Monday, August 31, 2009

Live: Ex-Humans, Impediments, Buzzer

Despite the fact that Blank Dogs cancelled their Don Pedro's show (or as would make more sense, were never really booked there), I decided to stop by, mostly because the band name "Ex-Humans" kept making me think of "Subhumans," which was the name of not one but two excellent early punk bands.

When I arrived, Impediments were on stage. They played your typical 60's garage rock spiffied up with some updated Stooges and 70's hard rock ideas. Though this equation has been tried too many times to count, Impediments were saved from total redundancy by quality songwriting. It's not a band to freak out about - it's not ultimately much more than an amped-up bar band, but it's a enjoyable way to spend forty minutes. [MySpace]

Next up was the slightly more buzzed-about Buzzer, who drew an audience of a few dozen loyal and excited fans. And I couldn't figure out why. Working along the same lines as Impediments, Buzzer fell far short in songcraft - I couldn't remember one song from the next even a few minutes after they stopped playing.

The only song I do remember featured cringe-worthy lyrics about "young girls," which had a cheap rhyme scheme and related some chauvinistic insights that most seventeen-year-old jerks think are super awesome. Not to mention, singing about "young girls" sounds pretty gross and creepy, no matter what the colloquial meaning. (Whether the band meant this song seriously or "ironically," this all holds true.)

But, especially since most of the lyrics were not so clearly audible, the band's worst offenses were sonic. Their "melodies" were tedious and apparently without thought. On the other hand, the band had put a lot of thought into their arrangement. Unfortunately for them and us, quantity of thought does not equal quality, and the arrangements only further muddled the weak song structures. Frustratingly, the members of Buzzer are all talented instrumentalists, with especially notable, involved guitar solos. Even this wasn't much of an asset, though, since the solos and other parts taking advantage of the group's technical proficiency slipped right into one rock cliche after another. [MySpace]

Obviously, I was thankful when Buzzer wrapped it up and Ex-Humans took control of the situation. And indeed, the show got a lot better from there on out. I was a little disappointed that Ex-Humans weren't doing anything further afield musically, instead sticking to the same overgrazed pastures of garage/punk that the other bands of the night already illustrated.

Still, Ex-Humans stood out, especially in comparison to Buzzer, for a number of reasons. Perhaps most importantly was the band's character on stage - the threesome was spirited but down-to-earth (unlike Buzzer). Their mean banter was good-natured and entertaining, and they and their audience seemed to share the experience of the show - which is how true punk shows should be.

Also, like Impediments, Ex-Humans are talented songwriters. Their songs are simple but engaging. If the band's recordings are as good as the live show, I could definitely see myself rocking out to their record at home (like a huge dork, yes). Once again, it's not a band to get too freaked out about, but it's certainly one you can love.

And respect especially for the drummer, who, it seemed, was playing after having just been hit by a car. Though evidently in no small amount of pain by the end of the set, he saw the show through, and put his all into it. That's dedication. [MySpace]

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Dust It Off: Felt - Forever Breathes the Lonely Word

Forever Breathes the Lonely Word (Felt)
Album: Forever Breathes the Lonely Word
Creation, 1986

Among indie pop fans, Felt may be a familiar name, but the band certain flies below most audiences' radars. Formed in the early post punk years in the UK, Felt was a vehicle for songwriter Lawrence Hayward, whose love of New York punk and his unavoidable pop sensibility put his music distinctly ahead of its time.

Forever Breathes the Lonely Word marked the group's debut on the legendary Creation Records and the peak of their artistic career. Though Hayward had no shortage of good ideas from the time he formed Felt in 1979, it was not until this album, released in 1986, that all these good ideas finally came together. Gaining keyboardist Martin Duffy and subsequently losing virtuoso guitarist Maurice Deebank, Felt's sound started to branch out from its obvious Television influences to forge a voice truly its own.

In many ways, Felt helps complete the missing link between 70's punk and late 80's twee pop. While indie pop often betrays a debt to the Ramones, it's hard to understand how the sweet innocence of twee arose from the leather-sporting bad boys of 1977 New York. But Forever Breathes falls somewhere in the middle of these two extremes. The criminally catchy melodies and irresistible gospel-esque organ lines expose Felt as a cornerstone in the development of British indie pop. On the other hand, the sparse, gritty production and the disaffected, restrained vocals (often compared to Lou Reed and Tom Verlaine) point to a darker, more rebellious side.

Most importantly, Forever Breathes is just an astonishing collection of near-perfect pop songs. With a boldly independent spirit, a fully-realized artistic identity and an infectious sense of melody, Felt's record could stand alongside the best independent albums of all time.

Upcoming Shows: Lightning Bolt, Ladybug Transistor + more

Thursday, August 27

Ladybug Transistor @ Union Hall | Park Slope, Brooklyn | $10
The Ladybug Transistor is one of NYC's classic indie pop bands from way back in the day. They rule. [MySpace]

Friday, August 28

Arms & Sleepers @ Webster Studio | E. Village, Manhattan | $10 adv./$12 dos.
Arms & Sleepers is a shoegazy, ambient outfit whose music one would be hard put to call "lively" - but it's beautiful and captivating. Layers of keyboards are punctuated with tracks of hissing and crackling rhythms. Lovely! [MySpace]

Saturday, August 29

Jaguar Club, Pow Wow, Spanish Prisoners, Coyote Eyes @ Union Hall | Park Slope, Brooklyn | $8
Though I'm extremely lazy and hate the trek down to Park Slope, I'm gonna have to head down to catch this show on Saturday. I've heard some great stuff about Jaguar Club, but haven't seen them yet. Pow Wow is overrated, but still a great lo-fi pop band. Spanish Prisoners are a noisy, hazy pop band that seem to pop in and out of the local spotlight. Coyote Eyes are one of my favorite Brooklyn bands around. Their angular, melodic post punk gets better every time. [JC MySpace] [PW MySpace] [SP MySpace] [CE MySpace]

