Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Rilo Kiley Are Better Than Actual Pop

I got yer blacklight right herre.

Not only do I understand the violent reaction to Rilo Kiley's true major-label debut, Under the Blacklight, I started predicting it right after the single premiered. "The Moneymaker" is a deliciously shallow piece of arena-funk that some actually compared to Maroon 5, and that's when I started anticipating the B-/5.1 type reviews the album would, and did get. This was a kind of asshole move on my part--I hadn't even heard the thing yet and was already calling out fellow critics for being close-minded to it. Sure I loved the safely familiar second leak "Silver Lining," but third and fourth leaks "Dreamworld" and "Give A Little Love" had me worried as the spaces between Amy Winehouse's toes. Never one to back away from bands' gleeful sellout moves, I started to sweat and concur, "Maybe there is such a thing as too pop."

And maybe if I heard "Breakin' Up" or "Dejalo" on their own, I would've cringed like everyone else. But taken in one rich, fatty gulp, Under the Blacklight, as an album of 11 fully realized songs working inside mostly dusted-off minigenres, is flawless. By the logic that, trying to flaw in every way possible would be a fun thing for a young, talented, spoiled Hollywood band to try, it turns out you can hear the fun in it after all. Speaking as an Execution of All Things fan who hardly thinks it was as far as they had to go (or planned to) and a Rabbit Fur Coat sleeper, I'm pleased to report that it may or may not be Rilo's best album, just the way Liz Phair's irresistible (to some) sugar rush challenged Exile. I initially resisted this comparison, but why not? Both Phair and Rilo made wildly entertaining and audacious debuts, overly arranged and slightly tedious follow-ups, and near-perfect songwriters' albums from then on. Neither ever pledged to stay part of anyone's underground even though they constantly get called on it. And both seem to have a true passion for the cheesiest brand of pop music, but also the brains and skills (and wit) to gracefully balance atop it.

Every time someone has gasped that Blacklight recalls the horrific ("Dreamworld" sounds like Fleetwood Mac! "Dejalo" sounds like Gloria Estefan! The terrorists have won!), all I can do is shrug and enjoy my newfound love for what's apparently Fleetwood Mac- and Gloria Estefan-inspired music. Has an album ever taken you to places you never wanted to go, then changed your mind about going there? This is the aural equivalent of a drinking buddy admitting his unprecedented tryst with a fat chick wasn't half bad. The hard part is convincing him to call her back for another; it hasn't been too difficult getting some people to say uncle on these songs, but I don't think it's enough to make their top 10s at Pazz time.

Like that fat chick, it's the supple bottom half that suprises the most here. "15" is my favorite, a horn-y and horny Dusty Springfield rip if Alfred Soto says so. "The Angels Hung Around" and "Smoke Detector" revel in the disposability of their hooks (and in the latter, the sex). And even "Give A Little Love," which originally cheesed me off, takes on such a matter-of-factness in its unabashed desire for crowd participation that it might as well be this year's "Southern Girls."

Christgau already pointed out the album's delicious preoccupation with "dangerous sex," so I won't beat it to death anymore that you can blame Phair and Rilo's critical exile on indiecrit sexlessness/sexism. But I'll take anyone to task who claims they don't hear hooks. It's one thing to hate pop albums, it's another to claim a band made one all wrong or did it for dubious reasons. Besides, if they made a pop album devoid of the issues the haters are having, somehow I still doubt they'd even notice (wink). Besides, this sounds nothing like pop that's either cool or retro-cool right now. It's better.

Monday, August 27, 2007

The Mystery of Silverchair

Jackin' Jack White.

