK quote until it feels as pointless as Freedom Writers rather than the great moment in history it remains. And let's face it, Kanye was the genius behind Be, not the flake in the sweater vest. D

Daughtry - "It's Not Over"

Look, I respect the guy as much as anyone else for trying to inject some guitar-based integrity into Simon Cowell Land on the way to beating Taylor Hicks in the chart race. But proof that good singing doesn't mean Jack Shit in Great Song Land is that the guy chooses to sound exactly like Nickelback and Puddle of Mudd with what he's given, rather than aiming for Cobainesque strength, if not risk, brains or insight. I couldn't tell you a thought in his head. This is what Fuel has wrought, not to mention Rock Star: Supernova: indistinctive white-bread pounding that lacks identity, power or any attractive qualities. Kelly Clarkson is relatively Andre 3000. C-

Nelly Furtado - "Say It Right"
Nelly Furtado - "No Hay Igual"

So it turns out this mildly edgy (only when compared to Fergie, Gwen, et al) dancefloor chica only knows two songs. For more "Promiscuous" chintz-blather with a swooshing 80s sheen, press 1. For another medium-spicy "Maneater" tidal-wave synth monster, this time with the prequisite Spanish rapping press 2. "Say": C-, "No": B

The Fray - "How To Save A Life"

Oh Mark, Mark, Mark. Mark Pellington. Yes, you directed "Jeremy," what a smart and astute boy you are! Feeling the plight of angsty high-schoolers is surefire way to strike up a career, I mean, who doesn't love children? And moreso, what rock stars shouldn't be shown surrounded by these adorable human shields, so ugly and exploited and ripe for the suffering, whilst you bellow a suicide lament even shallower than "The Freshmen?" Yes, I know that's how you feel. It just doesn't work for everyone. Hey, I know it's unfair. All rock stars should be graced with Eddie Vedder's patented Squint-'n-Lip Bite. But they ain't. F

John Mayer - "Waiting On The World To Change"

Aren't we all, John. Leave it to this schlockmonster to come up with the least-protesting protest since TV On The Radio's "Dry Drunk Emperor" almost nodded a head. This guy's career has basically been "waiting," with his lazy tunes whose sophisticated college student audience he "waited" for, the credibility from blues- and hiphop-identified black musicians he's been "waiting" for and the Grammy nominations he continually "waits" to roll in. The cute thing is that the sweetly unpretentious bastard always gets what he wants, so if Mayer wants Bush gone, it must be only a matter of time. I'm pulling up a pillow. B

Junior Boys/The Knife: They Suck

You heard me.

I hate this shit. Fuck The Knife, fuck Pitchfork, fuck Junior Boys, and fuck anyone who thinks any kind of electro takeover with whiny, breathy effeminates exporting synth pinpricks from FruityLoops 6 to webwide acclaim is Progress. Since when did retro start to mean retrogress? I love the 80s as much as anyone, not to mention whiny, breathy effeminates, but wearing retarded bird masks is no excuse for whispery, banal-basic synth death that 4AD, Stephin Merritt, and Devendra Banhart would call wussy. Music doesn't have to have force to be good, but especially when we're dealing with electronics, forward motion is a must. Take the Knife's "Silent Shout" for instance, the opener from their egregiously overacclaimed record of the same name (Pitchfork's #1 of 2006). All "Baba O'Riley" and "Safety Dance" octave play, no substance, then, oh god, those voices. Bjork is warmer, and by comparison, meaningful, and her next album's guest list reads like a parody (some noise from column A, hmmm....Lightning Bolt, now some Timbaland, and can we get the Tuvan throat guy again?). Plus Vespertine's a stronger record than Silent Shout or So This Is Goodbye will ever be, namely that it doesn't sacrifice colors and tones for a "minimalist" tune record (Medulla, however, does). But Bjork has something resembling a vision, whereas the Junior Boys are on some New Romantic bullshit that even seems exploitative when Jonathan Richman does it. The Knife at least has a few tunes that don't bother me; "Neverland"'s a scorching synth-nightmare with tense repetition that suggests Imogen Heap covering Ministry's "Stigmata." Junior Boys are nearly unlistenable for those Xiu Xiu inflections though. Even when they develop a groove out of their simple parts, they collapse it immediately with sap, sap, sap. So for the most part, these high-concept artsies (dig those beak masks) don't have the tune sense to bring Depeche Mode back from their hookless graves. Try The Blow's transcendent Paper Television if you need to satisfy a craving for minimal bleeps-and-bloops electro with actual heartfelt tunes. They even have wit; the showstopping "True Affection" recalls The Pipettes, and here's the punchline, the techno ladies aren't even colder.

The Knife - Silent Shout: B-
Junior Boys - So This Is Goodbye: C
The Blow - Paper Television: B+

