All posts by Todd Totale

Ethan Daniel Davidson – Silvertooth

Ethan Daniel DavidsonSilvertooth (Seedsman Company)

If what you read on the internets is true, then we’re raising our musically-inclined youth on a culture of immediate gratification without a hint of what it really takes to barely make a dent in today’s music industry. A quick litmus test may be to introduce every sing-for-your-supper contestant on The Voice or American Idol to Ethan Daniel Davidson, a journeyman whose last tour touched over 900 shows and yet you still have no idea who he is.

So the choice to pause and make roots and babies is not surprising, just as is the decision after years of normalcy to return to the studio out of the basic need to create again. You can take the guitar away from an artist, but they’ll eventually end up in a pawn shop eyeballing those cheap Korean models under the pretense that it’ll just be confined to “around the house.”

Davidson may be returning to the long grind of unadorned and under-appreciated touring again with Silvertooth–his first record in seven years–but the songs within it reflect that he hasn’t forgotten the draw of traditional music during that time, picking up on the dustbowl vibe like he just got off the road yesterday. “I’ve measured so many miles between who I am and who I might have been,” he sings on “Your Old Key,” but it sure feels like he’s a work-in-progress while understanding full well that his passion often builds a wide gulf between the relationships that we should be fostering.

Silvertooth puts Davidson’s voice and acoustic guitar unadorned in a very analog way, leaving producer Warren DeFever with a clean palate to color in with atmospheric tones, N’awlins dirge horns and a bed of reverb to lay down in when it gets dark enough. It’s a haunting approach at times, but nothing that listeners haven’t heard before. I was reminded of Grant Lee Buffalo’s Mighty Joe Moon after my initial listen.

And that was enough to warrant a second helping for me.

Throughout the effort, Davidson sweetens the mix with memorable lines like “You always feel the gavel/But you never see the judge” (Ain’t The Man I Used To Be) giving the illusion of his influences at nearly every turn. Unfortunately, the limits of his own voice prevent at least a distinction of putting Davidson into a category all of his own, which means that he’s probably looking at another never-ending schedule where his material will be given away more than it’s actually heard.

The more things change, as they say, but Silvertooth is unquestionably good enough to wish Ethan Daniel Davidson safe travels while he brings his own life lessons to a plywood stage near you.

Audio: Ethan Daniel Davidson – “The Dogs Howl, The Caravan Moves On”

The Chuck Dukowski Sextet – Haunted; OFF! – Off!

The Chuck Dukowski SextetHaunted (Org Music)

OFF!Off! (Vice)

The importance of L.A.’s punk pioneers Black Flag cannot be understated. Even if history only confirms one album, Damaged, as the band’s crowning achievement, you have to consider the band beyond anything committed to magnetic tape. From their grueling tour schedule, to the D.I.Y. ethos of their label SST Records, to their dangerous encounters with the Los Angeles Police Department, Black Flag is a band that could never be duplicated in today’s world. Not that you’d want to, based on their numerous war stories.

Because of this, the members of Black Flag’s continual line-up changes deserve a bit of respect in their post Flag offerings, regardless of how important their career changes were.

For Black Flag’s first vocalist, Keith Morris, that respect was secured with the Circle Jerks, another prominent SoCal punk rock band that continues to inspire and be revered even in the new century.

For Black Flag’s original bassist and occasional wordsmith Chuck Dukowski, the ability to say something nice about his work after Flag becomes a bit of a stretch. After researching and re-listening to Duke’s work in such forgotten SST releases by SWA and October Faction, the best thing that can be said is to leave well enough alone.

It may surprise some that we can now consider both of these alumni as legitimate members of the post-millennium music scene, not just card-carrying SST members looking to cash in on a bit of nostalgia, although both men have participated in at least some kind of reunion effort of their former glories.

Dukowski’s current gig centers around a band that bares his name: the Chuck Dukowski Sextet. The CD6 features Chuck’s wife Lora on vocals, an artist who not only delivers stunning visual pieces (check out the band’s album covers) but also a surprisingly awesome vocal take on the Dukowski penned Flag classic “My War” from the band’s debut album, Eat My Life.