Australia has no bands. There is nothing. I don't know why, exactly....they're their own continent, and yet their only consistently chart-topping rock band was an American footnote in 1994, whose singer married Australia's only apparent female artist...Natalie Imbruglia, a woman who seems to have nothing in common with Daniel Johns other than we're-famous-I-guess-let's-hitch. I could be wrong, as I'm a fucking yank and this whole post is pretty ignorant, but neither of those artists has anything I'd call an oeuvre. My last Natalie Imbruglia experience was the horrifying entry of "Wrong Impression" on the CVS radio cycle during the night shift there the last time I worked retail, and if there was any justice in the world, the Corrs would've shot the bitch nine times. Silverchair made two albums I was embarassed my best high school friend loved, then one that I'm pretty embarassed I loved, and then one that I only skimmed the singles on. All of these were pretty justly shot down by anyone in the rockcrit biz who'd heard music before 1994, particularly for their inane lyrics, and I reserve a special bag for tears everytime I have to submit to one of Johns' "metal" experiments, like "Spawn Again" or "Lie to Me." Questions "Learn to Hate" leaves me wondering:

-Why did Johns want his "relationship to be the same as yours" by being "friends with her too"? Okay, we're all friends. This is menacing?

-Wait, if he "hated everyone just like you," why would he want his life to match up with "you" in any way? This is some stalker shit.

-Isn't "Hating you should be introduced as a new law," the kind of grade-school diss that makes Jim Jones look like a formidable opponent for Jay-Z?

-Why would one have to take time to learn to hate? Is it really that complicated?

-What "mass debate"? On hating? The debate on hating? Is that being televised down under?

-What's all uphill? Why are we climbing? And why is the word "climb" the angriest-sounding in the song?

-What drugs give people "all kinds of different sores"? Why is Johns' "friend" taking them? And most importantly, why is this worth mentioning in a lyric that runs maybe 20 lines deep?

And that one's on an album called Freak Show and followed by a sitar/tabla experiment. Yak. I didn't know these dumbshits had a new album at all (their first in five years...ooh the anticipation), until Rolling Stone and Entertainment Weekly deemed it four stars and A- worthy. Well, fuck. When did these guys get any good? So I peeped Young Modern. It's certainly different. All that douching around with orchestras and faux grandeur already netted them their finest song ever, the gloriously dressed-to-impress pre-emo epic "Emotion Sickness," and "Tuna in the Brine" was a strange collaboration with Van Dyke Parks that suprisingly worked. But while Silverchair has yet to create an album of songs instead of bulletin board of good and horrible ideas, Young Modern's certainly close. Now I'm impressed; I certainly never expected to be writing about Silverchair in 2007 at all, much less copping to an actual maturation that possibly justifies the hype. For some reason, everyone's been getting grandeur right this year. VHS or Beta's new album rights all of Interpol's wrongs, not to mention Duran Duran's. Against Me! braided agitated post-oi and Queen into Butch Vig pop art like Nevermind nearly 20 years ago. And now a brainless group of Teens with Ambitions has put over their tune album.

I get suspicious when the critics care about random '90s castoffs though, even if Nada Surf really did 180 to greatness. And though Young Modern is as well-crafted a piano opus as a Ben Folds Five album, it's also as poorly stocked as a Ben Folds Five album. Harvey Danger's similarly-minded Little By Little yielded at least four or five songs I kept on my hard drive last year, but this one will be lucky to have two or three. "If You Keep Losing Sleep" definitely, with its 18th century cymbal-crash audacity, "Those Thieving Birds (Christ, parts 1 & 2)," with its half-baked McCartneyisms certainly not. Except then part two is kind of okay. So it looks like Silverchair is still a band of just good and horrible ideas. Why can't Johns just take a page from his wife's career and hire some songwriters?

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Greatest Hits

A recap of all my shit for you lovely folks, from oldest to latest:

Stylus record reviews:
The Willowz - Chautauqua
Patti Smith - Twelve
Elizabeth Cook - Balls
Shop Boyz - Rockstar Mentality
They Might Be Giants - The Else
Gogol Bordello - Super Taranta!
Balkan Beat Box - Nu Med
Illinois - What The Hell Do I Know?
Los Campesinos! - Sticking Fingers Into Sockets
The Chemical Brothers - We Are The Night

Stylus features:
Seconds: Nick Lowe - Switchboard Susan
Top 10 Alt-Country Greats Not Recorded By Uncle Tupelo

Stylus Singles Jukebox blog:

Lost at Sea record reviews:
Get Him Eat Him - Arms Down
Jason Holstrom - The Thieves of Kailua
New Young Pony Club - Fantastic Playroom
Against Me! - New Wave
The Cribs - Men's Needs, Women's Needs, Whatever
Imperial Teen - The Hair The TV The Baby And The Band
Travis Morrison Hellfighters - All Y'All

Coming soon:
Reviews of T-Pain, Turbo Fruits, Gravy Train!!!! and Clinic for Stylus, some thoughts on the controversial new Rilo Kiley in this space, and reviews of M.I.A., UGK, Wussy, VHS or Beta, Northern State and Now 25 for Lost at Sea. You heard me. Now 25.