Sunday, August 30

Lightning Bolt @ 979 Broadway Backyard | Bushwick, Brooklyn | $12
This show starts at 3 PM, so don't be late! It's in the vacant lot under the train tracks on Broadway, just down the block from Market Hotel (likely where the show will move to in case of rain). Lightning Bolt are one of the best guitar bands of the last decade. Their guitars are frantic and LOUD. Their music is arty and fearless. They've been critically acclaimed since their debut in 1999, but if anything, they are underrated. I cannot recommend them enough. [MySpace]

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Live: The Vandelles, the Morning After Girls

When: 8/14
Where: Bowery Ballroom

You know how I said I'd love to see the Vandelles on a bigger stage? Well, I got my wish when the scored the opening slot on the Warlocks' tour, which passed through NYC at the Bowery Ballroom. And it was just as I suspected - while many bands look smaller and smaller as they find themselves on bigger and bigger stages, the Vandelles have the opposite effect. Instead of dwarfing the group, the space made their giant stage presence even more visible.

The band sounded amazing - though I've seen the Vandelles a few bazillion times, I don't think I've ever heard with clarity what's really going on within their noisy songs. This time, each instrument, each detail was distinctly audible. There's a lot more to the band than just surf melodies and feedback!

The band made the most of the opportunity and seemed to be at the top of their game. That's not to say the set was flawless, but the energy they put in compensated for any mistakes. The band also did well to handle an emergency restringing by guitarist Christo Buffam - the band bravely played a song without him, and while the gaps in the sound were massive, it was a far better option than five minutes of silence. The band could generally work on minimizing downtime, but they did keep things moving. [MySpace]

Next up were the Morning After Girls, a band of Australian ex-pats. I had high expectations, and unfortunately, they just weren't met. The group was OK, but ultimately, seemed redundant, given how many bands out there make the same wall-of-sound, heavy pop/rock music, and how many of those bands do it way better. MAG were enjoyable, but if you've seen bands like Trail of Dead, BRMC, Autlux, Mercury Rev or anything else of that general persuasion, this band will just be a disappointment and a waste of your time.

The band's one really stand-out feature was its use of vocals. The frequent use of harmony and vast range covered by frontman Sacha Lucashenko and back-up vocalist Martin Sleeman (both also guitarists) were unusual and extremely well-executed. The singing was sweet and mature, yet powerful. Nevertheless, I don't think it's enough to make this band truly noteworthy. There's so much music in the world, so why listen to something that's just OK? [MySpace]

For strange reasons I won't explain here, I pretty much missed the Warlocks entirely, so I'll have to leave them unreviewed.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Live: Autodrone, Young Boys, Violet Hour

When: 8/13
Where: Public Assembly

It's been a long time since I last heard Autodrone live, mostly because they haven't been playing out a whole lot. I've spoken pretty highly of them in the past - their combination of shoegaze-inspired walls of sound and intricate, aggressive lead guitar is brilliant.

However, at Public Assembly, the band was simply not on their game. Part of this was due to the utter incompetence of the guy running sound. The guitar was way too quiet, the synth overpowering. But the band is to blame for even more of the problems. The tempo was all over the place, with synth rushing and drums dragging. Even the usually impeccable guitarist Jeremy Alisauskas wasn't locking in with the others.

Perhaps the silver lining in the band's weak and sloppy performance was that it gave singer Katherine Kennedy a chance to really carry the show. And this she did. Though she's always a strong singer, I've never heard her so confident and never seen her take so much control of the band - usually Aliksauskas runs the show. This time, amidst the mess of a performance, Kennedy kept the band's focus and never let on that the show was not going well.

The band finished the set with a new song, one that indicates the potential of their next album. The song is, on one level, one of the band's best, with guitar riffs and vocal melodies that could outshine any song on the band's excellent 2008 debut. On the other hand, this new piece goes on about four times as long as it should. I understand the urge to repeat excellent parts over and over, but bands need to learn to trust their audiences not to miss the good stuff the first time around. [MySpace]

Next up was Violet Hour, an electrogaze duo who I've heard a few times now. While not the most original band and probably not destined for any sort of commercial success, Violet Hour are an exceptional live act. The band often invites guest musicians for shows. When they don't (as with this show), they still alter their set and their arrangements, making each concert a completely different experience.

Violet Hour also complements their music with visual creativity, including two vertical lights used for part of the Public Assembly show. While many bands use visuals that distract or even detract from their performance, the effects at this show added to the experience - interesting and evocative but simple enough to keep focus on the music.

As songwriters, Violet Hour are generally unfocused and don't hand their audience their music in bite-sized tracks. I don't want to say all music needs to be song-based, but when it's as meandering as Violet Hour's, it can be awfully hard to concentrate on. However, for music to space out to, you could do a lot worse! The only problems specific to this show were in vocal pitch. I've heard issues with this before and would dare to suggest both members pay more attention to the accuracy of their singing in rehearsal and in performance. [MySpace]

The last band of the night, Young Boys, was new to me. As soon as they took the stage, I realized an unavoidable reference point: Crocodiles. Those of you who follow indie rock hype probably heard of Crocodiles this spring, a duo that (despite their protests to the contrary) generally sounds exactly like the Jesus & Mary Chain. Playing against programmed beats, Crocodiles sing heavily reverbed, British-styled pop songs under a glaze of distortion and feedback. On stage, they do this while sporting sunglasses.