They included the cover on a split 7” they did with Mike Watt’s Missingmen project last Spring. The effort was released on their new record label Org Records as a way to remind listeners of Dukowski’s lineage, a promotional tactic that must have worked since it certainly put the CD6 on my radar.

Keith Morris’ latest band, OFF!, also took flight after a bit of reminiscing and the subsequent falling out between band members trying to revisit old tunes while trying to ignore old personality clashes.

When Morris’ Circle Jerks decided to give it another go, the members found a huge gulf between the idea to make the band just another nostalgia act or to take things a step further by incorporating new songs into the mix. When some members were unable to devote the time necessary to work on new material and when some voiced concern over producer Dimitri Coats’ own work demands, Morris put the Circle Jerks on hiatus and continued to work on the songs that he and Coats had started.

Off! just released their debut album over the summer, and it’s hard to find fault with Morris’ decision or with Coats work ethic and guitar work either.

Off! screams by at barely a quarter-hour, with every second sounding like it’s the most important thing in the world, even when the subject matter obviously isn’t.

Don’t think that Off! is riddled with greasy kid stuff, but there are moments where Morris is able to channel his younger angst. Most notable is “I Got News For You” where the Keith takes a haymaker towards Black Flag and SST founder Greg Ginn. Ginn is pretty notorious for questionable payment practices, and Morris may be the first SST alumni to publicly call him out via a 45-second song, even one that hijacks a line or two from Flag’s “You Bet I’ve Got Something Against You.” “We trudged through sludge and piss/Were never paid for this!” he screams, while Coats does an incredible job of being able to alternate between Ginn’s free jazz chaos and punchy Stooge riffs.

Haunted is the latest offering from the Chuck Dukowski Sextet, and while it’s nowhere near the intensity level of Off’s pace, it’s closer to SST Record’s spirit with its unpredictable tangents.

As with the band’s previous records, the weakest link is vocalist Lora Norton who struggles with pitch, delivery, and a general sense of identity. Usually, she remains in a comfort range of a slow burn stoner, somewhat resembling Opal’s Kendra Smith, without the mystery or consistency.

It’s a family affair for the CD6, and thankfully Norton’s son Milo Gonzalez has shaped up to be a pretty passionate guitarist, giving Haunted its moments of much needed power. With a bit more work and a bit more attention at figuring out exactly what kind of band they want to be, the CD6 remain in this weird purgatory of notable potential with some members clearly dragging their feet on the band’s overall forward movement.

Gonzalez seems stifled with his mother on board as he conjures up visions of Witch Mountain with his axe and wah-wah pedal while Nora plays passive/aggressive with her delivery, stubbornly  keeping Haunted tethered to the ground while the kid sounds like he’s ready to take off.

The worst offender is the eight-minute (that’s half of Off’s entire total time, if you’re keeping track) “A Thing,” which drags on and on like it’s trying to compete as some weak V.U. cover, complete with the obligatory drone violin.

For now, the CD6’s best work remains confined to that out-of-this world “My War” cover, which is unfortunately ironic as the band is clearly trying to branch out from Dukowski’s own past.

And maybe that’s the problem: the CD6 are simply thinking too hard at trying to find themselves, when all they need to do is to try and find the same kind of passion that Morris was clearly able to conjure up in short order with Off!

Audio: Chuck Dukowski Sextet — “All Is One”

Video: OFF! – “Wiped Out”

MP3: OFF! – “King Kong Brigade” (via Magnet)

Beachwood Sparks – The Tarnished Gold

Beachwood SparksThe Tarnished Gold (Sub Pop)

After a decade long hiatus between studio albums, Beachwood Sparks returns with The Tarnished Gold, their latest attempt at channeling the ghosts of Laurel Canyon. Their country rock is tightly packaged through campfire picked guitars and a slue of pedal steels, just the way it should be. The arrangements are stacked on a wide pallet of psychedelic parlor tricks to make everything sound like it’s passed through a lysergic filter. The Tarnished Gold also features Beachwood Sparks’ most endearing feature: highly articulate harmonies that are a welcome addition when they’re presented.

