Sharkpact: Ditches

Wayne Campbell: Hey, Tiny, who’s playing today?
Tiny: Jolly Green Giants and the Shitty Beatles.
Wayne Campbell: Shitty Beatles? Are they any good?
Tiny: They suck.
Wayne Campbell: Then it’s not just a clever name.

Sharkpact does not suck. And they are not just a clever name. Although this scene from Wayne’s World is the first thing I thought of when I downloaded their name-your-price album Ditches for zero dollars, upon retrospect, I should probably throw them some coin considering the space Sharkpact has taken in my heavy rotation.

For the uninitiated, Sharkpact is a punk rock duo from the Pacific Northwest consisting of drums and keyboards. Pause. Now throw away any comparisons to Mates of State or whatever crappy keyboard/drummer bands you are thinking of in order to write off Sharkpact. Ditches is an innovative approach to popular punk, a lively kick to a genre many think dead.

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First Listen: Stewart’s Kicks

stewart_kicks

The quick and dirty:

  • Stewart is a power-pop-rock band from New York City
  • Stewart is a good reminder why Gibson guitars and Marshall stacks worked wonders for Weezer in the mid ’90s
  • You probably have never heard of them
  • You should listen to this band

Let’s cut to the chase, shall we? Power-pop may not be “cool” in the eyes of the music bloggers of the interwebs. I say, “Fuck them.” Kicks is an unyielding album of catchy hooks, catchy lyrics and rock ‘n’ roll prowess. After a single listen this album has reminded me what listening to music for fun is all about. For the young and young at heart, Stewart offer a solid album of 2-3 minute rock ‘n’ roll blitzes. I’m sold. ‘Nuff said.

First Listen: Knut’s Wonder

Last year I went to an academic conference dealing with all things popular culture. It turned out that what researchers and scholars really liked talking about were popular understandings of sub and fringe cultures. One Finnish scholar now teaching at a university in North Carolina, I can’t remember his name, decided to research fans of Scandinavian and European metal in contrast to the popular understandings of these fans (which tend to depict them as disturbed, depressed, or angry/violent people). His research seemed fascinating to the head-nodding profs, but illustrated virtually nothing new to anyone who identifies as at least a casual fan of metal or “hard” music. Basically, his thesis was that metal seems “angry” to outsiders, but for fans it is a very positive experience that builds community and elicits typically happy emotions.

After that conference I silently asked myself, “Is there enough metal in my life?” The answer, sadly, was “no.” Somewhere along the way, my metal consumption waned and my record collection began to swell with folk and country records. Not that it’s a bad thing, but I decided to diversify my sonic portfolio, so to speak.

Enter Wonder, the new album by Swiss math-metal, hardcore, sludge band Knut. Now, I dropped out shortly after Botch’s We Are the Romans and my stint in Greensboro, NC. If bands continued to make records like Wonder between then and now, then I’ve got a lot of catching up to do.

Knut’s latest is a reminder why we need more metal in our lives. Wonder is a cathartic experience. Amidst the chaos of postmodern existence, Knut burst through with raw emotion, stripping away all the excesses of consumerism and putting forth just loud, heavy music. Time changes and riff progressions are everywhere. On my third listen (couldn’t stop to write after one), I’m drawn to the way that the songs evolve. Like a web or matrix, complex riffs, jud, jud palm muting, and polyrhythmic structures shift continually with each song an amalgam of at least a dozen parts held together by a unifying aesthetic theme.

While the vocals (lyrically inaudible, but for me that’s a non-issue) display excellent screaming capabilities, from low guttural to mid-pitch screams, I’m a little disappointed by the lack of diversity in cadence and delivery, which is my only criticism in this early review.

Caw! Caw!: Bummer Palace

Caw! Caw! should be more well known. Unless you were searching specifically for this review, chances are you’ve never heard of Caw! Caw!. Yet, they’ve been playing music in and around their native Chicago since 2001 and have been independently releasing their music through a 2008 EP and a MySpace music page. From what I’ve discovered in the backwaters and far corners of the internet, the band’s been winning over fans one at a time the old fashioned way: with high-energy house shows, mini-tours, and artistic sincerity. 2010’s Bummer Palace is their wildly ambitious full-length debut, a sprawling statement proclaiming the obsolescence of genre descriptors and musical boundaries.

