All posts by Nate Seltenrich

The Stella Link – Mystic Jaguar…Attack!!!

The Stella LinkMystic Jaguar…Attack!!! (Ascetic)

Mystic Jaguar…Attack!!! opens with a dramatic two-part post-rock instrumental called “Apogee.” This inevitably instills certain expectations for the rest of the album. Progressive songwriting, instrumental expertise, mesmerizing rhythms, classical structures, and the absence of the mundane are all promised indirectly. Except by the most skeptical and masochistic among us, the title of the song will not be interpreted literally.

On this, the debut release from Kansas City, MO’s the Stella Link, reality is a compromise between these two reactions. While not all of the remaining eight tracks fail at realizing the potential posed by the introduction, as a whole they don’t do much to refute the notion that the start of the album is indeed its apex.

In “Undetermined” the Stella Link wish they sounded more like Failure. Not that they can be blamed for this. “Winner Takes All” (mp3) is another intense post-hardcore number, with a bolder midwestern stamp. “Ice Machine” (mp3) finally revisits the gorgeous instrumental post-rock of “Apogee.” Despite its tendency to wander, it’s an unquestionable highlight. The droning and pulsing “Fog Machine,” a short track with a spacey, industrial feel and without lyrics, is another strong point. There develops an obvious trend – the Stella Link turn into a different band when they go instrumental, and are evidently far less skilled at building songs around lyrics than they are at crafting soundscapes. They formed in late 2000 as a predominately instrumental group, and it seems that propensity still lingers.

Produced by some big names in Midwest post-hardcore (Matt Talbott of Hum and Paul Malinowski of Shiner), the album is an important artifact for followers of that scene. The band’s four members come from a number of Kansas City-based indie rock groups: Lafayette, Season to Risk, Aerialuxe, Dirt Nap, and the String and Return. Record label Ascetic Records, based in Saint Louis, completes the geographic lockdown. Coupled with the musical inconsistency, this roster fosters the sense that this record is more of a snapshot compilation than a coherent album.

The only song here that encapsulates both unnecessarily distinct approaches is “Starting Line,” which is therefore the best selection on the album. But with this track stacked right below “Apogee,” Mystic Jaguar puts its best face forward to a fault. Good first impressions turn out to be deadly.

Jimmy Chamberlin: Life Begins Again

Jimmy Chamberlin's life begins againOver the course of a few years in the mid-’90s, the Smashing Pumpkins grew from college rock buzz band to alternative rock institution. But just half a decade later, the group’s split was already a forgone conclusion to fans and critics alike. The shaping forces of mainstream acceptance had dug deep into the band’s flesh, afflicting its sound as well as its internal operations.

A devout Pumpkinhead since 1993’s Siamese Dream forever altered my understanding of what music could mean, I had followed the band through the glory days of their ambitious and commercially successful double-album Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness (still the best-selling double CD of all time) to the musically disparate, but still intimate and beautiful Adore, then on to the frustrating Machina: The Machines of God, and finally to the lost hooray, the “illegally” distributed and aptly-titled Machina II: The Friends and Enemies of Modern Music. When the announcement of the breakup came, I was chagrined, but not surprised. Mostly I looked forward to the future and imagined the treasures my favorite musicians would bestow upon me in years to come.

Continue reading Jimmy Chamberlin: Life Begins Again

Biirdie – Morning Kills the Dark

BiirdieMorning Kills the Dark (Pop Up)

Biirdie, by most accounts an indie pop trio with a psychedelic slant, was formed in Daniel Lanois’ Silverlake, CA home while he was out of town. On the day before Halloween, 2003, Jared Flamm was housesitting for the accomplished producer when he met Kala Savage (sister of Ben and Fred), who was working locally as an actress. Together, with Flamm’s friend Richard Gowen, they jammed in Lanois’ living room to songs like “Pale Blue Eyes” for forty minutes at a time. Included in that living room was Dylan’s Time Out of Mind piano, which turned out to be magic once again.