It’s intriguing enough to warrant another listen, but the longer I spent in the band’s high altitude, the more I kept wondering if there was anything more to Beachwood Sparks than feeling lightheaded.

Those aforementioned harmonies are plenty nifty, but with lines like “A honeybee in a field of flower/Came to me in my darkest hour” (“Talk About Lonesome”) you have to wonder, “It took a decade to come up with that?” The lazy songwriting gets to the point where there are moments of unintentional parody, and it’s at this point that I gave up on trying to piece together anything more than “talented musicians” to Beachwood Sparks’ redeeming values.

Beyond the musical chops, I can’t tell you many other reasons why we needed to wait ten years for this understated yawner or why this band’s reunion is anything beyond the kick of confidence that came from having one of their songs featured on the cult hit, Scott Pilgrim vs. The World.

“Forget the song/That I’ve been singing” they sing on the opening track, and before the end of The Tarnished Gold, you’ve done exactly that.

Video: Beachwood Sparks – “Forget The Song”

MP3: Beachwood Sparks – “Forget The Song”

MP3: Beachwood Sparks – “Sparks Fly Again”

Lost Classic: The Lovin’ Spoonful – Hums Of The Lovin’ Spoonful

The Lovin’ SpoonfulHums Of The Lovin’ Spoonful Kama Sutra)

The Lovin’ Spoonful’s third record was one of those albums that suddenly found its way into my childhood collection, presumably a hand-me-down offering from my father when he figured out that the more time I spent dwelling in front of a record player was less time spent bugging him.

It’s true: at a very young age, I was enraptured by the hypnotizing 33 1/3 revolutions per minutes and would absorb every detail of each platter that mattered in my donated collection.

Hums Of The Lovin’ Spoonful was one of those records that mattered, only to be neglected and forgotten for many years afterwards, in many ways, the same way that public perception of the Spoonful themselves has followed.

Because, unless you’re the 13th Floor Elevators and have a bullshit patent on an “electric jug,” there’s not a lot of creative empathy if you call yourselves a jug band and play something referred to as “good time music.”

Hums is the record that actually attempts to demonstrate a wide diversity of styles, and most of the time it finds the band doing exactly that. From traditional folk, straight up rock, and even a legitimate attempt at country music, the Lovin’ Spoonful cram it all into this record, the last offering from the original line-up and their most compelling.

Spoonful vocalist John Sebastian pens all of the material, but the unsung hero is guitarist Zal Yanovsky who bounces between styles and genres so effortlessly that you’ll understand why R.E.M.’s Peter Buck is such an outspoken fan.

“Summer In The City” is the big hit that everyone’s familiar with, but Hums provided a pair of additional Top 10 hits with the gentle “Rain On The Roof” and that aforementioned attempt at country, “Nashville Cats,”  pre-dating The Byrds own foray into country music by a year or two.

“Nashville Cats” is such a convincing workout that even Flatt & Scruggs borrowed it for their own while Johnny Cash took a swipe at Hums’ “Darlin’ Companion” for his At San Quentin release.

With tack pianos, slide whistles, and a Jews harp in the mix, Hums Of The Lovin’ Spoonful is indeed good time music, but in the most inspirational way. It’s the sound of young men fully realizing the plethora of great music available to them, while trying to replicate the same sounds with respect and maturity.

The fact that their youth is reflected in their execution–the band is clearly having fun here–should not be a deterrent in discovering this forgotten gem. Hums Of The Lovin’ Spoonful plays like the unintentional classic record that it is, a collection of empathetic renditions of the music that inspired the band members, while inspiring a young boy in front of a record player who’s discovering music for the first time himself.