Young Boys do the same thing. Only with more bad-assery. While Crocodiles intentionally leave their music rough around the edges, there is a certain amount of polish under the lo-fi affectations. With the Young Boys, the imperfections are more raw and more genuine. This is aided by the sparsity of their music, a minimalism enhanced further at Public Assembly because the band's preprogrammed beats had been erased. Throwing down drum tracks on the spot left the band's sound skeletal.

Combine this awesomeness with some top-of-the-line songwriting, and you've got a remarkable band that could show up the Crocs any day of the week. Keep an eye on these boys. [MySpace]

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Upcoming Shows - This Week + September Preview

I really can't get it up for many of the shows this week, except the Breeders last night and tonight at Bowery. And that's very sold out, though I suppose it's worth a try.

Friday, August 21
Antlers @ Mercury Lounge | LES, Manhattan | SOLD OUT
This show is sold out, but if you can find a way to go, I'd recommend it. This is the album release party for Hospice, which is one of the definitive albums of the last decade. The band is pretty good live, too. It's amazing to see just three guys make all those sounds you hear on the recordings. [MySpace]

Saturday, August 22
Blank Dogs, Ex-Humans @ Don Pedro's | Bushwick, Brooklyn
Why Blank Dogs would play such a venue is anyone's guess. Don Pedro's doesn't exactly have a great reputation among Brooklyn bands. But that's not what's important. What's important is the gothy lo-fi of Blank Dogs is unparalleled and you should check it out. And yeah, I know I haven't had the most positive reaction to the live shows in the past, but 1) I hear there may be some significant changes afoot for Blank Dogs as a live act and 2) just because the shows aren't as good as the albums doesn't mean they aren't better than most other bands' shows around. [MySpace]

There are some shows coming up further down the line that are worth putting on your calendar and, if possible, getting tickets for before they sell out:

August 30
Lightning Bolt @ 979 Broadway | Bushwick, Brooklyn | $12
An afternoon show from one of the best guitar bands in, like, years. [MS]

September 1
Screaming Females @ Mercury Lounge | Manhattan | $10*
Another one of the best guitar bands in years. And they're up-and-coming fast, so check them out while you can still see them somewhere reasonably small. [MS]

September 9
Naked Raygun @ Music Hall of Williamsburg | Brooklyn | $15*/$18
One of the great bands of the American Underground, Naked Raygun ruled the hardcore/indie scene in Chicago. [MS]

September 13
Feelies @ Southpaw | Park Slope, Brooklyn | $25*
The Feelies defined the jangly "Hoboken Pop" of the 1980's, balancing pioneering noise with catchy melodies and uptempos. Twenty-five bucks is a lot, but at least it's a double set. [MS]

September 14
Autolux @ Bowery Ballroom | Manhattan | $15*
If you like shoegazy alt-rock walls of sound and massive songs, look no further. [MS] (Actually, do look further on this list, there's more for you...)

September 15
Autolux @ Music Hall of Williamsburg | Brooklyn | $15*
See above. [MS]
Zeros + Jemina Pearl @ Southpaw | Park Slope, Brooklyn | $15*
The Zeros are one of the classic late 70's LA punk bands, and one of the only presently touring with their original line-up intact. [MS]

September 19
..And You Will Know Us By The Trail of Dead + Secret Machines @ Music Hall of Williamsburg | Brooklyn | $20*
If you like shoegazy alt-rock walls of sound and massive songs, look no further. (This time I mean it.) [MS]

September 24
Wavves + Ganglians @ Santos Party House | Manhattan | $12*
Wavves make lo-fi, surfy, poppy, noisy, fiercely independent punk. They are one of the very, very best bands to emerge in 2008/2009. They are playing a Todd P show (venue TBA) the next day, though, if you prefer the DIY setting. [MS]

*Advance tickets available online

E-mail Subscriptions Now Working Again

Apparently that little e-mail subscription thing on the left wasn't working for a while. It's fixed.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Album: The Antlers - Hospice

I originally published this review in February. Hospice is rereleased today on Frenchkiss Records.

Album: Hospice
self-released Frenchkiss, 2009
Rating: *********' (9.5/10)

When I first listened to the Antlers in late 2008, I shrugged it off as nothing special, but Pop Tarts Suck Toasted was carrying on about this album at such length that I decided to give it a listen. And I was completely taken aback by what I heard.

Hospice is not only an outstanding album, it's one of the most exciting releases since the 90's. I wavered on the rating - sometimes leaning towards 10/10 to help get it into the spotlight it deserves, other times thinking 9/10 would be more appropriate - it's far from perfect and far from the level of the masterpieces it references. In the end, I settled on 9.5 - the highest rating I've given an album to date and also the first time I have ever used a half point. The reason? This album is the most worthy of your attention of any I have ever reviewed (on this blog or elsewhere) - but I don't want to believe this is as good as it's going to get. I want to believe another Loveless or Aeroplane Over The Sea is in the works, and I'm saving the 10/10 for that. But in this meantime, we have this, and this is something.

But to say I enjoy or even like Hospice would be misleading. In fact, it is easily the most unsettling album I have heard in years and for several weeks, it consumed me, even triggering the return of nightmares I thought I had shaken long ago. It's an intensely haunting, profoundly affecting album that will stay with listeners long after the final notes.

On the surface, Hospice is a concept album that intertwines stories of terminal cancer, mental illness and dissolution of a relationship into dysfunction and cruelty. Where these tales intersect is the painful truth that love does not conquer all. The record documents songwriter Peter Silberman's growing awareness of this immutable fact, revealing not only feelings of heartbreak and helplessness, but also, and most importantly, a pervading guilt. The narrator's point of view is always that of a caretaker, seeking to heal, to comfort, to save, and the entire album reads as a confession of failure.

