There’s no use trying to stop

July 1st, 2014 No comments

 

nick faye worry cover

Let’s hear it for songwriters that never stop looking for that light at the end of the tunnel.

A few weeks ago Regina’s latest alt-country (for lack of a better term; seriously, we should be able to do better than that) troubadours, Nick Faye and his band The Deputies, released their new album. He’s currently on tour out east. I had hoped to have this review up earlier to publicize more of the concert dates, but life is hard sometimes, you guys.

Anyway, Faye has been around a while but his previous record The Last Best West went completely unnoticed by me for a couple of years. When I heard it in 2013 I was rather impressed; there aren’t a lot of people in our city that I’ve heard playing his style of hybridized rock and country. The eight-song album was impressive; decidedly sing-along material was heavy throughout, even if it occasionally left something to be desired lyrically.

A three-song acoustic EP followed last year, offering a dour counterpoint to the upbeat tracks on The Last Best West. “Rockets” and the magnificent “Pincher Creek” put Faye front and centre, his voice and acoustic guitar riding out the former while some gorgeous harmonies beef up the latter.

But that teaser release was a bit of a misdirect. Faye and the band have turned up the distortion and returned to the more rockist sound on Worry. To hear Faye explain it, it’s a conscious choice to off-set the weightiness of the lyrics. He told the Leader Post recently that the songs put together for this new release represent a largely-autobiographical tale of a bad period in which his anxiety and depression got the better of him.

Catchy title track “Sheryl Crow” is the catalyst. While it really has nothing to do with the famed singer (aside from a line referencing one of her biggest hits and a vague sound-alikeness in the guitars), it is a dynamic opening track, giving the full band a chance to establish their footing. The electric guitar isn’t a centrepiece for the most part, allowing the organ to drive a lot of the melody. Bassist Byron Chambers also features, showing off some dextrous runs.

“Muse” amplifies the album, literally; the guitars are all fuzzed-out here, even though there’s still plenty of room to breathe in the mix. When the horns fill that empty space in the center channels, however, it becomes clear the group is going all-out on their arrangements. The propulsive, driving arrangement eases off in the bridge, some plaintive violin underlining Faye’s yearning. “I want to be your muse,” he admits, almost matter-of-factly, “I want to be your health, I want to be your love.”

That sentiment leads into the drawn-out “Howlin’,” a song that pushes the six minute mark and is by far the longest on Worry. Here, Faye admits to succumbing to temptation, his falsetto assertion, “I’m howlin’ out at the moon/”I couldn’t get you out of my head,” coming across a little more delicate than it probably could. The musical accompaniment reinforces the notion that these tales of longing and depression are being tempered by purposefully aggressively melodic and upbeat arrangements: the extended bridge is patient, slowly ratcheting up the energy until two different vocal parts are layered into a powerful finish. The six minutes has passed before you even know it.

One of the album’s absolute highlights comes with “All The Way Around,” which crackles from start to finish. Faye’s singing is his strongest and most assured on this track, his performance wrapped snugly around a laid-back classic-pop tune. The keyboard and trumpet/sax parts are woven delicately into the mix, with Faye’s repetitious, strident acoustic guitar and the busy drumming of Adam Ennis providing a solid bedrock on which to build. The vaguely-throwback sound masks perhaps the darkest lyrics yet: “You always told me that the world was gonna end; well now I’m waiting for it, hoping for it. Your scent is lingering: it’s holed up in my room.”

The peak of the record hits with “Ode,” a lean three minute rocker with some fantastic lyrical imagery. It brings the varied dynamism of Rural Alberta Advantage quite starkly to mind, mostly in the rhythmically tight and circular drum patterns and Faye’s emotive chorus performance, which features ethereal backing vocals from Eden Rohatensky. Both are perfectly delivered, carried to a dark, foreboding denouement that sees the instruments diminish while Faye laments, “Our lives are oceans apart.”

The band pares things back for the closing track, “St. Victor,” which Faye described in an interview with the great Alex MacPherson in Verb Magazine as a sort of victory lap. A trip the group made to the miniscule Saskatchewan hamlet a ways south of Moose Jaw (known more for the stone carvings found in a nearby provincial park than anything else) was evidently the “last piece of the puzzle” for Faye, providing the final inspiration for the record and a sense of confidence and closure in the work that they had done. It’s the most country-ish song on the album, thanks to some note-perfect violin and pedal steel guitar. It’s also the closest thing to uplifting here, for the most part; Faye declares victory, assuring the partner he’s been chasing throughout the record that, “I’ll never let you let me down.”

“When we depart,” he adds, “we’ll watch the night skies, sleep under hillsides, and wake another day: a fresh new start, stripped of our burdens, free from the weight of love. We’ll find another way.” I can practically see the sun peeking over the horizon.

This record, brief though it may be, is extremely laudable for a number of reasons. Faye and The Deputies’ mature and captivating songwriting is chief among them, obviously, but even having the balls to write about a topic like mental health is a big move. Despite some massive efforts the last few years to try and normalize the dialogue around mental health, there is still a vastly huge chunk of people for whom any discussion about those kind of issues is verboten. Faye’s willingness to put himself out there is brave; having a crack band to back him up in the effort probably helps, but he should be applauded for his willingness to go under the microscope.

