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Random Stabbings 38

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Walter Sickert & The Army of Broken Toys, Casualty Menagerie (self released)
This Boston-based guy/girl duo’s backstory (or dreamt-up artistic premise, they’ll never tell) is that they met when their spouses ran off with each other. Their stage show – weird instruments, guest weirdos, creepy old burnt dolls and stuff – is fast becoming legendary, at least toward Dresden Dolls’ idea of legend, and in fact they opened for Amanda Palmer once or twice in Germany. The paltry amount of their earlier material to which I’ve been exposed relied on groove and on-the-phone-patched vocals, sort-of gothy to an extent, but this 6-song EP is a Nick Cave-gone-ambient mope-fest more aptly befitting their back/BS-story. In contrast to the Dresdens, most everything they do sounds faraway, and here they use big reverb and a prattle of odd clinks and scrapes and muffled gunshots to punctuate the point, but what’s most faraway is Sickert’s brain, adopting the stance of Tom Waits in tantrum mode during “No Room,” vocal lines yelled at the wall between Bugs Bunny-fied samples of cuckoo clocks and whirligigs. “Viktagraph” is the most distant, a bit like being outside the hall during a Pink Floyd show, while “Pale Horse” is a sinister exercise in cowboys mingling with carnies.

The Little Ones, Morning Tide (Atlantic Records)
Were this the 70s the track list of this album would have been sequenced backwards from the way it is, the giant-hook stuff first and the breezy, Buzzcock-limey-voiced quirk-alt last. Still, though, being a simple cross between Arcade Fire and the first Yes album, this has every college-rock thing going for it, and just to curse its success it’ll be placed high in my end-of-year list (unless I completely forget about it). Driving around half-paying attention to the first few songs, which I’d already decided were standard New Music Express-pimped TV dinners, I was suddenly clubbed over the head with a gorilla log when “Tangerine Visions,” the 5th track, ended abruptly, not with some weird tooty instrument or quirky, stupid curveball, but with a real-deal conclusion at the logical apex of a nice-enough hook, instruments and voice at peak and suddenly gone in a reverb vacuum as if the band were trying to impress a Columbia House rep from the 60s. What in tarnation, and then comes the delightfully overlong coda of “Everybody’s Up to Something,” a barn-piano hoedown that Arcade Fire would die for. Innocent, heart-tugging oldschool stadium roots-pop, simply great stuff.

The Muckrakers, The Concorde Fallacy (Toucan Cove/Universal Records)
Most likely you know the Muckrakers by way of “Through My Door,” the friendly Bodeans-like single from their 2006 album Front of the Parade. Their distinguishing characteristic is front-guy Rob Carpenter’s frequent lapsing into a dead-bang James Taylor sound-alikeness, and from track 4 onward of this one the band contents itself with acting like old dudes who own homes on the Vineyard. Or maybe not all the way through to the last note; I really stopped paying attention after around 5 or so workaday Taylor-style pleasantries, leaving me asking the air “Now where did those nice cis-alt-rock surf tunes from the beginning of the album go,” for instance opening track “Antidote,” resplendent in a gorgeous swept-away guitar line that’s “dusk at the beach” personified, or even the humdrum, Beck-inspired not-really-rocker “Gravity” with its Goo Goo Dolls undertones. “Beautiful Goodbye” starts with a stutter-guitar line that makes one expect Weezer’s Rivers Cuomo to start bratting into the mike, but along comes the Taylor voice and with it bringdown. Bands like this, who can’t quite decide on an overall approach, cannot have their cake and eat it too – it’s radio success or blank looks from confused fans, now choose.

Vonda Shepard, From the Sun
(Bos Music)
Eyeroll-inducing neurotic overacting had its big bang in the handful of years prior to 9/11 in Calista Flockhart’s portrayal of Ally McBeal, its emotional subtexts spoon-fed to Gen-Xers too zoned from overwork to dare indulge in anything with more substance. Looking back, Vonda Shepard was more a metaphoric part of the show than you probably realized; with her tough-but-hot blonde-ness and impenetrable voice, she stood as Ally’s life-force, this manifested in Shepard’s weepy ballads when Ally got dumped, rockin’ soul when the yuppie club was pumping, ad nauseum-vomitum. Nothing’s changed except for the pedigree of Shepard’s record label. As before, she’s burdened-or-blessed with one of the most uniquely textured (if of one color, always and forever) voices in American pop culture, part Anita Baker, part Aretha but with a well-defined limit she refuses to screw with. The songs themselves deviate little from the Ally McBeal jukebox, lots of yelly background singers assisting in yuppified gospel/R&B; in fact closeout track “Finally Home” was originally intended for use on the show. “Another January” has a pulse, however, in its kinship to Beach Boys “Sail on Sailor,” and a few other high-minded attempts do point to a desire to break away from her (inescapable) typecasting.