It’s difficult to write about how Caw! Caw! move from indie rock to post-rock to pop to punk, adding flourishes of soul or ska or new wave, all with a soaring falsetto reminiscent of Sigur Ros. It’s clear that Caw! Caw! draw from an ever-growing body of influences, and I’m sure that the unfamiliar reader is probably about ready to dismiss this band as one that suffers from the sheer sum of its parts.  However Caw! Caw!’s sound is remarkably cohesive and Bummer Palace is surprisingly devoid of jarring transitions. Continue reading

First Listen: CAW! CAW!’s Bummer Palace

In 1999 I bought my first Pavement album, Wowee Zowee. I think I had heard Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain’s “Cut Your Hair” on MTV’s 120 Minutes or in a friend’s car or something and thought it sounded a bit Weezer-ish and pretty cool. When I got to the record store they didn’t have Crooked Rain, but they did have Wowee Zowee and the cover was sorta funny so I went ahead and purchased that as my first Pavement album. I don’t remember much of my first listen except thinking that this didn’t sound much like “Cut Your Hair.” These songs were really weird, but also kinda cool. I wasn’t really sure what to make of it.

Listening to CAW! CAW!’s Bummer Palace is very similar.  Not that they sound like Pavement (they don’t), but they play music that is not easily categorized and my first impression is that this music is both very strange but also quite awesome and unique. Moreover, this is a band that doesn’t take itself too seriously and has a great sense of humor, both of which are extremely refreshing.

CAW! CAW!’s closest musical relative might be the indie darlings of yesterday, Clap Your Hands Say Yeah or the lesser known but incredibly awesome Kudzu Wish.  Bummer Palace is frantic, angsty rock music that is seemingly always being pulled in a million different directions: pop, indie rock, punk, hardcore, soul, psychedelic, shoegaze. The genre bending is probably Bummer Palace’s greatest strength and biggest weakness.  However, with songs continually shifting and changing, it is a fun album that rewards listeners with multiple listens (I’m on 2.5 listens at time of writing and still trying to wrap my head around some of these songs).

The best introduction to CAW! CAW! might be the “band photo” they’ve posted on their MySpace page:

cawcaw

Interested? Do yourself a favor and go listen to a handful of the tracks from Bummer Palace on their MySpace band page.

Dark Dark Dark: Bright Bright Bright EP

For those unacquainted with Dark Dark Dark, they are a six piece acoustic chamber pop ensemble with musical ties to Minneapolis, New York and New Orleans. If those locations conjure up a cacophony of regional sounds in your mind’s eye, well, you are probably on the right track. Dark Dark Dark are like musical alchemists, blending the old with the new, and creating something rather enjoyable.

Bright Bright Bright is a six song EP that blends jazz, indie pop, and folk music using traditional string instruments, piano, drums and voice. You can put away the amplifiers; Bright Bright Bright is a beacon from ages past, yet it is lead singer Nona Marie Invie’s vocals that set this release apart from others.

The EP opens with the title track “Bright Bright Bright.” Introduced with a somber melody on piano, Invie’s voice shines early on. She sings, “I hurt myself nearly as much as I hurt you,” and it sends shivers down my spine. Her voice sounds remarkably old, like one of those voices in the black and white movies on AMC.  The song crescendos to a backing chorus of harmonized voices and the melody shifts between minor and major chords, softening the eerie melody with moments of brightness.

“The Hand” is Dark Dark Dark moving in a somewhat different direction. Trumpet, accordion, and timpani-like percussion lead a jaunty-tune. At times Arcade Fire comparisons seem apt, but Dark Dark Dark lack the more contemporary mood that the Arcade Fire create.  “The Hand” also lacks some of the emotional intensity of the other tracks. More upbeat in nature, the song is contrary to Dark Dark Dark’s strong suit, namely, all things slow, moody and melancholy.

One of the best qualities of this record is its production. Recorded in a converted church, it rebounds and resounds with a wholeness. In “Something for Myself,” Invie’s voice fills the room, and as the song swells from verse to chorus, the atmosphere of the recording space is captured in the natural echoes.