Get this album right now, goddamnit, from Nick Faye & The Deputies’ Bandcamp page or through good ol’ iTunes. You can also see the band on the eastern wing of their tour throughout this month, returning back in the prairies towards the end of July. I think a western tour is to follow, but I don’t have dates for that.

7/1 – St John’s, NL – The Levee w/ Len O’Neill
7/2 – St John’s, NL – Distortion w/ Sam Burke
7/4 – St John’s, NL – The Bull and Barrel
7/5 – Placentia, NL- The Three Sisters
7/8 – Stephensville, NL – Clancy’s Pub
7/9 – Corner Brook, NL – White Horse Lounge
7/11 – West River, NS – The Pitchfork (Barn Show)
7/15 – Montreal, QC – Neighbourhood on the Move
7/17 – Ottawa, ON – Lunenburg Pub & Grill
7/18 – Toronto, ON – The Dakota Tavern
7/19 – Guelph, ON – Cornerstone
7/23 – Winnipeg, MB – Sam’s Place
7/25 – Bengough, SK – Gateway Festival
7/26 – Bengough, SK – Gateway Festival

 

It might take you a while to get here

April 24th, 2014 No comments

After nearly ten years on the job I packed up my desk yesterday.

It was a very long day; labouring over whether or not to leave the only career I’ve ever known or even considered having and the ramifications of going through with it has kept me from sleeping soundly for the last few weeks. I came close to tearing up several times during the day; I embraced the feeling by wallowing in the above song on a hard repeat for most of the day.

It was as much the mood of Miserere’s “Cold Coffee” that made it the perfect choice as it was the lyrics. Songwriter and singer Jim McIntyre encapsulated the feeling of the day: “Since I’ve been gone I’ve been honestly alright,” he sings, “but the older I get the more often I lie.”

It’s hard to move on after a decade. Even if you’re confident in the decision, the outpouring of regret and sadness from people who have been as close as family in those years can cause painful second-guessing. Separation is always painful and McIntyre recognizes that: “I went walking to school; when I got there I knew that I don’t go to school anymore and we’re a lot bigger than we were before.”

Ten years. It’s a long time. That’s actually almost how much time had passed between McIntyre’s musical releases: his band Sea Snakes released a record in 2004 that resonated with the small number of people who actually heard it. In late 2013 his new group, Miserere, put out its first record, which is where “Cold Coffee” comes from.

It might seems strange, but Miserere gives me some solace. Despite a break of nearly 10 years McIntyre has only gotten better; if you can find an album released in the last five years that is prettier than this record I will eat my goddamn hat. From the subtly jazzy undertones and the precise guitar picking of opener “Why Not A House?” through the spare, hushed vocal harmonies of “Niagara” to the 60′s pop-reflecting “A Werewolf Problem” and the appropriately-haunting yet majestically-sung closer “To Death Last Year,” there isn’t a moment here that fails to exude a cathartic and maudlin beauty. The songs are all about  It’s an emotionally-draining listen that was the perfect foil for one of the most emotionally-draining days I’ve experienced in the last five years.

Sure, parting can be such sweet sorrow. But there’s always something new around the corner.

That’s what I’m counting on, at least.

You can get yourself a copy of this record and cry yourself to sleep while listening to it by visiting the Idée Fixe Records web store at this link right here. Hey, there’s an iTunes link here too.

I will call you home

April 24th, 2014 No comments

papermoons no love cover Hopeless romantics rejoice! There is still beautiful music out there, being made for beauty’s sake, and it comes from Papermoons.

Songs of love and heartache, performed languorously, are the Texas-based band’s bread and butter. I have fond memories of their first releases. I can still see their debut 7″ spinning on my turntable in a one-bedroom apartment just off Regina’s downtown that had…well, let’s just call it character. I watched the blue/yellow splatter vinyl spin and listened to those four beautiful indie pop/folk/rock songs over and over, cracking open the living room window in the dead of -20 C weather to off-set the relentless heat pouring from the steam-driven radiator that couldn’t be adjusted no matter how hard I tried, the ceaseless pinging from the ancient metal heater serving as an ancillary off-beat percussion element.

The band (not to be confused with Winnipeg’s Paper Moon, a really nice pop band) refined their sound and a few of those songs for a brilliant first full-length album. I would spin that CD through the winter of 2008 and all through the summer; somehow it provided the perfect soundtrack for both snowy and sunny weather, its mix of melodic joy and melancholy proving as beautiful as it was cathartic.

Then, all of a sudden, the band was just gone. Their former label boss told me they had broken up, focusing on life and school and all the things that young people need to hunker down and get into sooner or later. Years passed before a rep for Deep Elm, the label that picked up digital sales rights for New Tales, emailed to let me know that the duo had gotten back together to create again.

That brings us No Love, a digital-only release by Deep Elm. I was overjoyed to see it. For all the years that have gone by very little has changed for Papermoons. My life couldn’t be more different but their music is like a comfortable beacon, a lighthouse set off rocky shores. Their askew rhythms remain as steady as they are gradual, their gentle melodies as mellifluous as ever. The backbone of their songs remains Matt Clark’s guitar playing; he returns to familiar strumming and picking patterns on much of the album. He has an ease on the strings, the songs of No Love as much defined by their pace as anything on New Tales.