To The Races: Eric Bachmann's Nebraska

All he ever wanted was to be your spine

Saddle Creek is a very polarizing label that has a bad habit of alternately releasing records that put me to sleep and records that end up not just on my year-end A-lists but at the top of them. I don't know why this is. Every time I'm ready to assert Conor Oberst is a steaming pile of unlistenable ephemera, he turns around and releases I'm Wide Awake It's Morning (a barely disputed Top 10 2005 record even by Bright Eyes haters). Every time Tim Kasher retreads from the spotlight his actual band falls under accidentally to bore the world as The Good Life, he bursts from the ether tighter than ever and unleashes The Ugly Organ (the best album of 2003, footsteps this year's messy Happy Hollow will not be following in). Every time Blake Sennett shits out an Elected album he still runs back under Jenny Lewis' legs to make a More Adventurous (top 5 of 2004). And so on. For a label who's released some of the worst music ever recorded (pre-Domestica Cursive, Commander Venus), they sure know how to fluke 'em. So I raised an eyebrow when I heard Eric Bachmann's first true album under his own name (Crooked Fingers is basically him), To The Races, was being released on Saddle Creek rather than his trusty Merge. Had the portentious airiness of buddies Azure Ray got to him? They certainly got him signed after all, if Oberst and Kasher's early Archers of Loaf fetish didn't (listen to Cursive's throwaway Archers parody "Sucker You Dry"). Crooked Fingers was always an act I expected to dry up anytime; that Springsteen-Waits-'n-Diamond-goes-country thing can't last forever, can it? So I expected To The Races to end up more like Jeremy Enigk's insipid new World Waits, the "bye" album for a long-loved songwriter. I had no reason to think that, of course. Last year's silly but still charming Dignity And Shame still ended up in the bottom reaches of my A-list. I just get suspicious of songwriters who don't flag now and then to prove they're human. Bachmann's only misstep to date is the first Crooked Fingers album, when he was on the verge of his new sound and safely experimented with it. For spawning the glorious, rousing "New Drink For The Old Drunk" alone, I can't stay mad at it. Since then he's made five records, none less than honorable: 2001's beautiful Bring On The Snakes, by far more languid and fully realized than the debut, 2002's Reservoir Songs EP, five well-known, well-chosen covers that is nothing but pure pleasure, 2003's solid Red Devil Dawn which added flesh-and-blood to the mix, not to mention a brief fascination with Latin horn charts and Mariachi music, and the aforementioned Dignity And Shame, which took the Mariachi thing a step further and added female duet partners and love songs.

Anyway, it turns out that back to basics doesn't always mean return of the shit sandwich for certain reliable songwriters. To The Races is excellent, usually more exciting than Crooked Fingers (but maybe not Archers of Loaf), and never as dead as the album it's based on. Y'know, Nebraska (like Saddle Creek LOL). Springsteen does those Tom Joad-Devils & Dust type obscuro ventures so he can turn his songwriter's mind off and jam unperturbed in his delicate medium of choice, the 4-track plus guitar, the same way Sonic Youth does worthless little warm-up EPs that keep them sane while the public demands more muted pop-rock like Rather Ripped. A neat trick that keeps Bachmann's record afloat is that he adorns almost each song with one tiny sprinkle of arrangement just to keep things aesthetically intriguing. So "Home" and "To The Races" feature the violinist from DeVotchKa covering things with sweet sad strings, "Man O War" receives an otherworldly boost of girl-group harmonies, and "Carrboro Woman" features some damn Bruce-like harmonica pumping. The tunes themselves are so stark that even the excellent ones sound great with that 4th dimension. But oh are they excellent. "Little Bird" and "So Long, Savannah" are sweet little folk ballads one-upped by the Dylan-conjuring folksy vibe of "Carrboro Woman," while the title instrumental is a tango-sassy Gypsy blues that could've been on Bachmann's basement-clutter Barry Black album 11 years ago. "Home" is one of those weary traveler tunes a troubadour like this can't not have, ditto "Lonesome Warrior," a simple tune which sounds like a Red Hot Chili Peppers ballad that gradually gains momentum as if Godspeed You Black Emperor! remixed it.

But like his Crooked Fingers records, the two blatant peaks stand taller than anything surrounding (including any 2006 record). The slippery blues lament "Genie, Genie" swings like nothing Bachmann's set his voice to before, albeit harnessing the most desperation on the record: "Genie, genie come on out/won't you help poor daddy out/give me something/I'm looking for something/a million dollar bill/a lonely woman/lots of pills/give me something." Even better by is the angelic "Man O War," one of those heavenly openers like Sleater-Kinney's "The Fox" or Gogol Bordello's creeping "Sally" that sends chills down your spine. The speedy fingerpicking maintains a delicacy for almost three minutes before comes in with some breathy, staccato cooing, and a few false choruses set up the ship before Bachmann sails away on the most wondrous streak of melody my recent memory can recall, a pleading falsetto that chimes "Set adrift onto these shores/man o waaaaaaaaarrrrrrrrrrrrrrr/caught up in a dangling sting off the shoooooorrrrrre," the stretched notes ending on what sounds like a "wooo-hoo," coming down like a weather balloon from the soaring tufts of treetops and other pretentious shit like that. It's embarassingly unabashed beauty, that rivals both "You Can Never Leave" and "Chumming The Ocean" for anthemic significance, even "White Trash Heroes." Radio may never be ready for it; the last time something this shameless caught on was Coldplay's "Yellow" which isn't half the weeper this boy's got. But if you love power ballads, or just the breathtaking horizons of successfully sappy songwriting ("The moon doesn't mind/if the sun doesn't shine/The sea doesn't care if you're lonesome tonight"), do not pass it up.

Eric Bachmann - To The Races: A

Thursday, January 25, 2007

Panic! At The Disco Freak! The Fuck Out

We've come to fuck your virgin daughters with our big orange ball.

Proof that the 80s are back: the girlier your rock star of choice is, the more girls want to fuck him, even if the shitrags in Hinder refuse to believe it. And true to their sopping-wet emo scene, Panic! At The Disco are gay, gay, gay, which is one reason lots of rock-dude types hate them, except they also want your pity and empathy, fellow fucked-over males, with completely sexist lyrics and song titles, which is one reason nerd-critic types hate them. The only people who don't seem to hate them, actually, are just under two million Hot Topic-wearing teenage girls.
I skimmed through 2005's runaway hit A Fever You Can't Sweat Out because I wanted to hear what Fall Out Boy would sound like with synthesizers, and like anyone else with ears, declared it a brick and moved on. Why was there any reason to take this immensely hateable band seriously? They were on MTV, so what. They were still in high school, positioned to get loads of pussy, and had a record deal with three songs and no shows under their belt. Their album's big difference from Taking Back Sunday/Thursday types is that they used. . . (drumroll). . . keyboards. And horns. And lots of instruments that no blown minds under 18 had ever heard on a rock album before. They had a truly girly beef with the most hated man in rock, Brandon Flowers--a far cry from Fred Durst, the most hated man in rock from only a few years prior--for some lame-ass shit like Vegas not being big enough for all of their egos. And most loathsome of all, their two biggest hits featured the lyric "the bridesmaid is a whore" and the title "Lying Is The Most Fun A Girl Can Have Without Taking Her Clothes Off," and they seemed to think they could get away with bald-faced misogyny just because they're smart enough to squeeze Mature Phrases like "harlequin," "I chime in," and most ridiculously, "a sense of poise and rationality" into TRL singalongs. So fuck them.

