Monday, September 20, 2010

Album: Sisters - Ghost Fits

Ghost Fits (Sisters)
Album: Ghost Fits
Narnack, 2010
Rating: ******* (7/10)

Sisters, a poppy, fuzzy noise punk duo out of Brooklyn's Death By Audio family, piqued my interest at a spirited show at loft space Dead Herring House last year, and won my heart at the second show I attended. Drums'n'guitar duos aren't exactly a rare breed these days. Starting with the White Stripes' bold embrace of raw minimalism around the beginning of the 2000's, the theory that you only really need two people to make noisy songs (outside of electronica) has become increasingly tested and confirmed by bands like California's No Age, the similarly named Japanther and Japandroids and Sisters' associates (via Death By Audio Records) Jeff the Brotherhood. The considerable force of personality and exuberant energy needed to make a two-man band really pop, along with the sloppy, joyous freedom endowed by a simple two-part arrangements, makes these bands the most energetic and youthful sounding of the times.

Sisters is no exception. There is something distinctly untamed and young about them, and while it can be hard to capture this spirit in the studio, Ghost Fits succeeds remarkably well. Much of that has to do with the frenetic, spastic (yet spot-on) drumming of Matt Conboy, a tall, wild-haired man who at live shows dwarfs his bare-bones drumset. Aaron Pfannebecker's lo-fi guitar and youthful melodies jump on top of Conboy's reckless, crashing beats like a cowboy on a bronco. Bands with more members must play "tightly" and are commended for doing so. However, the two-part arrangements of Sisters allow for a looseness that has all the sloppy trappings of pure joy.

Ghost Fits is a collection of well-written pop gems, each boasting a catchy, unrefined melody. Among two-man bands of their style, Sisters may come closest to No Age; both bands display a remarkable depth of sound drawn mysteriously from a single guitar. Sisters' sound may not be as rich as No Age - their music is a little rawer - but there is a delicious lot of noise and no thin-sounding moments or uncomfortable gaps. (Granted, Sisters, unlike No Age, do use prerecorded tracks to cover more than two parts on occasion.)

Many of the songs are somewhat reminiscent of Thurston Moore and Sonic Youth, albeit in a less-than-obvious way. Pfannebecker builds many non-key chords on those open fourths and sweetly discordant harmonies famously explored by Sonic Youth, and even uses a similar clean, ringing tone in quieter moments. Meanwhile, Pfannebecker's melodies follow similar heartfelt flat-falling contours to Moore's more uptempo works.

It's difficult to pick highlights from the album; the consistency of the songwriting is remarkable. Centerpiece "Highway Scratch," with its bright, toy-keyboard melody, has been floating around for a while and remains one of the band's most lovable songs (which is saying something). Perhaps the record's most complex song, "Courthouse" doesn't lose momentum, even as it drifts away from a standard pop format. "Leaving Home," near the close of the album, features the deep whammy pitch-shifts of Isn't Anything-era My Bloody Valentine, with the chords bending in and out of key under one of the album's most creative melodies. At second-to-last, "Visions" is another winner, flipping between a tense, hushed, Sonic Youth-y verse and a crashing, thick and straight-forward chorus.

But the beginning of the album is just as strong, with simple treats like the opening track "The Curse." Sewn together with an earworm of a melody, the song points towards traditional lo-fi bands like Pavement, but with its 2010-style delighted simplicity, it entirely avoids sounding like a 90's throwback. The warm, technicolor "Glue" is even more irresistible, while the full-bodied "Sky" kicks the album's intensity up a notch (but still keeps it fun).