The irony of the duo taking five years off between records is that they don’t sound any worse for it. If anything Clark’s voice is even more deft and confident, seeming to lean less on his higher register in favour of a more sturdy mid-range. Both feature beautifully on “Matchbook,” Clark intoning on a soaring and fragile chorus that, “It’s too late to move on from this frozen state.” But there’s another element that is newly pushed to the fore: beefy electric guitars that push to muscular new heights in the second chorus, lending their occasionally-pastoral sound a forceful edge. It’s an element that is used throughout the record. Like every piece of their sound, it’s placed with surgical precision: chained cymbals, densely-layered acoustic and electric guitars, the euphonious (and, as far as I can tell, synthesized) woodwinds, the sudden jags of guitar squall that disappear as quickly as they sound off.

There’s more going on during any given track than you might expect from a two-piece, but their compositions are ornate and bespoke, serving their harmony-rich singing and lyrics perfectly. Their imagery is evocative, frequently using the idea of frail human form as metaphor. Whether it’s Clark claiming to have pulled his teeth to stop from biting his tongue or crawling into someone’s mouth to extract something they’re hesitating to say or cauterizing wounds and blood rushing through extremities, the body is a shorthand for their shortcomings, pain, and struggle. That frailty reflects the sometimes-tremulous musical arrangements, creating a whole that is braced by the more explosive instrumental moments and a record that is as dreamy and as it is grounded.

You can grab a digital copy of this record by visiting Papermoon’s page on Deep Elm’s web site or their Bandcamp page. The vinyl is also available through Storm Chasers Records.

I bet you’d be miserable, just like me

April 11th, 2014 No comments

TinyEmpires_WeirdHeadspace

If it hasn’t already been banished to the netherworld, the new album from Tiny Empires should effectively blow up the ghost of O Pioneers!!! and free Eric Solomon from its shackles.

Long-time readers will know his work well. He’s a unique singer and songwriter who has been there when I’ve needed him for about eight years now. He also had what seemed like a never-ending streak of bad luck following him around constantly; it seemed like every year he was replacing his entire band, fate resigning him to deal with a revolving cast of characters that simply couldn’t stay the same for any length of time.

After the dissolution of the OP!!! brand, he embraced the black cloud that seemed to be hanging over his head. He describes his “new” band, Tiny Empires, with monikers like “melodic doom” and “swamp rock.” It’s worlds apart from the frantic chords and non-stop, plaintive wailing that marked his previous career.

Of course, that career wasn’t entirely static. Solomon’s writing was getting more layered, more exploratory towards the end of OP!!!. His association with his current band seems to have propelled him leaps and bounds beyond even that work. That much was apparent from Tiny Empires’ first release, a split single with Tigers Jaw that I wrote about rather favourably here. Some might say gushed, even.

What struck me about that song/side was the contrast, the caution, the patience of the piece overall. In a shrewd move, the band turns even that on its head from the opening track. “Wide Open Spaces” is a slow number, the muted electric guitar strumming and softly-sung vocals of its opening about as far from anything in the OP!!! catalogue. The chorus explodes with thick, aggressive power chords and gruff, guttural singing, only to give way to a gently-jarring keyboard bridge from straight out of left field.

The aggression, combined with the riffing on follow-up track “What’s The Plan, Phil?” suggest that Solomon is comfortable with shades of his former self appearing in Tiny Empires’ songs. The latter song actually isn’t too drastically removed from the prior band’s final days when Solomon was transitioning into the six-piece mass band that Tiny Empires has become. The layered backing vocals in the chorus, however, is a trick he hasn’t managed before (at least, not outside the few recorded minutes when OP!!! was him singing in front of one of Junior Battles’ poppiest arrangements). Lest anyone worry that his worldview has changed, Solomon also offers a lyrical tweak on a famous Kurt Vonnegut quote from Slaughterhouse-Five: “Everything is broken and nothing really hurts.” That opening salvo headlines a song about the agony of aging. “Watch me fall apart/watch me break down/watch my bones crumble now,” he sings, the vigor and intensity of his nearly-screamed vocals belying the sentiment.

“Just Imagine,” previously released as a digital teaser single on Bandcamp, is a bit of an outlier. Something in the verse guitar riff and the distant, distorted vocals and Bryon’s vocal melody is reminiscent of 90s alt-rock; there’s an association I can’t quite place, but it calls to mind maybe some brooding Nine Inch Nails after a fashion. Maybe Filter? There’s definitely a heavy dose of early Small Brown Boke in the mix as well. The layers of distortion on the non-chorus build-ups create a fuzzy pastiche that’s both icy and carries the warmth of familiarity. I get the same sense from “Tired Hearts and Livers,” especially from its alternating pace, the skittering drum beat that comes and goes as it pleases, and the constantly-shifting guitar tones. I know there was a bit of 90s revival on Chris Wollard’s first solo album but maybe we should be seeing more of that if songs like this are the result.

The highlight of the record is “Air Conditioning, Full Blast,” where what is arguably Solomon’s most vengeful lyric yet is fully-negated by an incredible arrangement. “When I’m angry I’m going to sneak into your house and steal your air conditioning unit. Steal it right from your wall and watch you sweat, because I bet you’d be miserable…just like me.” The way his arid singing voice extends the syllables of “miserable” is so perfect; you can picture the mask of his pessimism just starting to crack from the gleeful thought. When the extended chorus breaks in towards the song’s end with its harmonics and plucked high guitar notes, giving way to those final gentle keyboard notes your melodic sensibilities just might be overwhelmed entirely.

