Call me lazy, shiftless, whatever you want. You're right. For once, God almighty, you're right. These records should have been reviewed before now, before the bands that made them moved onto something else. So, save your letters. You don't agree with my feelings about these eight records, write about that. Just not my punctuality. It'd be a disservice to the people who made them.
The Crooner Rides Again
As good as last year's Good Night, Little Girl of My Dreams was, The Crooner Rides Again sounds even better, with an emphasis on sounds. John Congleton and Gary Long use microphones like megaphones and turn the studio into a tent revival, recording Budapest One in a style that comes as close as possible to capturing singer-guitarist Keith Killoren's onstage theatrics and manic street preaching. And the inclusion of Carter Albrecht on keys and Jason Garner on drums--joining bassist William Pollard, here at least--puts some meat on the music's bones, finding the middle ground between the Crickets and the Attractions while Killoren pounds the pulpit, singing about love and marriage and all the good and bad things that can happen when you get hitched. The melodies have always been there, even on the self-titled cassette that preceded Good Night, but now Killoren's got hired muscle to make them work. And they do, fleshing out the sketches of Killoren's vision until you can make out the entire thing without squinting.
While Good Night, Little Girl of My Dreams careened from self-immolating lamplighters to yodeling mutes to bastard princes to mail-order brides to Rudy Vallee, The Crooner Rides Again sticks to the story of "Peaches"--"everybody's catch," or so the song says--and her doomed (?) marriage. It's not so much a concept album as it is one long story, following her from first date ("The Wolves are Well Fed") through the "days of temptation" ("In a Little Gypsy Tea Room") when "up came my other lovely lover/A woman I was kissing yesterday," and later, as a stop at the "Longhorn Motel" "leads a married man to sin." But, the back cover of the disc promises, "There's always a happy ending," and the bittersweet "It's Not Dancing" seems to be offering a way out, Killoren singing, explaining, apologizing, "It's not dancing if you both lead the way." Meaning: If you're both ready to move on, then you don't have to keep walking around in circles. For Killoren and company, that hasn't been a problem.
I Hope You Win!
Hot Link Records
It didn't take Jon "Corn Mo" Cunningham long to record I Hope You Win!, his first full-length. Say, 45 minutes or so, which is roughly how long it takes to listen to the album. The reason: Corn Mo sings and plays accordion and does scenes from Welcome Back, Kotter all in one long take--at least for the first 11 of the 13 songs on the disc. Between the songs, Corn Mo usually asks producer Matt Pence if that was alright, then prepares for the next tune--and it's all on tape. Not only that, but near as I can tell, the last song on the album, "Puttin' Up (Cowboy Song for Eeyore)"--featuring an assist from former partner Mauve Oed's guitar--was recorded with Sam McCall in New York, and Pence recorded Corn Mo playing a tape of it. If it sounds strange, well, it is, though not much more than Corn Mo's song stories about titty twisters ("Junior High") and "Hershey's Minatures" and his Epilady (um, "My Epilady") and Kevin Von Erich (the familiar favorite "Shine On, Golden Warrior"). He is the Dungeon Master, living in a world where eighth grade only recently gave way to adulthood and there is no such thing as irony.
To Corn Mo, it's all worth a shot at least once, whether it's power ballads played on an accordion, or magic tricks that only slightly work, or jokes without punchlines. He is at once the worst entertainer in the world and the best because of it. Of course, while it's all very whimsical, it's not played for laughs--there are no wink-winks or conspiratorial tones. Sure, the looks-like-Tommy-Shaw, sounds-like-Dennis-DeYoung bit might Styx in your throat (not mine), but it ain't no joke. Fact is, Corn Mo has a great voice, and he's not afraid to use it, even though his style of singing largely went out around the time of Betamax. Plus, he's so earnest about it all; the booklet that comes with the disc reads, "Let me play shows to you. Even if it is over the phone." And you know he means it. The boy's some sort of genius, Triumph's Rik Emmett with bits of Doug Henning and Myron Floren thrown in for good measure. I hope he wins.
High-Five Your Sex Drive
If it's possible to do Big Dumb Rock smartly, that's what Crash Vinyl does. Or did, anyway, on last year's Precious Platinum, where the riffs were piled high and wide. On High-Five Your Sex Drive--Is that a mastubation reference? No way!--there's a little bit of everything, from the ice-cream-truck keyboards that chase "Tippt Toe" around the block, to the Rock is Dead synths on "Return of Killah Thug...." The band--singer Kevin Ingle, drummer John Jay, bassist Dave Jessup, and guitarists Rip Van Bastard and Stain Hanksky--lives up to its name, sounding like a collision of old records, a big wreck in the racks. Ingle sings like he's scratching an itch, and the guitars sound like old Devo records--awkward and raw and louder than bombs--while the lurching rhtyhm section of Jessup and Jay pounds out a collective thud behind them. It all comes together on "Why Are You Here," which brings melody and malady in equal measure.
