disclaimer is not a toy



Version 2.0

Willie's comments: Perhaps I’m jaded, but I expected- hoped, really- Garbage’s sophomore effort to be a lot harsher than it is. “Push It” is magnificently abrasive, even managing to make the comforting strains of the Beach Boys’ “Don’t Worry, Baby” sound foreboding. On much of the rest of the album, however, guitarist Butch Vig simply isn’t his usual innovative self, resorting to generic alt-rock fuzz on songs like “I Think I’m Paranoid” and “When I Grow Up” instead of the chomping and snarling he accomplished on Garbage’s debut (or, for that matter, Nirvana’s Nevermind and Sonic Youth’s Experimental Jet Set, Trash, and No Star). Still, the hooks are there, and vocalist Shirley Manson is a superbly dry anti-sex kitten, enlivening otherwise dull songs like “Medication” with her low-affect siren song. Grade: B



The Garden Party


Pointed At the Sky

Willie's comments: The Garden Party is an indie-pop band from the Detroit region that not only contains my good friend Tim Rimer (he's the keyboardist), but whose second album, Pointed At the Sky, is a solid and enjoyable Happy Meal of gimmick-free pop. Matthew Brown is the frontman, and although his songwriting and singing are informed by the easy-to-digest melodicism of the British Invasion, his songs aren't the sort of retro throwbacks that are all over the place right now. Granted, Brown's writing style is occasionally a bit too simplistic to realize its ambitions- for instance, the six-minute "Rock & Roll Star" aspires to the epic intensity of Death Cab for Cutie's recent work, but its repetitive melody doesn't work on a level much higher than an unnecessarily lengthy Ben Folds ballad- but he fares a lot better when he sticks to bubbly, get-in-wow-'em-and-get-out tracks like the jangly opener "Jumping Ship," or the simple, ukelele-based ditty "Cut Yer Hair" (which recalls XTC's Andy Partridge at his most playful), and lets his bandmates' talents shine. For instance, "I'm a Dog (Anthropology Song)" shows The Garden Party at their best: it's a summery song that doesn't need much more than some glistening guitar work from Brown and Joseph Cracchiolo and a couple gregarious melodic turns to be a fine pop confection. It's gonna seem like favoritism to single out Rimer's keyboard parts as the best part of the album, but it's really just the fact that I'm always partial to breezy '80s synths, and his additions to songs like "The Man You Broke" work the same way Moxie Static's contributions to The Epoxies' songs do: making good songs great. Pointed At the Sky is also full of great, non-Rimer-related touches like Megan Brown's gorgeous, multitracked flute intro to the terrific "Games Children Play" which then shows up again in the song's slowly simmering arrangement. Basically, there's a lot of joy to be had here, and if you're a fan of the seamless, mature pop of Ben Folds, Guster's few non-crappy songs, or the Barenaked Ladies' early stuff, there's no reason not to pick this up by clicking on the link above and then following the user-friendly ordering instructions (available in English only). Grade: B+


The Gay


You Know the Rules

Willie's comments: You know you're in good hands when a band has a name that amusing, they employ an accordion player (Maija Martin), and their drummer (Keith Parry) has one of those hilarious old-timey moustaches that travels in a swirl down his cheeks and then becomes sideburns without a corresponding beard. Hee! Frankly, The Gay earn a lot of goodwill on playfulness alone. And there are plenty of good vibes to be had on their debut album: although the four women in the band trade off vocal duties regularly, the music sticks pretty faithfully to a cheery, shabby-chic indie-pop formula in the same vein as Mates of State, recent Rainer Maria, the Fiery Furnaces, etc. Lots of upbeat, melodic pop songs with girl harmonies as bright as a supernova and ramshackle arrangements that tend to stumble happily along, never in danger of falling apart, but never as streamlined as, say, a New Pornographers song either. (Don't believe the many comparisons The Gay has gotten to the Pornos, by the way: just because they're two Canadian bands doesn't mean they share a sound.) Unless you're a total killjoy, I can't imagine anyone not having a good time listening to songs like "Critics," "Cindy Lou," or the clever "Fidelity." Unfortunately, none of the songs is particularly memorable, and a little of this stuff goes a long way, but rarely does the band cross the line from fun to cutesy (as they do on "Robert Smith" and "Fishin' Jim"), and it's all so joyous that you probably won't mind its pleasures being somewhat ephemeral. Grade: B


Gay Dad


Leisure Noise

Willie's comments: Moments after this British band (fronted by a former rock critic) became the toast of the town for their debut album, they were hit with a searing backlash accusing their music of being calculated and prefab. The Britpop equivalent of 'NSYNC, if you will. An open listen to Leisure Noise might land you on the side of the band's detractors, too. Apart from the gorgeous opener, "Dimstar," Gay Dad tries too hard to incorporate as many trendy musical styles as possible- drone rock, dreampop, and, truth be told, some less trendy elements (the chorus of "Joy!" sounds like George Michael, while "Pathfinder" contains harmonies that can only be described as Poison-esque). The folk-rock of "Jesus Christ" might have ended the album on an affecting note, but it's preceded by so much glossy pap that it's easy to doubt the band's sincerity even in this. Ultimately, Leisure Noise is just wholly insubstantial. Grade: C


Gentle Waves


The Green Fields of Foreverland

Willie's comments: The name Isobel Campbell chose for her solo project (when away from her day job in Belle & Sebastian) is perfectly apropos to her music: her sweet, hushed vocals and soft acoustic guitar strumming wash over you like a blanket of night. What's more, muted songs like "Emanuelle, Skating on Thin Ice," "To Salt a Scar," and the haunting waltz "Hangman in the Shadow" are as hummable as they are pretty. Campbell breaks the album's low-key mood with two up-tempo pop songs, "Evensong" (which sounds like a Scottish version of the Dating Game theme music) and "Weathershow," but they're both so completely charming that it's hard to hold that against her. And sure, "Enchanted Place" is a slower rewrite of "Evensong," and some of the songs toward the album's end don't really leave a mark on your consciousness, but Isobel is so confoundedly nice and adorable that you won't even think of making such churlish accusations. Grade: B+


Cole Bozman writes: hey, a reader comment of sorts! and by "of sorts", I mean...um...shit. anyway, it's for the Gentle Waves album: I wasn't aware that there was any music that could make Belle & Sebastian sound like Motorhead in comparison. yet this album does pretty much that. it's a little too fluffy, floaty, and otherwise cumulus cloud-like for my tastes, except when "Weathershow" comes on and shows a pulse. it has a Stylophone solo-- bonus! I'd give it, I don't know, C+? your rating system confuses me.