And then after all that we’re left with what I can only assume makes up the b-side of the LP: another marathon 10-minute song suite dubbed “Blurry Photos, Dead Leaves, Decomposed.” Suffice it to say that this composition builds on every single element that comes before, maybe even adding a few more elements (handclaps! How I’ve missed you!). Unfortunately, some passages of atonal, unchanging guitar riffing leave a sour taste in the melodic centers of my brain; swapping the last two songs on the record might have made for a cleaner, more aurally pleasing ending.

Regardless, this is a collection of loud, unabashed guitar rock that strives to be a little bit of everything and actually succeeds. “Maybe I don’t have the best intentions,” Solomon sings on “Air Conditioning, Full Blast,” adding, “but right now I just don’t care. Maybe someday, somehow, it comes back to me.”

Sorry pal; I don’t buy that for a second. This group of self-described “older men” have challenged themselves to come up with a sound that—despite Solomon’s lyrical insistence—hinges on sheer passion and more than a little ambition. When he sang on the group’s first single about rejecting the past-due ethos of the punk rock scene it wasn’t just window dressing; Solomon and his band have set themselves free from any constraints and the results are simply phenomenal.

You can get this record, and you should, at the group’s Bandcamp page. Support older men in bands! If you really need more convincing the record is also streaming on the A.V. Club’s web site.

Expecting desire

April 3rd, 2014 No comments

Saskatoon’s Close Talker have announced some spring tour dates in a very splashy manner.

Above is the video for their brand new track “Heads.” It was released today and it’s a beautiful, creepy little number that pairs some very cinematic visuals with the band’s sweeping sound. Plus: no heads!

The song itself shows some very positive signs of growth for the young band, which will evidently be recording its first full-length album later this spring in Montreal. The elements that went into their splashy debut EP are still here: patient, building song structures, super-wet reverb, and stirring, layered vocals. The difference is here the song feels more cohesive; there’s an interplay between the instruments that make it seem less like a song written by one person and adapted for a group and more like a collaborative effort. The production is also more lush, filling the speakers while also letting the gaps between notes stand, allowing the moments in between chords breathe when appropriate. Later in the song the wall of instruments washes over the listener, leaving behind an ascendent, euphoric feeling during the softly-cooed denouement that is matched perfectly by the visuals in the clip above.

A promising sign of things to come, no doubt.

You can pick up this track and the band’s others via their Bandcamp page; try as best you can to ignore the grammatical abomination that is their bio. Also, see them soon in a town near you:

April 10 – Nanaimo – Vancouver Island University
April 10 – Victoria – Copper Owl
April 11 – Vancouver – Narrow’s Public House
April 12 – Abbotsford – Columbia
May 2 – Regina – O’Hanlons
May 3 – Saskatoon – The Capitol
May 5 – Winnipeg – WECC
May 8-10 – Toronto (CMW)
May 19 – Montreal – Barfly
June 19 – Swift Current (Long Day’s Night Festival)
July 25 & 26 – Bengough (Gateway Festival)

Old bones will break

April 3rd, 2014 1 comment

Call it the shock of the year: The Flatliners did not win the Juno this year for best metal/hard rock album.

When they say it’s an honour just to be nominated that’s probably only somewhat true; it’s likely very case-dependent. The Junos do not necessarily make or break new stars, but I would imagine any bump in profile for Canadian musicians, who make no money whatsoever, makes a pretty big difference.

The metal/hard rock category, however, has historically not been kind to punk bands. This year in particular saw The Flatliners not only scorned by some hardcore metalheads, however; an actual petition gathered hundreds of signatures to protest their inclusion in the category. Fair enough, I suppose; they don’t really sit comfortably side-by-side with Gorguts. They may play power chord riffs very quickly, but they’re metal the way Strung Out or A Wilhelm Scream was/is “metal:” in comparison to other non-metal bands. They’re heavy, but melody and hooks retain the highest priority.

What makes it even funnier is that if you were going to nominate a Flatliners record in the metal/hard rock category this was totally the wrong one to do it. Their previous record Cavalcade had a lot more metal chops than the one that was actually nominated.

flatliners cavalcade coverIt’s rare that I’ve enjoyed an album as thoroughly as Cavalcade but haven’t bothered to write about it on this site. Sometimes, like in the case of the latest Frog Eyes record, I have felt genuinely unqualified to try and expound on an inherently and overtly artistic work; Carey Mercer is working on a whole different level from what I understand. I enjoy his stuff as much as anyone can, but I am just not in a position to wax intellectual on it.

Calvalcade is different. It just fell through the cracks and stayed wedged there. As I recently mentioned with regards to Tokyo Police Club’s last album, I occasionally just don’t get to something until it seems like it’s too late. Calvalcade came out in 2010 and I glossed over it for the better part of a year. I enjoyed three or four tracks on their Fat Wreck Chords debut but it wasn’t enough to make me ravenous about the follow-up; I bought the CD and let it languish.

Oh, but then “Liver Alone” came along. I’ll be damned if I could tell you how it caught my ear, but it latched on and wouldn’t let go. It’s Cavalcade in a nutshell: a fast-paced barrage of hooks come from every direction, caustically-rough guitar tone, self-destructive lyrics, and impossibly melodic singing. They excised what remained of their ska dalliances and emerged leaner, meaner, and catchier than ever. There’s also some metal posturing that could be interpreted as either hilarious or overly-earnest; This Is Spinal Tap clips intro some songs and, on the whole, there is some very fast riffing going on throughout the album.

flatliners dead language cover

That’s where Dead Language is different: the basic formula stays the same and it’s not necessarily a “softer” album, but it definitely has a sliver less overall aggression, the pace is probably slower overall and there is a greater focus on melody.

