Punk

Review: Deaf Wish – Pain

Listening to Pain is a lot like hearing a sampler of the major underground rock movements from the late-70’s to the early-90’s; over the course of ten tracks, Deaf Wish dabbles in gloomy post-punk, aggressive hardcore, and abrasive no-wave, all in a quest to overwhelm the listener with the power of noise.  For most people, the band’s name is wonderfully apropos–the persistent onslaught of pure cacophony the group manages to generate would cause many to hope that their ears would cease functioning.  However, for that certain audience that desires that sort of grating noise, Pain has what they crave in spades.

Though Pain lacks a consistent thematic trajectory, as Deaf Wish jumps between different styles from track to track, the album certainly improves as it goes along, making it a backloaded affair.  Each member gets a stab at the mic, and the different vocal approaches help create a truly diverse record, even as they work within the narrow confines of this particular subgenre.  One song will feature an aggressive bark, another a soft coo, and yet another will have a longing drone, all with walls of guitars and drums bashing around in the background.

As one might expect, it can be fairly easy to spot the band’s significant influences, especially that of Sonic Youth–Sarah Hardiman’s voice is such a dead ringer for Kim Gordon that when I listen to “Sex Witch” it prompts an instinctual response to chant along “spirit desire”.  Deaf Wish does benefit from the fact that few other bands digging through those same records for inspiration, setting them apart from current trends, but the group also proves that there is enough room even within these narrow styles to create something original.  There is subtlety to be found even amid all that noise.

Pain really hits its stride in its last three songs, beginning with the driving and catchy single “On”.  In an album filled with noisy freakouts, the instrumental “Dead Air” is easily the best, with its Krautrock-like bass that pushes the beat underneath walls of feedback-drenched guitars.  The real surprise is the closer “Calypso”, which manages to show a more delicate side of the band–even with its dissonant chords and melodies, the band nearly manages to make noise sound “pretty”.

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Review: Titus Andronicus – The Most Lamentable Tragedy

If there was a musician that ever defined the term “his reach exceeds his grasp”, it is Patrick Stickles.  But goddammit, that is partly why I love his band Titus Andronicus so much.*  As a rule, double albums are bloated, overstuffed affairs, and rock operas are doubly so, and The Most Lamentable Tragedy fulfills those expectations accordingly.  But Stickles has poured his heart and his soul into this epic production, and has the requisite amount of chops to prevent the whole album from falling apart.  For that alone he should be commended; the good news is that Stickles should be praised not only for the audacity of the entire enterprise, but for writing several songs that rank among the band’s best work.

It is best to look at The Most Lamentable Tragedy as an attempt to rewrite the band’s entire history to this point.  Not only are there several callbacks to each of the band’s previous albums (for instance, there is the continuation of the “No Future” series that dates back to their debutThe Airing of Grievances, there is also second act closer “More Perfect Union” which refers to The Monitor‘s opener “A More Perfect Union”, and “Mr. E. Mann” which bears an obvious relationship with “(I Am The) Electric Man” as well as “I’m Going Insane” with “Titus Andronicus vs. the Absurd Universe (3rd Round KO)” from Local Business), but the narrative of the opera recasts many of the struggles that Stickles tackled before.  Even the rock opera concept is an extension of the Relationship as Civil War metaphor that defined the concept album The Monitor, which many regard as the band’s greatest work to date.  One does not have to be intimately familiar with the complete history of Titus Andronicus to enjoy the album, but as is the case with the many historical references and literary allusions that are sprinkled throughout the record, it certainly helps.

One should be fully prepared for the sprawling affair that is The Most Lamentable Tragedy just by glancing at the packaging, since the sticker announces it is a “29 song, 93 minute” opus, but even that simple declaration is playing a bit fast and loose with the facts–many of the tracks are seemingly arbitrarily cut up, and the album contains multiple “songs” of pure silence, including a seven minute “Intermission”.  The term “rock opera” also should serve as a huge warning sign, as the album suffers many of the same issues that plague previous attempts at the form, namely songs that are heavier on plot than hooks and drama rather than melody.  However, when Stickles indulges his most grandiose instincts, he creates some of the album’s finest moments, such as in the orchestral sweep of “More Perfect Union”.  When was the last time you heard a bass clarinet in a punk song?

