Wednesday, April 30

Ex-ATDI Guitarist Goes Country (No, Not That Guitarist, The Other One)

Artist: Sleepercar

Album: West Texas

Comments: 10 years ago, Jim Ward was rocking out in At The Drive-In, happily fulfilling his title as “that other guitar player, you know, the one who isn’t Omar.” After that group’s sad self-destruction, Ward moved on with 2/3s of his former band to form Sparta, a band that put out one pretty awesome EP and two inoffensive albums, never getting the same press / buzz / respect / whatever of his former band’s other splinter group; the monolithic and often stupid Mars Volta.

And now it’s 2008 and Ward is operating as a solo dude under the super-neat moniker Sleepercar. His first record under that name, West Texas, is sure to surprise fans of his earlier work, and is sure to hold them for at least a few listens.

Breaking away from the post-rock that spawned him, Sleepercar’s West Texas has a lot more in common with likes of Ryan Adams or Wilco (hell, even U2 at times) than it does with Ward’s other two big vehicles. Maybe the dude just needed a break after being in such loud bands for so long, but it’s more likely that this quieter, folkier side has always been in him. The album has a very natural feel to it; Ward’s country-folk strum is a much smoother transition from his noisier stuff than one might expect.

The album kicks off, and I mean it kicks off, with “A Broken Promise,” which is an alt-country, shit-kicking anthem with a furious and catchy buildup Sadly, it lacks a dramatic payoff or final crescendo to make the build worth it; the song is the audio equivalent of having some great sex with a lady / dude / whatever, but not getting off. Still, even without a payoff, it’s one of the better songs on the album

Things progress there pretty linearly from that point on. Songs either sound like Summerteeth era Wilco (without the psychedelia) or post-Whiskeytown era Ryan Adams (without the douchebaggery), which isn’t to say that the songs are bad, just a little familiar. If you’re going to make a country album within the rock spectrum, you could do a lot worse than take cues from Wilco and Adams, two of the genre’s best. “Wasting my Time, “Kings and Compromises” and “End of a Year” particularly stand out, with “Kings and Compromises” showcasing some pretty fine lyric-writing on the part of Ward.

The biggest problem with the album, besides its familiarity, is Ward’s voice. The man seems only to have two settings; pleasant, low-key hum and higher pitched, throat pushing yell. When the two get dubbed over each other in self harmony, it sounds awesome (see “You Should Run), but more often than not, these two tones grow tiresome, and can’t carry the quieter, more natural tone of the record.

Normally, I wouldn’t fault a guy for having a rock voice, but it sounds off-putting within this setting.

As far as debuts go, West Texas is a strong one from Sleepercar. While not a standout hit record, it’s a pleasant collection of songs that won’t bore the listener. It’s definitely got its share of catchy tracks, and it will probably find a home in your disc changer for at least a few weeks. It won’t replace the hole that At The Drive-In left in your heart, but if nothing else, it serves as an example that people can grown past what they used to be.

Rating: 5.5 out of 10

Key Tracks: A Broken Promise, Kings and Compromises, You Should Run

Buy, Steal or Skip: Steal

Sunday, April 27

Gnarls Barkley is Odd, Awesome

Artist: Gnarls Barkley

Album: The Odd Couple

Comments: When we last left our heroes Ceelo Green and Danger Mouse, the gruesome twosome behind Gnarls Barkley and the best soul album of 06 in St. Elsewhere, they were riding high off the success of “Crazy,” playing the festival circuit and winning critical acclaim left and right for their album of soupy-smooth soul songs mixing hip-hop production and songs about mental illness, anger, loneliness and detachment.

Despite the dark subject matter of St. Elsewhere, Green’s delivery always suggested that his tongue was a little more in his cheek than he wanted to let on. He wasn’t really depressed, and when he told us that we might be crazy, he never really meant it.

On their follow-up album, the dense and cloudy The Odd Couple, Green and Danger Mouse dive deeper into the depths of insanity and depression, meaning the smiles aren’t as easy this time around. The songs, while a little less fun than the ones on their 06 record, are ultimately more rewarding and, as time will probably tell, better over-all.