The magnificent debut Morning Kills the Dark is divided into two five-track parts – the “Morning Side” and the “Dark Side.” As one might expect, the “Morning Side” is exuberant and playful, holding promise and hope for the future in regards to things like friendship, love, and the places we call home. The “Dark Side,” conversely, feels somber and melancholy, and dwells on the more trying realities of much of the same subject matter.

From the rise of dawn to the fall of dusk, Morning Kills the Dark features stunning vocal harmonies, lush melodies, and bright instrumentation. Its music fills the air like a warm haze, gently easing the listener down to rest in a fog of auditory anesthesia. But this calm is mated to exhilaration, as in a dreamt view from above. The album’s most singular moments haunt like a new love: “To Know That You Need Me” – the first time that I heard it, I wrote down “Jesus this song is beautiful;” “The Other Side of Sunset” – opens with a spiritual high/low vocal harmony over patiently pacing piano chords; “I Got You (On My Mind)” – through creatively sparse guitar, synth, and drum fills, the up-and-down melody is never lonely, but never lost; “California is Waiting” – “I’m going to California from this little Florida town / From Hollywood to Silverlake, I’m Los Angeles bound / With tons of cars and five-pointed stars on every sidewalk street / What California doesn’t have is you / You and me,” Flamm sings with the weariness of two thousand miles in his voice.

Not since Pet Sounds have I heard a pop album with so much orchestrated gorgeousness, so much emotional and aural appeal, so much genuine sentiment. If that classic Beach Boys album is a symphony to God, Morning Kills the Dark is a symphony to life. And it’s no less powerful to behold.

Streaming audio available on myspace.

The Datsuns – Outta Sight/Outta Mind

The DatsunsOutta Sight/Outta Mind (V2)

Every time I review a so-called straight-up rock and roll album that I enjoyed during my first couple listens, I find myself gushing about the pure pleasure of unapologetically loud, gritty rock. Then I put the album away only to ignore or forget about it for months, perhaps years on end. One day I inevitably discover the truth – turns out it was a little boring, far from innovative, and indeed nothing special.

Upon listening to the first few tracks of the Datsuns’ Outta Sight/Outta Mind, produced by John Paul Jones, I began to see the whole cycle taking shape again. But not this time. Sorry Datsuns, you’ll mark the end of my critical blindspot for you and your kind. Hope you weren’t counting on another pandering, clichéd review praising you for revisiting “the way rock and roll is supposed to be.”

Such a broad, generic description shouldn’t be the backbone of any critical review, and the Datsuns make it clear why: it refers to a very limited spectrum of the immense “rock and roll” spectrum. The Datsuns take no chances and no steps forward throughout the entirety of this record, instead being content to mimic their heroes. Inspired by the same nascent age of garage rock, at least the Hives repackage it with finesse and style.

Not only does Outta Sight/Outta Mind find the Datsuns tossing about in a very small little world, but it also fails to feature songwriting of any merit. Sure, there are some wicked solos, but they’re hardly of the mind-melting variety. A nice riff is heard now and then, but few are put to any good use. All told, the Datsuns don’t succeed in doing much more than rocking. That might suffice for a pre-teen just discovering classic rock, and would hopefully send them back in time to the likes of AC/DC, the Sonics and the MC5. But for anyone who has moved beyond that precious stage, this album assures us that while their forefathers rocked our asses, the Datsuns are a second-rate blast from the past.

Ragz Mo’ Rocka – Rising of the Pheonix

Ragz Mo’ RockaRising of the Pheonix (3:33 Records)

Let’s keep it simple – “animated” is the only word to describe this album. First, you must know that Ragz Mo’ Rocka is a cartoon group. Made up of guitarist Flu, deejay Grayscale, vocalist Sir Reel, drummer Lil’ Russ, and bassist Big Dub, as well as a girl named Topaz, a blue dog, and a floating mushroom called Fungy, Ragz Mo’ Rocka is one lively and colorful bunch. Their illustrated depictions on the cover and sleeve of Rising of the Phoenix are simple yet very alive – from Big Dub’s purple sweatsuit to Lil’ Russ’ green afro to Flu’s wickedly crooked jaw, each individual’s visual representation alludes to his musical character on the album.