Sunday, August 12, 2007

The Body, The Blood, The Jamz

We're building a boat

The Thermals w/ The Big Sleep - Aug. 10 @ Maxwells, Hoboken, NJ

The Thermals are a strange anomaly on the indie-rock stratosphere in 2007. The Superchunk model has totally diminshed for the types of highly-arranged melodious types of the last few years. "Intelligence" has become interchangeable with "sophistication" again for the most part ever since Sleater-Kinney collapsed, the last major intelli-GUITARROCK band to leave town. Peter Bjorn & John, Sufjan Stevens, Andrew Bird, Spoon, The Decemberists, The Shins...those are who's synonymous with both "indie-rock" and "intelligent" now. Even Modest Mouse has thrown away the jagged guitar sagas to absorb the o.g. of "highbrow" indie, Johnny Marr, into their now highly-arranged fold, kind of like if Archers of Loaf and Crooked Fingers were never two separate bands, just an outgrowth of the other. I'm not saying these bands aren't intelligent, or that they're even not good. But there's definitely a stigma now that you can no longer get anywhere with three chords and a bladder fulla sarcasm. The two big indie bands who circumvent this paradigm have smarty-pants gimmicks of their own to make those three chords stand out, Art Brut and the Hold Steady, and the Hold Steady even has keyboards. Even the punk sector these days is dominated by an obsession with clean, studio polish. Paramore and Fall Out Boy and Avril Lavigne and Panic! at the Disco are trying to appeal to the kids due to their pose of sophistication. It used to be all about making yourselves look dumber to appeal to the masses. Now the masses want to appear smart. Records about sniffing glue could've never been underground phenomena in 2007, sorry dead Ramones. Maybe if there were 29 of you (Bradford Ramone? Sylvester Ramone?) and one was on bassoon.

So the Thermals are weird. They're a trio of smarty-punks from Portland who could give a damn about learning a fourth chord, an overdubbing technique, growing a mohawk, or really doing anything but making catchy, basic-ass music the same damn way for three ascending records now. Frontman Hutch Harris has always had intriguing things to say; his songwriting's starting to consistently match. If the White Stripes connossieurs at Rolling Stone, Xgau excluded, would kick themselves already and notice the appeal comes from Da Basics Played Loud rather than OMG THEY KNOW DA BLOOZE, last year's The Body, The Blood, The Machine might've ate up half Elephant's plaudits. And I fear that any plaudits it got came from the concession to the normal-rock thing that it was a concept album and therefore somehow more "literate" than 2003's "No Culture Icons." The only comparable dude who claims this niche is the Mountain Goats' John Darnielle, who still plunks out his beginner's chords still even through four concept albums, but gets most of the respect for his admittedly depth-defying lyrics. In a way, the sophistication-obsessed public was right. Harris' hypersnotty observations always needed a target, and who better to rally your subversive rock-loving masses than the big bad Christian right? He gets extra points for going straight for the Bible instead of stopping at Karl Rove, a move that's far more "My Brain Is Hanging Upside-Down" punk than putting the word "Against" in your band name.

These three-chord wonders bested their album momentum live, as I predicted, where the engrossing slaps on frightening Biblical retards blended into loud, feedbacking incomprehensibility with the ones that weren't. Everything was sharp and fast. Hutch mostly told the crowd "Thanksabunch!" over and over, quickly, between tiny chunks of joyful noise, and his goofy faux-arena stage moves coordinating with bassist Kathy Foster made for excellently simple visual accompanient to the handful of singalongs: the no-sir-Noah "Here's Your Future," the antiapology for our dirty bodies "A Pillar of Salt," the mostly bass-locked "How We Know," and the famous "No Culture Icons," surprisingly discarded early on with little introduction. The songs risked a healthy anonymity being revved and stopped at Minor Threat pace, knocking out maybe 25 in an hour, with a suprising encore of Built to Spill's "Big Dipper," that seemed custom-made for them, and a Cribs cover I didn't know that was only slightly more sinewy than the average Thermals song. The band's chemistry and energy was so casual it was rare. That seems weird when three chords is not-the-thing-yet-the-thing again. But I only realized how weird when I tried to think of another band I've seen in six months with "just" guitar-bass-drums. Even the Noisettes at Siren seemed relatively arty.