Only then. "I Write Sins Not Tragedies" stopped being one of those "Ridin'" or "Float On" sized hits and actually eclipsed their mentors' "Sugar, We're Going Down" itself by winning the Video Music Award for, not Best New Artist, but, Video of the Year. And as they now round double platinum, they're gonna be on the cover of the next issue of Rolling Stone. Incubus and Nickelback are huge alternative radio bands with streams of big hits and they've never been asked to do a Rolling Stone cover. So are P!ATD populist? Apparently, I can't let this band die with dignity as one- two- or three-hit wonders. My girlfriend wouldn't let me. Yes, I was softened up by some *glare* unwanted plays, but I started caring about Panic! At The Disco after hearing the remix of "The Only Difference Between Martyrdom And Suicide Is Press Coverage" from the Snakes On A Plane soundtrack (and to a lesser extent, the Teddybears remix of "Black Mamba" made me give a shit about The Academy Is). Under the renewed glow of VHS Or Beta glint-synths and Faintesque dancefloor thwomps, I now admit the song's melody is tighter than an Olsen twin's labia. And, while twisty, the band has hooks that register more memorably than Incubus' or Nickelback's, a boon to rock radio. "Testosterone boys and harlequin girls" is a knotty way to begin a chorus, but Brendan Urie's gift for flamboyant, melodic swoops and dips sure wears better than Fall Out Boy's Jimmy Eat World-style barrel-through sameyness over the course of an album. Which brings us back to Fever. OK, "Martyrdom" is in fact, a damn fine intro to the band and probably their shows, with little synth-breaks cutting up the hyperdrive (which actually starts acoustic!) and a believably singable "swear to shake it up!" finish. It's actually kind of cute how inductory it is ("Sit tight I'm gonna need you to keep time/come on just snap snap snap your fingers for me,") since the band obviously didn't expect to have fans at all, and their bratty need for attention almost rivals Art Brut when they promise "Swear to shake it up/If you swear to listen/And we're still sorry I'm desperate for attention/I aim to be your eyes." Also, this Urie guy has a strange obsession with weddings and the desire to expose the corruption of them or something? "When I say shotgun/You say wedding," is even less hiphop than it sounds on paper, and who knows what the point of "I Write Sins Not Tragedies" is, other than a very catchy song that just happens to be pretentious. Maybe I'm granting a little too much lyric time to give these adolescent fuckers, but I guess they deserve a hearing after I begrudgingly learned that "Lying Is The Most Fun" title comes from Closer (albeit a movie their younger fans probably haven't seen or wouldn't get). And with at least four Chuck Palahniuk quotes in their songs, I'm starting to realize that these guys are closer to their generation than I believed.

The reason for Panic! At The Disco's popularity doesn't have much to do with looks or taste in music, but the identifiability between them and what the more clever kids are doing toward the end of high school: reading Fight Club, thinking Natalie Portman's character in Garden State is deep, trying to wedge their way out of Avril Lavigne and New Found Glory marked cd collections. Kids who think they're starting to get smarter want to listen to music they think is growing with them; who are we tell them those long-ass convoluted song titles aren't clever? They're certainly more substantive than "Someday," a Nickelback, or "Anna-Molly," an awful pun from the great minds of Incubus. And I'm not saying kids are boneheads, though they do fuck themselves. The great teen music they like as a fluke, like good Britney or Backstreet singles, they're almost certain to disown for the next five years and maybe life. And the shitty stuff they like isn't always so disposable; I hope I don't see any Avenged Sevenfold fans by the time I'm 30, but metal has a lifer feel like that. But kids can't always be boneheads, because Panic! At The Disco is actually good. Try the accordion and "la-la-la"-hooked cabaret of "Build God, Then We'll Talk," or the flamenco-striken tempo changes of "I Constantly Thank God For Esteban" for something more interesting than Fall Out Boy's dull-ass next album. That said, I don't see how these guys can last. Not many groups with a circus-and-costumes stage show go on to a second decade unless they're Kiss, and their fans will likely outgrow them faster than they outgrow themselves even though Urie already says he's not that proud of their album and listens to Tom Waits. At very least, I trust that they'll grow out of the jaded girl-hatred like any other 20-year-old, though I'm not so sure about the showoff vocabulary or predilection for bad cover choices. "Karma Police" and "Eleanor Rigby" by these kids requires so much fuck-you balls that I'd like to officially un-name them emo on behalf of Brand New and Used fans everywhere. These guys have ambitions, which is healthier for privileged rich kids than anti-star sulking. Brand New and The Used don't have the vision.

Panic! At The Disco - A Fever You Can't Sweat Out: A-

Thursday, January 18, 2007

Hell Hath No Fury: The Meadowlands Of Hip-Hop?

I love making these kinds of bullshit comparisons.

Clipse's Hell Hath No Fury has been out for months and it's already been established as "the best rap album of 2006" (it's not, hello Fishscale), a classic (it's not), a comeback for the Neptunes (bullshit, their 2006 sound is the banal "Money Maker," not these visionary tracks from two years ago that just happened to be released in 2006) and the home of that groundbreaking single, the near lifeless "Mr. Me Too," (which pales next to "Wamp Wamp," the other single that no one talks about, which is, in fact, a classic). I didn't really like it.