The next two tracks, “Make Time” and “Flood,” are representative of the EP’s low points. They are too theatrical in nature and in “Make Time,” Invie hands over vocals to Marshall LaCount whose nasally voice in the lead disrupts the overall sound a bit.  On such a short release, his voice on only one track gives the listener little to digest. Perhaps with more tracks his style and delivery would grow on me. “Flood” has touching melodies, but at times I feel like I’m listening to a musical soundtrack.

Closer “Wild Goose Chase,” apparently a cover of an Elephant Micah song (who I had not heard before, but recently found on NPR and am quite enjoying at the moment!) is the most memorable track on Bright Bright Bright and an appropriate conclusion. Bright Bright Bright closes just as it opens, with simply a piano and a lovely voice, shifting between dark, bluesy chords and moments of shining resolve. Lyrically it’s the sometimes sad story of setting out on the road for freedom, money, and love.

Finally, I must admit that Dark Dark Dark fell out of my regular music rotation for a while, especially after such a strong initial response. While Bright Bright Bright is a solid offering with only two tracks missing the mark for me, it is definitely an EP that demands a very specific listening environment. This is the EP for evenings home with some quiet projects, or coffee bars and intelligent conversation.  But don’t let this review steer you away from giving Dark Dark Dark a solid listen.  You can stream their album for free on their website.

Holy Fuck: Latin

I will say nothing of this band’s name. NOTHING. Look to other reviewers for meaningless digressions that take music journalism away from the actual music. That introduction to Holy Fuck is a dead fucking horse, not the throbbing steed that hearkens the blissed-out party that Latin brings. Okay? Okay.

In my initial review I praised Latin as the sweaty summertime jamz with the uncanny ability to transgress situational contexts. Indeed, I’ve been rocking Holy Fuck as I walk to campus, write papers, do the dishes, play video games…you get the picture. If one of the goals of 10 Listens is to experience an album in the varied social spheres of daily lives, well, Holy Fuck’s new LP is a welcomed addition to most scenarios.

The album opens with “One” which, unlike the tracks that follow, is more of a thematic interlude than a straight ahead rocker. It’s also one of my main criticisms for an otherwise solid offering. “One” is a four minute introduction of slow, shifting synths and swelling distortion that is reminiscent of some of the best and worst moments that “post-rock” has to offer. Thematically, it’s a false start to an album that is devoid of minimalism or Godspeed-like drones.  I wonder if a more appropriate, or at least shorter, introduction would better suit the mainstream appeal of Latins electro-rock. To be honest though, I do have to praise the flawless transition from this introduction into “Red Lights.” In the final seconds of “One” the distorted haze begins to diminish as a reverb-laden beat breaks through.  It’s like a dark thundercloud is penetrated by Apollo’s team of horses– provided they are all dressed for dancing and ready to get completely loaded.

“Red Lights” was my jam in my initial review, and it still is. It’s a straight-forward party number that calls Ratatat to mind. It’s followed by the equally awesome “Latin America,” the first single off the album.  The video for “Latin America” features kids doing flips off the diving board at a community pool in slow motion and reverse, an appropriate image for a track that mixes pulsing bass and serene keyboard effects to building percussive beats. Holy Fuck’s blending of traditional rock instrumentation with electronic devices allows for an approach to music that embraces the organic qualities of spontaneous improvisation. Aside from pre-programmed effects, there’s some really amazing drumming going on here, and the live fills provide a unique balance to the programmed sounds that seem to mask the talent behind them.

“Silva & Grimes” has a quick pace, but its swirling synths keep things calm.  At times I’m reminded of Yo La Tengo’s extended jams, especially when electronics, rock music, and a psychedelic sensibility come together. “SHT MTN” is a bit harsher on the ears and with its robotic voice, feedback and distorted effects, but it signals the Holy Fuck of yesteryear. “SHT MTN” is not a bad track, but like “One,” it appears to be discordant to more laid back feel of the tracks preceding it.

