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.

January 20, 2009: Iran, Dissolver

Those hoping to uncover a rough gem of a TV on the Radio sideproject will probably be pretty disappointed by Iran, whose main member Aaron Aites had the good fortune to enlist of the help of TVOTR guitarist Kyp Malone for Iran’s self-titled 2000 album and 2003’s The Moon Boys. Those albums were cavalcades of tape wreckage and feedback with some songs maybe buried somewhere underneath— at the time, a reasonable diversion for those of us who missed the halcyon days of early 90s lo-fi. And even these days, with the rise of Woodsist/Fuck It Tapes and a legion of other psych-damaged home-recordists, one would think a new Iran album similar to the others would attract some new fans. Unfortunately, we got Dissolver instead.

Thanks to the TVOTR connection, Aites got Dave Sitek to record him in a real studio for a change, which apparently blew his mind all to hell because now Iran sounds like Pink Floyd— mopey arena-rock with lots of importantly strummed acoustic guitars and vocals mixed way too high. And when I say “arena-rock” I’m not kidding, because halfway through the album Iran interrupts a pretty little acoustic tune with a bombastic reprise of an earlier track, complete with piped-in crowd noise. Questionable employment of irony aside, though, the new cleaned-up Iran doesn’t work for me; Aites doesn’t have the frontman charisma to carry these songs, or imbue them with a distinct personality. Maybe the album would have worked better if it had been dirtied up a bit (think Dave Fridmann’s treatment of Low’s The Great Destroyer and Sleater-Kinney’s The Woods), but that’s not Sitek’s production style, which is a big part of the problem. The other big part is the classic dilemma of the aggressively lo-fi band: how much of the band’s appeal is defined by their production values, and how much of the appeal will be lost if said values change? Pavement and GBV had the songwriting chops to succeed after having shed their lo-fi ways; most other bands (Iran included) should probably stay well hidden deep down in their 4-tracks.

January 19, 2009: Here We Go Magic

Luke Temple‘s solo albums have been relatively conventional singer-songwriter-folkie stuff compared to the psych-drone-freak-folk of his new project— in fact, Here We Go Magic‘s moody, hypnotic ambience sounds so unlike 2007’s Snowbeast (whose crisp, dry sound and vintage synth colors carry a distinct 70s-prog vibe) that the casual listener would never guess that the new albums were written by the same person. So what prompted the change? Is Temple jumping on the Grizzly Bear/Animal Collective bandwagon while chanting over piles of loops smothered in reverb is still a viable career option?

Whatever his motives are, HWGM is a pretty damn good album regardless, or at least half a damn good album. The first half would have made a killer EP: the marimba-like percussive loops and droning vocals of “Only Pieces” sounds both soothing and oddly intense, like a light mushroom buzz; “Ahab”‘s Meters-like riff submerges itself in the song’s tape hiss while the bright organ drones cut right through it. “Fangela” and “Tunnelvision”, though, are the big winners here, with their clanging, yip-jumpy acoustic guitars and Temple showing off his Gibbard-tested, Sufjan-approved falsetto to great effect. The unassuming, easygoing vibe these songs have make me think that Temple is just a really, really good musician in general; really good musicians tend to exude a certain level of confidence and focus that makes anything they play seem natural, and that’s what I hear throughout this album.

That said, the second half is a bit of a letdown, dominated as it is by ambient washes lacking any vocal or rhythmic hooks that served as vital anchors to the songs of the first half. Closing track “Everything’s Big” is a twee bit of softshoe pop that would have fit onto a Temple solo album just fine; here, the rough production gives it the grainy feel of a field recording, but it still feels tacked on and out of place. Here We Go Magic is the kind of album that doesn’t feel like an endpoint, a culmination of a musical search, but rather a stop in the middle of the journey. It’s the kind of album that gets me excited to see what Temple will do next.