No stranger to the unfathomable hype of "weird" hiphop records that really aren't, I saw right through OutKast's Speakerboxxx/The Love Below as a blatant allowance for Andre 3000 to do whatever he wants, none of which he proved actually good at, except maybe making white people dance to an admittedly fun song that goes "Don't wanna meet your mama/I just wanna make you cum-a." And MF Doom has yet to make me give a shit about his stoned freestyle cycles garnished with irritating cartoon samples disguised as a prolific album output, so I didn't much care for Madvillain's Madvilliany either (though DangerDoom's Mouse And The Mask was pretty good, and Doom's Ghostface productions are his best ever). But unlike those self-consciously artsy auteur-cum-douchebags, Pusha T and Malice have no interest in pursuit of the weird for weird's sake, they're just a pair of devilishly funny crack rappers who just happen to be friends with the Neptunes. And also unlike the music-oriented OutKast and Guided By Voices-esque obscurantist MF Doom, Clipse are excellent rappers. From "Judging by my steel I got something to do here/Give up the money or the angel cries two tears" to "Mildew-ish when I heat it, it turn bluish/It cools to a tight wad, the Pyrex is Jewish," these lyrical champions certainly earned themselves that A grade everyone's been so quick to foist.

My beef is with Pharrell and Chad's beats, which here often ride the fence between the hard to listen to and the actively irritating when they're not merely underdeveloped. Take "Trill" for example, Fury's so-called anthem. Burbling bobbling acid synths collide and stumble over each other while Pusha T goes "I'm so trill" over and the fuck over. The melody is totally incoherent even though if you strain, you can make out a descending figure similar to Jay-Z's "I Just Wanna Love U (Give It 2 Me)," only with shittier drums. The producers are hoping that the mind-numbing repetition of these tracks will cause people to see their avant-garde genius, and on some it works, but on a good third of them it just sounds like someone got bored on FruityLoops and decided not to resolve the half-an-organ-vamp "We Got It For Cheap," or the crowded harp strums of "Ride Around Shining," as if making these tracks busier excuses their "minimalist" laziness. I'm outspoken in my hatred of the life-support machine grind of "Mr. Me Too," which barely registers as a beat even though bloggers and critics alike are ooh-ahhing over its "uniqueness." Some of these weird juxtapositions become hooks in spite of themselves, though it doesn't work for all of them; I can see heads nodding and shouting along to new catchphrase "Momma I'm sorry/I'm so obnoxious" over the ominous accordion loop on "Momma I'm Sorry," but not necessarily the "Keys open doors/keys-keys open doors" ad infinitum on (you guessed it) "Keys Open Doors," whose haunted gospel choir and clacking percussion is rendered almost unlistenable by the highest triangle jingles I can remember hearing on a hiphop track. The simplest sounds are the most instantly effective here: the one-two string plink-plink that keynotes the Juvenile-esque "Ain't Cha" (ed: I can't believe I have now, at a point in my life, used the term "Juvenile-esque"), the bright three-note guitar on the clomping "Dirty Money," which actually does resemble an anthem with its whispered call-and-response chorus. And of course, "Wamp Wamp (What It Do)," the only fully-realized tune here, utilizes every weapon the other tracks don't: a singable Slim Thug chorus and a bright steel drum sample that, shock of shocks, completes its melody instead of stepping on its own toes, which is probably why Pitchfork called it a "take it or leave it" single, and the relatively odd "Trill" and "Mr. Me Too" works of fucking genius.

But. I'm reluctant to admit I've been playing alot of Hell Hath No Fury, "Keys Open Doors" and "Mr. Me Too" and all, because I feel like I'm giving into Pharrell's dubious intentions that lazy attempts at randomness equals genuinely fascinating weirdness. But fascinating it is. Not every track comes together finally after a dozen plays, but some of the dissonance does indeed coalesce into a strange flow that maybe did take true genius. Late favorite "Chinese New Year" is even fun, setting off Pusha T's kiddie threats against a squelching synth backdrop that he just rat-ta-tats all over before dissolving into "Nightmares," a cautious organ ballad with random guest Bilal singing about being "p-noid [sic]." I'm more shocked that the universal opinion isn't more mixed, that Ghostface's more "conventional" masterpiece didn't wow even Entertainment Weekly as much. Maybe people still eat up anything with the Neptunes stamp, but then what about Pharrell's solo flop? I just can't believe that Entertainment Weekly, for instance, would call an album this disorienting to experience, their hiphop album of the year based on its great tales of spending money made from street corner crack sales.

Even weirder about the saga of Hell Hath No Fury is that the album it reminds me of most is the Wrens' politely sprawling indie opus The Meadowlands, which won sensational acclaim in 2003. This comparison extends to the long wait that marred both records, with six years of legal woes behind the Wrens equal to three hiphop years of Jive putting an increasingly incensed Clipse on the back burner (Pusha T called for Jive's lynching in one interview). But I'm talking about how The Meadowlands also arranged somewhat too-simple tunes against too-harsh noise and somehow I still learned to love it eventually. The teeth-gritting sound quality for the fuzz-'n-drums intro of "Everyone Choose Sides" and the boiler-room feedback throbs on "Boys, You Won't" are at least as difficult as "Keys Open Doors," and I still learned to love it too long after the rest of the world already declared it a landmark without blinking. So maybe it's a good thing that I haven't "stopped" listening to Hell Hath No Fury since its release. I wouldn't say it's for pleasure per se, but I can attest that the weirdness doesn't make it a bad album like one of Andre Benjamin's conbobulations either. As I type, "Keys Open Doors" is clinking through my speakers one more time as I try to solve its disconnected melodic parts in my head. It certainly makes for an interesting experience I admit to repeating even though its given me headaches before. If it gets too hard, I just forget about it and focus on those amazing lyrics.

Clipse - Hell Hath No Fury: A-

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Bingo, Ships: Hamell On Trial

If you don't think this is sexy, you don't like rock 'n' roll.

