New music reviews and staff picks for September, 2012
Kickstarter: Believe the hype
In May of this year, Amanda Palmer launched Kickstarter campaign with a $100,000 goal to fund the completion of this album; she reached her goal in a mere seven hours. By the time the after-party yellow-book pages had settled on the evening of May 31, nearly 25,000 people had pledged just shy of $1.2 million. Palmer’s Kickstarter success built up huge expectations for Theatre is Evil. Does it live up to the hype?
The short answer: Yes. Free of major-label constraints, Palmer has put more of herself (aided by her crack band, The Grand Theft Orchestra) into this album than many artists put into their entire careers.
By her own admission, Palmer “let [her]self be” when it came to writing the songs, rather than trying to “out-clever” herself. The result of this concession is that the music retains much of the over-the-top histrionics and in-your-face presence that you’d expect from something called “punk cabaret,” while maintaining unfettered mainstream accessibility.
Some of the uptempo tracks bear an unmistakeable eighties/power pop stamp, most notably “Want it Back,” “Massachusetts Avenue,” and “The Killing Type.” “Melody Dean” even quotes The Knack’s “My Sharona.”
Nonetheless, Theatre is Evil is not easy listening by any means. Be prepared for tears in your eyes and a lump in your throat―her intimate lyrics also recount stories of psychic wounds (as in “Trout Heart Replica”) and disintegrating relationships. Particularly devastating are “Grown Man Cry,” in which the simple matter of choosing a restaurant sets a relationship’s end into motion, and “The Bed Song,” which charts the ever-expanding distance between a couple growing apart.
Beware: being left to one’s own devices can lead to over-indulgence: “The Bed Song” feels like the end of the album―but four more songs follow. Perhaps Palmer didn’t want to end the record in the midst of such a desolate emotional landscape; but everything after it feels like add-ons, rather than integral components of the album. Those last songs would have fit better alongside the Kickstarter-only deluxe digital edition’s eight extra tracks, which include the popular “Ukelele Anthem,” “Denial Thing,” and closing track “Not Mine”―an unexpected pregnancy scenario turned decisively on its head.
Sonically, the album falls a bit short. Palmer’s huge, theatrical arrangements often demand more dynamic range than they get, particularly on the louder tracks. “Smile (Pictures or it Didn’t Happen)” and “Do it with a Rockstar” both reach Spinal Tap heights where the band are all at 10―but have nowhere to go. Their musical beds feel mushy and oppressive from the start, their subsequent climaxes failing to break through the clatter and din. That Theatre is Evil still delivers such a visceral impact speaks to Palmer’s potent emotive delivery.
Few releases in 2012 take on as many risks as Amanda Palmer & The Grand Theft Orchestra have on Theatre is Evil. To mix metaphors, it’s a beacon of hope amidst an otherwise barren pop music landscape. -Kevin O’Conner
Key Tracks: “The Killing Type,” “Want it Back,” “Grown Man Cry,” “Lost,” “The Bed Song,” “Ukelele Anthem” (Kickstarter deluxe digital edition only), “Not Mine” (Kickstarter deluxe digital edition only)
For Fans of: Dresden Dolls, Birdeatsbaby, Rasputina
The “biggest band in the world” go for the trifecta
Yes Virginia, there is a Dethklok.
As Metalocalypse continues to attract more and more high-profile attention (including award-winning documentary producer Warner Herzog, Mad Men’s Jon Hamm, and members of nearly every heavy metal band in history), the fictitious death metal supergroup Dethklok has become as in-demand as any “real” band, releasing their own albums and touring with some well-established acts. In fact, the band just announced a tour with All that Remains, The Black Dahlia Murder and Machine Head. Because the show’s conceit is that Dethklok is the most influential band in the world, original songs must be written for each episode, and for it all to work, the songs need to be more than just brutal, they need to be somewhat accessible to viewers who might not appreciate the true, head-splitting carnage of death metal. So the trick has always been to come up with legitimate, hard-hitting metal that can appease the purists while giving newcomers some hooks to grab.
Thankfully for fans of the show and the music, the show’s creator, Brendon Small, happens to be a monster of a shredder, with a terrific capacity for writing epic thrash metal beatdowns. With the help of drummer Gene Hoglan (Testament, Fear Factory, Dark Angel), and producer Ulrich Wild, Small released a full-length debut for Dethklok (Dethalbum), that peaked at 21 on the Billboard 200. A follow-up, Dethalbum II, scored an even bigger reception, peaking at number 15, because while the lyrics were as preposterous as one could expect from a cartoon band, the music was all business—head-crushing, tightly-focused thrash with death metal vocals and blazing melodic fretwork. Songs like “Go Into the Water,” “Thunderhorse” and “Detharmonic” established that beyond the comedy of the show, the men performing their music could stand toe-to-toe with any metal band of the past twenty years.