The soft, sweeping roar of the closing track, while not the strongest song on the album, does give it a sense of scope and completion. Although the catchiness of the songs almost makes this sound like a singles collection, it all adds up to a coherent LP. Throughout the record runs a current of youthful, openhearted sincerity. Sisters are refreshing in their almost naive simplicity - their sound is multidimensional enough but they hide behind nothing; they really mean it. Ghost Fits was made with love and it shows.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Upcoming Shows: AIDS Wolf, Sleigh Bells + more

Friday, September 17

AIDS Wolf, An Albatross, Sightings, Vaz @ Death by Audio * Williamsburg, Brooklyn
This should only be, like, the best, nastiest noise show of the year. Just go. [AIDS MySpace] [Albatross MySpace] [Sightings MySpace] [Vaz MySpace]

Saturday, September 18

Superchunk, Let's Wrestle @ Bowery Ballroom * LES, Manhattan * SOLD OUT
The quintessential 90's American indie band, leaders of the illustrious Chapel Hill scene and founders and flagship band of the indie great Merge, Superchunk are, if nothing else, a piece of history. Let's Wrestle are their okay-but-not-amazing signees from the U.K. [Superchunk MySpace] [Wrestle MySpace]

No Age, Small Black @ Music Hall of Williamsburg * Williamsburg, Brooklyn * $15
Noise-punk duo No Age combine contemporary punk and indie, catchy melodies and shoegaze noise. Go. And jump in the pit. Do it. Small Black is opening, they're a pretty good synth-based poppy, noisy band. Worth checking out. [NA MySpace] [SB MySpace]

Sunday, September 19

Superchunk @ Music Hall of Williamsburg * Williamsburg, Brooklyn * SOLD OUT
See above, minus Let's Wrestle.

Dinowalrus @ Union Pool * Williamsburg, Brooklyn
If you want to go to a show that's not sold out, go see drug experimental trio Dinowalrus. They are weird but you can dance to their music, especially if you do a lot of drugs. Even if you don't, it's got a brilliant, unpredictable pop edge. Plus, Pitchfork called the frontman a "heartthrob" and I can see it. [MySpace]

Monday, September 20

Sleigh Bells @ Webster Sudio * East Village, Manhattan * SOLD OUT
Sleigh Bells are the band of 2010. Their hip-hop beats, razor-edged hardcore-style guitar and saccharine, girlish vocals combine to make a sound fully the band's own, without ripping anyone off and without drenching themselves in nostalgia for one or another bygone decade. Why they're playing a leeeettle venue like this one instead of upstairs, I don't know. The show's sold out but maybe if you're clever you can find a way to get in. You should try, it will be worth it. [MySpace]

Tuesday, September 21

Wavves, Babies @ Music Hall of Williamsburg * Williamsburg, Brooklyn * $15
Oh Nathan Williams, our mullethawked, baby-faced, drug addict crash-and-burn SoCal lo-fi surf punk star, your detractors say you're passe, but that's simply wishful thinking. Guys, this kid isn't done yet. He's got real skill and he may not have handled his rise to fame with maturity, but cut him some slack, he's barely old enough to drink legally. His tunes are simple, raw, youthful punk gems drenched in noise. Babies is an NYC scene supergroup feature members of Vivian Girls, Woods, Stupid Party and Bossy (one apiece). Not a shabby roster. [Wavves MySpace] [Babies MySpace]

The long view...

Titus Andronicus, Screaming Females @ Webster Hall
PC Worship, MV+EE @ Death by Audio

Xiu Xiu, Merzbow, Ecstatic Sunshine @ Le Poisson Rouge

M.I.A. @ Terminal 5

Schonen Knife, Grooms @ Knitting Factory
Forgetters (album release) @ Death by Audio

Film School, Depreciation Guild, Home Video @ Glasslands

Foals @ Bowery Ballroom (SOLD OUT)

Foals @ Music Hall of Williamsburg (SOLD OUT)

Chapterhouse, Ulrich Schnauss, Mahogany @ Bell House
Efterklang, Xylos @ Glasslands