Only the latest completely new and realized force to kick my ass since who knows, Hamell On Trial is a little-known folk/punk singer named Ed Hamell who thinks he's a standup comedian. His records sound like Johnny Cash and David Cross fighting over who gets to do the coke and who gets to call Ann Coulter a cunt. The great thing is they both usually win. This a guy who stops after the "I killed a man in Reno" line when he covers "Folsom Prison Blues" to blurt, "I just fucking love that part." So as you can imagine, of the five Hamell records I own, 2002's live Ed's Not Dead--Hamell Comes Alive, is by far the most entertaining. Without the benefit of so much as a band or electric instruments, the man cranks up his acoustic and propels at least as hard as the Old 97s to sing songs with titles like "I Hate Your Kid" ("He's violent and dumb/just like someone else I know/His father") and "John Lennon," a true story in which he meets his idol at one of Yoko's art exhbitions ("He said 'fuck off'/it sucked to be me/I hit the men's room.") Of course these hilarious nuggets would be nothing without killer riffs to string them together, and he provides. The fastest nonmetal/nonclassical guitar player in recent memory, he underpins "Kid" with triple-time country noodling, "Dead Man's Float" with a stun-gun riff reminiscent of bees swarming, and "The Meeting" with molten slabs of blues-driven distorto-slide, all without the benefit of tone knobs or Line 6 Pods, or even a fuzzbox. It's pretty great stuff, even if you have to be in the mood for his sometimes overly juvenile delivery. Like The Hold Steady's Craig Finn or Art Brut's incandescent Eddie Argos, Hamell's singing voice isn't great, kind of like Black Francis without art school, but he does so much spoken-word that you know the lyrics are the point. He even has a comedy record, Yap, available from his website, that I'm dying to hear.

On 1995 debut Big As Life, he started out as a typical post-grunge guitar-slinger who just happened to know lots of about Keroauc's prose style, and knew the way to please crowds was to jive about motley characters who rob KFC with a fork or piss off Count Basie and Spike Lee. That style he perfected on 1999's indier Choochtown, which mellows the hyperdrive into fun territory. Unusually songful, he gives his strumming room to breathe with a basement band and the occasionally ramshackle country lick. The stories are storier too, with recurring misfits Bobby and Chooch puking and fucking and punching lights out every which way. That record spawned Ed's Not Dead, one of the more creative and distinctive live albums released in my lifetime, which doubles as a best-of with definitive versions of "Sugarfree," "Choochtown," and so forth. Almost every song included beats the studio version, which isn't his fault. Garage lo-fi nor Mercury-backed gloss suits him, only the stage can balance his unrelenting force. That's not to say Choochtown or Life aren't good records. In fact, his live album has a rare mind of its own when it comes to presentation. Even its new songs are definitive, the otherwise unavailable "I Hate Your Kid" and "7 Seas," a thrashing account of all the things he does to make his "ship" come in ("I learned to walk like Marlon Brando in On The Waterfront. . .I yo-ho-ho'd and a bottle of rum. . .I bribed Charlie Tuna!") with a surprise ending ("Bingo, ships. . .but not mine!") are career toppers. Those are definitely spread out over the career, though: his softest and by a hair least effective record Tough Love leads with the pounding "Don't Kill," sung by a pissed-off God whose idiot disciples can't even follow one measly, very specific commandment ("I thought I etched this in stone"), hooked to one of those patented blues riffs and some extra urgent cymbal crashes I don't even think his live act can supplement. Songs For Parents Who Enjoy Drugs is his most recent effort, and though it gets there eventually, it's very flawed melodically (the annoying "Hey Boss" and the messy, synth-washed "Apartment #4"), comedically (four lame and unnecessary skits) and sadly, lyrically ("Pretty Colors'" forced rhymes are muy terrible). It also suffers from pandering to his audience of educated liberals with some overly mouthy Bush-bashing that you'll respect in spirit if "Ann Coulter's got one stinky box" isn't too fifth-grade for you. With alot to exempt, I must still urge people to buy it with high points like "Inquiring Minds," a fictional conversation between Hamell and his kid Detroit ("Dad did you ever do anything bad?" "Fuck no!") with a dynamite riff and the third degree about his past trysts and drug use where the moral of the story is "I'm gonna lie/I'm gonna lie/I'm gonna lie." "Civil Disobedience" is almost an anthem, setting punked-out Gandhisms to fists-on-desk "I Want Candy" pounding, and the mischevious "Baba O'Riley"-channelling "Mommy's Not Talking Today" is your one chance in a lifetime to hear label boss and sometime collaborator Ani DiFranco say "nice hooters" with chorale harmonies for full 3D effect. Best of all is "Father's Advice," a dark tale of Hamell's alcoholic grandfather murdering his grandmother and then himself, and how you have to laugh about even that. His sky-ripping falsetto is not be missed over the tense, jerking drum machine. Falsettos and drum machines aren't typical devices for folk/punk heroes, but Hamell On Trial ain't adhering to nobody's definition. But it is typical of punk artists to go all out, or as Hamell would say, "I mean, fuck it, why go halfway?"

Thursday, January 11, 2007

Seven Deadly Singles #40: Top 40 LOL

So here we are. For the 40th edition of Seven Deadly Singles, I thought it would be fun and gimmicky to do a list of the Top 40 singles that have come out since I started the column in 2003. But I did 100 instead. Singles only, so I hope the Cardigans make a video for "Give Me Your Eyes" soon.