As you'd imagine, Harris is a good sport, posing for goofy pictures with three now-deaf fans. 3/5 of my best conflict-of-interest buddies Tourmaline were also in attendance, and good times were had by all, despite even the annoying mostly-instrumental caterwaul of openers the Big Sleep. Maxwell's remains my new favorite place to see music, though. Stripped-down rock like the Thermals or spare-Americana like Eric Bachmann have sounded just amazing in the little bare-bones venue on my favorite street in the world.

Monday, August 06, 2007


So second-tier they required two pans (one for each tier).

Not this.

But the original, pretentious 'fork version wisely left unpublished.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

What the Hell Do I Know
Ace Fu Records

Cast of characters:

Charlie, the voiceover guy (played by the guy with the moustache who did those early 90s Micro Machines ads. You remember, right, the guy who talked really fast?)

Mike Wowzeroni, game-show host (played by Fred Willard)

Isaac Brock, singer of Modest Mouse (played by a 60 pounds heavier Tobey Maguire)

Ultragrrl (played by Amy Poehler)

* * *

Charlie: Up next, on tonight’s edition of “What the Hell Do I Know?”…

Mike: One lucky contestant will have to spin the dreaded “Wheel of Shorthand Referents,” in a race against the clock. If the contestant can guess at least five of the six obvious influences on the new EP by our in-house band Illinois, what do we have for them, Charlie?

Charlie: A supporting slot on tour for the Hoooooooold Steady, Mike!

Mike (after whistling a couple bars of “Barfruit Blues,”): That’s right, Charlie. Now ask yourselves: who’s ready to Spot! The! Influence!

(audience cheers, leaks silicone)

Mike (drawing a name from a propane drum flanked by beautiful pan-European women): And the lucky contender is…Mister Isaac Brock from lovely Seattle, Washington! Isaac, come on down!

Isaac: Thanks, Mike, it’s great to be here in this building that is definitely not burning down. (laughs, slaps Wowzeroni on the back)

Mike (wiping hand sanitizer on his sport jacket): That’s one hell of an esoteric self-reference, Mr. Brock. Now are you ready to spin the “Wheel of Shorthand Referents?”

Isaac: Oh yes, I am quite up to the task. I spent some time producing Wolf Parade to sharpen my influence-spotting skills.

Mike: I don’t know who that is but he sounds just lovely, Ike. Can I call you Ike? Hey, we could do a routine together…Mike & Ike! You can be the lemon one, though…I haven’t trusted anyone yellow since we dropped the chuds on Nagasaki. That’s a JOKE, everyone!

Isaac: ….

Mike: Spin the thing, Ikey boy!

Isaac: I think they’re called scuds—


(with a tear glinting in his eye, Isaac spins the fateful wheel, which lands on the category “Onomatopoeia? Schnomatopoeia!”)

Mike: Let’s put 20 seconds on the clock…the Illinois song “Alone Again” starts with a bored ba-ba-ba-ba chorus dryly catchy enough to recall which band’s 2007 sleeper-pop tune “Fire It Up?”

Isaac: Hrrrm…A-ha! Is it my band Modest Mouse, Mike?

(annoying buzzer is heard)

Mike: Ouuuuuuuuuuuuuch. I’m sorry, Mr. Brock, but you did not phrase your answer in the form of a pie-eyed press release! Now let’s spin the wheel again for question #2.

(The audience boos while Isaac spins the fateful wheel)

Mike: And it lands onnnnn…yes! “Forgotten, Lightly Experimental UK Hypes!” The Illinois tune “Screendoor” has burbly synths, woo-woos and shambolic acoustic guitar reminiscent of which once promising winner of the Mercury Music Prize?