Gimme Indie Rock vol. 1


Willie's comments: For people who are already aficionados of independent rock, this 2-CD compilation from the much-maligned K-Tel organization is a treasure trove of things you can nitpick. There are plenty of curious exclusions, such as the Replacements and Sonic Youth. In addition, there are a number of acts who are both unimportant and not particularly talented, such as Big Dipper, Death of Samantha, and Scrawl. The selections by the Flaming Lips, the Chills, My Dad is Dead, and the Melvins hardly represent those bands' best work. Women indie rockers are barely represented, with only three songs (out of 30) sung by female voices, and Black Flag really belongs on a punk or hardcore compilation rather than an indie rock one. However, for the indie rock neophyte who's always heard about these bands without having actually heard them, Gimme Indie Rock makes a terrific introduction to Yo La Tengo, the Feelies, Meat Puppets, Spacemen 3, the Fall, and the Mekons, among others. Grade: B


God Lives Underwater


Life In the So-Called Space Age

Willie's comments: I'm really surprised this album isn't more popular than it is. This California duo sings downcast alt-rock lyrical melodies that rest somewhere on the line between "catchy" and merely "agreeably generic," but they do so over beds of rolling drum machines and sinisterly bubbling synthesizers that make the music sound more 2050 than 1992. A little of this goes a long way, but there are a lot of great songs here, like "Rearrange," "Medicated to the One I Love," and "Mouth." Grade: B


Godspeed You Black Emperor!


F# A# [infinity]

Willie's comments: Much as they do on their subsequent (and superior) album, Lift Your Skinny Fists Like Antennas to Heaven, the nine-Canadian collective known as Godspeed You Black Emperor saddles this album with an unwieldy title, indecipherable liner notes, and lengthy suites of songs, rather than giving each tune its own track. Also like Lift Your Skinny Fists, F# A# [infinity] revels in slow-motion, instrumental soundscapes that incorporate spacious arrangements, mournful strings that seem to hang onto individual notes for minutes at a time, sampled speeches, and moments of white noise that, in context, seem calming rather than abrasive. So what makes the other album better? Songs. When you're doing this sort of minimalist noodling, there's a fine line between gorgeous, ethereal bliss and lazy filler, and too much of F# A# [infinity] falls into the latter category. It's all pleasantly moody, with more than a few moments of quiet brilliance, but midway through the album, with "songs" like "The Sad Mafioso," the tunes turn into boring drones, and the band's invigorating nine-person interplay is seemingly reduced to one or two at a time. Only toward the album's close, with the galloping "Kicking Horse on Brokenhill" do things really slip into gear. Most people will need only one GYBE album, since most of their recorded output is quite similar. This is the one to get after you decide you're a die-hard. Grade: B


Lift Your Skinny Fists Like Antennas to Heaven

Willie's comments: Again, GYBE does not want to make things easy on you. Their second full-length album is not only spread out over two CDs, but each disc contains only two tracks. Like Spiritualized's similarly frustrating Lazer Guided Melodies, each track on Lift Your Skinny Fists Like Antennas to Heaven contains anywhere from three to seven actual songs, but good luck determining which song you're listening to at any given moment, because the band has eschewed a traditional track listing in favor of an impenetrable "song map" in the booklet. If that sounds daunting, then you're well on the way to understanding their music. GYBE specializes in dramatic instrumentals that generally start as ambient atmospheres and gradually build and speed up to a song with a recognizable theme (or, sometimes, a cacophony of grinding- though hypnotic- noise) and then fall apart again. It all sounds like a grand, avant-garde soundtrack to an arty film epic like Braveheart or Gladiator, but without the emotional extremes of a movie score. Like the similarly overstaffed Lambchop, GYBE leaves enough room in their compositions to accomodate every member of the band, which is a joy to listen to. Despite a few droney numbers that blend into the background, Lift Your Skinny Fists is that rare instrumental album that demands- and rewards- active, conscious listening. Grade: A-


Yanqui U.X.O.

Willie's comments: This album was recorded with Steve Albini, who's been working more and more with tempoless post-rockers lately (Low, Nina Nastasia, etc.), but it really doesn't matter. The only things remarkably different about this album as opposed to GYBE's previous two are the lack of free-floating dialogue snippets and the guitarists' newfound affinity for their tremolo pedals (the effect that makes the guitar sound all wavery, cutting in and out entirely in a quick, rhythmic fashion- used a lot in surf rock), which they employ with the frequency of a lab rat pushing the button for a food pellet. While I do miss the dialogue bits, the addition of the tremolo noises is a tiny difference that has a surprising effect on the music, imbuing the band's postapocalyptic soundscapes with a nervousness that has never before been so pronounced. Yanqui U.X.O. is made up of three songs that last for a total of 75 minutes and that, judging from the packaging, are meant to represent the horrible sounds of war. I suppose that comes across if you're looking for it, but mostly, this album is just more of what we're used to from these guys: organic, minor-key mood swings from resigned depression to aggressive, militant guitar-and-string chaos. I love the way things fall apart in an almost cartoonish fashion seven minutes into "Rockets Fall on Rocket Falls," which immediately then commences rumbling and stomping and clawing its way back up to an ominous climax. Also, the six-minute coda to "09-15-00" is full of as much lovely sorrow as the band has yet unleashed. Granted, by the time the second part of "Motherfucker = Redeemer" rolls around, GYBE seems like they're belaboring their point a bit, but even though it's wildly overlong, Yanqui U.X.O. proves that this musical collective is both talented and subtle enough to make even the smallest stylistic changes a successful gambit against redundancy. Grade: B+