1. Jay-Z - "99 Problems" (2004)
2. The New Pornographers - "The Laws Have Changed" (2003)
3. Rilo Kiley - "It's A Hit" (2004)
4. Gnarls Barkley - "Crazy" (2006)
5. Justin Timberlake feat. T.I. - "My Love" (2006)
6. Head Automatica - "Beating Heart Baby" (2004)
7. Ghostface Killah feat. Trife Da God & Mr. Maygreen - "Good" (2006)
8. Crooked Fingers - "You Can Never Leave" (2003)
9. Amerie - "1 Thing" (2005)
10. Jens Lekman - "A Sweet Summer's Night On Hammer Hill" (2005)
11. The Postal Service - "We Will Become Silhouettes" (2003)
12. Sleater-Kinney - "Entertain" (2005)
13. The White Stripes - "Blue Orchid" (2005)
14. Beyonce - "Ring The Alarm" (2006)
15. Ghostface Killah - "Be Easy" (2006)
16. Clipse feat. Slim Thug - "Wamp Wamp (What It Do)" (2006)
17. Amy Rigby - "Dancing With Joey Ramone" (2005)
18. Living Things - "Bom Bom Bom" (2005)
19. The Format - "The Compromise" (2006)
20. T.I. - "What You Know" (2006)
21. Shakira feat. Wyclef Jean - "Hips Don't Lie" (2006)
22. The Mountain Goats - "Woke Up New" (2006)
23. Britney Spears - "Toxic" (2003)
24. The Hold Steady - "Chips Ahoy!" (2006)
25. The Rapture - "Get Myself Into It" (2006)
26. Franz Ferdinand - "Do You Want To?" (2005)
27. Be Your Own Pet - "Bicycle, Bicycle, You Are My Bicycle" (2006)
28. Old 97s - "The New Kid" (2004)
29. Lil' Wayne & Robin Thicke - "Shooter" (2005)
30. Kanye West feat. Jamie Foxx - "Gold Digger" (2005)
31. Nada Surf - "Always Love" (2005)
32. The Fever - "Grey Ghost" (2004)
33. The Rapture - "House Of Jealous Lovers" (2003)
34. Lil' Jon & The Eastside Boyz - "Get Low" (2003)
35. The Magnetic Fields - "I Thought You Were My Boyfriend" (2004)
36. Local H - "Calfornia Songs" (2004)
37. Nas feat. Olu Dara - "Bridging The Gap" (2004)
38. Rhymefest feat. Kanye West - "Brand New" (2006)
39. The Good Life - "Lovers Need Lawyers" (2004)
40. Lil' Wayne - "Fireman" (2005)

Seven Deadly Singles #39: This Ain't A Scene, It's a Goddamn Indie-Rock Encore Preview

All the out-of-nowhere successes of yesteryears make their sophomore bid at once. Will they sink like Sam's Town or swim like More Fish? It's on.

Fall Out Boy - "This Ain't A Scene, It's An Arms Race"

Yeah! This is how a real band sells out. Full-on frontal assault, with industrial-dance stomping, shit metaphors that suit their arena-rocking future, a peanut-gallery shout-along chorus of backup boys, even "hoo hoo hoo" harmonies stolen right from the Format's album, which I bet was deliberate, since who would ever believe those nobodies? Class-A thievery though; all of it works, works, works. The best crunch you'll hear on the radio all year, even if it lacks the universality and hook appeal of "Sugar, We're Goin' Down." And hey, Andrew, you can understand the words. A-

Kaiser Chiefs - "Ruby"

Gotta love the automatic hype of Britain unparalled anywhere else in the world. I mean, wouldn't Oumou Sangare or Clem Snide have more fans if they lived where The Vines are "Nirvana + Beatles"? So I liked 2004's well-pumped Employment, though it probably won't survive my hard drive's next cleaning, and loved its leadoff kissoff "Everyday I Love You Less And Less," which wasn't nearly as big a hit as the shruggable "I Predict A Riot." So maybe the sophomore album will feature another fluke as great as that one's, but this greeting card sure ain't it. This isn't even "I Predict A Riot." It's a generic nugget of chords that was merely the honest best thing these spoiled victims of overhype could muster up, the poor things. C+

The All-American Rejects - "It Ends Tonight"

And speaking of spoiled, haven't these guys gotten a little too used to the big time? When are people gonna cut them down already? I'm serious, they are a threat. Everyone takes far more pleasure in shooting the woebegone Killers or the are-they-joking drama queens My Chemical Romance or even the fully-realized Panic! At The Disco, but at least those clowns have a persona to love or hate as you please. These jocks are just lucky fucks whose friend of a friend bribed them into the music business, and they're so visionless they would've been content to remain one-hit wonders. Only then SoundScan got a virus or Laguna Beach gave them face time or the terrorists won and now they're whining your prom theme. This has to end now. D-

The Arcade Fire - "Black Mirror"

There's no point in even considering this band in a "singles" context; the last time I did I was dead wrong, badly underrating one of 2004's defining cuts at a B+, and I don't want to make a fool of myself twice. So when I say I'm not completely bowled over by this effective creepy goth-rocker (don't even talk, it's fucking called "Black Mirror"), that doesn't mean I won't be when it comes time to make my Best of 2007 list. Asidy from the blustery windstorms that don't exactly make the whispered chants of the title all that dramatic, they have grandeur for weeks, and this doesn't sound completely unlike the title track from Sam's Town, but it is a hell of a lot safer. It's too late to reserve judgment for the album's release, but those frothing at their ironic moustaches shouldn't be disappointed. Like Sonic Youth or Yo La Tengo, these guys could yet turn into one of rock's great grower bands. B+

Modest Mouse - "Dashboard"

Dancepunk is officially dead. Modest Mouse has their share of albums I respect dissent from, but I'm actually worried about this one. I should've known from that deadly January release date that it would mean failure, almost every well-anticipated band who ahem, makes release, at the beginning of the year, ends up a forgotten disappointment. Just look at Moby and Queens of the Stone Age's last albums, if you can remember their titles. And like Modest Mouse's last album, they've graced year-end Top 10s too. But back to "Dashboard," I don't know how they could've fucked up, unless new guitarist Johnny Marr's really lost his knack since the Smiths. But I just can't imagine the swirling disco strings and half-realized horn charts were Isaac Brock's idea, even though the scratchy guitar funk and bad (worse) singing probably were. Consider yourself warned, "Float On" is now a mere dot in the rearview mirror. C+

Clap Your Hands Say Yeah - "Love Song No. 7"

Not a good sign. Trippy piano ballads with newfound Beatles influences don't mix well with Talking Heads-ish art-rockers with horrible singers. Ditto for love songs. And I guess they threw in accordions and backup horrible singers because they just don't give a fuck anymore. Maybe having an A&R person to monitor studio progress isn't such a bad thing after all. So long, blogs. Wait, strike that. So long, people with ears. C