In fact, the latter half of the album moves more toward a harder and harsher sound– lacking the more mainstream appeal of songs like “Red Lights” and “Latin America.” I appreciate the shift as it showcases the emotional diversity of what could easily be passed off as a “party record.” The latter songs are dirtier and sweatier, and if not for occasional beams of clarity, they threaten to spiral out of control.  A track like “Grease Fire” gets loud and messy as layers of effects and drum beats build on top of each other.

Album closer “Russell X” strips things down a bit (comparably) to a tight beat and a heavily distorted voice with quasi-inaudible lyrics. It trades Casio-influenced melody for the simplicity of a dirty drum kit. While I would have liked to return to the fun times of the first half, if just for a moment, it’s an appropriate conclusion to a record that gets darker and heavier with each passing track.

Latin is a highly entertaining record, and one that rewards with repeated listens. Latin is out now on Young Turk/XL and Holy Fuck are currently on a spring/summer European tour. I hope they bring the good times stateside soon.

11.05.10 Utrecht – Tivoli Di Helling
12.05.10 Amsterdam – Paradiso
13.05.10 Berlin – Comet
14.05.10 Vienna – Chelsea
15.05.10 Fribourg – Fri-Son
17.05.10 Brussles – Les Nuits Botanique
18.05.10 Manchester – Deaf Institute
19.05.10 Glasgow – King Tut’s Wah Wah Hut
20.05.10 Liverpool – Static Gallery / Sound City Festival
21.05.10 Brighton – Digital
22.05.10 Oxford – O2 Academy 2
23.05.10 Bristol – The Cooler
24.05.10 London – Heaven

The Austerity Program: Backsliders and Apostates Will Burn EP

The extended-player can be a strange beast. Usually around 4 or 5 tracks, it can display the strengths of a band, showcasing the choicest cuts in a group’s sonic quiver. But it can also tread the dangerous line of a “sampler” with the impression that something is being withheld. If done right, it teases listeners with the promise of more, yet stands alone as something cohesive, unified and complete in and of itself. Speaking to the nature of the short story in the introduction to his collection The Bagombo Snuffbox and Other Stories, Kurt Vonnegut wrote that short stories (or EPs, for that matter) are like little Buddhist catnaps.

While The Austerity Program may not be as serene as Vonnegut’s recollection of Saturday Evening Post short fiction offerings, Backsliders and Apostates Will Burn is a 20-minute diversion from the routine of daily life. It is a chance to fully experience the simple rawness of bass, drums and guitar, not to mention Justin Foley’s woeful proclamations and direful wails.

Diving into the music at hand, Foley and Thad Calabrese ease us in to a world on the brink of falling apart with a single sustained note. It’s a full minute long and at the end multi-instrumentalist Justin Foley softly concludes, “There is only sorrow.” It’s a monotone funeral dirge, a proverbial calm before the storm, and a signal that The Austerity Program’s prophesy of apocalyptic pain and heartache is nigh. In-fucking-deed.

“Song 25” is a requiem for unfulfilled hopes as Foley yells, “you can try your best but it’s never enough.” Your pursuits are never realized, and your insignificance is ignored by the earth and sea.  Bassist Thad Calabrese works his way through most of the song with a single-note line, but while the variation of notes in minimal, his rhythms and emphasis are diverse. The low-end, percussive riffs build under programmed beats that systematically layer bass drum, high-hat then snare. The last 30 seconds of this track may be my favorite, as a final pause between breakdowns gives way to a double-bass assault and a feeling of unrestrained energy.

“Song 26” reminds me a lot of Garth Ennis’ Preacher comics in its ability to evoke devotion and blasphemy at the same time. There is a mingling theme of repentance, damnation and rock ‘n’ roll. When Foley preaches “I am not the one who will save your soul / Blessing you with an amplifier,” it seems as if he is doing just that. Breakdowns and builds, quick blasts of heavy distortion with explosive percussion—this is the church of punk rock and The Austerity Program are leading the service.