Sonically, Hospice is a creeping ambient lo-fi, as if Radiohead had recorded OK Computer in Thom Yorke's basement. At some moments it assaults the eardrums, while at others, it replicates the shaky hum of life-support machines. But mostly, it is full of subtle sounds breaking up, faltering and struggling under the weight of the album's pain. It is this, the struggle of each sound, that sets Hospice apart from such reference points as OK Computer and Arcade Fire's Funeral. Hospice's best beats are built with shards of static and noise and mixed with such restraint that many listeners may not even notice a drum track at all. Synthesized sounds are prominent, but they never seem like a cheap trick - instead, they mimic the oppressive sterility of the album's hospital setting. The use of horns may be an overblown nod to Neutral Milk Hotel but it's restrained enough to forgive and the other sounds - the weakly bowed banjo, thudding piano chords and shivering guitars - are more inspired. All are masterfully executed.

Over the uneasy ambiance, Silberman's voice carries the album. His high crooning is clear and controlled, but although his tunes and tone are spot-on, there's something unsteady about his delivery - it's the wavering of a young voice delivering painful and personal words. And there is good variety alongside the consistency in his voice, ranging from the surprising dramatics on "Sylvia" to the intimate, homey delivery of "Shiva."

The songwriting on the album is imperfect - the often-understated melodies and the album's tempo make it hard to tie everything nicely together. I think this explains why I didn't get drawn in by Hospice's two singles ("Two" and "Bear") when they were released. But viewing the album as a whole, it becomes much more coherent. Melodies are recycled as Silberman revisits stories and ideas, and viewed in this context, most of the tracks do become memorable, each a unique step in the album's journey.

The only really bad song on the whole album is "Thirteen." The first half is an experiment in loud ambiance that doesn't seem to move the album forward. The second is a short song sung by Silberman and guest vocalist Sharon van Etten. Van Etten is a beautiful singer but the sudden introduction of female vocals is jarring, and the addition of a woman's voice to sing a song subtitled "Sylvia Speaks" takes the album's concept to a level of literalism that is, frankly, goofy.

However, this track is the only outstanding mistake. Hospice's two singles and the album track "Sylvia" are all high points, with engaging rhythms and melodies, identifiable choruses and foot-tappable tempos. And even these are outdone by less structured and more intense tracks like "Atrophy" and "Wake." Rising in and out of murky noise, these songs contain many of Silberman's most uncomfortable revelations.

"Wake" comes second-to-last and marks the climax of the story. It is the album's only true moment of absolution: "Some patients can't be saved / But that burden's not on you / Don't ever let anyone tell you you deserve this." Whenever I listen, it takes a few repetitions for the last line to really sink in, and when it does, it usually brings me to (or past) the brink of tears. Anyone who needs to hear these words needs to hear them over and over again before they can begin to believe it. And when I say "needs," I mean that - for the listeners with whom Hospice resonates (and I know I won't be the only one), this moment, this final refrain, is necessary.

But then again, it's not the final refrain. There is one more track, an understated nightmare that draws narrator and listener alike back into the album's underlying terror. It's not that nothing has been accomplished, it's just that healing is a process without an end. Hospice is mercilessly honest - scars will remain, wounds will reopen and everything will not be alright. Though the emotional strides of Hospice are immense, Silberman seems to realize they are dwarfed by the enormity of the task at hand.

A work of remarkable maturity and profound vision, Hospice doesn't sound like the product of musicians barely in their 20's. Perhaps it's the youth of the members, however, that gives the music its kick - a subtle kick, surely, but enough to hold my famously short attention. It's an imperfect work, of course, but it's still a rare and exciting accomplishment. It's musicians like these who will lead us out of indie rock's dead ends and on a personal level, who will help us mend from life's damages and carry on.

[Antlers on MySpace]

Monday, August 17, 2009

Album: Jay Reatard - Watch Me Fall

Watch Me Fall
Album: Watch Me Fall
Matador, 2009
Rating: ******* (7/10)

If Watch Me Fall were the first thing I'd heard of Jay Reatard, it would be pretty mindblowing. The album is a series of top-notch lo-fi pop songs, in that rare vein of lo-fi pop that isn't wussy. Among the recent explosion of lo-fi/noise pop/noise punk bands, Reatard certainly numbers among the best songwriters out there.

Also in comparison to that crowd (Wavves, Times New Viking, Kurt Vile, Blank Dogs, etc.), he's not the lowest fi, nor the noisiest. His music is aggressive and at times intentionally hard to swallow, but sonically, it's palatable. The more challenging elements are Reatard's vocal delivery and the album's ornery subject matter. He doesn't have the air of cool that many recent lo-fiers cultivate, and the vulnerability he achieves in his music is at once refreshing and alarming after a slew of detached albums in the genre.

Where Watch Me Fall disappoints is its failure to step beyond the boundaries of earlier Reatard releases. Though the album features some of Reatard's best songs, it's ultimately not a step forward. We could all use more good songs like these, but it's hard to get excited about an album that sounds so familiar, even if it also sounds this good.

The record opens strongly with the forward, melodic punk of "It Ain't Gonna Save Me." The mid-disc highlight is "I'm Watching You," which takes the tempo down just a notch to open up the sound and make the composition one of Reatard's largest. Other songs, like "Rotten Mind" and "There Is No Sun" showcase the songwriter's signature negativity as charmingly as ever (and that's not sarcastic).

Watch Me Fall is a solid and enjoyable album and I highly recommend it to anyone who enjoys Reatard's 2008 Matador Singles compilation (which is the best place for new listeners to start). Just don't get your hopes up that he'll break new ground. Then again, the old ground covered is pretty damn good.