This fall also sees Dethklok’s long-awaited tertiary release, Dethalbum III, and having proven their musicianship, the relevant question now is not, “Is it any good,” but “Is it any different?” The answer is “Yes.” And incidentally, it’s the best Dethklok album yet. Small and Hoglan, along with Dethklok’s live bassist, Bryan Beller, launch twelve sonic missiles that build upon the first two records by adding more layers of groove, shifting tempos and aggressive soloing. To call this music “death metal” is misleading, as this sounds far closer to Metallica or Testament than seminal death metal bands Death or Deicide. Opener “I Ejaculate Fire” most closely evokes the first two albums, which is not a bad thing. Small barks out lyrics in a heavy, percussive cadence, and as with other Dethklok classics, his soloing is ten miles past “over-the-top” territory. As Small explained to TNB Music earlier this year, these majestic solos are his way of offsetting the relentless heaviness of the grooves.
The primary difference on Dethalbum III is Small’s fretwork, which takes on a decidedly proggy vibe, most notably on songs like “Ghostqueen” and “Starved,” which hews far closer to Åkerfeldt than Hammett. Grander melodic exploration and more complex song structures expand Dethklok’s sound well past the first two albums without losing the hooks and rhythms that make listening to Dethklok so damned fun. “Impeach God” makes a strong case for greatest Dethklok song yet, with a seething melody that explodes into a thoroughly outrageous solo, before diving back into the rhythm for a wicked, shit-talking breakdown. Don’t be distracted by the cartoon characters; this is one of the best heavy metal albums of 2012. -Joe Daly
Key tracks: “Impeach God,” “I Ejaculate Fire,” “Skyhunter”
For fans of: Testament, Mastodon, Opeth
Light and heavy
After receiving word of the death of a close friend, Canadian band The Luyas went to work recording their third studio album. The first song “Montuno” begins with a dizzying synth-pop, orchestral warm-up filled with various instrumental arrangements that rise, fall and proceed to sonically tumble over each other. The soothing, melodic vocals of Jessie Stein fade in and are set against trance-like, psychedelic grooves that make up this opening track.
Floating upon a puffy cloud of rich sonic textures, complete with horns, electronic beats, and violins, Stein’s buoyant voice evokes the vocal techniques employed by bossa nova singers like Astrud Gilberto and the signature lounge styles of Mette Lindberg. Moving deeper into the tracks, spiraling electronic hooks, delicate flourishes and mellow vocals signal something much deeper to this album than first meets the ear.
In the tradition of so many other bands who contrast brighter melodies with darker themes, the gentle waves of Animator belie darker thematic content. Lyrics such as “It gets harder / harder / harder” (“Montuno”) and “Dreams die” (from their first single, the hypnotic track “Fifty Fifty”), arrest the listener with a hushed wonder that demands to be relived several times over. -Clarissa Olivarez
Key Tracks: “Montuno,” “Fifty Fifty,” “Traces”
Sounds like: Blonde Redhead, Björk, The Asteroids Galaxy Tour, Stereolab
The worst thing you could do as you listen to this album is try to wrap some labels around it. As soon as opening fist-pump “Recognise” hits full speed, you’ll want to draw a Ramones comparison, but then the chorus kicks off, and you realize that maybe it’s Sticky Fingers-era Stones that you’re hearing. Or is that The Clash? If you waste too much time trying to jam these songs into tight, conventional classifications, you’re going to miss out on a blistering, dance-friendly rock and roll party with big, tasty hooks, shout out choruses and wild, sneering abandon. That all being said, Recognise, at its core, is equal parts punk and 70s garage rock.
“Ujpest Dozsa” leans towards the rock side, while “From the Shadows” is straight punk, and despite the genre sampling, there is still a coherence through the tracks, due in no small part to the canny sequencing and uniformly catchy songwriting. Wisely opening with three strong, hooky anthems, JD’s forays into ska and other flavors don’t feel terribly out of place, although the acoustic F.O. of “This Town of Infamy” feels a little thin among generally stronger material.
The guest list on Recognise boasts an impressive roster of blue collar rock and punk heroes. There is the excellent Acey Slade (Murderdolls), as well as Dez Cardena (Black Flag), as well as Johnny Bonnel (Swingin’ Utters) and perhaps implausibly, Amy “Lita” Dumas (a former WWE womens’s wrestling champion. There is also Howie Weinberg, the engineering legend, who mastered Nirvana’s Nevermind, The Beastie Boys’ License to Ill and albums by Tom Waits, Aerosmith, Rammstein and Public Enemy. Weinberg wisely amps up the basics and tones down unnecessary distractions, ultimately serving up a swaggering, no bullshit rock and roll assault. –JD (no relation)
Key tracks: Recognise, Ujpest Dozsa, Come Dig Me Out
Sounds like: The Clash, The Replacements, Superchunk
A bright, bright, sunshine-y day…
Cat Power’s new record emits a blast of intense psychedelic sunlight so bright you may be tempted to shield your eyes, the songs fitting neatly within that blurry space that opens as your eyes adjust from darkness to light.