Where as St. Elsewhere started off with a triumphant blast of gospel-funk, The Odd Couple kicks off with a whimper on “Charity Case,” a slow burning soul song with a dark, vaguely sexy feeling. The song establishes the album-wide theme of confusion and paranoia, presumably over Ceelo’s newfound fame. “I don’t understand how I’m so understanded” Green croons.

Indeed, isolation and lonesomeness in the face of national acclaim is the name of the game on this album. How much of this is based on Green’s real-life feelings is a question that only he can answer, but the man has never sounded better than he does on this album. Some people claimed that St. Elsewhere was really Danger Mouse’s triumph and Green was just along for the ride, but the same cannot be said of The Odd Couple. Green screams, croons, whines and coaxes with a confidence that stands in stark contrast to his self-deprecating and frightened lyrics.

Tracks like “Who’s Gonna Save my Soul” and “Surprise” establish Green as one of, if not the best male soul singer on the market today. With a classic ascetic and a modern sound, Green is the real deal.

Still, Danger Mouse is as impressive as ever. His cloudy production matches Green’s paranoia perfectly; one could probably get the same overall emotion from listening to an instrumental version of this album. Danger Mouse’s strength has always been his ability to mix classic samples and snippets with strong hooks that get stuck in the head, and he continues that trend here. One of the best songs on the album, and the DJ’s best production work to date, is on “Surprise,” which mixes surf-pop and soul music shockingly well and hints at what a Marvin Gaye / Beach Boys collaboration might have sounded like.

While there is nothing as immediately catchy as “Crazy” to be found on this record, the lead single “Run” is almost as good. Overproduced and overblown, the track is big in all the right ways. Featuring hand claps, synth breakdowns, and some titanic vocals from Green, the track is far and away the best dance song of ’08.

While the CD does drag a little on the second half, and some songs do sound repetitive, The Odd Couple is a declaration from Gnarls Barkley that the “super group” is more than a flash in the pan. They are the real deal. If the two artists can keep this up, they’re bound to re-invent how we think of soul music in the 21st century.

Rating: 7.5 out of 10

Key Tracks: Charity Case, Run, Suprise, Blind Mary

Buy, Steal, Skip: Buy

Thursday, April 24

Walk it Off, Tapes n Tapes, Mr. Dogg Still Loves You

Artist: Tapes n Tapes

Album: Walk it Off

Comments: With record stores slowly going the way of the buffalo and mainstream radio’s development into a grotesque self parody, folks looking to listen to new tunes have turned to the Internet as resource for new music. Blogs have become the new “Staff Picks” section of the Web, slinging suggestions and buzz about with an almost irresponsible recklessness.

Still, only time will tell if the Internet is a viable way to produce new acts with substance. The hints are appearing now, with first-generation blog bands like Clay Your Hands Say Yeah and Bloc Party putting out lackluster second albums that suggest big buzz doesn’t equate to big staying power.

Add to that short, sad list the boys of Tapes n Tapes, whose second album, Walk it Off, is a strong effort with good hooks but no longevity.

It really is a shame that this album wasn’t better. After the success of their first record The Loon, which was powered by Pixies style fractured song-writing, Pavement-esque guitar riffs and Modest Mouse-y bouts of rage, it was hard not to hope that the Minneapolis foursome could bring back some clout to guitar music.

Not to say that Walk it Off is a flaccid effort. The album kicks off with the frantic and fun “Le Ruse,” a tune that so deep with fuzz and distortion that it’s hard to figure where the guitar ends and the vocals begin. “Hang Them All,” the album’s first single, is a dark dance track with a hooky chorus that will be a welcome addition to the songs stuck in your head. “The Dirty Dirty,” the album’s closing track, is as aptly named a rock song as I’ve ever heard.

Even the softer fair fairs well on Walk it Off. Songs like “Say Back Something” and “Conquest” showcase that the band can sound good at volumes other than 11. “Conquest” especially is a gem, showcasing lead singer Josh Grier’s ability to say a lot with words that don’t necessarily make sense together in a conventional way. Also good is late track “Lines,” which slowly builds from quiet to explosive with fantastic results, even if it’s a tad formulaic.

Still, all these lovely tracks aside, the album doesn’t stick to the ribs as much as one might hope. When it’s on, it’s a very enjoyable experience, but once it’s off, there is no pressing need to put it back on again any time soon. Not to suggest that the album is forgettable, but its not urgent the way great music can be. Given this band’s initial buzz and obvious talent, one would hope for something more.