Sure, the posturing is still there; song titles here include “Drown In Blood,” “Sew My Mouth Shut,” “Caskets Full,” and “Hounds.” All very metal-sounding.

They’re on-point lyrically in those songs, and others, as well. “I’ll drown in blood; I’ll watch it cleanse my skin, expend my body, weak, tired, frail and start again. I’ll drown in blood; I’ll watch it cleanse my skin, hold my breath no more. My lungs are wide open,” singer Chris Cresswell intones on “Drown In Blood” in a vocal performances that ranges from hellacious growling to clean and melodic singing in the span of a single word or two. The next song: “Sew my mouth shut so I can’t say a word. It just gets me in trouble, trouble I’m not worth. Sew my mouth shut so I can’t even breathe. What would life be like without me?”

Indeed, Cresswell’s imagery often hews pretty closely to the dessicated bones and seemingly-detached eyeballs depicted on the album’s cover art. Despite that sense of morbidity, however, the record has plenty of ear-pleasing hooks to smooth out the edges and draw in listeners. It’s there in the chorus of the frequently acerbic opener “Resuscitation Of The Year” when Cresswell insists “I’m coming back to life,” his voice soaring alongside perfectly-paired power chords and harmonic bass. “Birds Of England” goes half-time (compared to some songs, anyhow) and sees the group doing a near-pop turn, acoustic guitars backing up the palm-muted electric guitar while Cresswell hums and sings his heart out. Single “Caskets Full” is a full-on pop-rock number in the vein of Hostage Calm. “Ashes Away” sounds nothing like The Flatliners at first and boasts some of Cresswell’s cleanest and best singing yet, the song’s quieter moments resonating very strongly. “Tailfeathers” is an outlier in their catalogue, a downright slow number replete with more “woah-oh” vocals than a Misfits record; it’s also a fairly touching song, a vow of dedication couched in mutual self-destruction.

Sure, there are moments of deep-seated aggression more in line with what fans of Cavalcade might be expecting, but the duality of sound here, the willingness to explore softer textures and embrace some poppier elements, seems like a sign of growth. It may not be totally metal, but sometimes easing off the throttle means you make a stronger impact in other ways.

Check out New Damage Records’ MapleMusic page to order copies (assuming you’re in Canada). You can go to iTunes for the digital if you like.

In space no one can hear your weird instrumentals

April 2nd, 2014 No comments

john-frusciante-enclosureSo you remember that guy who played guitar on the most recently memorable Red Hot Chili Peppers albums? He wins the award for weirdest new album promotion.

That’s right: John Frusciante is going into space.

From the press release:

On March 29th, 2014, at a remote High Desert location in California, former Red Hot Chili Peppers guitarist John Frusciante’s new album ENCLOSURE was loaded onto an experimental Cube Satellite called Sat-JF14 and launched into space aboard an Interorbital Systems’ NEPTUNE Modular Rocket.

Beginning today, March 31st, fans from around the world can download the free, custom-built Sat-JF14 mobile application developed by Frusciante’s longtime label Record Collection and leading Brazilian Creative Agency, Loducca. This app will enable users to trackSat-JF14‘s movement in real time. When Sat-JF14 hovers over a users’ geographic region,ENCLOSURE will be unlocked, allowing users to listen to the album for free on any iOS or Android mobile device. Sat – JF14 also supports an integrated social chat platform giving fans the ability to communicate with one another after listening to the music. The album preview will last until midnight on April 7th, at which point Sat-JF14 will cease transmission.

Oooookay. Why not, I guess?

You can pick up Enclosure from Frusciante’s on-line store. The song embedded above is called “Murderers” and is taken from an early 2000s album called To Record Only Water For Ten Days, which you can find on iTunes with the rest of his discography.

I don’t ever want to talk that way again

March 26th, 2014 No comments


against me cover
The music industry, like we human beings, is a sucker for a good story. I suppose that’s why there’s been a pretty impressive furor over Against Me!’s latest record, even though it’s only their fourth or fifth best album.

Don’t get me wrong—I couldn’t be happier that Transgender Dysphoria Blues has been released upon the world. I couldn’t be happier that a songwriter that I’ve been following for more than a decade has fought their way through an extremely challening period of personal and emotional upheavel to land in a fruitful, creative place. But people championing this album as the best of their career must not have been paying attention.

The story of Transgender Dysphoria Blues—and, of course, the transition of Tom Gabel into Laura Jane Grace—has been discussed at great length in media of various sizes in the last few months since the run-up to and release of the record. The short strokes: a brilliant, subversive punk songwriter finally begins his journey into womanhood after struggling with a lifetime of gender identity issues that were previously foreshadowed in his writing for those willing to actually think about what they were hearing.

I’ve read plenty of pieces that have incorrectly described this record as a chronicling of Grace’s specific journey, but that simply isn’t the case; it’s partially a concept album about a transgender prostitute, a notion that Grace originally presented to the band before coming out. The idea of a full concept album seems to have been discarded, the final product retaining some of those songs but also more direct and personal numbers.