In my first listen review I couldn’t find enough good things to say about this release. And over a month later I still feel the same way. These four tracks have secured a spot in my daily playlist, and part of the reason is that The Austerity Program has crafted an EP that is a cathartic release. “Song 27,” for example, is the depressed lament of an anthropomorphic rabbit peddling sugary kids’ cereal. At just over four minutes it’s the shortest offering on the record. . The ending here is one of the best, with pummeling bass and periodic guitar squeals. Finally, Foley says, “I ain’t finished yet / No, this shit ain’t over………..not by a long shot,” upon which the band leap in to one final display of speed and power before ending. There’s still one more track on the EP, but I take it to mean that The Austerity Program could actually keep up this pace for as long as they like.

Like the other tracks, “Song 27” follows a recognizable formula: low-frequency bass riffs that build with increasingly loud drums, a handful of breakdowns and timely pauses, and an all-out final sonic attack. Formula is by no means a bad thing, but I’m left wondering about how well a long-player would hold up with this process. I’m afraid to think that I might get bored of such intensity if presented with a full hour of it. Not to mention, the EP seems to suit this band very well.

“Song 29” is a fitting coda to the EP, and it provides an appropriate thematic conclusion. Lyrically it echoes the first track’s images of water, but this time it’s the ocean swallowing us whole, completely apathetic to our human desires. It’s also the track where The Austerity Program shows some diversity, opening with the slow, distorted arpeggio on guitar. It’s the first track where some attempt at brightness enters the picture, but this may just be the solace that accompanies the acknowledgment of our impending doom.  Regardless, it’s a solid conclusion to Backsliders and Apostates Will Burn.

Quick note: As if this EP wasn’t awesome enough as it is, The Austerity Program seem to be offering a unique opportunity to fans in the way of a contest. Basically, do something creative related to the new EP: remix a song (they’ve gone ahead and provided people with the track on their website), take a photo, make a parody video, or some other kind of creative interpretation of their music, and win some awesome prizes like a download of virtually every Austerity Program song, a handmade poster set, a cover song of your choice, or, if you are within 100 miles of the NYC area, a show in your house or apartment (they say they can be quiet if need be, but I find this hard to believe). Visit their website for more details.
Editor’s Note: Stream the album here. You know you want to.

First Listen: Holy Fuck’s Latin

I’ve already listened to Holy Fuck’s Latin a half-dozen times. I guess this isn’t a “first listen” review in the truest sense, but that’s because it’s almost too easy to let Latin loop back to track one again and again. Holy Fuck has crafted a long-player that heralds summer’s glorious advent. In other words, Holy Fuck brings the jamz. Yeah, that’s jamz with a Z.

Holy Fuck make instrumental music with steady beats and innovative riffs, and it’s nice to lock into a groove and listen to layers build without being bothered by things like…lyrics or vocals. Here’s my prediction: Latin will be the soundtrack for afternoon BBQs, front porch BYOB sessions, and sweaty late-night living room dance parties. Interestingly, it also works really well as a go-to playlist for those tasks that require some heavy thinking. I revised my Master’s thesis with Latin on repeat.

“Red Light” is certainly a highpoint, combing futuristic synth effects, air-tight bass and drums, and Casio-esque tone bank beats. I revised my chapter on postmodern epistemologies to this one, but I could easily see myself haphazardly grindin’ upon some tipsy fraulein to it as well, provided that that fraulein is my wife, of course.

Latin arrives May 11, 2010 on Young Turks/XL. You can stream the first single, “Latin America,” on the band’s website: www.holyfuckmusic.com

Jónsi: Go

I’ll say it up front, I was hesitant to listen to this album. I’ve been like this with nearly every Sigur Rós-related release for the past decade or so. Although it’s been on my radar for months, ever since the official Sigur Rós website posted teaser clips counting down to the www.jónsi.com launch, I’ve been awaiting this album with a mixture of curiosity and fear.  You know what I’m talking about.  That band that’s been with you for over a decade, through valleys and peaks of internet hype and lack thereof, the band that’s provided the soundtrack to the most significant of life’s emotional cornerstones.  For me, that band has been Sigur Rós, and to a certain extent, the sweeping falsetto of Sigur Rós vocalist/guitarist Jon “Jónsi” Þor Birgisson.