Isaac: I’ve never actually heard this band, because I didn’t do anything in 1998 except hitchhiking and speedballs, but is the answer Gomez?

Mike: That is corrrrrrrrrrrrect! You are just one question away from the golden credibility tour, Isaac! The final question will be under the category, “Reasons Bands Scoff That Journalists Are Lazy.” Are you ready, Isaac?

Isaac: Fire it up, fire it up.

Mike: Which of the following bands will be a signifier in every review Illinois will receive over the next decade: Wilco, Wilco, or Wilco?

Isaac: …They’re all the same band.

(buzzer sounds)

Mike: I’m sorry, but the answer was Wilco. Pronounced with a "wuh." You’ll be going home without the prestigious opening slot for a band with the credibility you no longer possess, but a copy of the pretty good but identity-lacking Illinois CD itself so you may work on your name-dropping skills! Maybe you’ll win next time on “What the Hell Do I Know?” where we do what, everybody?

Audience (including Ultragrrl): Spot! The! Influence!

Isaac (muttering into a BlackBerry): At least we had a #1 album and we got to tour with Clipse and Man Man.

Ultragrrl (running up to Isaac, braless): I’m like, your total biggest fan of all time, Mr. Brock!

Isaac (with inexplicable cowboy accent): Thanks, little lady! Would you like to see my Micro Machines collection?

Wednesday, August 01, 2007

Mid-year Best Albums of 2007

I'll upload whatever for anyone that wants. Most of these are unconventional, to say the least, so I'm not going to waste my time trying to convince anyone the genius of Maroon 5 or Avril Lavigne unless someone requests. Around Icky Thump these turn into B+ rather than A-. Only the first two are A+, and Mirrored is the first A-. Who wants what?

1. Arcade Fire - Neon Bible
2. Apples in Stereo - New Magnetic Wonder
3. Travis Morrison Hellfighters - All Y'All* (I don't have this yet, is there a promo or anything? I just stream it on his website about 3 times a day)
4. Miranda Lambert - Crazy Ex-Girlfriend
5. Maroon 5 - It Won't Be Soon Before Long
6. Against Me! - New Wave
7. Justice -
8. Imperial Teen - The Hair, The TV, The Baby and the Band
9. Feist - The Reminder
10. Battles - Mirrored
11. LCD Soundsystem - Sound of Silver
12. Avril Lavigne - The Best Damn Thing
13. Drug Rug - Drug Rug*
14. They Might Be Giants - The Else
15. Brakes - The Beatific Visions
16. Magik Markers - BOSS*
17. Spoon - Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga
18. VHS Or Beta - Bring on the Comets*
19. Dizzee Rascal - Maths & English
20. Bright Eyes - Cassadaga
21. Los Campesinos - Sticking Fingers Into Sockets
22. Animal Collective - Strawberry Jam*
23. M.I.A. - Kala*
24. Prodigy - Return of the Mac
25. Gogol Bordello - Super Taranta!
26. The White Stripes - Icky Thump
27. Jason Holstrom - The Thieves of Kailua*
28. Lifesavas - Gutterfly
29. The Cribs - Men's Needs, Women's Needs, Whatever
30. The Shins - Wincing the Night Away
31. Amy Winehouse - Back to Black
32. Aesop Rock - None Shall Pass*
33. Get Him Eat Him - Arms Down
34. Clap Your Hands Say Yeah - Some Loud Thunder
35. Art Brut - It's A Bit Complicated
36. Andrew Bird - Armchair Apocrypha
37. Kanye West - Can't Tell Me Nothin'
38. Care Bears on Fire - I Stole Your Animal*
39. I'm From Barcelona - Let Us Introduce Ourselves
40. Hyphy Hitz
41. Fountains of Wayne - Traffic & Weather

*Not yet officially released

Subject to revision later in the year, as Be Your Own Pet, Rilo Kiley, PJ Harvey, Jens Lekman, the real Kanye record, The Hives, Wu-Tang, Ghostface/MF Doom, Nellie McKay, Hot Hot Heat, and Beirut all haven't leaked or come out yet.