There are other standouts that will easily become highlights of future Titus Andronicus shows, from the furiously energetic “Dimed Out” and “Lookalike”/”I Lost My Mind” combo to the multi-part epic “(S)HE SAID/(S)HE SAID”.  Another sure to be crowd favorite is the boisterous sing-along “Come On, Siobhán”, which in a change of pace for Titus recalls the Midwestern sounds of John Cougar Mellencamp instead of the standard Jersey influence of The Boss.  There are enough great Titus Andronicus songs scattered throughout the record that one is tempted to separate the wheat from the chaff and stuff it onto a disc with a fifty-minute runtime instead, but that would fly in the face of the entire point of the album.  It is a sprawling mess because manic depression is indeed a frustrating mess.  The Most Lamentable Tragedy is what it is, flaws and all.

Review: Bully – Feels Like

We are seemingly living in a boom period for garage rock.  Perhaps this is merely a result of musicians branching off from the general 90’s indie rock revival,* as part of the general tendency of artists to look to the recent past for inspiration.  At the same time, bands are opting for a more stripped-down take on the “punk” music that dominated rock radio at the time, while at the same time .  Questions of origin aside, one finds that the bills at local shows are being filled out more and more by garage rock bands, and now with this wave we are seeing their records getting wider release.  The recent debut album from Bully is one of the most promising examples of this trend, as Feels Like is an exhilarating burst of adrenaline that stands out as one of the most exciting records of the summer.

Feels Like comes fast and furious at ten tracks in half an hour, with most songs hitting you in the gut immediately and then not making sure to overstay their welcome.  The drums pop and the guitars cut through with an almost-too-perfect amount of distortion, though the most distinctive element is easily Alicia Bognanno’s infectious yell, a perfect mixture of anger and vulnerability.  Listen to the pain and anguish of her vocals as Bognanno tears into opener “I Remember” as the band chugs along with barely-contained fury, setting the stage perfectly for the rest of the album.

Some critics and listeners may feel that the music on Feels Like is too derivative of their alternative idols, and it cannot be argued that Bully is trying to reinvent the wheel here.  However, there are enough hooks that are plowed through with the right amount of energy that should downplay the concerns of everyone but only the most steadfast detractors.  Even on post-grunge-by-numbers tracks like “Trying” the band displays a knack for hooks that is hard to resist.

Bully may not be a revolutionary act, but with Feels Like they have created one of the most infectious albums of the summer, proving sometimes it is best to listen to your gut instead of your mind.  There is no need to overanalyze the music–just strap yourself in and enjoy this blast of invigorating punk rock.

*See: Parquet Courts, Waxahatchee, Yuck, Speedy Ortiz, etc.

Review: Joanna Gruesome – Peanut Butter

Joanna Gruesome may have a ridiculous name (a moniker that serves as a horror movie parody of harpist Joanna Newsom does not exactly scream “lasting appeal”), but the band has delivered one of the most thrilling albums of the summer with their latest album, Peanut Butter.  It is a rollicking affair that effortlessly mixes effervescent pop and dissonant punk, all with a super-charged energy that will keep your head constantly bopping along over the course of its brisk twenty-one minute runtime.  Peanut Butter may not be the most important album you will listen to this summer, but its infectious nature might make it the one you listen to the most.

Much like they did on their debut, Weird Sister, Joanna Gruesome is able to seamlessly shift between the beautiful and the grotesque without coming across like a schizophrenic mess, alternating between melodies that are sugar sweet with moments of biting and grating dissonance.  The disparate styles actually work brilliantly in tandem, with the pop sensibilities and discordant punk attacks each enhancing the effect of the other, an intriguing marriage that brings to mind previous examples of this approach like British Sea Power’s The Decline of British Sea Power.  The brief moments of dissonance may be startling to the average listener at first and seem like digressions from the general flow of the songs, but over time these terse explosions reveal themselves to be not only a welcome change of pace but also brilliantly deployed punctuation of certain ideas.

Though few individual moments or songs leave any sort of lasting impression, it can be argued that the disposable nature of the music is a feature and not a bug.  There is no need for the listener to remember any particular melody or lyric when everything comes so fast and furious; what is more important is the general effect on the audience, which is “let’s play this record again and again.”

Catching Up On The Week (Apr. 24 Edition)

Some #longreads while you contemplate how a newspaper can bungle a headline so badly

It has been a busy week for new releases, and one of the albums we here at Rust Is Just Right have been enjoying this week has been Speedy Ortiz’s latest record.  Before you check out our review of Foil Deer next week, it probably would be a good idea to read up on the extensive profile that Pitchfork published yesterday.

This has been a busy spring for new music, and it is not going to let up any time soon.  One of the big upcoming releases that we have mentioned before is My Morning Jacket’s The Waterfall, which will be hitting stores in less than two weeks.  Rolling Stone talks to the band about the recording of the new album.