Live: Pterodactyl, the Fucking Ocean

When: 8/7/09
Where: Death By Audio

For no reason beyond the band's name, I've wanted to check out the Fucking Ocean for some time now. Of course, the night they share the stage with Pterodactyl at Death By Audio, only the city's best DIY venue, was a pretty good time to do that.

In truth, the Fucking Ocean didn't literally share the stage with Pterdactyl, setting up instead on the floor of the show. I don't know if that was to speed up the transition or if it's just how they roll, but unfortunatley, it caused pretty serious visibility issues that did detract from the show.

The Fucking Ocean consists of three multi-instrumentalists, namely Matt Swagler, John Nguyen, and Marcella Gries. In the course of their set, they went through most (but not all) of the permutations possible with three people and three instruments. I appreciated the fact that the band ordered their songs so that they would not have to change instruments between every song, reducing downtime and keeping the noise buidling.

At their best, Gries was on bass, playing massive, metalloid riffs at light speed, while Swagler's frantic drumming pushed the music to its limits. The guitar covered everything from punk to metal to noise-rock to post-rock, sometimes within a single phrase, and whole combination was puncuated by sharp, yelling vocals. Though both weighty and frenzied, the band managed to keep a melodic appeal and at times, a sense of groove. It's still not easy music, but it's not inaccessibly harsh or avant-garde.

The band is great, and the show's biggest problems had nothing to do with the band's music. The worst problems with the set were with the band's presentation. First of all, Swagler was wearing a skirt, which is something a lot radical, left-wing boys think is cool - that's great, but most rightfully outgrow that phase after age 16. In this instance, it was distracting and detracted from the excellent music.

Worse than that, the band - and especially Swagler - found it appropriate to tell us what their songs were "about" between numbers. Their songs are aparently about political issues. I detest like political music - that is, music that addresses politics in the abstract. All music is political, and should be, but when it comes in the form of rhetoric, and songs are "about" something that can be summarized in a short sentence, it feels preachy and even cowardly. As an art form, music should transcend simplistic axioms. And the sad thing is, if the band had just refrained from translating their songs for us ("this one is about..."), I would never have known and would have enjoyed the set much more.

Musically, the band is still amazing and I highly recommend you see them. I just also recommend trying to ignore anything they might say between songs. [MySpace]

When Pterodactyl took the stage, I had a pretty clear idea of what to expect, having heard the band several times in the last few months. Or so I thought.

But I should have known a band as good as Pterodactyl wouldn't let themselves get too comfortable. Now a trio (permanently?), the band has transformed their songs on every level. The band's punky, rhythmically complex, high-speed, intense, repetitive, manic sound endures, but this performance was by far the most aggressive and noisiest I've seen to date. They have begun abusing their guitars and amps (in a good way) to achieve a highly experimental, improvisational sound.

It's rare and ballsy to hear a band push themselves forward as artists when they could instead coast praise and hype. The set at DBA was nothing short of mindblowing for fans like me, who heard music we already loved set on fire with new intensity.

So far, the band has done well, though I hope they also know the limits of the direction they are moving in. Already, they are hovering near that edge of reinvention where those not familiar with the songs' original versions might end up lost, and where each track could lose its focus as noise obscures the hectic melodicism that makes Pterodactyl great. They aren't there yet - so far the changes have been positive. But they are at an edge that could be pivotal and I hope the band will not lose their focus. They have a number of shows coming up this fall, so I guess we'll find out then. [MySpace]

Friday, August 14, 2009

Live: So So Glos, Lovvers

When: 8/1
Where: Death By Audio

So I'm still way behind in my live reviews. This was already almost two weeks ago, sorry!!

Though I missed seeing the Sundelles yet again, I did get to Death By Audio in time for Lovvers, whom I recently saw at Cake Shop. In that review, I noted the British punks to sound more tame and 50's-esque than on recordings. Apparently, that's not always the case - the show at Death By Audio was much more aggressive, sonically.

In terms of the performance, the band was about the same - which is fine since they were pretty good before. Singer Shaun Hencher again inserted himself in the midst of the crowd and again planted a mid-song kiss on a girl in the crowd. (Either Hencher enjoys getting beat up by angry boyfriends or he actually knows these girls.) The band kept its smart melodicism while amping up their noise, which is the best thing they could have done. Thumbs up. [MySpace]

I haven't heard So So Glos before. Part of me thought, perhaps from their image, and from certain rumors, and from the look of the band's myspace, that they were likely douchebags. Wherever my prejudice came from, I apologize to the band. The four guys who took the stage at Death By Audio were friendly, polite and engaging.

So So Glos (photo by Eddie Brannan)
The So So Glos (photo by Eddie Brannan, from

There's no question that the So So Glos are a real punk band. And a really good one at that. Their songs pack a punch, confronting the audience without losing accessibility or a certain pop appeal. That said, it's definitely not my favorite. I need to connect with music on a emotional level, and with this music, I just couldn't. I'm not sure whether that's because the band is more about having fun than making themselves vulnerable, or if it's because it just doesn't resonate with me personally. Either way, the band has certainly succeeded on their own terms - they're a good listen and put on a good show.

During the show, some more aggressive moshing types started to create a problem. The band stopped to address the problem and when it continued in the next song, guitarist Matt Elkin leapt off the stage and charged the offender. The band stopped mid-song. I'm not sure what happened so I'm not sure if it merited Elkin's aggression, but it was refreshing to see a band take some responsibility for the behavior of their audience and try to make sure that a few people don't ruin it for the whole. Thanks, guys! [MySpace]

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Album + Live: Blacklist

Midnight of the Century
Album: Midnight of the Century
Weird Records, 2009
Rating: ******* (7/10)

The long-awaited debut LP of gothy post punks Blacklist, dubbed Midnight of the Century, is a relief after two EPs that failed to do the band justice. Though I've never failed to be compelled by the band's live show, their existing releases seemed unfocused and unmemorable. I could never even pin down exactly what was wrong with the EPs, but for whatever reason, the music didn't translate.