Ghostface Killah feat. Trife Da God and Mr. Maygreen - "Good"

Just to be a dick, I threw the best song of the last two months in here so hiphoppers can gloat about the differences between their expectations and the nail-biting nervousness of the indie rockers'. A geezer like Nas can put out a meh album like Hip Hop Is Dead and it's like, no problem, it'll just make his next comeback hit harder, because that's how rap works, you have to sink to swim, as one indie-rocker once put it. With CYHSY or the Arcade Fire, it's make or break, like one wrong idea in your premature ambitions and you'll blackball Pitchfork for life and your sheep fanbase along with it; look what happened to Trail of Dead. No one's holding their breath for Fishscale's follow-up, not even me, and hey, we get the bonus of the very enjoyable More Fish for our troubles. Was anyone holding their breath for Fishscale even? Only Jay-Z, who's now a rock star instead of a rap one, could shore up such disappointment because he hyped his album the rock way. Of course he's not gonna suffer for it; Kingdom Come's doing great. But Ghostface leaves with his reputation, not to mention this totally effortless-sounding, horn-funked, chopped-up-soul sampling, honest-to-God pop song now in his repertoire, aka the best song of the last two months. A+

Seven Deadly Singles #38: Looking For The Perfect Beat

In all popular music, even in indie-rock, with the likes of CSS and Hot Chip at the helm of some kind of movement, it's clear that everyone still only wants a revolution if they can pat their foot to it, so here's seven songs from 2006 that I suspect somebody, somewhere, danced to at some point.

Dem Franchise Boyz - "Lean Wit It, Rock Wit It"

Ah, yes. Snap music. This must be what it sounds like, because it snaps, crackles and pops with a crunch that the "Laffy Taffy" guys (who were they again?) didn't have the budget for. The creeping synth whooshes, bloops and bleeps provide that "Get Low" tough while the chorus goons shout a hook I'm not likely to forget so fast. It's easy to see why this has the South all jittery, what with its "mini" sounds and clicks juxtaposed perfectly with low-ass grumble-shouts less ugly-sounding than Lil' Jon's, but while the least I expect is a couple more good singles like this, the trends will shift again before you can say "hyphy." B+

Beyonce - "Irreplaceable"

Finally, it took our generation's R&B singles queen to humanize those tinny old 808 beatboxes everyone seems to be using again even though they, for the most part, sound like shit. They don't, however, disturb the song's MTV Unplugged-ready strumming and even better, those lyrics! B's always good for a quote or buzzword like "bootylicious" or "baby boy," but finally, here's a complex and impeccably-sung get-out-of-my-house breakup stinger her hooks have been waiting for since "Bug A Boo," which was funny and clever then, but sounds like kids' stuff compared to these nuances: "I could have another you in a minute/And in fact, he'll be here in a minute." Ouch. If we're lucky, she'll scare Sean Carter into making another good record with talk like that. A

Cham - "Ghetto Story"

We get it, it's your story, so talk, already. But this hiccupy toaster has a somewhat arresting delivery, if you can remember Chip Fu from 90s rap casualties the Fu-Schnickens' wheezy oeuvre. The buzzy videogame squirts provide forward motion, often missing in reggaeton's clunky rhythm jerks. But while I'd rather hear him talk than Daddy Yankee, I can remember what "Gasolina" sounds like, and this one's still a little fuzzy after a few plays. B-

Cassie - "Me & U"

Ah yes, the R&B hit where the unique beat is everything and the singer is merely cooing sexual decor. Christina Millian's "Dip It Low" proved this shit doesn't always work, Amerie's glorious "1 Thing" proved it does. This isn't even good phone sex though; spareness like this is negligible laziness when Lil' Wayne isn't freestyling over it, and laughable when tinny Moog lines hook it to an irritating sound that brings Neil Young's failed techno experiment, Trans, to mind. How sexy is that? C-

Hot Chip - "Over And Over"
CSS - "Alala"

The Strokes. Hate 'em. Well, no. . .I just hate how a band that ordinary, though solid, got so much attention for "spearheading" the garage rock movement, when the likes of the Willowz, the Ponys, Be Your Own Pet, the Fever and so on, all bands with identities and more interesting records, didn't get their due in the great hype window. So just like I "think" I hate the Strokes, I'm inevitably gonna lump all my bitterness about these two dancey phenomenas making year-end lists over the Rapture into one convenient little space. Hot Chip I'll merely dismiss as this year's !!! or Daft Punk, competent, acclaimed acts with no discernable reason to live. They sound like XTC goes house, which no one should want to hear. They know some interesting sounds, like jingle bells and organ vamps, work well on the floor, but their attempt at a Rapture-style countdown or marching feedback guitar solo sounds so amateurish and awkward I only want to dance to it out of pity. Fun it is not. CSS have a little more edge and fuzz, which means they don't attempt anything funkier than straight, metronomic and unshuffled 4/4, as if they were a garage rock band with some oontz-oontz synth throbs to bump up the bass. I may well end up humming their song if its potentially-annoying electro found its way into an inescapable car commercial, say. But over both of these I'd head to The Rapture's "Whoo! Alright--Yeah. . .Uh-Huh," a predictably great dance single that I won't even bother to review because I've already said how great the Rapture is. But don't believe the hype. "Over And Over": C+; "Alala": B

Clipse - "Mr. Me Too"

Actually, this is the only thing here I can't see anyone dancing to. The Neptunes get way too much credit for their "innovative" minimal productions, but I much prefer their full-blooded invasions, like Mystikal's "Bouncin' Back" or these guys' own "Wamp Wamp," an excellent, earth-shaking anomaly on the otherwise austere Hell Hath No Fury, which I respect as much as anyone else but rather prudishly admit I find it a bit hard to listen to. It certainly has its share of striking juxtapositions, which certainly aren't always that pleasurable to hear. Take this fuck-you-Jive choice for a single, whose entire beat consists of a dying hiss-synth, ding-ding electro toms, and the occasional inexplicable tambourine loop, over bmmfs and chhhs so harsh and quick you'd think they were sampled from Amnesiac. I have no beef with the rap; Pusha T and Malice are without a doubt the best tag-team in music now that Corin Tucker and Carrie Brownstein are retired to their suburban Portland homes, so don't they deserve better than Pharrell knockoffs that straddle the line between "minimal" and "lazy"? And saying they straddle the line is being kind. B

Monday, January 08, 2007

Seven Deadly Singles #37: Rubberband Men

Stupid meddlesome 2006 getting in the way of mine and everyone's 2007. To tide you over, here's the first of a few editions of leftovers to dispatch tunes I skipped.