The best thing about Rising of the Phoenix is that its music is as animated as its cartoon players. Not quite hip-hip, techno, nor rock, it is all and none of the above throughout their debut album. But the varied styles don’t all fare equally well – specifically, the group’s more rockin’ offerings are significantly less pleasing than their beat-based songs. This chink in the armor is a noticeable flaw throughout the record, and shows particularly sore spots in “Good Timez” and “Hooked.” But this is far from a fatal flaw. As they contribute to the album’s broad color scheme and establish Ragz Mo’ Rocka’s eagerness to work with a variety of shades of music, these songs still have some merit. Alone, they are quite bland, but taken in the greater context, they make Rising of the Phoenix a stronger album.

The real highlights come when Ragz Mo’ Rocka set their boisterously pigmented selves free. Most often this sounds like a fat, funky beat smashed into a collage of various instruments and noises. Ragz Mo’ Rocka is on par with the Roots and Ozomatli in their ability to assimilate creative, percussive beats with lead guitar parts.

“Question of Reflection” preaches the indulgence ethos of the ’80s with none of the sappy nostalgia or worn-out techno blips. When Sir Reel sings, “I’m finding Southern comfort in a fifth and a spliff,” not only is it a nice rhyme, but it also makes me want to join him. The title track, “Rising of the Phoenix,” is an ethereal and hypnotically rhythmic instrumental track that is far more emotional and full of life than your typical instrumental breakdown. The group’s vivacious attitude again finds itself in top form on “El Amalgado,” a cover of a Bert Bacharach tune rapped in Spanish over conga drums and an acoustic guitar.

While Rising of the Phoenix certainly has its ups and downs, its overall feel is so vibrant and energetic that even the more derivative and forgettable songs contribute to its special quality. When a group can put their mediocre songs to work while allowing their better songs to shine, that’s an accomplishment. Leave it up to a bunch of toons to show us how it’s done.

Mp3s available from CD available from CD Baby.

Audio Bullys – Ego War

Audio BullysEgo War (Astralwerks)

Audio Bullys is a horrible cliché of a group name, and this UK duo’s music treads the same territory. Their Astralwerks debut, Ego War, is the sort of boring, unimaginative record that gives a music reviewer a wicked case of writer’s block.

Imagine a cross between the Streets and Basement Jaxx. Dumb it down a bit. Replace rampant creativity with an overwhelming desire to be famous. Then you’d have an idea of what to expect from Ego War. What’s in a name? Everything, in this case. Hang on to your egos guys, cause that’s all you got.

Ironically enough, the album’s closer and title track is pretty neat. A sort of techno battle track, “Ego War” features a sweet lo-fi synth sample and some nice production work. I listened to it a few times in a row, but I think that was as much out of distaste for the rest of the album as it was out of the track’s own strength. Another relative highlight is the hip-hop styled “100 Million,” which features asinine lyrics (check out this opener – “It was early, I woke up / Still had a joint so I puffed / Shouldn’t have, cause it got me stoned”), but a nice enough beat. “Way Too Long” is also built on a fun sample and good production, while “Real Life” is a more danceable number with a heavy techno beat but not much else. A facelift remix could easily land this cut in some trendy clubs on both sides of the ocean.

Essentially, the songs are all built on a style template rather than genuine songwriting inspiration. Sometimes that’s fine, but in this case, the goal seems to be popularity rather than listener enjoyment, and that’s not fine. I don’t like this album and don’t have much else to say about it. Hardcore fans of British house may enjoy it, as will some members of the popular audience who haven’t heard (or liked) the Streets, Dizzee Rascal, or Basement Jaxx. To me, it’s just another record that really didn’t need to be made.

Presidents of the United States of America – Love Everybody

The Presidents of the United States of AmericaLove Everybody (Pusa)

The Presidents of the United States of America are back! After breaking up in 1998, the group reunited as the Presidents in 2000 for Freaked Out and Small, and in 2004 they emerge once more, with their full moniker back intact.

