MUSIC REVIEWS: A Place To Bury Strangers, Elvis Costello, Headlights, Fear and Trembling, The Dimes, The 1990s
Ok, the easy way out would be for me to tell you that noise mavens A Place to Bury Strangers have unleashed a new album that sounds a lot like their last one – ten songs of doomy, rhythmic rock, brimming with exquisitely crafted noise assaults. But that would be too easy, because there’s so much more to it than that.
The band recently described its self-titled debut album as “ideas for songs.” If that’s the case, their aptly titled follow-up Exploding Head sees the band refining and honing those ideas into a more solid, definitive statement.
Songs like “In Your Heart,” “Keep Slipping Away,” and the title track exemplify more solid song structures, improved playing and a stronger sense of melody. Singer/guitarist Oliver Ackermann’s cavernous vocals are also among the improvements here, ranging in tone from grave baritone to melancholic pop lilt. None of this is to say they’ve polished off all the rough edges; like its predecessor, it’s a loud album, and almost everything sounds distorted in some way. Speaking of distortion, this album delivers in spades – a simple guitar chord in their hands can usher in the apocalypse. But the group knows how not to use it as a crutch, and the detail devoted to the elements underneath it all is just as compelling; for every rain of static that falls on your ears, there’s an umbrella of neu-garage riffs, icy guitars chiming through a cave of stalactites, modulating basses, and drums that reverberate like gunshots down a mineshaft.
It all culminates in album closer “I Lived My Life to Stand in the Shadow Of Your Heart,” perhaps the most representative track. Its catchy verse-chorus blast vamps its way into a dizzying frenzy of feedback and white noise that nearly swallows itself whole by the end. It’s gargantuan, even by A Place to Bury Strangers standards, and perhaps the year’s most glorious eardrum-melting moment.
Good things sometimes do come to those who wait. In 1978 Elvis Costello and the Attractions (Bruce Thomas bass, Steve Nieve keys and Pete Thomas on drums) played the El Mocambo in Toronto. Originally broadcast on Toronto radio, this show has been bootlegged, ‘short run’ on vinyl by Columbia records Canada and as a 1993 Rykodisc promo-only release. Now, part of what will become a series of live Costello releases, Columbia releases Live At The Mocambo.
Elvis and his infamous band are at their kinetic best here, from “Mystery Dance” with Pete Thomas and Elvis pretty much the whole tune; the full band groove of “Waiting For The End Of The World;” a frantic faster-than-the-album (at 1:26) “Welcome To The Working Week,” to Elvis trading with Nieve on “Less Than Zero,” this is Costello’s live show pretty much as you’d have heard it back in the day.
“Little Triggers” is one of my faves, soft, full of great band dynamics and Thomas’s drums perfect punctuation under Elvis’ vocal, then “Radio Radio;” these two might be the reason to grab this CD if for nothing else (unfortunately both songs reveal a true lack of sound quality). Crazy fast (maybe too much for their own good) versions of “Lispstick Vogue” and “Watching The Detectives” follow, though the band kicks ass on both. The fast kick of “You belong To Me” and Bruce Thomas’ beating of the low end on “Pump It Up” ends the CD and the set on a high note.
Wildlife is the fourth studio album spawned from the Illinois quartet, Headlights. Although the band has been making music since 2004, supposedly the recording process on this album was rather difficult due to personal issues, resulting in the loss of a guitarist and much of the album’s original material. According to guitarist/songwriter Tristan Wraight, “For the first time this album holds personal significance for the band for very real reasons like growing up and people dying who you love.”
Indeed, Wildlife is a sullen yet ethereal journey of soft textures and lyrical pain, reminiscent of the slower tracks from indie bands like Death Cab for Cutie and Arcade Fire. “Telephones” and “Secrets” are the album’s heaviest tracks, while “Get Going” is the first track that appealed to me, and will probably be the band’s first single as it’s already up on their MySpace.