Lil' Wayne & Robin Thicke - "Shooter"

I'm more than kind of embarassed I only truly got into this song more than a year after The Carter II had already set the blogosphere ablaze with "Best Rapper In The World" hype. Excuse me for not believing a fucking Ca$h Money rapper would turn into Jay-Z faster than Jay-Z would turn into Chris Martin. I'm still reeling from the idea that the "Rubberband Man" guy could wring out enough inspiration for "What You Know." And "Shooter" is hardly the most instantaneous track on the admittedly excellent Carter II, in fact, it's a true slow burner. The concept: by some ingenious twist of fate, Lil' Wayne heard the barely known Timberlake-wannabe Thicke's song "Oh Shooter," a delicious biscuit of funk-ay organ-and-bass jamming itself, and decided it would be kickass to rhyme over the instrumental breaks, without looping or changing a thing. Holy shit did it work. The whole easygoing funk thing might be why it didn't catch on like "Fireman," but maybe it'll get a second chance to set the world on fire in 2007 as Wayne is now in the position for a crossover smash and the Timberlake model is officially a viable career path. I mean, even the "Rubberband Man" guy got a piece of that. A

The Decemberists - "O Valencia!"

I feel weird admitting the Decemberists are a totally reliable song band, having bashed Colin Meloy's pretentions until the backlash became chic. Even Stephen Colbert's doing it, to an audience who hardly knows who they are, so I need a new perspective. So let's posit for a moment that Meloy isn't actually pretentious, but just a nerdy guy like you or I who's found his niche on the third try, in the annals of his excessively large vocabulary, which gets the fans. One thing that supports this is that Meloy can crank out completely normal three-minute pop tunes like this one, without even cracking a thesaurus, which gets the respect from even those of us whose girlfriends he's stealing. A

Sean Paul - "Temperature"

What is this, more one-hit wonders who turned out not to be? And not just that, who knew when "Gimme The Light" broke that this guy turned out to have pioneered an entire genre takeover (not just a crossover fad, says hardly-proven minor star Daddy Yankee) that surprise, surprise, the diversely ethnic kids of our fine nation would rather hear on the FM than 3 Doors Down or Nickelback. I don't really understand where the Latin ends and Jamaican begins in Reggaeton, but I certainly understand hooks, and this guy had a few more up his sleeve than previously thought, so maybe Andrew WK and The Vines just made me cynical. Maybe enough that said takeover will bleed into record sales. B+

The Pack - "Vans"

Cute, cute. Bone-spare beat with tough-talking amateurs loving on their favorite shoes gets nationwide semi-buzz. It's cute because Run-DMC did the same thing in 1986 with "My Adidas" and it was unprecedented that someone would do it again. It's unfortunate that these guys lack the authority and instant distinguishability Run-DMC had that led to a career. Yeah, I didn't think "Rubberband Man" or "The Block Is Hot" did either. But I'm almost certain The Pack are more likely to be heard in a 30 second snippet during Run's House than be the next Run-DMC no matter how long they stay a chart entity. After all, Run-DMC didn't get branded something as ridiculous sounding as "skate rap." B-

Lily Allen - "Smile"

Does anyone remember Betty Boo? She was this 1989-1990 type British chick who did a sing-rap thing over a less-updated jazzy-kinda funk everyone's giving Lily Allen props for. Given, Boo wasn't as tough-talking as Allen, and as Eminem proved over Bubba Sparxxx and Paul Wall, nice guys finish last. So this intriguing blend of Alanis-tagged revenge-spew meets Nelly Furtado light-eclecto-funk meets flat-out meanness might prove more than the intriguing (and okay, catchy) blend it is. B+

Panic! At The Disco - "The Only Difference Between Martyrdom and Suicide Is Press Coverage"

I'd say "Anyone who thinks this barely-punk outfit of young privileged shits' introductory manifesto is any less worthy than 'Formed A Band' is being ignorant," only that would mean the entire music world except for Hot Topic rockers, who God knows are more ignorant than indie-rockers, and Rolling Stone, who've gotten shockingly accurate in their late Christgau days by including this excellent song on their year-end list. So this review's kind of pointless, because I'm not convincing anyone who doesn't already hate them on principle, but I will knock off the misogyny charges by reminding the snobs that the Sex Pistols' "Bodies" was far more sexist and immature than anything these whiners could grumble up, and their irony margin was shortened a long time ago. On the other hand, there's nothing punk about a title nicked from Fight Club either, so maybe the Hot Topic rockers would have won if they weren't allergic to melody this great. I mean, even the remix was good. A

Juvenile - "Get Ya Hustle On"

Problem: when a guy from New Orleans really means to make a heartfelt Katrina-victims tribute/anti-Bush revolt but fails by throwing in too much generic and off-topic coke-rap ("We take the pyrex and then we rock wit it, roll wit it") over a thin, stereotypical-crunk 808s-and-pizzicato beat that sounds too bored to get a walk to the post office on, much less a hustle, much less a national call-to-arms. Yeah, yeah, at least he tried, yeah, yeah, I'm glad Lil' Wayne sticks to what he knows. C+