The band has come a long way since “Peaches,” “Kitty,” “Lump” and the other kickass tunes on their 1995 self-titled breakthrough. Love Everybody, self-released on Pusa Records, is considerably less off-kilter lyrically, as the Presidents have taken to experimenting with their music more than their subject matter. That’s not to say their songs are quite normal yet – songs like “Some Postman,” “Poke and Destroy” and “Drool at You” contain far from typical lyrics. But the main difference here is that the varied melodies, rhythms and instrumental approaches are generally more interesting and memorable than the lyrics.

“Highway Forever,” for example, is a rockin’ piece of rockabilly-punk featuring a wicked harmonica lead. “Shortwave” is an instrumental informed by surf-rock, psychedelia and ’60s pop. “5,500 Miles” goes from hard to soft and fast to slow without feeling unnatural or forced. Many of the tracks also feature keyboard and synth, creating a unique sound not heard in the group’s earlier material. Further, guitar solos and creative effects confirm their transformation from one-off pop culture icons to legit rockers.

While this album is a little heavier and less forthrightly endearing than POTUSA, it’s still a charming collection – old fans may not be interested, but they shouldn’t be disappointed. Ballew, guitbass player Dave Dederer, and drummer Jason Finn are no fools – they know fans appreciate their humorous, often strange lyrics and unique take on punk and grunge. Without abandoning this approach, the Presidents have really improved on the musical front, making this record less a pop novelty than a really nice piece of work.

Jonny Polonsky – The Power of Sound

Jonny Polonsky – The Power of Sound (Loveless Records)

Jonny Polonsky’s first full-length in eight years, The Power of Sound, should be a welcome surprise to anyone who had the good fortune of discovering him in the mid-’90s and since assumed his career’s demise. For the rest of us, it’s a full-fledged indoctrination into the music of a man we should’ve been listening to all along. In a cliché just begging to be exploited, this is one powerful album, a blitzkrieg of grungy power-pop. At only ten songs and 31 minutes in length, it’s over before you’re ready, but it doesn’t give itself the chance to let you down.

Handpicked by Frank Black and Pete Droge, Polonsky’s got built-in credentials. The rock/power-pop singer/songwriter from Wilmette, IL first impressed Black with a homemade tape back in the early ’90s. Black produced a proper demo tape for Polonsky and hooked him up with a manager, helping him to sign a deal with American Records in 1995. The result was 1996’s Hi My Name is Jonny, also produced by Frank Black. When American lost its distribution deal, Polonsky was back on his own, and it took him five years to release the There is Something Wrong With You EP on eggBERT Records.

During a subsequent tour, Polonsky met the like-minded Pete Droge, whose song “If You Don’t Love Me, I’ll Kill Myself” served as the wonderfully wry soundtrack to the snowball fight scene in Dumb and Dumber. Droge also dug Polonsky and helped him to get a contract with Loveless Records, who agreed to release The Power of Sound.

Listening to the album, you might hear an edgier Matthew Sweet, or perhaps a poppier and more melodic Sweet Water. Either way, you’re sure to conclude one thing – this stuff is sweet! Frank Black, a favorite artist of the teenage Polonsky, makes his presence felt through driving and multi-layered rock made accessible and fun. With a name like The Power of Sound, you’d also expect a broader musical palette than just guitar, drums, and bass – and that’s what you get – well, sorta. Polonsky, who plays all the instruments save a few drum tracks carried by A Perfect Circle’s Josh Freese, introduces violin, tambourine, and keyboard into a few cuts.

“Where the Signs End” is the album’s greatest rocker, where Polonsky busts out his wickedest riff and guitar solo and even opens up the pipes for some cathartic screams. Next in line is another highlight, “How Much Do You Know?” Fans of the Smashing Pumpkins will hear fellow Chicago native Billy Corgan incarnate in multiple guitar parts throughout this song, but there’s also a sunniness to the song that is decidedly non-Corgan. “I’ve been waiting so long / Just to tell you, tell you something / Wonder if you know what I will tell you / Of my secret,” he sings at the opening of the track. Polonsky’s tease hints at the fun he finds in uncertainty, a recurring lyrical theme throughout all ten songs.

The acoustic guitar is only showcased once on the album, a rare feat for a solo artist of Polonsky’s ilk. The song in which it appears, “All This Freezing,” is actually a dull moment on the record for its slower pace and sparser sound. But it does hint that Polonsky could probably perform a stunningly soulful acoustic set if he felt so inclined.