The Golden Palominos


Drunk with Passion

Willie's comments: Drummer Anton Fier surrounds himself with some of the most talented artists in the industry in the Palominos, but Drunk with Passion is fitfully hypnotic at best, horribly boring at worst. The prog-based folk songs float about seemingly randomly, and there’s not a song on the album that will fully remain with you afterward, despite valient efforts from guests Michael Stipe (whose lyrical melody on “Alive and Living Now” touches on catchiness), Richard Thompson, and Bob Mould. Grade: C-


This is How It Feels

Willie's comments: To my ear, this is an even more vital trip-hop album than Massive Attack’s Blue Lines or Portishead’s Dummy. This time, Fier recruits the divinely acerbic Lori Carson to write and murmur most of the vocals, while Bill Laswell thumps seductively at his bass and Fier drums with such precision that it’s hard to tell which songs contain actual drumming, and which songs have programmed percussion. In a nifty twist on things, the absorbing sensuality of the music is often at odds with Carson’s lyrics, which concern disillusionment with love (most notably the venomous “Prison of the Rhythm,” and “I’m Not Sorry,” in which she sings, “You want a woman without passion/ You want it easy? Get a dog then”) and more spiritual matters. The album is often strange, but always engaging. Grade: A+


Dead Inside

Willie's comments: After one more album with Carson as the vocalist (Pure), Fier shuffled his lineup again, bringing on poet Nicole Blackman for an album that’s somehow bleaker and starker than its cardboard sleeve, whose lower-case white-and-red text on a black background only hints at the blunt force within. You’d never know this album came from a band that previously embraced the virtuosic musical talents of Bill Laswell (whose bass skills again appear here, albeit cloaked in hollow rhythms that are loath to let melodies escape), Michael Stipe, and Richard Thompson: Dead Inside is an intensely uncomfortable—and stunning—collection of skeletal electronic patterns supporting Blackman’s spoken-word brutality. On the opening track, “Victim,” Blackman whispers a harrowing stream-of-consciousness monologue from the point of view of a doomed woman who’s been randomly abducted from a library. Fier’s backing track consists only of a pulsing, bassy heartbeat surrounded by barely audible police scanners; an atmosphere whose creepiness is only intensified by gripping narration like, “He pulls me into the bathroom and I almost crack my head as he pushes me onto the floor. Tilts his head to the side and gazes at me as if I was a pet, then walks out.” The song has a measured-but-panicky intensity that could hold its own against any of the psychopathic studies from Nick Cave’s Murder Ballads

But it’s the only track on the album in which Blackman’s characters are in less than complete, detached control. On “The Ambitions Are,” she’s a snide tour guide of a dead city in which “young girls tie ribbons around their slender throats, trying to keep their heads on” (so, you know, Detroit), in “Holy,” she’s a woman committing meticulous, disciplined suicide for the sake of art, and in both “Metal Eye” and “Belfast,” she mocks the man who thinks his own violent lust is enough to suss out a woman’s inner workings. She’ll seduce you and then walk out in disgust because you found her sensual. It’s that kind of album. Even fans of talky rock poets like Maggie Estep, King Missile’s John S. Hall and Soul Coughing-era Mike Doughty might find this stuff a little overpowering; the levels of creepiness Blackman and Fier achieve are closer to the satirical mercilessness of the Butthole Surfers crossed with the misanthropic lucidity of a Neil LaBute screenplay. Fans of the Golden Palominos’ previous work, on the other hand, might be underwhelmed by the way in which Fier’s subtle soundscapes are subservient to the tune-free vocals (there’s no point in listening to Dead Inside unless you’re willing to give it your undivided attention). Give it a go, though, and you’ll be captivated that an album like this can so completely capture your misplaced pride, your secret fears of soullessness, and your most fucked-up instincts, tied to beats that won’t let you get away. (You thought we didn’t know about those? We know everything.) Grade: A





Bring It On

Willie's comments: It’s hard to get into this album at first, but it’s worth the effort. The idea of an alt-roots-rock band with three lead singers, one of whom sounds just like Captain Beefheart (Ben Ottewell), might not be a particularly appealing one, but Gomez ultimately transcends any description. Songs like “Get Myself Arrested,” “Whippin’ Piccadilly,” and “Get Miles” rattle and squirm a lot, but once you’re attuned to the band’s unique, Native-Americans-in-New-Orleans arrangements, Bring It On is a trip. Imagine Dylan covering the Beatles’ “Come Together,” and you should have some idea of the mangy tunefulness on display here. Grade: A-


Liquid Skin

Willie's comments: Liquid Skin jettisons most of the sloppy charm of Bring It On, and it skimps on the songwriting, too. Songs like "Hangover Girl" drag on and on, and the novel ideas in the tunes are too few and far between to justify their running time. Things pick up a bit about halfway through, with the pretty (albeit synthetic) ballad "We Haven’t Turned Around," and the bent infectiousness of "California." The vocoderized vocals in "Devil Will Ride" are a wonderful touch, but there’s still nothing on here that reaches the catchy heights of "Get Myself Arrested." You probably heard a lot of critical acclaim surrounding this album, but don’t believe it- it’s mostly just a bore. Grade: B-