Chapterhouse, Ulrich Schnauss, Soundpool @ Le Poisson Rouge

Marnie Stern @ Rock Shop

Swans @ Brooklyn Masonic Temple

Swans @ Bowery Ballroom

Deerhoof @ Le Poisson Rouge

AIDS Wolf, Heavy Cream, Screens @ Knitting Factory

Japandroids, A Place to Bury Stranger @ Death by Audio

Jeff the Brotherhood, Ninja Sonik, Elks @ Music Hall of Williamsburg

Guided by Voices (original line-up) @ Terminal 5 (SOLD OUT)

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Album: Screaming Females - Castle Talk

Castle Talk (Screaming Females)
Album: Castle Talk
Don Giovanni, 2010
Rating: ******** (8/10)

FUCK. YES. Sick riff after sick riff after sick solo after sick riff. Castle Talk, out today, may well be Screaming Females' best album to date. The young New Jersey trio already has four full-lengths under their belt and while the records may never quite capture the excitement of their live show, not one of them is anything to sneeze at.

The main criticism usually leveled at Screaming Females (and as far as I can tell, the only legitimate one) is that they aren't doing anything original. That's true and it's a huge bummer. Not only are Screaming Females not revolutionizing rock music, they don't even revolutionize themselves. Their four albums, knock-outs though they are, pretty much stick to the same familiar ground laid out by the first. Yes, you can hear growing maturity over time, particularly in the production techniques but also in songwriting, but it's all a pretty straight, predictable trajectory from where the band started off.

So. Screaming Females are not the most innovative or creative band on earth. They aren't the most adventurous. They aren't the most brilliant. What they are is the best rock band on earth. They tread over familiar ground, but they easily rank among the best bands in their tradition. They play their guitars exactly the way electric guitars and bass guitars were meant to be played. They write songs the way songs should be written. They sing and scream the way the human voice was meant to. They may not be as fascinating as some of the boundary-pushers out there, but in terms of good ol' fun, catchy rock and roll, this is as good as it gets.

Announced by the first sound of the album, a deafening, distortion-fried chord, Castle Talk features the band's nastiest production to date. Their debut was recorded in true New Jersey style, pretty much live. For the follow-up, they recorded track-by-track, and received complaints from their loyal fans that the sound lacked the energy the three musicians generate when they all play at the same time. So for last year's record, the band went back to their old methods, but with a much fancier resources, spreading out to different rooms in a studio to craft their sound. The result was dynamic but still with tightly controlled production.

Castle Talk shows the band hasn't tired of trying new techniques. The album is by far the meanest sound the band has ever accomplished. It's gritty. All the spaces seem filled with distortion and buzz but nothing is sloppy or accidental. Every track seethes with noisy energy. Far more than any Screaming Females album to date, Castle Talk does the band justice.

The normal entry point to any discussion of Screaming Females is frontwoman Marissa Paternoster's sick guitar. But as always, the bass caught my attention just as much. Played by one Mike Abbate, it's the album's secret weapon - Abbate doesn't just support Paternoster, he shifts the context of songs, making Paternoster's guitar suddenly but subtly tenser, uglier or sweeter and keeping the listener from knowing quite what will happen next.

For her part, Paternoster is much more than simply one of the greatest guitarists of her generation (though she is that!). As she demonstrated on her solo album this summer, she is a powerful vocalist, with a distinctive but comfortable voice. I once compared it PJ Harvey channeling John Lennon. I think on this rougher, rawer album, she may be channeling more Vedder than Lennon, though. Or you know what? Screw that. It's more like PJ Harvey channeling PJ Harvey – not in tone (Pasternoster doesn't do any of Harvey's weird high stuff, for starters) but in spirit. In other words, the singing would certainly make anyone think twice before getting on Pasternoster's bad side.