Video: The Lovin’ Spoonful – “Nashville Cats”

Video: The Lovin’ Spoonful – “Rain On The Roof”

Rush – Clockwork Angels

RushClockwork Angels (Anthem)

Prior to the release of Rush’s twentieth album, Clockwork Angels, the band had an opportunity to visit with Pete Townshend after receiving the Governor-General Award for Lifetime Achievement in the Performing Arts.

The formal gathering provided the Canadian trio with some face time with one of their acknowledged heroes after the event, and the conversation eventually led to the “What’s next?” question. When Rush responded that they were putting the finishing touches on a new album, Townshend scoffed, hinting that the format that he helped secure as a legitimate art form with Tommy has evolved into a seemingly extinct outlet.

“Waste of time, making albums these days.” He pointed out rather correctly, and even the band was forced to admit that maybe so, but they had to.

You could look at their response as yet another example of a band from a different era failing to acknowledge modern realities. Or you could accept the fact that Rush has operated exclusively in their own reality for four decades now, navigating trends and genres in a silo of loyal fans who appreciate the independent spirit of this band’s history.

A big part of that history happened with their 1974 release, 2112, a record that found them at the end of a record deal after three consecutive commercial failures to their resume. By all means, 2112 should have been the band’s clear bend towards their label’s desire to have a hit record. Instead, it’s a record in which half of it is devoted to a concept corny enough to alienate the placid record buyers it was trying to capture.

As we know now, 2112 became an enormous record for the band, inexplicably connecting them with an audience who appreciated their excessive tendencies and geeky excursions. It also became the record that fueled their fans’ future expectations, the benchmark for new conceptual meanderings.

With Clockwork Angels, they’ve returned to idea of a concept album once again, even coyly putting the hands of a clock on the album’s cover, that–if you consider the hands in military time–clearly spell out 21:12.

To be honest, I don’t have the patience to figure out what the concept is, exactly; all I know is that I think I heard a few songs reference timepieces and that the performances within the record’s hour-long running time are probably the best thing they’ve done since Signals.

It’s also the most varied, alternating between complex arrangements and textures that effectively demonstrate a wide pallet of sounds that could only come from a band that’s spent a great deal of their existence continually trying to move forward.

Whether or not you’ve personally been a part of this journey isn’t relevant. Those of us who’ve had a relationship with Rush at some point in our life will find Clockwork Angels to be not only a continuation of the band’s recent upswing, but one of the premier entries in what’s not only been a long, storied career, but a somewhat choppy one at that.

The band wisely chose to work with producer Nick Raskulinecz again after giving the band a flattering mix for Snakes & Arrows. His role is vastly expanded here, giving Clockwork Angels a perfect blend of the band’s progressive background with their more recognizable synthesizer years, all while making sure that the material has a distinctively modern sound, capable of scaring off any younger contenders trying to surpass these elder statesmen.

They do it by not just focusing on the complexities of their craft, but in casting a wide net over its very definitions. Guitarist Alex Lifeson channels his best Robert Fripp at points where atmosphere and texture rule over guitar worship soloing. The acoustic moments are compelling, and when the material calls for a bit of big power chords, Lifeson responds with memorable attacks and distinctive tones.

Geddy Lee’s vocals are more palatable than they’ve ever been, with hints of emotional qualities that were not present when his voice was more of a distraction than an instrument. And speaking of, his bass duties are pushed up high in the mix, suggesting that he’s never stopped building his low-end craft even when his hands left the fretboard for the keyboard.

Drummer and lyricist Neil Peart also deliver some of the best work of his career, with the words providing evidence of added focus and his drumming showing signs of intentional spontaneity. Credit Raskulinecz here too, as the pair purposely avoided unnecessary exposure to the songs so that when the time came for Peart to perform the rhythm tracks, he was only familiar with the song’s outline, approaching it with only a basic notion of how he would address each fill or tempo change.

Clockwork Angels‘ most telling moment may come with its title track, beginning with progressive layer of atmospheres before turning into churning bit of double-timed frenzy. The trick goes back and forth, until it turns into an acoustic Zeppelin shuffle right around the five-minute mark. It’s well thought-out, expertly delivered, and it suggests that not only are Rush still trying to deliver career triumph to us, they may still be able to accomplish it.