Áegeatis Byrjun is the album that plays as I reminisce about my first quasi-nervous breakdown at age 19.  Endless repeats of “Svefn-g-englar” will still cause me to well up with conflicting emotions, of dropping out of school, and foolishly severing ties with my closest friends.  (  ) may be SR’s bleakest album, shedding most of the orchestral jubilance of AB, but for me it is the playlist for my epic return to form: moving to Vermont, going back to school, and moving in with the girl of my dreams.  Takk and Með suð í eyrum við spilum endalaust are similarly monumental (getting married to the (  ) girl, and returning to NC, the place most closely associated with AB).

So, you can probably understand the hesitancy that comes with every new release. Each new record ushers another opportunity for me to listen to my life again.  My fear is the possibility that perhaps I will not see myself in the latest release, that the band may have strayed too far from my course, and that those individuals responsible for providing the score to my life’s significant mile markers will no longer do so.  Maybe its nostalgia, I don’t know.

It’s a long introduction for Jónsi’s first proper solo release (assuming you discount the Riceboy Sleeps/Jónsi & Alex collaboration), but I hope it offers some insight into my perspective and approach to this record.  That said, Go continues in the same direction hinted at on Sigur Rós’s Með suð.  It’s all here: fluttering flutes, emotive string arrangements, the cacophony of bells, xylophones and various twinkling noises, and of course, Jónsi’s falsetto, layers and layers of the voice that made SR so distinguishable from the masses of epic, post-rock forgettables.

Yes, this is the poppier, more direct version of Með suð, but it also branches out in its own way apart from SR.  With the exception of “Kolnðiur” and “Heniglás,” nearly all the songs are in English—and not that barely audible English that was “All Alright” on Með suð.  No, we’ve got lyrics we can understand, and as a longtime fan of Jónsi, I was curious as to whether English lyrics would take away from what I considered one of the most pleasurable aspects of Jónsi’s singing: translating songs based on pure emotion and experiential context.

Surprisingly, one of the things I love most about Go is its lyrical themes. Opener “Go Do” begins “Go sing too loud / Make your voice break / Sing it out / Go scream, do shout / Make an earthquake.” The song builds with flute, glitch electronic samplings of Jónsi’s squeaks and peeps, and thumping percussion.  He continues, “Go drum, too loud / Make your hands ache / Play it out / Go march through crowds / Make your day break.”  It’s opening burst of flittering excitement, followed immediately by “Animal Arithmetic” with its pounding percussive elements, clacking and emphatic declarations of “everything full of life.”

“Tornado” slows things down, way down, with piano and graceful string arrangements (arranged by Nico Muhly, composer familiar to fans of Grizzly Bear).  “Tornado” could easily have been a Sigur Rós track, and like a couple others (“Grow Till Tall” especially), it’s hard to see this as a clean departure from the band.

“Boy Lilikoi” was given out free as an mp3 via Jónsi’s website, and has firmly replaced the Arcade Fire for my musical association with Spike Jonze’s Where The Wild Things Are.  Like “Go Do” and “Animal Arithmetic,” the track is an affirmation of primal life: “You grind your claws, you howl, you growl unafraid of Hoi Polloi / You run, you’re free, you climb endless trees – You reignite / You growl, you howl, you show your teeth / You bite, it’s alright.”

“Sinking Friendships” is the highlight of the album.  The song is a wall of ethereal shimmering with vocal loops and strings.  A piano keeps time until ever-changing drum sounds take over.  In fact, it’s the drums/percussion that sells this one for me.  It has that snare-type cadence with glitchy and distorted sounds, which compliment the traditional acoustic instruments perfectly.

Of course, one of the things that I feel that this record is guilty of is a fetishizing of naiveté and innocence.  Sigur Rós have always employed child-like images and birds, and at times Go seems to reject adulthood to a point where it’s hard to relate to it lyrically.  Like the video for “Gobbledigook” featuring slender young adults (and the band) running naked and glittered through the woods, Go is an attempt to continue that fantasy.  And for some, it may be difficult to sustain the fantasy.

However, I listen to this album with the knowledge that my wife and I are currently expecting a child, and Go’s youthful exuberance and rejection of the adult world helps ease some of my fears and anxiety.  I listen and welcome sounds of rebirth and reawakening.

You can stream Go in its entirety on the NPR website and buy it in stores April 6.