Abandoned Shopping Trolley Hotline

Willie’s comments: This is a collection of the band's B-sides, BBC performances, and other assorted nonsense that, surprisingly, features much less messing around than Liquid Skin. The songs are focused, catchy, and never linger longer than they should (some, like "Shitbag," for instance, just seem to stop randomly). Apart from a pointless cover of the Beatles' "Getting Better," which was featured in that Magnavox commercial where the kids in the beach house buy a flat TV, every song here is a keeper, if not exactly typical of the sort of thing Gomez usually indulges in. Sure, "Bring Your Lovin' Back Here" and "High on Liquid Skin" are textbook Gomez, but the twitchy "Emergency Surgery" is a particularly paranoid song that sounds as though it belongs on electro-shock blues by the eels. "The Cowboy Song" is a cute keyboard-demo exercise, while a haunted-house reworking of "We Haven't Turned Around" features the creepiest Mellotron work I've ever heard. Best of the lot is the song "Buena Vista," which begins as a pretty, unstable folk-rock song and suddenly launches into a psychedelic funk jam. If Ben Folds Five's Naked Baby Photos made you wary of rarities compilations from bands with only two studio albums in the can, Abandoned Shopping Trolley Hotline will restore your faith in the notion that great rock 'n' rollers can make even the most unwise-sounding decisions seem brilliant. Grade: A


In Our Gun

Willie’s comments: Another record, another stylistic reinvention. This time around, we've gotten rid of the overlong water-treading of Liquid Skin and introduced lots of amusing electronica noises to Gomez's rootsy sound, which tightens up their rhythms a bit and, on some songs (the funky "Rex Kramer," the trancey "Army Dub"), suggests that perhaps a little butt-shakin' might not be an entirely improper notion. It's not as if the band has really rethought their songwriting style at all here- the songs are still shabby, acoustic-based singalongs at heart. The vibe one gets from In Our Gun is that they were having a blast playing around in the recording studio and realized that the efficient, modern sounds of synths, sequencers, and programmed drums could lend their songs a strange, invigorating immediacy. "Futuristic roots rock" might sound like a contradiction, and in a way, it is, which is why it's so fascinating to hear the title track morph from a leisurely acoustic excursion into pounding electro-funk over the course of five minutes, or "Ruff Stuff," which sounds vaguely like a Badly Drawn Boy/Kraftwerk collaboration. Gomez never goes too far with the playful production, though; this isn't a full-fledged immersion in techno the way U2's Pop was. The songs are still front and center, and they know when to knock off the window dressing and just let the tunes speak for themselves, as on the gentle "Sound of Sounds." This isn't a band that's as ostentatiously restless as, say, Radiohead, but In Our Gun establishes Gomez as one that's reliably creative, and hopefully will continue to be worth keeping an eye on well into the future. Grade: A


Split the Difference

Willie’s comments: The most straightforward album the band has recorded thus far, Split the Difference demonstrates by negative example what a difference their gimmicky production indulgences make. Despite being produced by Tchad Blake, who helmed great musical freak-outs by Soul Coughing and the Latin Playboys, Split the Difference just kind of wanders around in its pool of traditional roots-Britpop-country arrangements without leaping into the musical stratosphere the way Gomez did on In Our Gun (or in their freewheeling live shows- see the review of Out West below). Which isn't to say this is by any means a bad album, mind you; the songs just live or die by their melodies and melodies alone. And they summon some great ones. Tom Gray's "Sweet Virginia" is a tender Britpop epic the likes of which Badly Drawn Boy wishes he could conjure, Ian Ball's hoedown "These 3 Sins" is devilishly fun, and it's hard to give anything less than full attention to Ottewell whenever he shows up (even on the Pearl Jammy "Where Ya Going?"). Still, when the band breaks out the vocoder and the ProTools digital trickery on "We Don't Know Where We're Going," it's hard not to see a lack of imagination in basic, organic songs like "Me, You and Everybody" and "There It Was." I'm sorry I don't have a proper conclusion to this review, but the girl who lives above me apparently has an eight-year-old houseguest, and his constant jumping and banging is driving me up the damn wall and making it impossible to concentrate. You get the idea about the album, though. Buy it cheap. Grade: B


Out West (2 discs)

Willie’s comments: Gomez is the best live band I've ever seen, bar-none. Seriously. It was life-changingly awesome to see the Flaming Lips as Beck's backing band, Mike Doughty would've won me over on stage patter alone even if his music hadn't been spectacular, and Radiohead was great because they're fuckin' Radiohead, but for pure all-dessert-no-salad fun, Gomez totally wins. Their shows are full of non-self-indulgent jamming, bizarre humor (at one show I caught, they were hilariously introduced by a roadie claiming that Gomez weren't able to perform, so we would be treated to a Swedish rock band called Harpoon), and, most importantly, the sort of eager-to-please enthusiasm that can't be faked. This double-live album, although it can't capture the communal joy of watching Gray bounce around like an exuberant chimp as he pounds out the saxaphone samples in "Shot Shot," or the impromptu sense of discovery evident in the band as they figure out new ways to stretch "Revolutionary Mind" out over ten minutes, does an admirable job of showing you why their shows are always packed. Adhering to Camper Van Beethoven's "greatest hits played faster" ethos, Out West totally blasts through the best tracks from their four studio albums in renditions that are equal ("Love is Better Than a Warm Trombone") or superior ("Hangover") to the versions we're all familiar with, emphasizing both the bluesy undertones of their songs and the high esteem in which the three vocalists hold their effects pedals. Covers of Nick Drake's worst song ("Black Eyed Dog") and one of Tom Waits's best ("Goin' Out West," which would really have been something if Ottewell rather than Ball had taken vocal duties) pay respectful homage to the band's influences, but the joy of this set comes mainly from the brawny energy that's liberally tossed into already-great songs like "Get Miles" and "Nothing is Wrong." And if this collection misses a few great concert mainstays like "Army Dub," well, that's all the more reason to see them live, isn't it? So do! Grade: B+