There’s no disputing that the visibility of Grace’s journey (she revealed to the world that she was transitioning in Rolling Stone magazine and has since written about and discussed her experience in major publications like Chatelaine and The Hollywood Reporter) makes this album an important, high-profile release. The history of popular song has rarely—if ever—touched on subject matter like gender dysphoria; the idea that someone who has been a prominent member of a musical community distinguished by its inherently-aggressive nature can be so open about their struggles and be in turn embraced by that community is huge, and a great story to boot.

But Transgender Dysphoria Blues is not the zenith of Laura Jane Grace’s career. She is undoubtedly exorcising a lot of demons here and the return to a more aggressive sound just isn’t fully realized.

The title track opens the record and Grace’s lyrics set out the line between the inner desire of someone transitioning, to just blend in, and the sometimes-intolerant reality of people who don’t understand their situation. “You just want them to see you like they see every other girl; they just see a faggot,” she laments, her tone and tenor not really changed from the band’s previous albums. She strikes a snarling note at the beginning of the second verse: “You’ve got no cunt in your strut,” she growls, leaving the listener unsure if it’s a disgusting rejoinder from someone outside of herself or a jarring example of the kind of self-doubt and loathing she dealt with for years. From a musical standpoint the song is also a brilliant bridge from the somewhat-softer, more radio-friendly sound of previous full-length White Crosses to the strikingly-acerbic sounds still to come.

“[FUCKMYLIFE666]” is another melodic treat, harmonious in both the backing vocals and the guitar lines. But the chorus strikes some phenomenal, cathartic melodic tones, only to end abruptly on a down-beat note; it feels like there’s a line missing or an upbeat conclusion to match the delightfully-arranged music has been excised. But that’s just a feeling; the lyric here contrasts the idea of modifying one’s identity and realizing one’s dream with the consequence that your own loved ones may not even recognize you.

“True Trans Soul Rebel” boasts Grace’s best pure singing to date, a slight tremolo at the peak of the chorus rising to heights the tragic subject of the song will never reach. “You should’ve been a mother; you should’ve been a wife; you should’ve been gone from here years ago; you should be living a different life…Does god bless your transsexual heart, true trans soul rebel?”

“Drinking With The Jocks” is as close as the record gets to going totally wrong, a grinding, brief blast of a song that eschews Grace’s trademark melodic gruffness for atonal washes of distortion, noise, and full-throttle screaming. Moreover, it marks the low point for Grace’s songwriting, all blunt parody and artless rage. “I’m drinking with the jocks. I’m laughing at the faggots. Just like one of the boys, swinging my dick in my hand.  All of my life, just like I was one of the them. Look at all them bitches. Yeah, I’m gonna fuck them all. Look at all of the pussy. Yeah, fill them up with cum.” A feeble attempt to flip the script lives in the bridge, as Grace intones, “There will always be a difference between me and you.” Yeah, I think by now that’s been established.

There are other missteps. “Osama Bin Laden As The Crucified Christ” isn’t a lot better, a pallid distortion overlayed on Grace’s vocals obscuring her performance. “Two Coffins,” while otherwise lovely, is maddeningly repetitious. Minor quibbles, it’s true, but those three songs contribute a slightly washed-out middle to a record that lacks the track-after-track pummeling of flawless tunes seen on Reinventing Axl Rose and Searching For A Former Clarity and even the glossy-but-great New Wave.

The record ends very strongly, with “Paralytic States” concluding the transgender prostitute sub-theme with a soaring melodic number. That leads to possibly the best song here, closer “Black Me Out,” in which Grace acknowledges what she probably already knew before the band signed to Sire all those years ago: major labels are a bad idea.

“I don’t ever want to talk that way again. I don’t want to know people like that anymore. As if there was an obligation, as if I owed you something…I don’t want to see the world that way anymore. I don’t want to feel that weak and insecure. As if you were my fucking pimp, as if I was your fucking whore.”

Grace’s call for absolution, her pledge to “piss on the walls” of some record exec’s house, are as external an outburst as the internal ones that lead her to this place. An entire album based on years—if not decades—of self-doubt, self-loathing, and constant and unyielding desire to be the opposite of what she felt forced by society to be has built up to the point where its inevitable release couldn’t be contained. This album spills over with an unrestrained expulsion of venom and bile; a necessary release for the songwriter, I expect, listener be damned. Regardless, I’d be willing to bet that everyone who thinks this was a five star album will really be knocked back on their heels when Grace has a chance to come up with a set of songs that are more…let’s say, even-tempered.

You can get a bunch of Against Me! music and merch at their web store, yes? And iTunes, of course, as well.

Against Me! plays Regina this Sunday night at The Exchange with the mellifluous Laura Stevenson and the magnificent Cheap Girls. It’s sold out. Too bad for you.

Fuck all the old boring shits we’ve become

March 21st, 2014 No comments

lawrence-arms-metropole-cover

It’s been a long time since I wrote about a punk record. You could argue the Hop Along debut is pretty punk rock, or maybe Hostage Calm—although it’s pretty hard to suggest they’re anything but pure pop these days. I suppose the last pure punk album I took a good long look at was probably White Lung’s last, well over a year and a half ago.

I’ve aborted a few pieces in that time about my teenage punk heroes; I got a couple of thousand words into a nostalgia-heavy diatribe about the Lagwagon box set that I ultimately figured no other person in the world would ever want to or bother reading. I tried writing something after No Use For A Name’s Tony Sly died but I just couldn’t find the thread.