“All the journeys of this great adventure,” Geddy sings, looking back on the band’s history and noting the struggles of their early years with “It didn’t always feel that way.” As the track progresses, Lee finally admits, “I wish that I could live it all again,” while the band performs as if the last four decades haven’t slowed them down a bit.

Waste of time? Judging from Townshend’s twilight output, maybe. But for the members of Rush, Clockwork Angels is a late career triumph that sounds like the band’s time was put to excellent use.

Video: Rush – “Headlong Flight”

Accept – Stalingrad

AcceptStalingrad (Nuclear Blast)

To admit to liking the German heavy metal band Accept requires an understanding that you’ll always end up defending the ridiculous video for the band’s biggest stateside song, 1983’s “Balls To The Wall.” If the image of a short, chubby vocalist with short-cropped blonde hair and a penchant for camouflage isn’t enough to put your infatuation through easy ridicule, then the image of a dummy version of Udo Dirkschneider actually riding a wrecking ball as it slams into a fake wall of bricks should surely do the trick.

I make no effort to defend that video, only offering that the riff on “Balls To The Wall” is so awesome that most guitarists would gladly give their left testicle to come up with a guitar part as spectacular. I’d also add that Sebastian Bach was spot on when he declared “Udo Dirkschneider” as the most metal name in rock music.

Accept circa 2012 is not the same band as it was thirty years ago during the heyday when they could afford things like Styrofoam bricks, stuffed Udos and videos recorded in bullet time. Hell, Udo isn’t even in the band anymore and only two of the band’s original line up remains active: guitarist Wolf Hoffman and bassist Peter Baltes.

To put it bluntly, why should you even give a shit about Accept circa 2012? For most of you, you probably shouldn’t, but for anyone else who can appreciate the beauty of metal’s adhesion to the riff itself and admire the sheer power of a male chorus chanting in an ominous Wagnerian manner such phrases as “Hellfire!” “Hung, Drawn and Quartered!” and “Stalingrad!” then Accept’s 13th offering is worth considering.

Stalingrad is the second record featuring former TT Quick vocalist Mark Tornillo as frontman. Tornillo possesses a larynx scraping vocal style that resembles Dirkschneider, but certain performances also demonstrate a greater range that’s similar to legendary British vocalist Graham Bonnet.

That’s fine for when the band makes a go of all the Accept songs that most fans will end up wanting during the subsequent tour, but it does nothing for the sake of the band’s relevance, seemingly two decades beyond their welcome.

Remarkably, guitarist Wolf Hoffman has put together a line-up and a set of songs that defy the perception of Accept beating a dead horse, making Stalingrad a legitimate contender in the metal community and a source of inspiration to anyone who isn’t quite ready to let their dreams die.

Hoffman unleashes 11 tracks of uncompromising Flying V action, and he does it with such ferocity that it sounds too good to be a second wind. He also catches everyone off guard with an entire concept album about the battle of Stalingrad that’s as heavy as the subject matter.

Utilizing the same epic approach found in many Power Metal bands, Accept is distinctively European even with Tornillo’s New Jersey heritage as the voice of their recent insurgence.

Much of the Stalingrad’s success comes at the hands of producer Andy Sneap, who presents each member with stunning clarity. He lent the same skills to Testament’s The Formation of Damnation and Megadeth’s recent releases, proving that he’s clearly adept at bringing old metal bands into the sonic landscape of the twenty-first century while retaining certain highlights of their catalog.

With Stalingrad, he’s helped renew Accept’s good fortunes, streamlining all of their talents into one tight package that suggests the band’s metal heart transplant is an overwhelming success.

Video: 15-second German TV ad

Audio: Accept – “Stalingrad”

Spiritualized – Sweet Heart Sweet Light

SpiritualizedSweet Heart Sweet Light (Fat Possum)

Within the first measures of Spiritualized’s eighth album, head Spaceman Jason Pierce continues his journey away from the minimalist leanings that he’s examined for the last pair of records, and back to the orchestrated grandeur of his revered back catalog.

