February 12, 2009: Averkiou, Throwing Sparks

Vice’s record reviews section has always been jokey and glib and often just as susceptible to trendwhoring as Pitchfork/Stereogum/[the latest hipster tastemaker scapegoat], but I still respect it because it’s entertaining, has a pretty clear-cut and consistent point of view, and covers stuff that doesn’t get a whole lot of exposure elsewhere in the blogosphere. It’s rare that our tastes overlap, so I do have to give them credit for introducing me to Throwing Sparks whe they favorably reviewed it in a recent issue; I figure that any shoegazer band that Vice likes has to be good.

Now, I claim to be a shoegazer fan, but I’ve come to realize that I really only like the particular cross-section that manages to be dense, loud, dreamy, and a little blurry around the edges without being either too ethereal or too overtly “rock”. Averkiou fits that bill almost perfectly, recalling the early 90’s sounds of Swervedriver and Drop Nineteens with guitar piled on top of heavy, swooping, delirious guitar. The sound is so good that I’m tempted to gloss over the actual songs, but truth be told, the main reason I don’t much for a lot of what calls itself “nu-gazer” is that it does exactly that. Thankfully, Averkiou doesn’t assume that atmospherics are enough to carry an album, and Throwing Sparks has some pretty solid (if simple) pop-song sensibilities at its foundation. It’s just a shame that it barely breaks 25 minutes.

February 9, 2009: The Oranges Band, The Oranges Band Are Invisible

If we’re going by pure number of listens (thank you, last.fm, for keeping me honest), then The Oranges Band is clearly one of my favorite bands of the past few years, and 2005’s The World & Everything In It one of my most listened-to albums. There’s nothing particularly groundbreaking about it, just good solid catchy indie guitar rock from a band with some of the clipped, spiky postpunk aspects of Spoon and Who-style windmilling anthemics of Guided By Voices, but with much sweeter melodies and a surfy momentum no doubt inspired by the odd Pixies track. What makes them stand out as more than mere imitators is bandleader Roman Kuebler’s sharp songwriting; there’s this strain of OCD-like repetition in his lyrics and song structures that I find appealing, somehow coming across as intense and focused rather than tiresome.

It was a shame that The World & Everything In It never had much of a chance to gain an audience, due to its label running out of money shortly after putting it out. For a long time after that, The Oranges Band disappeared, and I assumed they had broken up. But 2008 saw some stirrings of activity: Kuebler started a song-of-the-month club/web content subscription scheme called Every 7th and kept an occasional recording diary at popmatters.com, the results of which are the band’s recently self-released third album The Oranges Band Are Invisible.

Is it good? Well, it’s a little on the short side (just under 35 minutes) and perhaps not quite as focused as previous albums, but it’s still pretty good. With ex-GBV guitarist Doug Gillard joining the lineup (at least for the album), the band has some newfound rock muscle to flex, and they do so quite well on “Ottobar Afterhours” and “Do You Remember Memory Lane?”. There’s also a hint of their old off-kilter selves in the choppy “I Wouldn’t Worry About It”, which sounds like an old Spoon song written backwards. The back half of the album is a little soft— by default, I think that instrumentals by rock bands are kind of lame, and treat them as guilty until proven innocent, and “Absolutely Instru(Mental)” is no exception to this rule— so it’s not quite the full triumphant movie-script comeback, but it’s a promising start.

February 3, 2009: Boston Spaceships, Brown Submarine

I was too late in tracking this down to include it in my 2008 review, but it definitely would have merited a mention as it’s Robert Pollard’s first album in years that I’ve actually enjoyed, as opposed to “struggled to find something of merit in” as his typically been the case. While there were a couple of decent moments on last year’s Robert Pollard Is Off To Business, Brown Submarine makes it obvious how disappointing his post-Guided By Voices solo albums have been. It was as if he made a point of discarding everything that made GBV great in favor of exploring a singer-songwriter aesthetic that never really fit him: laborious song structures, fewer hooks, less energy, and an ill-advised focus on lyrical content, resulting in whole albums of undifferentiated midtempo slog.

Thankfully, Brown Submarine is neither a solo Pollard album in name nor in spirit. Boston Spaceships is a real band, not just a recording alias, and they recapture the rock ‘n’ roll spirit and concise, relentless hook delivery of GBV without merely coming across like the latest incarnation of same. It might still be a reactionary move on Pollard’s part, but it’s a welcome one; he jumps right back into his rock-band-frontman persona with both feet, and I can’t remember the last time he sounded this excited or was having this much fun. During the breakdown of “Zero Fix” he lets loose with a single sixteen-second-long punk rock sneer of a scream; he introduces the Judas Priest-ly “Rat Trap” with a mock-horror exclamation of “Oh no! Not ‘Rat Trap’!“, delivered with such audacity I can’t help but grin when I hear it.

One of the best things about those early-90s GBV albums wasn’t individual songs, but rather sequences of songs where each one had its own distinct personality but seemed to build on the momentum of the previous one. I actually have to go all the way back to Bee Thousand to find an opening five-track run as solid and varied as that of Brown Submarine: fist-pumping rave-up (“Winston’s Atomic Bird”) into foreboding acoustic dirge (“Brown Submarine”) into classic Pollard drone-riff power-pop (“You Satisfy Me”) into scrubby, jittery rocker (“Ate It Twice”) into jangly anthemic ballad (“Two Girl Area”). The obtuse, meandering “North 11 AM” sadly breaks the streak, but the album’s second half has just as many high points as the first, such as the glorious stadium-sized Who ripoff “Psych Threat” and “Soggy Beavers”, whose sad-sack R.E.M. jangle almost— almost— redeems its title.

Of course as I’m writing this I noticed that Boston Spaceships’ next album is coming out later this month. Sigh. Well, if it’s as half as good as Brown Submarine, it’ll still be worth it.