Fat Free EP
Fury III has always, more or less, been a showcase for Stephen Nutt's a) fantastic and elastic guitar playing, b) his love of The Kinks, The Who, and old soul records (Paul Weller is on line one; he wants his identity back), and c) his qualms and quibbles with members of the opposite sex and, well, life in general. (Sample lyric: "She wanted more than a beat-up Mazda and a dingy kitchenette/I guess I wanted more than a pent-up brunette.") And on this four-song EP--a teaser for the forthcoming full-length, tentatively titled Uphill, Loaded--that pretty much holds true, but that doesn't mean Nutt is merely taking the same old car out of the garage for a wash and a tune-up. Instead, he tinkers with a Mustang it until it looks and sounds like a Corvette, using familiar parts to build a different machine. OK, not that different--if Ray Davies heard "Fat Free," you can be sure he'd be ringing up his barrister--but still. Nutt wields his instrument the way the late Frank Sinatra used his voice, singing around a song instead of straight through it. Nutt takes familiar melodies and plays with the phrasing, lagging behind the beat occasionally, jumping ahead of it at other times, never letting the song see him coming.
Nutt only really lets loose on "Pent-Up Brunette," his squealing, reeling solo chasing the song away. Lyrically, Nutt treads familiar ground--you may remember such lines as, "Next time I see you I hope it'll be an accident/Your 15 minutes under the wheels of a truck would be well spent"--though he throws you off the scent momentarily with tossed off mea culpas. "First you take a drink/Then the drink takes a drink/Then the drink takes you," Nutt sings on "The Crack Up." "Gin, whiskey, wine vodka/I'm not gonna touch that stuff again," he continues, the list similar but the sentiment completely opposite from Queens of the Stone Age's "Feel Good Hit of the Summer." But he can't hide for long: "I'll just stick to lager/You can pour another while I wait for the bitter end." On the title track, Nutt's not in much better spirits: "On a quiet night you can hear the grass turn brown/How could you let him down?" I guess it should be taken as a good sign that he's moved into the third person. Right?
Turn Your Lights Off
If nothing else, you have to give The Limes credit for persistence. After all, the band released its debut (the moody Smile) in February, and have already delivered a follow-up, Turn Your Lights Off, a scant eight months later. More important than that, Turn Your Lights Off is a significant step forward for the group, confident where Smile was tentative, the sound of a rock band making a rock record, plain and simple. Well, not exactly plain or simple: The group wrings as much out of the guitarbassdrums format as possible, doing a lot with a little. I have to say, to be completely honest, I was surprised by what I heard when I broke the shrink-wrap on Turn Your Lights Off, especially so close on the heels of the presumably ironically named Smile, which took sad songs and didn't make them better. They seemed to be going through the motions then, but after listening to Turn Your Lights Off, you might say they were just getting used to each other, figuring out what worked. With the addition of drummer John Scully's pounding kick-snare patterns, the songs sprint toward the finish line instead of tripping on the starting blocks.
It's not a different band--save for Scully, the lineup of singer-guitarist Joey Shanks, bassist Ward Williams, and guitarist-organ player Carter Albrecht remains the same as on Smile--but you wouldn't know if you put both discs in the Pepsi challenge. There's grit and guts that wasn't around before, an added swagger that even manages to remove any hint of feyness from a cover of The Smiths' "London" and almost forced me to give up listening to the record two songs in, because I kept going back to do "The Holdover." Turn Your Lights Off sounds as though it was recorded in about a day, all the mistakes left in, a beautiful mess of a record, the kind of handclaps-on-the-chorus Cheap Trick album used to make sound so easy. Are The Limes all the way there yet? Doesn't really matter anymore, I guess. They don't sound like they care, and they're all the better for it.
Two Ohm Hop Records
Through much of Driftline, Mandarin--singer-guitarist Jayson Wortham, guitarist Brian Smith, drummer David Douglas, and multi-instrumentalists Peter Salisbury and Matthew Leer--sounds so laid back, you'd think they're laying down on the job. And that's when they punch you in the gut, waiting until your arms are by your sides, and you're not ready for it. The drums don't even really come in until the fifth song on the disc, "Even Ghosts Wear Shadows," and when they do, it's without warning, save for the subtle, split-second shift in Wortham's voice, like someone racking a shotgun. Same could be said for the guitars that knife their way through "Ignorance and Forgiveness," coming out of the shadows to attack and returning there just as quickly. By then, however, the damage has been done.