The production change on this record is a bit concerning as well. The Loon was a clean, but obviously home grown effort, and its everyman appeal was a big part of the charm. On Walk it Off, there is a distracting wall of fuzz through the album that keeps the listener and arms length when it should be inviting them in to enjoy the guitar play and oddball lyrics.

Walk it Off is a good release, but not one that will win over any new fans. People looking to explore this band would be better served checking out The Loon. And as for being the champion that would give the blogs credibility over musical sway, looks like we’ll have to hope the Silversun Pickups can strike lightning twice.

Rating: 6 out of 10

Key Tracks:
Hang Them All, Conquest, Say Back Something, The Dirty Dirty

Buy, Steal, or Skip:
I bought it, and I don't regret it.

Friday, April 11

Excuse Me is a Welcome Interruption

Artist: The YMD

Album: Excuse me, This is The Yah Mos Def

Comments: Given that the indie rock world is currently in the middle of the second coming of lo-fi, it's a little shocking that indie rap hasn’t followed suit. Big releases in the past months from the likes of Aesop Rock and El-P have all been dense, elaborate affairs. Not that the Def-Jux crew has ever been a meat-and-potatoes operation, but one would assume that the plug-and-play, DIY ethic that is burning through the underground like wildfire would have made some sparks in the rap world.

Philadelphia’s own rap underground is picking up on the trend, or at least the YMD are doing so. The YMD, short for The Yah Mos Def (they had to shorten it after some of Mos Def’s lawyers got uppity), consists of two friends who spent the majority of their lives playing in various hardcore bands in the Philly scene before branching out into the rap world.

I know what you’re thinking; this sounds a lot like what was going on in the mid-to late ’90s with Limp Bizkit and Crazy Town. Rest assured these comparisons are unwarranted. If anything, The YMD are the spiritual successors to Beastie Boys; nerdy white dudes who worship at the physical temple of hip-hop and subscribe to a punk rock mentality.

On their debut album Excuse Me, This is The Yah Mos Def, The YMD take their hardcore background and put it to work, sampling ’80s and early ’90s-era hardcore breakthroughs like Minor Threat, Crass, Cap’n Jazz and Drive like Jehu. Even if rap isn’t your thing, fans of hardcore music would be well served to check this record out for the creative ways in which buzzsaw guitars are reborn as hooks.

The album is a quick blast of bratty, sneering hip-hop courtesy of B.Awesome and Distro, the one-two punch that make up the group. Admittedly, the album suffers from a lack of diversity, both in subjects and style. B.Awesome and Distro are certainly entertaining, but they don’t have much to say beyond how awesome they are and how much you suck. On top of that, the two don’t do much to switch up their delivery, which is always screaming and bratty, as if your little brother was rapping.

Still, the charisma and bravado of the record carries The YMD. After a brief introduction, the album slaps the listener in the chops with “Charlie Maggio’s Real Last Name is Ash,” an announcement of the arrival of your new favorite rap duo. That track is followed by “Drown Yr Hamster in Nail Polish,” which is an aggressive attack-track that would sound potent at a house party or in a mosh pit.

These two cuts set the tone for the entire album, which is one of chaotic aggression and dominance. The production is decidedly lo-fi, with tape hiss and distortion all over every second of the record. The overall result is a sound that is undeniable Philly, dirty and harsh with just a dash of innovation.

Perhaps the strongest effort, in terms of lyrics and production quality, is “Stockton to Malone,” as it embodies everything The YMD stand for. Cap’n Jazz gets sampled over bomb-squad drums while B.Awesome and Distro tear through three verses, weaving in an out of each other in a manner that would make the track’s title character's proud.

Despite the strength of the album, one has to wonder if The YMD will have any staying power in hip-hop circles. Sure, the hardcore, lo-fi sampling sounds awesome now, but the group runs the danger of falling into the gimmick territory.

Still, that is a question for future critics to worry about. For now, Excuse Me, This is The Yah Mos Def is a strong debut with some serious cross over potential and a good release for The YMD, a missing link between Public Enemy and Fugazi.

Rating: 7 out of 10

Key Tracks: Charlie Maggio's Real Last Name is Ash, Drown Yr Hamster in Nail Polish, Stockton to Malone.

Worth the Money: Mos Def