On the unabashedly joyful opener “Cherokee,” Marshall spins pure, golden sunshine, reveling in the rhyming wordplay of the lyrics, with their “bury me, marry me to the sky” refrain. As the album progresses, real life intrudes; themes of dissatisfaction creep in (“Ruin,” “3, 6, 9,”), as do the gritty triumphs of humanity and defiance (“Always On My Own,” “Human Being”), and call for change (“Nothin’ But Time”). The anthemic “Nothin’ But Time” is undoubtedly the album’s centerpiece. Its melodies and atmosphere recall David Bowie’s “Heroes,” while Iggy Pop adds depth and resonance to the lines “You ain’t got nothing but time/And it ain’t got nothin’ on you.” It’s even got a false fadeout.
“Peace and Love” closes the album on a raucous note; despite its insistent guitar riff and big, powerful beat, it’s easy to imagine it as a hip-hop track. Despite mixed reaction from long-time Cat Power fans, Sun is absolutely worth your attention. -KO
Key Tracks: “Cherokee,” “Nothin’ But Time,” “Peace and Love”
For Fans of: Rachael Yamagata, Nina Simone, Tristan Prettyman
On their eleventh studio album, Pet Shop Boys create a “one mood” album in the mold of 1990’s Behaviour or 2002’s Release. Like those albums, Elysium does not strictly hew to one mood, nor does it reflect the brightness or bounce of their last “proper” album, Yes.
PSB have long mined a unique vein in pop music, setting melancholy-tinged lyrics to upbeat, hook-swaddled dance music. Though they no longer visit the upper regions of the pop charts with any consistency, they have continued to evolve with the times; on Elysium, they worked with producer Andrew Dawson, known for his work with Kanye West, Jay-Z, and other hip-hop icons. The results are still very Pet Shop Boys. “Leaving” and “Invisible” most strongly echo Behavior’s introspective mood; “Ego Music” is a fun update of “How Can You Expect to Be Taken Seriously?” that mostly skewers today’s Twitter-obsessed pop stars; and, as with Very’s “Yesterday, When I Was Mad,” “Your Early Stuff” turns back-handed compliments—this time from cab drivers—into lyrics for a bit of comic relief.
Though unlikely to return PSB to the top of today’s download-dominated charts, Elysium is an eminently satisfying album—the perfect soundtrack for a crisp, autumn afternoon.
Key Tracks: “Leaving,” “Invisible,” “Winner,” “Ego Music”
For Fans of: Behaviour, Robbie Williams, Madonna
Polished, hard-charging alt-rock
The challenge to playing a style of music that fits squarely within a saturated genre is escaping the vortex of homogeneity. In the suffocating ecosphere of alt-rock, not only are there seemingly millions of bands fastidiously following the late-90s blueprint, but somewhat amazingly, new bands continue to pop up, following the exact formula of vulnerable lyrics, distorted guitars and big rock choruses. To stand out, a band has two choices: either push beyond the boundaries of the genre or do it really, really, really well. With their latest release, Breaking Point, Phoenix-based Digital Summer squarely establish membership in the latter category.
Produced by the legendary Mike Watts and funded with a Kickstarter campaign (though the $51,000 raised falls slightly below the campaign of Amanda Palmer, reviewed above)*, Breaking Point confounded its modest, DIY-sized expectations by sounding every bit like a big label release. Sure, there are the angsty lyrics and explosive choruses that define virtually all alt-rock platters, but what elevates Breaking Point above the Nickelback clones is the songwriting, which tends to dodge the more obvious payoffs in favor of leaner, more aggressive fare. Opener “Forget You,” a seething celebration of sobriety, features Sevendust’s Clint Lowery on guitar, and showcases Digital Summer’s over-arching battleplan: double-kick aggression, sharp rhythms and clear, steroidal vocals. “Fight ‘Til I Fall” might be the strongest track, with shades of industrial and a maleficent feast of a breakdown before the final chorus. Two ballads feel a bit formulaic, diluting the intensity of the first nine cuts, but in a time when “successful” albums pack sixty percent filler, these softer selections cannot distract from the unmitigated pleasure of strapping on the headphones and dialing in to this hard-charging alt-rock standout. -JD
Key Tracks: “Fight ‘Til I Fall,” “Dance In the Fire,” “Forget You”
For Fans of: Chevelle, Filter, Alter Bridge