On Midnight, however, fans will finally recognize the band they love. However, even this album has its problems, particularly in the production. From a band influenced largely by the dense, layered music of post punks like the Cure, the record is frustratingly wanting for depth and richness. The sonic weaknesses might have been overcome with better recording and production techniques, which these days can be achieved even on a low budget - overdubbing duplicate parts, intensifying reverb, and so forth. Given the credentials of the engineers behind the sound (most notably, Ed Buller, who's resume includes work by Slowdive and Suede), the shallowness is really inexplicable.

With even the sound falling short, the record must stand on songwriting alone. And in this, Blacklist have proven themselves exceptional. There's not a single bad track. "Fight of the Demoiselles" could be an alternative radio hit, with many songs not falling far behind. There's a decent amount of variety, with the subtle trance of "The Cunning of History" and the airy "Odessa" breaking up the rest of the dark 80's sheen.

Unlike many of the darker bands of the 80's, Blacklist only flirts briefly with synthesizers, sticking by and large with the traditional guitar-bass-drum arrangements familiar in the rest of rock. Lyrically, like many goth-inspired groups, they draw upon dramatic images that speak more of modern society than personal moodiness. It's a work with vision, edge and above all, well penned songs.

When: 7/31
Where: Cameo Gallery

The Cameo show, following very closely on the heels of the album release, was not your typical Blacklist affair. For one thing, Cameo is more well-lit than many spaces, and Blacklist, unsurprisingly, thrives in the dark. Also, with a mostly shoegazing bill, the regular goth crowd didn't turn up.

Still, as always, the band was a powerful presence on stage. Dressed in black, with expressions to match, the band fanned out powerfully and delivered their songs with intense conviction and technical talent. Live shows also give the band, particularly guitarist James Minor, a chance to delve into more experimental sonic territory. Fleshing out their gothic soundscapes with new textures and improvisation, Blacklist expanded on their new material without losing track of the underlying songs.

Much like Ringo Deathstarr, with whom they shared the Cameo stage, Blacklist is not an original band. Both groups cover familiar territory, but each executes its chosen style with such near perfection that they become memorable and significant in their own right.

[Blacklist on MySpace]

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Upcoming Shows: Woods, Warlocks + more

A lot of good stuff coming up! And Wednesday to Friday will be three days of shoegazer heaven...

Tonight!! Tuesday, August 11

Shilpa Ray @ Cake Shop | LES, Manhattan | $8
Shilpa Ray is a tiny woman with a massive stage presence, who plays a hand-powered harmonium, screams obscenities and hops around stage. She loves her audience and always puts on a great show. Her backing band are damn good, too. My current made-up genre name of choice for the music is "soul-punk." That won't mean anything to anyone, and that's fine, because you really should just check it out for yourself. [MySpace]

Tomorrow!! Wednesday, August 12

Himalaya @ Death By Audio | Williamsburg, Brooklyn
I haven't heard Himalaya yet, but they come strongly recommended by one "Salvador." From what I can tell, they play really loud music with dense, guitar-heavy shoegaze-inspired sounds, tinted with post punk darkness. Amidst this sonic assault, great pop melodies shine through. [MySpace]

Thursday, August 13

Autodrone, Black Swan Green, Violet Hour, Vacant Lots @ Public Assembly (back room) | Williamsburg, Brooklyn | $8
Another great shoegazy line-up by Vanishing Point Presents, this show features alt rocker/dream popper outfit Autodrone, an old favorite I reviewed early on in this blog. Their rich, full sound, masterful lead guitar, synthesizer sheen and angsty melodies combine to make a sound that could appeal to almost any species of rock fan. Black Swan Green is another I haven't heard yet, but "Salvador" again recommends, and I've heard good things all around. Like the others, Violet Hour has a shoegaze sound, but their music is more electronic, with layers of sound building on electro beats - wisps of vocal melody, coldly textured synthesizers, dissonant guitar feedback. Vacant Lots are kind of the odd ones out here - an excellent band, no doubt, but more garage punk than shoegaze. [Autodrone MySpace] [BSG MySpace] [VT MySpace] [VL MySpace]

Friday, August 14

The Warlocks + the Morning After Girls, the Vandelles @ Bowery Ballroom | LES, Manhattan |
The Warlocks have been around quite a while now, and have garnered respect from their earliest releases. Their psychedelic music has taken a denser, noisier, darker turn in recent years, bringing shoegaze's wall-of-sound guitars into the fore. The Morning After Girls are similar, if less earthly. And the Vandelles, well, their roaring noise-surf is made for a much bigger space than Cameo Gallery, and I'm glad I'll finally have a chance to hear them on a stage that approaches the size of their music and their outstanding stage presence. [Warlocks MySpace] [MAG MySpace] [Vandelles MySpace]

Woods, Dungen @ Bell House | Gowanus, Brooklyn | $15
Woods are one of the best break-out bands this year, playing haunting psychedelic folk music that will leave you shivering. Dungen is an acclaimed psychedelic pop group from Sweden. At times, their music is a little too mellow for me, and at times too "fusiony." But you may as well check them out, since Woods is on the bill. [Woods MySpace] [Dungen MySpace]

Sundelles, Drums @ Glasslands | Williamsburg, Brooklyn | $7
If you want something smaller, cheaper or more off the beaten track, check out this show instead of the others. I keep trying to hear the Sundelles and missing them. Their music is some sort of old school garage-pop with sweet 50's melodies and an unpolished, noisy, DIY flavor. The Drums are headlining. I haven't heard them, but I've heard good things, so check them out. [Sundelles MySpace] [Drums MySpace]