Deadspin has a short piece introducing readers to the site that takes a satirical look at the punk scene, The Hard Times.

The AV Club has a piece that dissects how the Wu-Tang Clan defied conventional thinking in the way the group was able to release several successful solo albums from its members.

Finally, The New Yorker has a detailed and fascinating look at the mechanics of the early days of music piracy, which serves as an excellent complement to this Pitchfork examination of how the economics of music have evolved over the years.

Catching Up On The Week (Apr. 17 Edition)

Some #longreads as you prepare yourself for Record Store Day…

It should be obvious that we here at Rust Is Just Right love record stores, and so it would seem to follow that we would appreciate the “Record Store Day” celebration.  However, as the “holiday” has grown in recent years, we have begun to realize that the success of the promotion can be a double-edged sword for the very businesses it was meant to protect: a sudden influx of sales can be good, but it means little to these stores if these sales do not create regular customers, and the emphasis on special releases has the problem of crowding out vinyl production, with limited edition records for established artists taking up space initially earmarked for truly independent bands.  Pitchfork has a piece that breaks down in more detail the ambivalent feelings that Record Store Day has generated.

It may sound counterintuitive at first, but the thesis of this Stereogum essay makes more sense the more you think about it–Brian Wilson certainly had an impact on the creation of punk rock.  Elsewhere on the site, the Anniversary Machine takes a look at the tenth anniversary of Alligator from The National, which marked a significant turning point for the band.  The best point made in the article is that despite what some detractors may say, there is a real evolution from Alligator to the present day in The National’s sound.

The School of the Art Institute of Chicago is awarding Kanye West with an honorary degree, and FADER has an interview with the president and dean of the school explaining their decision.  Though it has generated a mild amount of heat among a minority of students and some alumni, it is an easily defensible choice, as explained in the piece.

An ugly spat has been brewing between Black Sabbath and drummer Bill Ward, and it has spilled over into the public sphere this week.  Rolling Stone has an interview with Ward explaining the origins of the dispute and the band’s current situation.

The highly-anticipated second album from Alabama Shakes will be released on Tuesday, and Consequence of Sound talked to frontwoman Brittany Howard about Sound & Color as well as the band’s rise to fame.

Finally, Cuepoint has a fantastic piece courtesy of Bethlehem Shoals on the legacy of Percy Sledge, who should be remembered for more than his mammoth hit “When A Man Loves A Woman.”

Covered: “Touch Me I’m Sick”

Covered is a feature where we examine the merits of various cover songs, debating whether or not they capture the spirit and intent of the original, if the cover adds anything new, and whether or not it perhaps surpasses the original. If we fail on those counts, at the very least we may expose you to different versions of great songs you hadn’t heard before.

If you guessed that we selected this song for ulterior reasons, congratulations, you have seen through my ruse.  Today has been rather unpleasant, and any post published today should probably be reflective of that fact.  Inspiration eventually struck, as I remembered my favorite Mudhoney track, the delightfully scuzzy “Touch Me I’m Sick”.  It is certainly not the most adventurous pick, since their first hit is definitely their most well-known, but I have always loved the song’s ability to mine the common ground of Stooges-era punk with the abrasiveness and power of metal, providing the blueprint of what would become “grunge”.  Also, it is a hilariously ridiculously offensive song if you take it seriously, but you probably shouldn’t.

I had no idea if anyone covered this classic, but since it is a fairly easy song to learn as well as one that is ridiculously fun to play, I figured there was a good chance that a cover existed somewhere.  It turns out that Sonic Youth did an early cover of the song as part of a split single where Mudhoney returned the favor.  There is not much to recommend about Sonic Youth’s version beyond any mild curiosity one might have, aside from the mildly intriguing twist of having Kim Gordon deliver the fairly depraved lyrics, giving the song an unexpected feminist perspective in the process.  Otherwise, it is a fairly by-the-numbers take, with the band matching the shambolic punk attitude by barely playing the riff together after a cursory feedback-drenched intro.  The importance was more symbolic, as Sonic Youth deemed this young up-and-coming band worthy of attention, serving as another example of Sonic Youth’s willingness to embrace their role as a gatekeeper in the early days of when alternative music broke into the mainstream.

In the future, we will analyze Sonic Youth’s reinterpretation of an old classic that marked a better use of the band’s unique sensibility.  As for “Touch Me I’m Sick”, I would stick with the original, superior version.