Take it from Frank Black, Pete Droge, and yours truly – this guy’s got something special. At a time when most independent rock is less-than-cheerful, our country is less-than-united, and our world is increasingly unstable, Jonny Polonsky is more than happy to remind us that there is still hope – The Power of Sound. As he urges us in the album’s closer, “Come on / Don’t you live for the light?”

Ani DiFranco – Educated Guess

Ani DiFrancoEducated Guess (Righteous Babe)

Over the last 20 years, singer/songwriter/activist Ani DiFranco has built an impressive career from doing it her own way every chance she got. Her latest, Educated Guess, is a solo album to the fullest extent of the word. There are no other musicians or singers on the album. She recorded and mixed the record entirely by herself. And just like the rest of her 16 official albums, Educated Guess was released on her own label, Righteous Babe Records. The only times she lets others in on the act is with the album’s digital mastering and ambitious multimedia sleeve design (although she did contribute nice sharpie and white-out drawings).

DiFranco’s approach has always been to challenge the established structure and hegemony of the music industry and society at large. The breadth of her independent catalog alone is testament to this, but her lyrics are also often political or social in nature. In “The Interview,” a poem printed in the sleeve booklet, she writes: “how can one talk on / the role of politics in art / when art is / activism / and anyway / both are just a lifelong light / shining through a swinging prism.” Beyond the inclusion of a total of four short poems in the liner notes, Educated Guess also contains four spoken word tracks, all delivered as poetry and accompanied by interesting vocal and instrumental tracks.

Musically, Educated Guess is an inconsistent effort. The spoken word tracks break up rather than tie together the album, and the songs alternate sporadically between full and melodic (“Swim,” “Origami”) and sparse and rambling (“Animal,” “Bodily”). While this pattern showcases the wide array of song structures that DiFranco is able to compose and perform, it doesn’t make for a very involving listen.

Few musicians have released an album so solo so deep into their career, and DiFranco should be noted and credited for doing so. And as long as she continues to challenge us and herself, she will remain a bold inspiration for independent artists everywhere.

The Vines – Winning Days

The VinesWinning Days (Capitol)

Winning Days is a loser of a follow-up to the Vines’ critically acclaimed 2002 debut, Highly Evolved. A sterile collection of largely forgettable songs, the album is a case-in-point example of what can and often does happen to bands whose first album catapults them to superstardom on the strength of a few hit singles.

“Ride,” the first single off Winning Days, contains one of the most irritating choruses I’ve ever heard (“Ride with me, ride with me, ride with me”). Lead singer Craig Nicholls’ Australian accent makes “ride” sound a lot like “rock,” which is an even more lame thing to be shouting about at the beginning of a rock album.

From there, things don’t get much better. The next song, “Animal Machine,” is a spookily accurate Nirvana resurrection by a band that started out doing Nirvana covers. That’s okay, but seriously, Nirvana’s been gone for over a decade. Try writing something new. “TV Pro” introduces some trippy, psychedelic rock into the mix. Its fast/slow tempo shifts, breathy vocals, flailing guitars and diverse instrumentation make it the most engaging song on the album. As for the rest of Winning Days, when it’s not annoying, it’s boring. By the time you reach the languid, Oasis-styled ballad “Sun Child,” the previous nine songs feel like a formless blur.

“Fuck the World” wraps things up on a harder-hitting and less derivative note. It’s the most direct song on the record, and one of the few that would really work live. It rolls with a deep groove, grungy screaming, crash-heavy drumming, and a catchy sing-along chorus that provides a lingering melody to hum after listening to an otherwise vacant album. Sadly, most people who buy the album won’t even hear this song – it’s cut from the clean version, which will stock the shelves of superstores like Target and Wal-Mart across the country.

Even for Vines fans, this record is hardly worth buying. Let the band reassess their direction, spend some more time on the road, and hopefully make a thoughtful, creative third effort. If that doesn’t happen, write their debut off as a fluke. If it does, you can congratulate yourself on your patience and spend those 15 bucks the right way.