At times, you may hear Nick Drake echoing in the thoughtfully strummed quasi-folk of Driftline, or Pink Floyd lingering near the edges of Wortham's voice and the band's extended, cascading instrumentals. And, well, you probably do, though they're just a few threads in a big quilt, not enough to start haggling over songwriting credits. The best trick Mandaring pulls off wouldn't even show up on the sheet music anyway: the ability play forcefully and quietly at the same time. Driftline is restrained without being relaxed, keeping the pressure on even when the sound's down and the pace slows. Wortham doesn't even step up to the mike until "Pure Led," the second song on the disc, is almost a memory, and it's only a brief appearance. He disappears again until midway through "Waterborne," retreating into the carefully layered guitars, the precise, unobstrusive drumbeats, the lush scenery the band creates on each song.
Even when Wortham is there from the beginning--such as on "Ignorance and Forgiveness"--it's easy for him to get lost among the wispy songs, his almost whispered vocals floating between the bars. But it's worth paying close attention to what he's saying, because every once in a while, every few songs or so, he'll sing something that will make you pause, such as when he breathes, "Instructions don't come with fire," on "Siren." Dunno why it makes me stop everytime, but it does.
Salim and Faris Nourallah share the vocal duties on their first album together, but a better way of saying that would be that Salim and Faris Nourallah share the same voice, so identical are they that only their mother would be able to listen to Nourallah Brothers and identify who sang each song without the aid of liner notes. But Salim and Faris share more than just the voices they were born with, both capable of writing songs that sound as if no one else was meant to hear them, putting the kind of intimate touch on the 18 songs here (counting the two bonus tracks) that you'd feel guilty listening to them, if only the melodies weren't so inviting. It's the kind of record only brothers could make, two musicians who have a bond greater than anything you'd find on a stage.
The Nourallahs write, sing, and play everything here, save for an assist from drummer Bill Shupp on a couple of songs ("I'll Remember You" and "Who Are We?," in case you're wondering), and I still haven't been able to get all the way around it. Meaning: I've listened to it a few dozens time now, and I still hear something new each time, the subtle sound effects on "A Morning Cigarette" being the latest find. And each time there's a new favorite: the first few times around it was the one-two combination of "Public Skool" and "I Wanna Be An Artist," two of the least self-conscious songs I've heard in some time. Later, it was the sad-eyed "Down," and now, I'm not sure. "My Little Innocent One," which Elliott Smith left off XO? Or maybe "Heaven is the Day," which ups the ante for any Elephant 6 acolytes? I don't know. At any rate, Nourallah Brothers is the alternate soundtrack to Rushmore, a piece of the '60s that you can hold in your hand and in your head.
All Eyes On the Prize
One Ton Records/etherStream
Don't be fooled by anyone saying Prize Money "features members of Slowpoke"--it features all of them. Prize Money is Slowpoke, its starting lineup of singer-guitarist Dave Gibson, bassist Corbett Guest, guitarist Brent Dunham, and drummer Jerry Saracini identical to Slowpoke's final roster. And the songs on All Eyes On the Prize kinda-sorta sound like the ones on 1998's Virgin Stripes, Slowpoke's debut/finale for Geffen Records. But, then again, Prize Money isn't Slowpoke: Along with Gibson and Guest's newfound interest in keyboards, All Eyes On the Prize has more on each pitch than Virgin Stripes did. Maybe it's the addition of Saracini, who took over the drum stool after Virgin Stripes was recorded. (Damien Stewart played on the album.) Or maybe the group sounds different because, now that it has no more ties to Geffen, it's finally able to give up the pretense of supporting an album recorded in 1997.
Whatever the case, the name change was almost a requirement, since the musicians that appear on All Eyes On the Prize belong to a different band. Recorded by the ubiquitous Matt Pence, the album is propelled as much by Gibson's cynical lyrics--"Did I even think of this myself/Or did you put the words in my mouth?" he sings on the somewhat sarcastically titled "It's Not Your Fault"--as by the ever-present overdriven guitars and Saracini's muscular beats. Listening to Gibson's lyrics, you can't forget they've been around for awhile: "You wore our T-shirt/You were our biggest fan/And then you slept with all the other bands," he tells his "Rock 'N' Roll Girlfriend." "Hey, whatever happened to me?" Thankfully, Gibson never poses that question to Geffen in the lyrics--you'd never notice if he does--letting the songs just be songs, about girls and music and how well they go together. Which is all pop records like this one are supposed to be about.
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