I suppose it’s inevitable for punks (and overly-loquacious wanna-be punks) to have a harder time sticking with it when they get older. The genre’s trappings must be hard to stay committed to in some ways; Danzig went metal, Pat Smear went Foo Fighters, Joe Strummer went pseudo-world music, Joey Cape/Jon Snodgrass/Greg Graffin/Tim Barry/Tony Sly/Chad Price went acoustic, and countless others “sold out” or disappeared. Plenty who push through do interesting work; NoMeansNo made one of their best records in 2006 when the band was nearly 30 years old (they also continue to play great live sets), for instance. The members of Descendents/ALL continue to do whatever the fuck they want and make great music along the way. Others, like Bad Religion for example, keep busy pretending they haven’t aged (at least when they aren’t actively embarrassing themselves).

The Lawrence Arms are among the former. Five years ago they put out a very good EP of new material which was, in itself, a stopgap that came three years after their previous album. It’s been more or less radio silence from them since, at least up until a few weeks ago when they issued a new full-length via Epitaph Records.

Metropole was described by bassist Brendan Kelly as a thematic record analyzing urban life; what it became is a 35-minute confessional about the members of the band growing older and making their signature brand of music in an urban environment in 2013. The picture they paint is dour, cathartic, and downright ugly at times. Those unfortunate elements, however, are off-set by the fact that they remain the most melodically-gifted midwestern punk band since Dillinger 4.

The inspiration for the title and the loose theme comes from a trip Kelly took to Italy. He stayed at the Hotel Metropole, likely the Venice one, and wandered the streets while in various cities in the country. Like their previous masterwork The Greatest Story Ever Told, this album is deftly produced by fellow Chicagoan Matt Allison. Kelly recorded the sounds of the streets on his phone during his time in Italy, allowing them to once again use field recordings and repurposed elements from their own songs to give the album a continuous, interweaving palette of sound and tie the songs together. Clips of accordion players, cheering crowds, telephone calls, piano performances, people chatting, loudspeaker announcements, and bucket drumming become interstitial elements weaving the songs together, the ephemera of city life creating a contrast of familiarity in which the chaos of aggressive music is couched.

And believe me: aged or no, The Lawrence Arms haven’t lost their edge and have given no quarter when it comes to aggression. The opening is a classic minute-long Kelly number in the vein of “Presenting: The Dancing Machine” or “Necrotism: Decanting The Insalubrious (Cyborg Midnight) Part 7,” that races along at a mile a minute, the words coming at a pace that is nearly faster than the listener can comprehend them. Can’t hardly blame him; the tale he’s telling is that of a decrepit specimen, indeed.

“I’ll dream when I’m sleeping. I’ll sleep when I die. I die every evening and break down and throw things and poison my lining. Walking on eggshells, covered in flies, beating and breathing, not quite alive.”

Nearly as brief and twice as aggro is “Drunk Tweets,” a track that averages a curse word every 2.5 seconds in its first half. It’s all about drinking in the streets and killing oneself to live in an overindulgent America where arrogance is rewarded above all else. Kelly also manages to use “Raskalnikovian gloom” in cadence seamlessly. Dude’s a fucking genius.

The ugly highlight of Kelly’s contributions to the album—maybe his entire career—comes with “The YMCA Down The Street From The Clinic.” Nine songs into the record he slows things down, merging the styles he long ago established in this band with his more recent work with The Wandering Birds. It’s a slower, more deliberate track that strips away the layers of harmonized guitar work on most of these tracks and presents a raw instrumental arrangement that matches a sparse and ugly lyric. The character piece describes the very dregs of society as Kelly sees them in his city, offering a sympathetic but unvarnished view of people falling through the cracks. Take the following for instance:

“I got a bad, sick stink and I’m bathing in the sink at the YMCA down the street from the clinic, and there’s a sad old man with a sad, saggy ass just crying under the electric dryer for your hands. And he’s wet, and he’s dying and the spiders on his nose seem to indicate that he’s been keeping warm out in the cold. And he’s a lot like me, I guess, but we’re somehow not the same; they say you really die the last time anybody says your name.”

He may try to divorce himself from the decrepitude of such a subject, but Kelly can’t help but own up to the feeling in his own heart: that he too has been lingering in this urban jungle for too long. “This sweet and sticky dream was nothing that I needed, just demons to believe; poisons lined up to feed ‘em,” he laments. “And the rings inside this tree are rotten deeper down. Goddamn this fucking town. It’s restless and I’m drowning.”

That feeling of circling the drain is also made plain on single “Seventeener (17th and 37th),” which draws parallels between Kelly’s younger and current selves, the results coming out much the same. He’s realizing that grey hair is creeping into his beard and the young girls that used to fawn over him are avoiding his eye contact while he’s on stage. That’s left him drinking to excess and thinking about how he had always expected to die young: “We thought about ways we’d love to go: high and beautiful and fucking in the snow, on New Years Day or Christmas Eve, on a warm November night buried beneath the orange leaves.”

His sense of mortality is front and centre throughout, a sense that guitarist Chris McCaughan shares, in particular on closer “October Blood.” That’s where he realizes how short life really is, admitting that the extensive travelling he’s done in his relatively short life only served to prove he was really alive. “I was born and I died, and just a moment went by,” he both opens and closes the track. It recalls a moment earlier in the album on the song’s title track, when he intones over and over, “This is the end of all things,” ending the repeated phrase with such a melodic downturn you almost think he knows something you don’t.

