Monday, July 12, 2010

Album: Noun - Holy Hell

Holy Hell (Noun)
Album: Holy Hell
Don Giovanni, 2010
Rating: ******* (7/10)

Although Holy Hell has been touted as the first solo release of Screaming Females' Marissa Paternoster, in truth Paternoster has been using the name "Noun" as a vehicle for releases for years now, they just haven't been very formal releases. However, now that Paternoster's band's career has taken off, her identity as a solo art seems to have crystallized as well. The songs that fall under the Noun moniker are still a scattered bunch and Holy Hell does seem like a bit of a dumping ground for odds and ends that fit nowhere else. However, Paternoster's identity as a musician is strong enough, especially when backed with her reputation in Screaming Females, that the album manages against odds to cohere as a statement.

What's most surprising about Holy Hell is that Paternoster's identity as a musician is not established through her much-noted guitar playing. Despite being one of the great guitar heroes of our time (evidenced despite her obscurity in features in Guitar World, Rolling Stone and the like), in Noun, Paternoster is a singer and songwriter. Sure, there's some blistering guitar in there, but when the music trades it in for piano, it's the strange but powerful voice that binds the music together.

Before I carry on, let me make one thing clear - by using terms like "songwriter" and "piano," I don't mean our screaming female has gone soft. The album may be less consistently rock and roll than her band's work, but even at its quietest, the album draws on anger, bitterness and rebellion. (Think PJ Harvey, but slightly less pissed and more sad. And I mean slightly.)

Paternoster was a strong singer even on Screaming Females' 2006 debut, but it seems in the last few years, she's developed a new level of comfort and maturity. "Wrong Things" may be the best example. The strange leaps between high and low voice, the peculiar tone, it's easy to forget Paternoster is only about 24 years old (give or take a year). It's difficult to even imagine what she'll be capable of in a few years.

Holy Hell starts boldly with the rather well-titled "Black Lamb," a sparse, haunted piano ballad that at once makes clear the album is not a vehicle for Paternoster to show off her guitar skills. "Outer Space" has got a kickin' enough riff to almost be a Screaming Females song, but it hasn't quite got a SF-style bass line or melody. "Old Friends" takes it down a notch again, with measured and emotive vocal harmonies over gently feedbacking guitar. The title track makes a strong but predictable centerpiece (a little early in the album for that, I guess, but it serves as such to my ears, a least).

After the astounding control of "Wrong Things," Pearly Gates rocks out with all-around distortion (on the vocals too) for a good but not standout track. "Call Earth" fails to quite click, but that's okay, because it's quickly obliterated by the excellent "So Rough," a thick guitar-pop song with delicious distortion and just a touch of flange. The quiet-loud contrast, with Paternoster's vocals standing bare ("How did it end this way? / I miss you day to day") then sailing in over a brilliant riff, is executed with near perfection. Although I know this song reminds distinctly of song I listened to a long time ago (ten bucks if you can name the source, cause I can't remember and it's driving me crazy), everything's ripped off somewhere. And this song is fucking awesome.

The dark, plodding "Brother" is more roar than murmur, but the restrained tempo and minimal drums keep the tune tense and edgy. Finally, the closer, "Talk," is a knock out of a song. The melancholy, swung melody shoots up into that same breaking range of "Wrong Things" over subtle lead guitar and no-to-barely-any drums, like an appropriately electrified lullaby for a true rock album.

If Holy Hell accomplishes one thing, it's stripping away Paternsoter's overshadowing guitar hero status to reveal a musician who can write and sing as well as she can shred. As any follower of Noun might expect, the album lacks a degree of cohesion and purpose, but the unbelievable quality of the songs suggests what we already suspected - that we have found one of the greatest musicians of this new generation, one with not only the potential but in fact the promise to change rock and roll.


Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Album: 28 Degrees Taurus - All the Stars in Your Eyes

All the Stars in Your Eyes (28 Degrees Taurus)
Album: All the Stars in Your Eyes
Self-released, 2010
Rating: ******** (8/10)

I listen to enough music at this point to be pretty jaded, and even when I really like something, there's a certain rush that I just don't get anymore. Sure, I can get excited about a lot of bands and jump up and down on the subway platform like a maniac and listen to songs on repeat for days on end, but there's a particular thrill of discovery that's an inevitable casualty of time and experience.

There are a handful of bands, however, who can bring that feeling back, like I'm fifteen and putting on some mix CD from my bandmate for the first time. Back then, everything sounded fresh and original but now, it's a rare band that doesn't automatically lock into a neat little slot of context - influences, artistic movements, harmonic analysis and all the rest. But sometimes, with originality and passion, a band can shut down my nerdy neurons and just make me happy. And 28 Degrees Taurus is one of these few.

It's hard to say exactly why. After all, it's not hard to play "name the influence" with the band's music - dream pop, shoegaze, psychedelic and ambient music make up 28DT's not-so-uncommon parentage. Still, there's something in the druggy haze that sets the band apart, a sort of new interpretation, or misinterpretation, of its sources. Like so many great bands, 28DT seems to have found their genius by accident, by following instinct and passion and genuine insanity and having enough talent to make their unintended experiments well worthwhile.

I don't want to exaggerate the band's originality. In many ways, they sound like any of dozens of the shoegaze revival bands that populate our fair East Coast these days. The clouds of guitar, measured drumming and subtle, guiding bass don't immediately stand out. It's in smaller ways that 28DT make themselves relevant. The ringing guitar riffs often have just the slightest hint of oriental modes, while the interplay of Karina Dacosta's floating, high-range melodies and Jinsen Liu's nearly-as-high, aspirated, otherworldly whisper make the record unmistakably 28 Degrees Taurus. The guitars wobble and shimmer if held underwater - in fact, even the drums seems as if seen from behind glass, perfectly clear yet somehow distant.

On the opening track, Dacosta's vocals rise with noticeable purity above the uncalm noise of the guitar in a sort of half-human duet. "Turn Me On" achieves a similar effect, but built on a more solid rhythm section into a more conventional song. Next up, "Universal Love" severs the album's last ties with the earth as Liu's strange voice takes the fore. The album doesn't wane on "Seeking Heat" and "Electricity" either, the former held aloft by Dacosta's breathtaking melody and the latter driven forward by Liu's gently raging guitar.

The entire album doesn't quite match its opening. "Sun Chaser" is an interesting experiment in blatantly country-style slide guitar, with a 28DT twist. The band tries the same experiment again "Missing You," again with success. Unfortunately, some of the other later tracks are just not as memorable and not only mildly disappoint, but also dilute the quality of the earlier songs. Still, they aren't bad songs by any means and the album is strong enough to withstand some simply "pretty good" filler.

I don't know that 28 Degrees Taurus will ever catch on in a big way and I don't know that they necessarily want to. Still, they remain one of the best and by far one of the most underrated East Coast bands around. They are better than 95% of what gets love from the indie scene. That's not just because they're more talented but also because they're more passionate and honest and pour more love into their music than the vast majority of bands. They have that purity of intention and a courage of exploration that, as a listener, I lost long ago. And reminding even a few listeners of that feeling is more than most bands can ever hope to achieve. Thanks, guys.