While all of that may sound like a reprise of his past–which it most definitely is–what’s completely unexpected is the perfect balance that Pierce and company find between the grand stage and two-bedroom apartment. The one where the second bedroom houses all of the pawnshop gear and magnetic tape instead of a rent-contributing roommate.

A Theremin enters into the mix about thirty seconds into Sweet Heart Sweet Light, signaling that after nearly ten years of stripping down the mix, Pierce seems like fashioning up something big for this release. By the end of the record, even the traces of a musical saw seem perfectly fitting and admirably well thought out.

It’s not only one of the best albums you’ll hear all year, it ranks as one of the best in Pierce’s already impressive catalog. Entering his third decade in rock music, Pierce has packed Sweet Heart Sweet Light with beautifully simple arrangements with a sharper bite to his lyrics, some that see a somewhat compelling return to the misery that his distinctive monotone voice can wrap itself around so organically.

By the end of “Hey Jane,” the first song on the eleven track release, the band has already delivered a late career utter masterpiece of a song, complete with an inspired “Hey Jude” coda that gives the album its title.

He’s lifting a bit from his Spacemen 3 past on “Get What You Deserve,” but then, about four minutes into the track, the stereo begins to separate into a wider channel, leaving the main vocal track barking up the middle. By the fifth minute, everything is overcome with guitar distortion and vintage effect pedals while beautiful strings surround the outer ear.

By the end of the song, you’ve forgotten all about the clever allusions to the Spaceman’s past and begin caring about what is in store for us next in his future.

Quite simply, it’s a perfect blend of Pierce’s roots and the unbridled ambition of his revered late 90’s period.

When you get to “I Am What I Am,” with its Sunday go to meetin’ gospel chorus bouncing over Pierce’s deadpanned delivery, it becomes clear that there really isn’t a dud to be found on Sweet Heart Sweet Light. There’s just plenty of additional evidence what some of us have considered for some time now: that Jason Pierce is one the genre’s most vital contributors and to be able to continue to release records like this-clearly equipped for greatness and longevity-then we owe it to him to acknowledge how sweet it is to still have him around.

Video: Spiritualized – “Hey Jane”

Video: Spiritualized – “Little Girl”

Japandroids – Celebration Rock

JapandroidsCelebration Rock (Polyvinyl)

The most frustrating thing about Japandroids is that there is barely a hint of complexity, and within the first minute or so of any random song of theirs–be it from Post Nothing or their new sophomore effort Celebration Rock–you’ll have these guys completely figured out. Distorted guitars, driving drums, anthemic chorus, and repeat. There should be no reason within the band’s recorded grooves to cause much of an internal commotion.

Yet here I am, trying to put that surprise outburst to words, struggling to find the appropriate weight of just how good Japandroids second album is, particularly since this tasty apple doesn’t fall that far from the branches of their debut.

It’s better than Post Nothing because it’s a step further. Each song sounds epic enough that the fact they’re a duo doesn’t even enter the equation. They all tend to get louder the farther into the song you get and with each increase, the listener tends to get even more worked up. By the end of Celebration Rock, I had an uncontrollable urge to look for their tour schedule. Because if they can stir up that kind of adrenaline rush, sitting complacently on my couch, then being in the same room of other devotes would most certainly feel revolutionary.

It’s also better because they’re older. Droids Brian Smith (guitar) and David Prowse (drums) are getting ready to hit thirty soon, but they’ve thankfully seen what’s coming with their encroaching middle age and have decided to enter it kicking and screaming. Lucky for us, Celebration Rock lets us live vicariously through that realization, and best of all they’ve made the chord structures easy enough for all of us to learn.

Wanna know their trick? Great songs. Japandroids not only subscribe to the less is more formula in terms of membership, they’ve trimmed the fat so much that the record is a blast–both literally and figuratively–clocking in at a mere thirty-five minutes in Celebration Rock’s eight songs.

