MUSIC REVIEWS: Harlem, Serena Maneesh, Brian Jonestown Massacre, The Law, Butterfly Explosion, Eels, The Greatcoats, Bassekou Kouyate
I was fortunate enough to see Harlem a couple months back and was pretty blown away by their show. Their on-stage confidence was arresting and their performance was charmingly ragged but not sloppy. The guitarist and drummer switched instruments mid-way through the set and both proved to be powerful frontmen when they had their respective turns at the mic. I was impressed. That’s why I jumped at the chance to review their new album. Boys and girls I was not disappointed.
Hippies kind of reminds me of a Black Lips album minus the really weird explorations. Like that band they take classic 60’s pop and garage and then fuck it up real nice. Something like “Be Your Baby” could have been written by The Crystals or The Ramones or The Osmonds but it was written by Harlem and surely they play it like no one else could. “Someday Soon,” “Friendly Ghost,” and “Faces” are all fun songs that you could dance to; or drink to if that’s more your thing. Hippies has something for everyone, everyone who likes garage punk that is. “Cloud Pleaser” is a surprisingly touching ballad while “Scare You” is pure ramshackle madness with some awesome drumming.
This album does have a lot of songs on it and if your not paying attention they could start to blend together. However most songs only get better with repeated listens. I thought 16 tracks was long but I already want more. Hopefully Harlem will have the chance to give me and their others fans just that. Why they called the album Hippies is anyone’s guess though.
It’s been too long since we last heard from Norway’s Serena Maneesh, whose self-titled debut album was a sort of cross between My Bloody Valentine and Sonic Youth, with some psychedelic drone rock thrown in to even things out.
“No. 2” picks up in similar fashion, though most of the seven or eight-minute or longer drone fests have been traded for more straightforward pieces; this is a rather svelte eight tracks clocking in at about 37 minutes, with only two songs breaking the 6-minute mark.
“Ayisha Abyss” opens the album true to form with a darkly sinister and persistent groove while the whispered vocals of bandleader Emil Nikolaisen gurgle up from a cave of reverb (Oh, did I mention this album was recorded IN a cave!?) while various drones and flourishes from all kinds of instruments circle about. With one minute remaining, a brief piano interlude plays for a few seconds before another spooky groove emerges, setting the stage for the brief dream-pop-rocker “I Just Want To See Your Face.”
From there, the album’s sequence goes from acidic rock freak-outs to dream pop to hazy, druggy trips (especially “Melody for Jaana”), sometimes within the same song. Emil and his sister Hilma Nikolaisen swap vocals throughout, though more often than not the female vocals take prominence. “Honeyjinx” is the album’s later highlight – a hypnotic, demented dirge with haunting female vocals that at times opens into a sunny melody before disappearing back into its own strange world. Surprisingly, the album ends on a peaceful note; the graceful (but by no means less warped) “Magdalena (Symphony #8).”
Serena Maneesh’s strong suit here is their melodic side – I found the upbeat and druggier numbers to be more memorable than the couple of rockers they’ve included, which is a shame, since just about everything on their debut, especially the noisy bits, was so engrossing. And on an album of just eight songs, even one or two so-so numbers is a lot. In fact, it feels like Abyss In B-Minor is somehow abridged. It’s not the relatively brief length that’s a problem, it just feels like there should be more here somewhere, if not just to live up to the epic title. But still, it’s Serena Maneesh doing what they do. Hard to argue with that.
Even when I don’t like what the Brian Jonestown Massacre is doing, I still dig it, because it’s always so authentic. Such, I felt at first, would be the case with Who Killed Sgt Pepper?, which, – despite what one might reasonably expect – has little to do with similarly pitch-perfect old school stylings like they rocked in their Byrds phase. It’s a completely sui generis, yet much-indebted, album that comes on strong with a total-invasion-of-your-mind kind of sound.
Mostly, I was disappointed at first because I thought they could do better. But after bouncing over the choppy wake of unmelodic self-indulgence that the first few tunes leaves… thar she blows! Who Killed Sgt Pepper? reveals its true self, a funeral procession of Brit-inspired acid garage of both auld and new order: little yelps of Primal Scream; staticky, vintage Radiohead; and, natch, the full spectrum of Spaceman 3. I myself could do without the violent throes of the more heavily instrumental tracks, but once you start scaling it, though, that glorious BJM architecture reveals itself with well-crafted song-sounding songs that still have that fuck-all grit you wanna roll around in.
Dripping with drone and slathered in layers of analog noise, the album doesn’t bury Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band… but it does, oddly, trod heavy in its footsteps. In fact, with a little stoned reasoning you might even come to think of it as the uber-dude response to Exile In Guyville, a reclaiming of musical history. Replete with their version of a “Day In The Life”-style ending (the ten-minute “Felt Tipped Pictures of Ufos”) and a conspicuously mirroring running order, Who Killed Sgt Pepper? answers itself.
So maybe the eastern-inspired “Dekta Dekta Dekta” is track 8 and “Within You Without You” was track 7, but close listening reveals those blissful root archetypes, tropes and tributes that BJM is so fond of, and adept at adapting. “This Is The One Thing We Did Not Want To Happen” synthesizes everything in the band’s sound that’s come before, while also conspicuously pointing to the present, much like the music hall-cum-psych of the album’s namesake. The Brian Jonestown Massacre’s take may not be as revolutionary as the Beatles’ go round, or even as good as some of their own previous works. Still, it’s enough of a revelation to justify its hallowed, altar-ed state.