Gorky's Zygotic Mynci


Introducing... Gorky's Zygotic Mynci

Willie’s comments: Following three albums available only in their native Wales, Gorky's Zygotic Mynci were first presented to the United States with this compilation- a fat-free assortment of tracks culled from their previous albums and EPs. Seemingly influenced by psychedelic pop bands like Love and the Beach Boys, but filtered through the same fractured freak-rock prism that the Flaming Lips and the Super Furry Animals have successfully used, GZM concoct a palatable stew of slashing guitars, tasteful horns, pretty harmonies, glossy synths, and weird, left-field elements (such as the creepy ringmaster voice that narrates the addictive "The Game of Eyes"). Though the high quotient of Welsh-language numbers might have hurt Introducing's accessibility here, it shouldn't have. Sure, the Welsh "khhh" sounds that pop up throughout "Iechyd Da (Good Health)" might sound strange to our American ears (which are more attuned to nasal voices and lowbrow phrases like "C'mere a minute" and "Oh yeah?") but they're really no stranger than the rest of the record, and they're put to use in the service of a song as chipper and summery as XTC's best. The eerie "Miss Trudy" and "Eira" showcase the band's more tenebrous side to good effect, but the majority of songs are just happy little larks like "If Fingers Were Xylophones" that expertly mingle '70s pop slickness with giddy postmodern experimentation. All twelve songs here are perfectly fun musical exclamation points. Grade: A


Spanish Dance Troupe

Willie’s comments: Less an album than an EP with about nine tracks' worth of filler thrown in, this release is fairly frustrating. When the band actually decides to write songs, they tend to write enjoyably countrified variations on the formula made famous by the Eagles (or at least Camper Van Beethoven). The title track, "Faraway Eyes," "Christmas Eve," and "Murder Ballad" are all top-notch acoustic rock in this vein. In addition, you get "Poodle Rockin'," which is an infectious rock song as well as an obvious wink at their countrymen the Super Furry Animals (the song is totally out of place on this subdued album, but it's still a great track). However, you also get plenty of half-baked instrumentals, failed experiments, and sing-songy snippets of songs that will test your patience- especially since the band's previous work was so imaginative in its antsiness. If I were you, I'd wait and see if GZM release a greatest hits album before wading through the musical driftwood here. Grade: B-


Gothic Archies

Looming in the Gloom EP

Willie’s comments: The Gothic Archies are a vehicle for Stephin Merritt (the smartass romantic behind the Magnetic Fields, most notably) to give in to his most misanthropically odd instincts, cranking out miniature, black-cloaked ditties with titles like "The Abandoned Castle of My Soul" and "City of the Damned" that are both parodies of goth rock and genuinely dark synth-based pills. This EP, distributed through John Flansburgh's Hello CD of the Month Club, contains five quick songs (only one of them reaches the two-minute mark) that make a great start to a glum day. Merritt nails the thin drum machines and echoey production of The Cure's Pornography/Disintegration era, Joy Division's "Love Will Tear Us Apart," and other downer milestones, while proving that those bands' hookiest moments are not that far removed from his own usual simple, lo-fi, vaguely-ABBA-inspired pop. Far from being a one-note genre riff, though, Merritt supports his dead-sounding vocals with music ranging from a simple acoustic guitar and haunting melodica ("Your Long White Fingers") to full-sounding guitar/synth arrangements ("The Abandoned Castle of My Soul"), making for a very satisfying study in dissatisfaction. Though it's a collector's item now, and has been made mostly redundant by The New Despair (see below), Looming in the Gloom is a masterwork of smirky dungeon music. Grade: A+


The New Despair EP

Willie’s comments: The New Despair, the first commercially available Gothic Archies release, contains the entire Looming in the Gloom EP except, inexplicably, its best song, the afterlife-averse "The Dead Only Quickly." (The song does appear on the 6ths' Hyacinths and Thistles album, sung by Neil Hannon of The Divine Comedy. However, that's a less world-weary- and therefore less effective- rendition.) In its place are three new songs which nearly make up for this sad omission: "It's Useless to Struggle" starts the EP off on a bit of a disingenuous note, since its gnashing, piercing guitars are far louder than any other song here or anywhere else in Merritt's discography, but its aggressive hopelessness is a splendid, tuneful facsimile of the sort of thing offered by determinedly depressing bands like The Swans. "Ever Falls the Twilight"'s bouncy programmed xylophone and dinky arrangement would fit in nicely on the Magnetic Fields' Holiday, and although it's easily the most upbeat song on The New Despair, there's still but a faint glimmer of sunlight in the whole thing. Finally, "The Tiny Goat" abuses its protagonist in ways too dark even for me ("The tiny goat wanted a birthday party/And sent out invitations to its friends/But when the day came, none of them remembered/So it put out its eyes with fountain pens"), but its seemingly tossed-off melody is still a keeper. Alongside the four dank gems from Looming in the Gloom, this EP is remarkably eclectic and more consistently entertaining in its snarky moodiness than Buffy the Vampire Slayer ever was. Repeat listens may invite self-destructive thoughts or madness, but it's all so cussedly catchy that it's worth the risk to your mental stability. Grade: A


The Tragic Treasury: Songs from A Series of Unfortunate Events

Willie’s comments: Over the course of a few years, each AudioBook in the darkly comic children's book franchise A Series of Unfortunate Events (written by Daniel Handler, under the name Lemony Snicket) arrived with a new Gothic Archies song appended. Even if Handler weren't himself a member of the Magnetic Fields (he plays accordion), the pairing of the Gothic Archies and his witty prose would be too delicious a notion to pass up. To coincide with the last entry in the series, though, this 15-song compilation was released, saving Merritt completists hundreds of dollars and yielding the discovery that he's been hiding some of his most accessible songs in places few would ever think to look. Since these are ostensibly kids' songs, Merritt has slightly lifted this project's veil of fatalistic depression, allowing more wordplay and black-humored silliness to pervade. The results are much lighter and more playful than you'd expect from hearing The New Despair, if not downright hilarious. Nearly every song has at least one laugh-out-loud line, culminating in "We Are the Gothic Archies," an irresistable theme song consisting of eight hysterical couplets like "Though gothic, we are archie/Though archie, we are goth/No Satan-worshippers, we!/We worship Yog-Sothoth!" Still, it's hard to call this a novelty album when the songs themselves are so well put-together. "Crows," in particular, has an anthemic chorus to rival R.E.M.'s most memorable, even with Stephin cawing in the background. "In the Reptile Room," "The World is a Very Scary Place," and "Walking My Gargoyle," to name three, abandon the goth conceit completely, basically sounding like the Magnetic Fields, while the truly dour arrangements of songs like "Dreary, Dreary, Dreary" and "Things Are Not What They Appear" are closer to bleak chamber pop than to, say, Love and Rockets. Even if some of the jokes may be juvenile (and amusingly so: "What shall we use for bait? Lend me a hand! I'll sew it back on when we get to land"), there's nothing to mark these songs as youth-oriented, and potential listeners shouldn't take them as such. They're just a bunch of especially pithy and hummable songs by an indie-pop auteur from whom you should expect nothing less. Grade: A