Saturday, August 15

Pterodactyl @ Southpaw | , Brooklyn | $12
Pterodactyl just keeps getting better and better. Their frantic guitars and wild yelling are the sound of pure joy. The unique and intensely complex guitar and drum arrangements make brains happy. The passionate delivery makes hearts happy. Go to Southpaw, and be happy. (And get there on the early side, since Pterodactyl isn't the headliner.) [MySpace]

Monday, August 10, 2009

Venue Review: Cake Shop

<< NYC Venues: Index

Location: LES, Manhattan
Address: 152 Ludlow St. (between Stanton and Rivington)
Size: Medium-small
Directions: F/V to 2 Ave, walk two blocks east and one block south

Acoustics: A
Booking: B
Helpfulness to bands: A-
Atmosphere: A

Acoustics - The acoustics in Cake Shop are surprisingly good for basement venue. The sound engineers are mostly a pretty talented bunch, and I guess the PA system must be OK too. Mostly they achieve good sound by cranking everything up about 30 decibels too high. Which shouldn't work, but it does. I've seen a lot of technical problems go down at Cake Shop, but for the most part, it's one of the best-sounding venues of its kind.

Booking - Cake Shop seems a little cliquey at times, but it doesn't have to be. In my experience, they are pretty responsive and helpful, though occasionally difficult to reach. Of course, you have to be aware that it's a pretty highly regarded venue and getting slots there can be very competitive. The folks there are savvy, profit-driven (not a bad thing when you run a small business) and good at getting trendy bands when they want them, so if you don't draw, you're likely to be out of luck.

Helpfulness - As I mentioned, the venue can be a bit disorganized and out of touch, but compared to a lot of places around town, they've always come off as pretty professional to me. Accordingly, they are reasonably accommodating to bands. Because live music is their focus, you get more attention. The flipside, however, is that they have set ways of doing things and aren't quite as flexible as spaces where the bands are just one extra component.

Atmosphere - Since I first moved to New York, I've felt at home at Cake Shop. There are nights when it's so crowded with hipsters that you can barely get in the door. But when that's not the case, Cake Shop feels down to earth and independent. The decor downstairs, where the shows take place, involves some random Christmas lights and not much else. Upstairs, you can buy cake, coffee and records. Basically, it's all the greatest things in life under one roof.

Small note - there's not much of a stage, so it's hard to see the bands. I recommend getting there early. Also try going around to the side of the stage, which is often not crowded since people are afraid that you have to be super-special to stand back there. (You don't.)

<< NYC Venues: Index

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Live: Ringo Deathstarr + the Vandelles

When: 7/31
Where: Cameo

I reviewed the Vandelles pretty recently, also at Cameo, so I won't repeat myself. The band still rocked and this time, seemed to be genuinely having fun too.

I have said many times that Ringo Deathstarr is the best contemporary shoegaze band around. And that's because they absolutely are. The thickly layered, distorted, tremolo guitars are straight from Loveless, but coupled with the melodic sensibility of the Jesus & Mary Chain. No, it's not the most original music out there, but that doesn't change the fact that it's some of the most enjoyable.

To be honest, the band is about average live, not boring to watch by any means, but not anything unusual. To me, this point is almost negligible because hearing shoegaze live and loud is always rewarding. And though not particularly active or engaging while playing, the band still managed to gain momentum in their set by keeping the sound and songs flowing.

The band played the best songs off their 2007 EP and a couple other familiar songs, along with some new material. I heard one good Manchester-esque beat and some catchy new melodies too. I think there's an album on the way, so get ready!

The night was finished off by Blacklist, but I'm saving that for a separate review. Stay tuned...

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Dust It Off: The Fizzbombs - Surfin' Winter

Surfin' Winter
Album: Surfin' Winter [EP]
Calculus, 1988

With all the hullabaloo over the Pains of Being Pure at Heart this spring, I've been thinking a lot about the fuzzed-out indie pop bands of yesteryear. One of the fuzziest and certainly one of the best was Edinburgh's Fizzbombs.

As compared to the Pains, the Fizzbombs' guitars are bit nastier and their noise a bit noisier. There are all sorts of strange, chaotic sounds in the background of each song. In fact, the roughness of the sound, coupled with the surf element of this release, might make a comparison to Wavves more apt than one to the Pains. Either way, the Fizzbombs would fit right in in today's indie scene.

There's more than a little humor in a Edinburgh band putting out a surf album, but the surf roots of the music and beach-bum lyrics fit together perfectly. There are plenty of other obvious reference points - the jangly indie pop of C86, the full melodies of post-new wave 80's pop, the guitar roar of the Jesus & Mary Chain. Anyone who likes both pop and noise will find the Fizzbombs irresistible.

Boasting two women of three members (originally three women of four members), the Fizzbombs were part of a greater movement in the 80's UK that brought increasing numbers of female musicians into the indie rock scene. The band members all played in other bands, most notably bassist Sarah Kneale of the Shop Assistants.*

Often, EPs are really just extended singles, with one great song and some chaff to fill up the rest. But if that was the intention with this record, it's difficult to say what song they were emphasizing. All five tracks are positively gems. "Beach Party" has got some bizarre back-up vocals in a bass register and a fast, driving guitar riff. "Blue Summer" and "Test Pilot" are noisy and rich, but with equally addictive melodies. "Surfaround" is the most surf-influenced track on the album, with a Beach Boys-esque tune and a quick, skipping surf rhythm on the drums.

The EP's centerpiece, "Cherry Cherry," is perhaps the highlight (though as I've said, it's hard to pick). The 80's pop melody is reminiscent of the catchiest of Blondie or the Go Go's. As such, it's most mature and bold track on the record. That may sound counter-intuitive, but jangly surf-imitations were a dime a dozen in the UK underground around this time. Serious songwriting far less so.