Track six, “I Don’t Mind at All,” is easily the best song on the album, while also being the most upbeat. Wraight and Fein’s delicate vocals wrap around each other’s smoothly, similar to the whispering chorus of “Just Like Honey” from The Jesus and Mary Chain. “Teenage Wonder” is worth the listen, while “Slow Down Town” is a subtle yet hauntingly ominous song that seems to be about the loss of innocence among inner city youth. It’s here where the vocal talent of songwriter/keyboardist Erin Fein is most reflected.
While Headlights definitely set out to make an intimate record, I felt there were only a few songs on this album that truly reached out to me lyrically. However, I think Headlights were more “ambient/shoe-gaze” than “indie-pop” on this album, and I hope they continue exploring this genre as it seems to be an extinct breed in today’s music industry.
The band will be on tour in mid-October with bands like Pomegranates and The Shaky Hands (see my article HERE).
The Fear and Trembling are a fun band. Their debut, Octopus, sounds a good deal like My Morning Jacket if Jim James voice wasn’t so nasally, and if he liked The Afgan Whigs more than Skynrd. What I mean to say is that The Fear and Trembling make messy indie rock with just a pinch of southern charm.
Their songs, which skew towards the epic in length (just two clock in at under five minutes, and one of those is the “Introduction,” so it hardly counts), provide listeners with a nineties-loving brand of rock music that should scratch the itch of anyone who wishes they could hear a My Bloody Valentine- Neil Young collaboration (it would have to be about the wonders of a magnetic rail system or a concept album about how guitar distortion will destroy the economy or something).
Basically, if you only hear one album this year that features a killer swan on the cover art, make it the Fear and Trembling’s Octopus. You won’t regret it.
The four tracks on The Dimes New England EP sound like dozens of songs you have heard before. If you are a Beatles or American fan, you may have heard these songs before. While enjoyable, they are nothing novel. “The Liberator” brings back memories of America’s “Riding Through The Desert On A Horse With No Name.” The lyrics of the song involved echoed sing-alongs by the band members. The song also sounds a bit like a Shins B-side. If you are a fan of the Shins or the British Rock invasion, you are likely to love the Dimes.
“Clara” sounds like a revived version of Bob Dylan. With stunning lyrics such as “my lungs are full of smoke and fear; the rain is mixing with my tears,” the song sounds like a tribute to a stunning woman. The song sounds like it could be featured on the soundtrack to your new favorite television show. However, the stunner of the EP is “Ballad of Winslow Homer.” A song that sounds like one combination lullaby and another part hypnotic trance, the song is recommended to anyone interested in quality background music.
While The Dimes are enjoyable and certainly a band to watch in the future, the New England EP is not the best album they could have put forward.
Synths and old school punk, paired with Lynard Skynard guitar riffs equals pure enjoyment and a new era of joy-ride anthems for this sophomore release by the 1990s. You can feel the heart and sweat poured into the album, with the unique life of each song, and the overarching head-bopping the album seems to require. I especially loved “59” which is the most ridiculously catchy song on the record. It’s hard to resist a song with lyrics like “…it’ll drive me crazy, your left eye is kinda lazy…” I mean, really? Other highlights include “Balthazar,” “Kickstrasse,” and “I Don’t Even Know What Time It Is.” There are even slow tunes, for the romantic in each of us. And it shows off the deep, earthy vocals of lead singer Jackie McKeown (who has a slight Bowie twang). I think the album is fabulous, each track just as great as the next, with no low points, only a continuous flow of fun, danceable and witty beats. They sound like a combination of Junior Senior and The Kinks, which basically spells amazing. This is a smart album, and it shows the ability for the group to have staying power. It shows that they can do a really GREAT third album if they want to. This review came late, since their album was released on March 23rd, but even so many months later, my feelings haven’t changed towards it: simply perfect for summer, and a great preview to what we can expect in the future.