Under the Western Freeway

Willie’s comments: Their name might make them sound like a rapper bedecked in colorful pimp garb, but Grandaddy is actually a brilliant, articulate art-ernative group from California. Their full-length debut, Under the Western Freeway, introduces them as playfully unrefined indie rockers who aren't afraid to bash out a great hook on a cheap keyboard (and who know that a little tape hiss can't obscure good songs), let a song slowly crumble to bits, or sing unashamedly sentimental sci-fi stories. This last bit is contributed by songwriter Jason Lytle, who comes across as a Douglas Adams-esque visitor to Earth, fascinated and repulsed by our commercial culture. In "Summer Here Kids," he laments, "Tourist info said I'd have a good time/I'm not having a good time," and "Go Progress Chrome" envisions a world so full of hubris that humans attempt to chrome-plate the moon ("I won't be at your unveiling/I like it how it's always been"). The music doesn't always do justice to the superb lyrics, but it connects more often than not- particularly on the effervescent, Rentals-esque "A.M. 180" and the melancholy "Collective Dreamwish of Upperclass Elegance." As you will see, Grandaddy didn't hesitate to take the next big step toward greatness, but this collection should thrill the already-converted. Grade: B


The Sophtware Slump

Willie’s comments: This, the band's second album, deservedly garnered massive critical acclaim and earned them a dedicated following. Why? Because they take Radiohead's pet themes of alienation and technophobia and, ironically, humanize their music by siding with the robots. Thus, Lytle is able to wring genuine tears from listeners through such simple tales as "Jed the Humanoid," a heartbreaking eulogy for an obsolete friend, and "Miner at the Dial-a-View," on which the voice of an automated telescope seems more comforting than most human voices do. "He's Simple, He's Dumb, He's the Pilot" kicks off The Sophtware Slump with a gentle, nine-minute indictment of what the 20th century has left for the "2000 man." Opening with a mechanized-sounding banjo, the song slowly totters toward a traditional folk-rock arrangement before dissolving into a cold wash of keyboards that sounds as utterly defeated as the aftermath of the alien attack in Orson Welles's War of the Worlds. It's a fascinating song, and it takes on a greater resonance each time I hear it.

It would be an oversimplification to call The Sophtware Slump a concept album- there are a few numbers which don't carry the OK Computer torch, but just get down to the business of rocking in bouncy, Weezer/Fountains of Wayne/Lincoln-esque style. "Hewlitt's Daughter" and "Crystal Lake" are the best of those, but they don't quite hold the emotional weight of, say, "Chartsengrafs." The music is unassailably catchy throughout (with the exception of the herky-jerky "Broken Household Appliance National Forest," which is too sloppy for its own good), and Lytle's winsome voice is at least as endearing as Wayne Coyne's. It's not a perfect album, exactly, but then, something that so exquisitely captures the sounds of things falling apart shouldn't be. Grade: A


Concrete Dunes

Willie’s comments: First things first: Grandaddy does not want you to buy this album. It's a compilation of assorted rarities, along with most of the tracks from their early EP Pretty Mess by This One Band. I e-mailed them awhile back to inquire about getting a promo copy, and they told me that Concrete Dunes is an unauthorized cash-in by Lakeshore Records that contains basically the same tracks as the authorized (but dishearteningly rare) release Broken Down Comforter Collection. They wrote, "One [album] supports the band (Broken Down). The other pisses off the band (Dunes)." The frustrating lack of discographical information in this record's liner notes speaks to the cheapo nature of the package, and as I certainly don't advocate labels taking advantage of bands, I urge you to pick up the official release if you can find it. Or at least buy Concrete Dunes used, like I did, to avoid filling Lakeshore's coffers with blood money.

But either way, do buy it. Sure, being an odds 'n' sods compilation, Concrete Dunes does have its share of draggy clinkers (the shrill "Sikh in a Baja VW Bug" and the phoned-in "Pre Merced" and "Fentry"), but they're made up for by a cache of left-field surprises that are scattered among more typical Grandaddy gems. "Away Birdies with Special Sounds," for instance, is a shattering mood piece that features Lytle adopting a Sling Blade/Of Mice and Men voice to portray the heartbreak of a man-child who awakens to find his feathered friends gone, and the pretty, gloomy "Levitz" adds impressive, futuristic pinstripes to the band's sound by simply throwing some electronic effects on Kevin Garcia's bass (a prime example of the difference that tasteful production touches can make). More typical of their plaintive niche are tracks like "12-PAK-599" and "Taster," which aren't quite revelatory, but still illustrate why Grandaddy has earned a place in the lo-fi pantheon with other semi-outsider geniuses like Sparklehorse and Guided by Voices. Again, Concrete Dunes as a concept is very, very bad, but the songs contained therein are mostly worth a couple spins, however you feel like getting ahold of them. Grade: B