If you like high levels of distortion laced with sunny melodies, look no further. If Surfin' Winter doesn't satisfy you, nothing will.

*I owe a big thanks to this blogger for explaining the line-up changes as relative to the releases. I never would have got that on my own.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Live: Tyvek + Coconut Coolouts, Personal & the Pizzas

So, because life must always be made extra difficult, I ended up catching Tyvek not at Cake Shop, as I had planned, but at Silent Barn the night before. Sadly, I arrived at too late for Stupid Party, which is one of my most favorite new favorites.

I did catch Personal & the Pizzas, who I found to be classic punk, complete with 50's revival undertones. That's the kind of music that depends on songwriting and the Pizza's just didn’t make the cut.

Next up was Coconut Coolouts, which I was certain I was going to hate, based on the name alone. I was mistaken. I'm not going to quit my job and follow them around the country or anything (they're no Tyvek!) but I was pretty glad to have spent forty minutes of my life at their show.

Their garage rock had exceptional hooks and melodies and exceptional noise. There seemed to be about fifteen people in the band, but I think it's actually six, which is still quite a few more than you need for a garage rock band. I'm not crazy about that, but it definitely worked alright at this show - because there is no stage at Silent Barn, the line between audience and band was blurred, and it seemed like we were all joining in.

It's not the most profound music, just fun music to jump around to. And not all of the songs were smashhits. But enough of them were that I just may have walked away from that set with a smile. Thanks, Coolouts! [MySpace]

Ah, Tyvek. I was glad to see them again, as they are one of the DIY/punk scene's most exciting bands. Sadly, this show was a let-down. Maybe it was the heat and humidity, maybe it was just a bad night, but the band's sound seemed to wilt.

Don't get me wrong, they were still riveting - if spontaneous human combustion is real, there's no one more likely to burst into flame than Tyvek at one of their shows. But in this sweltering heat, things went in a different direction. The crowd's behavior was lamentable, heckling, pushing one another (it's not moshing if you come at someone from behind) and eventually knocking over the PA. Couple that with a frustrating performance by the band, and that smile the Coconut Coolouts gave me was all but gone.

Still, a bad show is different from a bad band. And if I hadn't expected to have my socks knocked off, this wouldn't have even seemed like a bad show. My socks were still on at the end, but there aren't many bands I'd rather have seen. [MySpace]

Album: How German Is It - The Seasonal

The Seasonal
Album: The Seasonal
Self-released (??), 2009
Rating: ****** (6/10)

It was only a few weeks ago that I first heard of the new Brooklyn band How German Is It and here they are dropping an LP today. Talk about sneaking up on a person!

The Seasonal proves How German to be a creative and competent band with a lot of great ideas. But sadly, the whole is somehow less than the sum of its parts. The album seems unsure its own identity - variety from song to song is, of course, an essential component of a good album, but so is maintaining cohesion as a piece and as a band. This album sounds more like a retrospective, with stylistic jumps that are more confusing than bold.

It does seem as though there was a unifying vision behind this album. The lyrics show vocalist Patrick (last name, anyone?) working through some very real and difficult shit, and the emotional struggles chronicled are the album's greatest appeal.

However, in careening from a quaintly "off" indie style to rich and full radio-ready sounds, the band gets lost. There are some great (if cliched) melodies ("I Will Be Famous for You," "Nickel Twins") but there are also some that fail to move forward ("Giving Up the Ghost," "I Believe In Me"). The arrangements are similarly inconsistent, at times interesting, but at other times trite and monophonic (again, "I Believe In Me").

There's enough good ideas in this album to prove that with hard work, these guys could have something pretty great in them. There are hints of true talent and inspiration splattered all over The Seasonal, but it's not there yet. [MySpace]

Monday, August 3, 2009

Upcoming Shows: Pterodactyl, Marnie Stern + more

TONIGHT! Monday, August 3

Stupid Party @ Cake Shop | LES, Manhattan
I just reviewed Stupid Party. They are ridiculously awesome and you should go check them out. [MySpace]

TOMORROW! Tuesday, August 4

Los Campesinos! @ Webster Hall | East Village, Manhattan
I love this band and their exuberant, youthful pop music. But I'd say, wait until they play a less awful venue.

Thursday, August 6

Darlings @ Cameo | Williamsburg, Brooklyn
Another of those bands I just reviewed (actually at that same show). I think this band is genuinely insane, and I love them. [MySpace]

Marnie Stern @ Santos Party House | Chinatown, Manhattan
Unless I'm much mistaken, Marnie Stern, that bad-ass guitar master whose 2008 album deserves "instant classic" status, will be playing at Santos. [MySpace]

Friday, August 7

Pterodactyl + That Ghost, The Fucking Ocean @ Death By Audio | Williamsburg, Brooklyn
Pterodactyl is easily one of the best bands in Brooklyn right now. Their high-speed math-punk (I guess that's what to call it) is fascinating and captivating. I have heard of That Ghost and the Fucking Ocean and don't know much, but I know I like Fucking Ocean's name and have been meaning to check them out. So, I will blindly recommend them as well, since you're already going to be at DBA for Pterodactyl (Pterodactyl!!!!!!!). [Ptero MySpace]

Saturday, August 8

Sundelles, Wild Yaks @ Public Assembly | Williamsburg, Brooklyn
| $15 (benefit!)

Benefit gigs are super nice. This one helps a school in Uganda. Sundelles are pretty cool lo-fi garage rock with 50's/60's-worthy melodies. Wild Yaks are not the greatest thing ever, but they are solid indie rock and well-beloved. [Sundelles MySpace] [WY MySpace]