A Lesson In Lyrical Put-Downs, By Japandroids

Before Japandroids caught people’s attention with their thrilling debut Post-Nothing and broke through with the triumphant Celebration Rock, they were just a hard-working couple of guys who grinded away for years on the road.  The wonderfully-titled No Singles compiles the band’s early recordings, and though the songs are a bit rough around the edges, there are some gems to be discovered.  The opener, the Springsteen-referencing “Darkness on the Edge of Gastown”, is probably the highlight of the collection, mainly due to its anthemic chorus, a quality which would become a future trademark of the band.

Musically speaking, Japandroids reverse the listener’s expectations in the initial section of the song by using the guitar part to set up more melodic elements in the drums; Brian King thrashes on a single (but expansive) chord, but tinkers with intricate rhythms by emphasizing different beats, as David Prowse experiments with diverse rolls and fills.  It’s a thrilling combination, and it helps the band ratchet up a certain tension, as the listener continuously anticipates the moment when the band breaks the pattern to dive into the next part of the song.  When the band finally launches into the chorus, the listener feels some relief with the transition; by drawing out this release, the band helps underline the contrast between the hooks of the chorus and the harshness of the verses, making the chorus that much more effective in sticking in people’s heads.

While the majority of listeners would point to the catchy chorus melody as the most memorable aspect of the song, the part that captures my attention every time I listen is a particular line at the end of the first verse.  Amid all the noise and thrash, the song’s protagonist is lashing out (through a third party) at an unnamed woman, launching insult after insult about her wardrobe and physical appearance (“Tell her she wears too much neon, tell her it’s hanging off her bones”).  The third taunt is the most cutting, as the protagonist proclaims, “That’s all she is: just new ways to wear old clothes.”  The juxtaposition of the old and new make the line especially poetic, but it’s the distinct image that the words portray of the person as merely a mannequin built for the express purpose of modelling vintage fashions that makes it an especially devastating and disrespectful rejection; the narrator has completely dismissed all the elements that make his target an actual person.  It is difficult to recall a lyrical put-down dripping with such sneering contempt, and the fact that it takes the listener a second for the insult to register makes the comparison that much more brilliant.  The subtlety of the barb makes its sting even more powerful.

I am sure that there are those that find praise for such a contemptuous sentiment offensive, but consider the line in context with the rest of the song.  The next verse paints a bleak picture of the narrator and of the relationship between the characters, so the narrator is not exactly reveling in the absence of the partner.  The song ends with the chorus, which documents the repeated pleas of the utterly defeated narrator.  The chorus is set up in a way that de-escalates the stakes of the situation, as the narrator begs the third party to tell her 1) “I’m still alive”, 2) “I’m still in love”, and 3) “to come pick me up”.  With this status report, the narrator alerts the listener to his/her most basic condition, then his/her general emotional state, and finally his/her specific physical situation, narrowing down the listener’s potential concern from “he might be dead” to “oh, he needs a ride.”  The fact that the narrator is in such a state that he’s left pleading for a ride from the object of his scorn should indicate who ended up with the upper hand in the disintegration of this relationship, and provide comfort to those who object to the prior insults.  She’s the one with the last laugh.

But you have to admit, Japandroids delivered a pretty sick burn (to use a colloquial expression).

The Thermals, Live at Level B with Years and City of Pieces

I woke up this past Saturday morning with absolutely no plans for my weekend, but after a quick perusal of my Facebook feed, the circumstances changed dramatically.  The Thermals posted a flyer for a show they were doing that night at Level B, having decided to make the trip from Portland down to the Capital City to bless us with their presence.  So with the choice now between “doing nothing” and venturing downtown to see one of my favorite bands play an intimate show in my hometown, I easily decided to go with the latter.  Despite a rather sparse showing from my fellow Salemites, the band did their usual excellent work and hopefully had as great a time as I did.

A personal souvenir from the show

A personal souvenir from the show

Since this is the third time we’ve covered a Thermals show in a year*, we’re not going to spend too much time discussing the intricacies of their set.  The band focused mainly on their most recent album, sprinkling several cuts from Desperate Ground throughout the set, while making sure to cover crowd-favorites from their classic The Body, The Blood, The Machine; a personal highlight was hearing “Power Lies” from the underrated Personal Life make an appearance.  The group has been hard at work writing material for a new album, and I’m glad to say that it looks like there was good reason that I had trouble recognizing a couple of songs, since the setlist confirms new tracks “The Walls” and “I Will Find My Way”.  The new songs definitely did not represent any drastic change in style, and instead fit naturally into the band’s set, which should provide comfort for their fans.