Willie’s comments: The three years since The Sophtware Slump have found Lytle mastering the art of home production to a point that you'd never know Sumday was recorded in sumguy's house. Sadly, though, his studio prowess seems to have come at the expense of the haunting, lo-fi tics and detours that made Grandaddy's previous work- and previous album especially- so endearingly weird. The songs here are actual songs; you won't hear any multi-part journeys, melodic interludes, or crinkly dicking around here, and while it initially makes for a more solid, accessible record than we're used to, repeated listens reveal it as a bit plainer than one might hope. The majority of the songs chug along agreeably enough, but with homogenous mid-tempo rhythms and unimaginatively glossy arrangements (mostly warm, fuzzy guitars and/or synths), songs like "'Yeah' is What We Had" and "The Go in the Go-For-It" simply sound redundant alongside better, similar tracks like the soaring "I'm on Standby." That said, there still enough memorable moments to make this worth your time: the addictive descending/ascending keyboard hook on "Stray Dog and the Chocolate Shake," the sweet chorus to "El Caminos in the West," Lytle's gorgeous harmony parts on most songs, and, once more, he hits a few home runs in the lyrics department. Best of the bunch is "The Group Who Couldn't Say," a funny and affecting story about a group of office drones who win a field trip "for sellin' way more stuff than the other guys," and then find themselves totally confused and gobsmacked by nature. When Lytle coos, "Becky wondered why she'd never noticed dragonflies/Her drag-and-click had never yielded anything as perfect as a dragonfly," it's easy to forgive some of the draggier bits on Sumday. Grade: B


Lauren Alergant writes: Never heard of Concrete Dunes but Broken Down Comforter Collection is pretty easy to find over here in the UK. I got mine for about $12 and thinks it's great.


David Gray


White Ladder

Willie’s comments: David Gray is a British folk rocker with a shit-eating grin whose album White Ladder has been an unlikely success story here in the States, coasting on the inexplicable popularity of the single "Babylon" (which is basically a Wonder Bread rewrite of Paul Simon's "You Can Call Me Al" and appears in two virtually identical versions on this album). I have to say, the album as a whole is better than the obligatory, mostly acoustic live performances Gray has been doing recently on shows like Saturday Night Live and The Late Show, but he still seems to be at a loss for things like melodic development and memorable melodies. "Sail Away" and "Please Forgive Me" start out as pleasant, quiet pop songs, but quickly become numbing after repeating the same verse or chorus over and over ("Say Hello Wave Goodbye" is the worst offender, clocking in at almost nine minutes). There is something to be said for the good-natured techno rhythms that propel almost every song- it gives them a welcome insistence that Gray's laid-back sensibility otherwise lacks- and "Nightblindness" illustrates Gray's strengths, featuring a melancholy, Turin Brakes-esque melody that eventually gets swallowed by a lonely synth solo. However, nothing else on White Ladder connects at all, and unless he expands his horizons a little, Gray may wind up being to the newly trendy acoustic movement what one-hit grungers like the Toadies were to the year 1994. Grade: C


Lost Songs

Willie’s comments: This collection is the first product of a mad scramble in the recording industry to make Gray's back catalog available to Yankees in the wake of White Ladder's popularity (as of this writing, CDNow lists three Gray LPs slated for July release). Lost Songs is a collection of songs that Gray wrote between 1995 and 1998, but didn't get around to recording until 1999, and fans of White Ladder probably won't be disappointed. The songs coast on by with Gray singing and playing an acoustic guitar (quite badly, in fact, on "Red Moon"), either unaccompanied or with minimal backing. As such, it's a much mellower vibe than White Ladder gives off- so much so that the album caused me to start dozing off while driving on a bright, sunny afternoon. That's both a compliment and a criticism, by the way. Sometimes, songs like "January Rain" and "Hold On" tap into a pretty, searching mood that's overpowering in the most wonderfully morose way. And many other times- as on "If Your Love is Real" and "Flame Turns Blue"- the songs are just as dull and underwritten as "Babylon." (The wussy coda "Wurlitzer," for example, consists of Gray noodling on the titular keyboard for about a minute.) It doesn't help matters that Gray attempts to turn these acoustic numbers into neo-Dylan poetry by peppering his lyrics with yeahs and double negatives, but at its best, Lost Songs makes the prospect of a David Gray glut seem tolerable. Grade: C+


Green Day



Willie’s comments: When I first heard this, I gave it an A-, because I was very impressed that the band I’d hated for so long had created tunes that were not only listenable but likeable. Take “The Grouch,” for example- who knew Billie Joe, Tre, and Mike had it in them to turn out a song so impossibly catchy that it wouldn’t even bother me that they lifted the chorus from “867-5309/Jenny” by Tommy Tutone? Who knew they could do other genres besides pop-punk, including muscular Stray Cats rockabilly (“Hitchin’ a Ride”), spaghetti western (“Last Ride In”), and lushly orchestrated pop (“Good Riddance [Time of Your Life].” Ever heard it?). Alas, now that I’ve heard it a few times more, Nimrod isn’t as earth-shattering. It’s still good, solid punkiness, though. Grade: B


Groove Armada



Willie's comments: Like BT, the techno duo Groove Armada doesn't seem to know exactly what sort of electronica band they want to be, so they basically putz around with sample-based forays into house, trance, Air-esque ambient funk, big beat, and Carl Craig-esque remixes. Sometimes it works, sometimes it's boring, and sometimes it's intolerably annoying. Their big, bludgeoning hit "I See You Baby" falls into the latter category (and the inclusion of Fatboy Slim's well-meaning remix doesn't improve things much), as does the aerobicizing of "If Everybody Looked the Same," which sounds like the Jackson 5. The chilled-out "Pre 63" is much better, slowly building a groove over six and a half minutes, and "Inside My Mind (Blue Skies)" does much the same thing. You know, I'm really struggling to find things to say about Vertigo because it's a thoroughly unremarkable album. If I were you, I'd check out BT's Movement in Still Life instead. Groove Armada's music is ultimately as anonymous as the faceless couch potatoes on their album cover. Grade: C+