Working collectively, Screaming Females have always been gifted songwriters, shifting the pop-rock formula just enough to keep their music slightly unpredictable from moment to moment. However, Castle Talk features the band's most consistent songwriting since their debut. Paternoster matches the group's compositions with equal (and I think significantly improved) lyrical prowess, diving into her usual rage, self-deprecation and general dysfunction that anyone who's ever been sixteen can relate to. "I wouldn't be surprised / if no one wants to waste their time on me / I'm joyfully[?] employed and normal," she proclaims on "Normal."

The album starts out with a bombshell, "Laura & Marty," a perfect example of what pop-oriented guitar rock can be, compete with a blistering and slightly decadent, but not overly indulgent, guitar solo. Paternoster's tone on her instrument calls to mind Billy Corgan (before he became a national joke), with that same wailing edge. Like Corgan, Paternoster seems to draw equally from metal and shoegaze, psychedelic and grunge, power-pop and hardcore, while never once landing even close to fitting any of those labels. The band sounds familiar (and critics would say generic) because it draws transparently from every great rock tradition. But there's something to be said for taking the best from every school and distilling it into one sick sound.

At track three, "Boss" is without a doubt, one of the band's best songs to date, if not exactly hit single material. The track starts out with hushed drums and a heartbreaking bass line, soon joined by a scalding, lonely guitar riff. The band crashes into the their familiar wall of sound, then drops away again for a restrained and beautiful verse. From there, the song flips between quiet verse to blasting chorus – nothing unusual. However, Paternoster's melody keeps the song at once catchy and slightly off-kilter, with her voice and lyrics both at their best. After a breakdown of sorts, the song closes out with a restrained but soaring, shimmering guitar riff.

"Normal" starts off with Pixies-esque guitar, wandering into faintly Spanish chords, and marks another high point for Paternoster's lyrics. Next up, "A New Kid" starts with a killer, old-school metal riff, opening into a measured, guitar-screeching, chanted verse. The chorus returns to the more familiar territory of intertwining melodies from Paternoster's fingers and mouth respectively, with the bass buried in the but relentlessly propelling the song forward.

"Fall Asleep" and "Wild" are familiar live staples. The former is one of the band's best, and most characteristic songs, split in half by a bare, mournful break. The latter is a little less interesting, with just a little too much unison between guitar and vocals, between guitar, bass and drums, and so on. "Nothing at All" is another gem following closely to the standard Screaming Females formula but boasting a badass breakdown at the song's end.

The only song to really depart from the usual Screaming Females guitar rock is the second to last track, "Deluxe." In what seems to be a reverb-drowned live recording, Paternoster's distant vocals drift in and out of sight under textured acoustic guitar. It's brief – under two minutes – and gives the album a much needed break from the distortion-loaded, vocals-forward sound of the rest of the album.

"Ghost Solo" brings the album to an appropriately rock and roll anthem ending and is one of the best examples of the band's knack for arrangement. Distant thundering drums and nervous bass lead into a building verse, with razor-sharp guitar riffs slicing through to underline (and harmonize with) fragments of Paternoster's melody. In the rich chorus, the vocals, guitar and bass take turns surging upwards, opening to one final, restrained solo before concisely closing out.

Castle Talk may not be a revolution, not in the slightest, but Screaming Females do what they do better than anybody else around. And that has some significance – this is the kind of album that could - and will - inspire girls and boys to pick up guitars and form bands. The album's raw energy and the band's clear love of their music, evident in every note, are contagious. We need people to push the envelope, but we also need bands like this to remind us what rock music is about in the first place – having fun.

I'm back

Hey! If anyone still reads this blog, I just want to say sorry for disappearing for several months with no warning. Some things (e.g. family, health) come before writing.

But I am back and will continue to update. I am going to be playing catch-up for a while with a bunch of albums I should have reviewed this spring or summer, a few shows I went to quite a while ago and the like. Once I plow through some of that, I'll get back to a regular schedule with show listings (Wednesdays) and "Dust It Off" (Thursdays) and good ol' reviews the rest of the week. There may be a super-awesome new feature or two soon as well, so stay tuned.