For me, the first track to really put me back on my heels from the first spin is “Beautiful Things.” The first day I got the album I played it 35 times in a row. I can’t remember the last time I did that with a song. It really is the most baldly-beautiful song they’ve ever done and when McCaughan intones one last time, “Don’t kill all the beautiful things”…boy, it just gives me chills.

I may not be musically intelligent enough to say specifically what sets The Lawrence Arms apart. There’s definitely something in the way McCaughan’s guitars are played and layered that no one else does. Kelly’s three distinct singing styles all deliver a unique and damaged world view. There’s something in the way their two voices combine, some kind of undeniable symmetry, that ratchets up the passion. It’s those simple things and more that really make this album work. Trust me: only The Lawrence Arms can write a song called “Paradise Shitty” and make it completely sad and beautiful and wonderful all at once. The same goes for Metropole as a whole. This is punk for grown-ups, and goddamnit it is glorious.

Metropole is available in all sorts of formats through their Epitaph/King’s Road Merch store. iTunes also offers their entire discography, including a “deluxe” version of the new record.

Trying to colour in between the dotted lines

February 19th, 2014 2 comments


So Tokyo Police Club has a new album coming out. I didn’t even know I was excited about it until I heard the news! But these exclamation marks would seem to suggest that I am excited indeed!

Now that my extremely elegeant lede is out of the way, let’s talk brass tacks: this is a good band! After a heavily-hyped debut EP they put out a very enjoyable first LP. I remember enjoying it, anyway; I was struck by the fairly distinct tonal shift, moving away from the brash guitar-heavy structures of the EP into more tonal and keyboard-flecked tunes. In retrospect, however, there’s only one song that has really stuck with me hard through the years: the gentle, elegant, downright lovely “Listen To the Math.” Its spare arrangement, powerfully melodic guitars, and surprisingly deft use of the term “Australopithecine” still knock my socks off nearly six years later.

I came to their follow-up, Champ, an unfortunately-long time after it came out. Aside from a cursory half-listen or two when it first came out I actually sort of disregarded it entirely until after I became enamored of keyboardist Graham Wright’s solo album Shirts vs Skins. That record is brilliant, from the vaguely-ragtime piano number “No Hard Feelings” to the tender lullaby balladry of “Birds Of A Feather” to the saxaphone skronk and infectious wordplay of “Potassium Blast” to the classic power-pop of “Soviet Race.” It was one of the best records of 2011; how could I not check out his other output?

In retrospect, Champ is essentially a pop-rock album with a healthy smattering of keyboards; think a more laid-back, fun-loving Bloc Party. They are integrated seamlessly, though; there are tracks where it’s tough to separate them from the rest of the mix. The pacing and arrangements are nicely varied, making for a group of songs that actually sound different (unlike their EP, which—while I enjoy it—had a certain sameness to it). Heck, the first song alone runs the gamut. “Favourite Food” starts with a softly-strummed acoustic guitar and David Monk’s vocals coming across more laconic than usual. Perhaps that’s fitting, given that the lyrics suggest he’s examining the perspective of a damaged senior citizen bound to a hospital bed.

“With a heart attack on your plate you were looking back on your days, how you spent them all in a blur,” he carefully enunciates before continuing. “Let the sugar melt down your throat because you know it’s sweet getting old. With a lollipop and a rose, let the hospital be your home.”

The tenderness of the first half of the song disappears as quickly-strummed electric guitars cut in and the pace accelerates exponentially. The remainder is propelled with frantic drumming and reverberating guitar, ending in a squalling finish of guitar soloing that is downright thrilling.

It’s a strong start to an album on which the strong start pretty much doesn’t stop. With no exaggeration, each of the first seven songs could be a huge single: “Favourite Colour” is a catchy, stuttering start/stop number about friends who have been separated for a time before they move in together and are getting to know each other again (the comparison to K-Ci and JoJo is priceless); “Breakneck Speed” is an amiable mid-tempo pop song; “Wait Up (Boots of Danger)” sees Wright’s keyboard take center stage, augmenting the song’s melodic edge while Monk’s wordless falsetto hook in the post-chorus amps up the energy; “Bambi” is an amazing centerpiece, a jittery amalgam of glitchy synths and pop-rock guitars that is possibly the band’s most purely danceable number to date; “End Of A Spark” is a big-guitar number and an infectious sing-along song; “Hands Reversed” is a curveball, slowing things way down and paring the instrumentation back to finger-picked electric guitars and a plodding, propulsive drum beat while Monk explores the lower end of his vocal register; “Gone” is an entirely enjoyable number about longing for a picturesque scenery when one just needs a break; “Big Difference” establishes a frantic pace to accompany lyrics about lashing out against isolation; “Not Sick” and closer “Frankenstein” mash up elements of the songs that precede them, adding more stoic tones and lyrics to square the circle and reflect the more serious opening tone of the album.

I’m serious, people; Champ is a fully-fantastic pop rock record from back to front. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve listened to it since I got off my butt and put it on with intent. Expectations are officially high for this new release!

Forcefield is out at the end of March, but you can pre-order it now through iTunes. There’s also a fairly-complicated pre-order set up through PledgeMusic that includes CD, digital, and vinyl copies (though it appears to be targeted at US fans). Digital versions and other releases can also be found through their Canadian label, Dine Alone Records.