If you bought The Law, The Law won. Now they’ve got your money and you’ve just got this mediocre album. A Measure of Wealth is a homogenous mass of generic British rock. They have much in common with fellow Scots The Fratellis except that band has a gift for writing memorable hooks and this band doesn’t. “Don’t Stop, Believe” sounds like it would be cool mood music in the background of a movie. Turns out it was in the trailer to The Men Who Stare at Goats. Without images to accompany the song it just falls flat. The best moments come at the end. “Vertical Feeling” has a Supergrass vibe although Gaz Coombes is a far superior singer to Stuart Purvey. I also found “City Boys, City Girls” pretty enjoyable. It has sort of an R&B feel, like maybe late-period Jam. But those are it. I couldn’t tell you anything about the rest of the album because I plumb forgot it. There was probably a lot of skittery guitars and overly-earnest singing. I definitely know one or two people who would think this album rocks but I know far more who’d never give it a second listen. Come on Scotland! You gave us Belle & Sebastian, Franz Ferdinand, and The Fratellis so we know you have it in you. This just doesn’t cut it.
Take Oasis, grind it up with some 30 Seconds to Mars and muddle it with a pinch of The Cure and you get a formation close to Butterfly Explosion’s Lost Trails. A purely dreamy album with highlights of serene musical explosions. I had the pleasure of absorbing this album while watching a foot of snow fall outside my window. To quote the film Almost Famous, it is a “think piece” that allows the listener to let their mind swirl while taking in the music. There is a mystical quality to the entire album that unearths the listener from wherever they may be. “Turn In You” is a song that made my heartstrings pull and reminded me why music makes my life whole. With drawling vocals and cascading instrumentals there is nothing to stop you from being pulled into four minutes of calm. Lost Trails was my break from chaos without leaving Queens. Take your time, unfold, and use Butterfly Explosion to massage your brain. I didn’t think I was going to love this album. After catching myself listening to it over and over I think I had been deceiving myself. There is something hidden here that is waiting to come undone.
Listening to this, the eighth studio offering from a nearly twenty-year old act, I was immediately struck by the depth of mournful emotion on each track. Heralded as a break up album based in the real life experiences of the eel’s lead singer and only constant member, Mark Oliver Everett, End Times succeeds in evoking the feelings of being on the other side of a sundered relationship. Perhaps not the most original impetus for a rock album, the sentiments still contain the ring of truth. Musically, the tracks are deceptively simple as most of them were recorded in Everett’s basement on a four track.
Driven either by acoustic, electric guitar or soulful piano, each song has a stripped down feel with Everett’s voice an amazing thread throughout. This singer exhibits a powerful range and talent that hasn’t dimmed with age, but only matured and fermented into something truly special, something unique. With soft percussion of the occasional bass line, drumbeat, or lonely tambourine, and accompanied by the rare banjo, horn, or organ, none of the tracks are overburdened by top heavy instrumentalization and allow the lyrics to stand out.
One might jump to the conclusion that the album is depressing or mournful and while those elements are there, spots of humor and rocking out are also present. End Times not only conjures the woeful feeling of lost love, but a near disillusionment with society itself, tempered with a will to plod on, if not bounce back.
Not that familiar with the eels myself, this album took me by surprise with the ability to capture the true emotion of one artist’s difficult circumstances. I’d recommend End Times to any listener and point to :A Line in the Dirt,” “Little Bird,” and “On my Feet” as stand out tracks.
Lazy, daisy, youthful afternoons take musical form in the self-titled album The Greatcoats. Retro rock and humor match up to give you something you want to skip to. Lead singer David Tenczar takes a humble approach and I felt like he was sitting in front of me playing for the duration of the album. The music of today has the tendency to be big-boss corporate and dollar signs are what albums equal. The Greatcoats take a large step in the opposite direction. Every song is personal with a touch of soul. “The Scarce Few” shows how Tenczar incorporates iconic melodies from The Beatles into their tunes. The Greatcoats pushes the envelope of musical possibilities while still reeling in the retro rhythms of the past. It is an interesting mix that surprisingly goes together very well and will surprise many listeners.
The vibrant spiraling harmonies of the ancient ngoni instrument is the centerpiece of the album, I Speak Fula. In the 80s, Bassekou Kouyate revolutionized the way the instrument was played when he stood up and swung it over his shoulder during a show. This act created a frenzy and vastly transformed the ngoni’s appeal. The ngoni is a traditional instrument, shaped like a canoe boat. Animal skin is stretched across the hallowed out shell of wood. Strings made of fine fishing line are strapped across the length of the instrument, whose body is largely percussive as well. Mali native, Bassekou Kouyate and his band, Ngoni Ba, have created a rich wholesome energetic acoustic string sound with movement as fierce and folksy as bluegrass, acoustic soul, afrobeat and rock. The bursting chime of soft strings moves with a fervency and ring. The swelling percussion and melodious beats of drums are stirring. The shuffles of strings, the constant glowing of measured solos, many contained within each song, the delightful sprite of melodies, the jaunt of higher end strings and lower end strings all create a beautiful international global sound so ancient yet so now, it makes for a wonderfully crafted tonal delight with an awesomely rich liveliness.