Throughout the show, a reel of “Betty Boop” cartoons was shown by a projector behind the band, seemingly selected at random.  The resulting juxtaposition provided a couple of noteworthy moments**, the highlight being that an Alice in Wonderland-themed episode appeared as the band played their cover of “White Rabbit” in an alarming moment of synchronicity, something that which Hutch himself remarked and Kathy noticed as well.  Though the crowd was not nearly as raucous as they were the last time The Thermals came through town, we were able to convince the band to indulge us with old favorites “Overgrown, Overblown!” and “No Culture Icons” for a mini-encore.  After the show, it was great to see Hutch and Kathy and Westin hang out with the crowd and appear sincerely grateful for those that turned up; hopefully the band will make this a regular gig, though it may help to do a bit more advance notice for a Salem gig.

A view inside of the theater with the ad for the show

A view inside of the theater with the ad for the show

As for the openers, they represented both the old and the new of the Salem scene.  Years (the young folks) performed a set of catchy 90’s-era punk with what I assume is some heavy influence from Pavement, while City of Pieces (the old folks) taught the crowd some lessons on the classics, with a style that was reminiscent of The Cramps with their tinge of psychobilly.  Years could use some seasoning, not necessarily to brush up their chops but to work on their songcraft a bit, yet they probably have a bright future ahead of them.  However, City of Pieces was a blast, and I’m looking forward to seeing more of their sets around town, as their presence assures that it will be a fun night.

*Not only did we see The Thermals play Level B last year, but they were also part of the extensive Project Pabst lineup.

**The selection of cartoons included a rather racist episode made things uncomfortable for those paying attention (though the band was thankfully too busy to notice).

Review: Ought – More Than Any Other Day

Rust Is Just Right is not a very large operation, so we may overlook some albums when they are first released.  However, when we eventually catch up and listen to some of these records, we are not going to let the fact that we are ten months behind stop us from writing a review.  The point of all this introductory nonsense is to explain why we are reviewing the debut album from Ought in February of 2015 even though it was released in April of 2014, but the only necessary reason should be that More Than Any Other Day is a fantastic rock record that electrifies the listener with both its furious energy and its thought-provoking experimentalism.

The quickest description that I could use to describe Ought’s sound is “Alec Ounsworth fronting a Fugazi-inspired punk band”, but as you should expect, relying on the reductionist rock-crit namedrop cliche does not paint a full picture.  Tim Beeler’s vocals do mostly recall Clap Your Hands Say Yeah, but that doesn’t cover the spectrum of emotions and contortions that his voice undergoes to match the twists and turns of the music.  For instance, Beeler’s use of dynamics in songs like “Clarity!” bring to mind the theatrics of the Violent Femmes, and that dramatic touch helps create a memorable, slow-burning epic.  He may not have the the most extensive vocal range, but his speak-sing style is effectively used in a song like “Around Again”, as when the band stops and Beeler asks “Why is it you can’t stare into the sun but you can stick your head into a bucket of water and breathe in deep?”

Musically speaking, Ought blurs the line between punk and post-punk, and in the process does an excellent job of making the lives of critics that much more difficult–in other words, it is not as easy to define the distinction as it is with, say, Viet Cong.  Ought often does engage in the full-fledged fury of a more traditional punk band, but they still allow room for experimental sonic elements that makes it hard to pin down to a single genre.  Consider the catchy and frenetic “The Weather Song”, which veers from a jittery verse into frenzied finish that is reminiscent of Wolf Parade (especially with the unusual presence of keyboards), as well as “Forgiveness”, whose use of a violin as a drone adds in a touch of the Velvet Underground to the band’s sound.  I am unsure what is more impressive: the fact that from song to song, it is almost impossible to pin down where Ought will go next, yet the band switches gears in a way that doesn’t give the listener whiplash, or the fact that despite the fact one can spot all these diverse influences rather easily, the band organically incorporates these elements into their sound so well that one cannot pin the “copycat” label on them.

Though only eight songs long, More Than Any Other Day is a dense but rewarding album that reveals itself on multiple listens.  Initially, the most striking element of “Today, More Than Any Other Day” is probably its dramatic tempo and stylistic shifts.  Then you may notice the odd lines of “I am excited to go grocery shopping.  And today, more than any other day, I am prepared to make the decision between 2% and whole milk” that is referenced in many reviews, but you go back and see that it’s not merely a non sequitur but in fact a riff on the previous line that “I am excited to feel the Milk of Human Kindness”, either an allusion to Macbeth or the Caribou album, and now you have to reconsider how all these elements fit together.  The good news is that the album is so great that it is worth the extra effort.