Collide, Two Headed Monster (Noiseplus Music)
LA goth-fashionistas Collide are more a burger-flipper of dark, sensual and often metallic ambience than a song machine; the verses and choruses of their tunes rarely tend to differ much from each other, instead concentrating for the most part on accentuating singer Karin’s snake-girl writhings and cooings, ever delivered with the care of a young nymphomaniacal Siouxsie. The tradition continues here, soundtrack-ready riffs that offer not much in the way of climactic moments. They can’t seem to stop rewriting “Crushed,” the directionless (depending on your taste, naturally; in-crowd gothies live and die by such stuff) opening song from their 2003 LP Some Kind of Strange. Its there-but-for-the-sake-of-teen-vampires vibe resurfaces here in “Tongue Tied and Twisted,” leaving the record to start off in the hole a couple of points. Much better is the Oakenfold-like “Chaotic” and KMFDM knockoff “Spaces in Between,” both of which demonstrate that they’ve benefited from ex-Curve/Eurythmics guy Dean Garcia’s input. The appearance of Tool drummer Danny Carey on 4 songs is another nice resumé bullet.

Emily Well, The Symphonies (Creative Control Records)
The rap on Emily Wells is that she refused a major label record deal for the sake of staying indie and futzing around with her prehistoric 4-track, recording herself singing over pretty much every sort of instrument you could think of, mostly the violin. The result, in short, is what might have transpired had Siouxsie grown up listening to TLC albums. Wells is a freak, but not in that sense; her misfit ways have her playing violins, glockenspiels, banjoes and toy pianos to produce the, well, symphonic vibe redolent of the opening salvos to half the rap-n-B songs out there, as if she’s fixated on sandblasting away at glitzy things like Destiny’s Child’s “Soldier” until all that’s left is the ghetto breeze and the simple-stupid Beethoven. She’s not a total hiphop chick – there’s some straightforward pop (and Tchaikovsky – “In the Barrel of a Gun” uses more woodblock and tambourine than anything from The Sleeping Beauty) to all of this, but what makes this special is her completeness: the formula is unique, intriguing, and really needs nothing else to make it tick.

Polysics, We Ate the Machine (MySpace/Interscope Records)
Somehow, for whatever reason, just looking at this album cover – limber, rail-skinny Japanese punks dressed in radiation suits and big dumb sunglasses – I wasn’t expecting the next Gordon Lightfoot. Singer Hiroyuki Hayashi may have been inspired by Devo when Polysics formed 10 years ago – and everything looks the part, down to the keytar-whatever thingies they wail on – but they’re, well, the Tokyo version of Devo in an anime age, making spazzy cartoon noise for fingerless-glove-wearing Bakugan hustlers and reveling in the stereotype. The only real thing Devo about them is an implicitly professed love affair with primitive techno instruments (“Moog is Love”), but their sound – which roped in a lot of kiddies during their stint on the MySpace Music tour – is a speedball of Mindless Self Indulgence and Styx (this is Tokyo, remember, not Brooklyn) teaming up to soundtrack G Gundam. The tunes are as un-sucky as their forte allows, which is more than one could ask for, really.

The 88, Not Only But Also (Island Records)
I’m not crystal-clear on what the rock world is supposed to do with a major-label-glossed 88… oh wait, you’re absolutely right – use their stuff in commercials and movies. They’ve worked hard to get here, certainly, playing every mind-numbing pigpile-fest in which they could scam a slot, and their regulation-indie taste for mediocre melody still pervades, which they got away with in 2005’s Over and Over, an album far more first-generation British Invasion-authentic than this due to crap production and an apparently real reverence for some nebulous notion of the 60s.
This time, between album opener “Go Go Go”’s vick of The Who’s “I Can See for Miles” and a lot of meta-Raspberries and kinda-Beatles they’ve still got a lot to offer nu-mods (is anyone still living off that stuff?), but everything’s cut with a little too much dishwasher-safeness, ie Coldplay on “I’m Nothing” and Franz Ferdinand throughout. This all doesn’t make it bad – you’ll surely be getting this shoved up your nose on alternative radio – but, I dunno, I guess I’m just not hearing enough curveballs to envision a bright future for them, particularly in an economic climate that’s about to become a piranha tank with only the catchiest of the catchy surviving past one record.
Outraged ranting, indie label release news and spaghetti sauce recipes are always welcome. Email

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