Guided by Voices


Bee Thousand

Willie's comments: Often pointed to as the quintessential lo-fi indie rock document, Robert Pollard and his drinking buddies hit the Mother Lode of cheaply-recorded rock 'n' roll bliss on Bee Thousand. For all the tape hiss, missed notes, and recording mistakes (the guitar solo on "Hardcore UFO's" abruptly vanishes and reappears seconds later, reportedly because guitarist Tobin Sprout accidentally erased part of it during mixing), there are more perfect, classic rock-based melodies on this album than in most hipsters' entire record collections. The songs range from the folky "Ester's Day" to the fabulously energetic "Buzzards and Dreadful Crows," and the album makes more sense with each successive listen. Grade: A


Alien Lanes

Willie's comments: If you put out an album with 28 songs on it, odds are you'll get at least a traditional album's worth of great songs. However, aside from exceptions like the band's later masterpiece Under the Bushes Under the Stars, you'll probably also get a hefty amount of wasted time. That's the case here. As effortlessly gorgeous as songs like "As We Go Up, We Go Down" and "My Valuable Hunting Knife" are, an axe could be taken to "Evil Speakers" and "Big Chief Chinese Restaurant" without disappointing anyone. They're not bad songs, per se, but they don't leave nearly the impact that the great songs do. Lots of great ideas here, though. Particularly the underwater burbling of "Chicken Blows." Grade: B


Under the Bushes Under the Stars

Willie's comments: Working with real producers this time (Steve Albini and the Breeders' Kim Deal) rather than just putzing around in Pollard's basement, GBV turn in an astounding collection of 24(!) fully fleshed-out numbers. "The Official Ironmen Rally Song" is every bit as anthemic and inspiring as the title suggests, while "Cut-Out Witch" and other songs sound like a noisy R.E.M. at their most infectious. Sprout penned the album's best song, though: the trippy, beautiful "To Remake the Young Flyer." The incompetence of drummer Kevin Fennell has never been more aggravating than on these otherwise perfect numbers (a missed cue here, a flubbed beat there...), but that's more than made up for by the fact that Under the Bushes has as many great melodies as the Nuggets box set. Grade: A+


Mag Earwhig!

Willie's comments: After Pollard's entire band split to do other things, Bob got Cobra Verde to play instruments behind him for Mag Earwhig! Since the newbies are more a disciplined band than GBV's previous (almost too relaxed) incarnation was, there's a refreshing tightness to rockers like "I am a Tree" and "Mute Superstar." Though there are perhaps three too many folk numbers that go nowhere, Pollard still writes some of the best hooks to be had (and the best titles, such as "The Finest Joke is Upon Us"). "Jane of the Waking Universe" in particular should be as well-known as, oh, "America the Beautiful." Grade: A-


Do the Collapse

Willie's comments: After two years and another lineup change, GBV has resurfaced on this so-called opus, produced for maximum accessibility by Ric Ocasek. Sounds like a great idea: pair Pollard's unusual songwriting flair with a slick producer who actually knows what he's doing. Problem is, there really isn't too much noticeable difference, production-wise, between this and Under the Bushes Under the Stars; songs like "Zoo Pie" sound like they were recorded back on Sprout's four-track, and Pollard's gift for memorable choruses seems to have gone out to get drunk for much of the album. While "Teenage FBI" is perfect power-pop, and "Hold on Hope" is surprisingly touching, there's not much else noteworthy here. (Just as a side note, of the two songs I just mentioned, I heard the former piped into an Applebee's as Muzak, and I heard the other played at Meijer! Isn't that bizarre?) Grade: B-


Isolation Drills

Willie's comments: Following the turgid Do the Collapse, Pollard pulled his songwriting together again, retaining the previous album's fancy production but not using it as a crutch to mask half-finished tunes. Instead, you get a whole bunch of bonafide rock gems that no longer need the "indie" qualifier. With muscular/jangly guitars confidently leading the way, it's easy for songs like the soaring "Glad Girls," the shimmying "The Brides Have Hit Glass," and the wonderfully scuzzy "Skills Like This" to instantly carve out a cubbyhole in your brain in which to live a long, merry life. Nearly every song has at least one great vocal hook, and most are free from the sort of weird, amelodic meandering that crept into Pollard's singing around the time of his first solo album, Not in My Airforce. (Check this album's shapeless "Fine to See You" to see what I'm talking about.) Granted, it's still a far cry from the unrelenting brilliance of Under the Bushes Under the Stars, and the arrangements could be a little more varied- a few too many songs sound like The Who taking a mushy run at covering stuff from R.E.M.'s Lifes Rich Pageant or David Bowie's Ziggy Stardust, and would benefit from the presence of more outliers like the haunting acoustic number "Sister I Need Wine"- but as the first album on which you can really believe that Pollard's arena-rock ambitions aren't out of the question, Isolation Drills is a satisfying experience. Grade: B+


dark.arkive@gmail.com writes: I can't even fake impartiality here--this is my alltime favorite band.

As such, I read your reviews with my hackles automatically raised, but as usual, you did a fine job.

I especially liked the one for Mag Earwig, an extremely undervalued album; the loss of Tobin Sprout is at least slightly accounted for by the sheer muscle Cobra Verde bring to the table. Much as I might prefer "Watch Me Jumpstart" to "Bulldog Skin", there's no way the ol' boys could have supported "I am a Tree". Well done in mentioning Pollard's knack for perfectly absurd song titles! While he can certainly be over the top ("Jane of the Waking Universe" is honey-sweet superb, but even Paul's corpse might cringe at that title), "A Salty Salute" and "The Official Ironmen Rally Song" scream anthem with every syllable. And then deliver!

Love seeing you favor Under... if it weren't for my dripping nostalgia for Bee Thousand, the album that still dominates my summers, that would be my favorite of theirs too. "Underwater Explosions" is enough to keep me coming back, but the whole album is remarkably dense and atmospheric (not opposites at all, see Radiohead's entire discography) for a pack of British Invasion reenacters.

Well done!

Also, try out Vampire on Titus if you haven't already. I can't promise you'll like it, as it's lo-fi ground zero in the post-"Poledo" world, but it's still hella fun.