Celebration Rock marks the very rare occasion when the middle-age contrarians knee deep in their own nostalgic fog can co-mingle with the dwindling youth who still think rock and roll is worth a damn. It’s an exuberant reminder of the genre’s strength, particularly when it’s fueled with nothing more than a pair of young men with full hearts, a few drinks and some instruments to help translate their angst.

MP3: Japandroids – “The House That Heaven Built” (Via Epitonic)

King Tuff – King Tuff

King TuffKing Tuff (Sub Pop)

Surely, after Witch, Happy Birthday, and now King Tuff, one of Kyle Thomas’ projects will take hold and turn him into Sub Pop’s latest hot commodity. Lord knows they seem to release every single fart that this guy lets go of and they leave it to me to pin the tail on the moniker.

King Tuff may be the first Kyle Thomas project that actually contributes to his billing as a scuzz rock royalty, as his self-titled sophomore effort seems to suggest. Suddenly, all of the concerns of his white underbelly schtick get overlooked under a barrage of memorable power chords and the occasional Bolan Boogie.

He’s hinted at all of this before, but King Tuff actually overcomes all of the complaints that I had with Thomas’ Happy Birthday and with his catalog in general. With King Tuff, Thomas seems like he’s put in long hours working on nearly every aspect of the songs. From those aforementioned guitar highlights, to the intriguing lyrical perspective, and down to the scrapped together mix job which turned an abandoned school into what sounds like an inviting sonic Pepperland.

“Someone told me long ago/Baby, just break the rules” he declares on “Baby Just Break,” and the press release for King Tuff likes to refer to that freak flag quite often. But King Tuff shows us that Thomas cleans up nicely, making the story of how he’s been living out of his shoes a bit more palatable and, more importantly, believable. This record sounds as though he’s putting forth a greater effort in getting out of his squatter motif, heading to a point where his music actually may provide enough bread to devote all of his energy into making more songs as memorable as he has here.

“Hangin’ with my crew/At Loser’s Wall” tells the story of the social outcast’s turf, eerily mirroring my own reality growing up in a small Iowa river town.

Cruising Main Street was the norm on Saturday night, but there was a spot called “The Wall” where the carless, the rideless, and sometimes the friendless would congregate. It was a cement wall in front of a shuttered Buick dealership where the weekend crew would sit, and the outcasts would endure the shouts of passersby, safe in their Daddy’s cars with some of the more cruel passengers armed with water balloons for added emphasis.

Occasionally, a car would stop a pick someone up from the Wall, and they would suddenly be transformed from “losers” to people actually in motion.

King Tuff is where Thomas catches a lift, but it’s good enough that he actually steers the vehicle somewhere beyond the endless asphalt circle. He drags us down to the “Swamp of Love,” deeper to the “Unusual World” and even past the old drive-in where the creature-feature infection of “Bad Thing” blasts like a bit of transistor garage rock.

Ultimately, all of King Tuff represents some kind of sound from our past, but it maintains the optimism that most of us tend to lose by our early twenties. It is nice to be reminded of that forgotten optimism, and King Tuff provides it within its forty minutes, without irony, and without a hint of regret.

None of it may be life-changing, but it’s certainly life-affirming, prompting King Tuff to be the first itchy chigger bite of this summer that you’ll want to keep scratching all season long.

Video: King Tuff – “Bad Thing”

MP3: King Tuff – “Bad Thing”

MP3: King Tuff – “Keep On Movin'”

Full Album Stream: King Tuff – King Tuff

Best Coast – The Only Place

Best CoastThe Only Place (Mexican Summer)

Talk about an about face: I was ready to declare Best Coast’s last album the greatest record of all time moments after succumbing to its immediate charms. I was preparing for a similar infliction with The Only Place, Best Coast’s sophomore album, an effort that sees jack-of-all-trades Jon Brion tweaking the band’s surf rock worship into the posher confines of a more upscale zip code.

And by doing so, Brion completely dismantles every hint of charm, transforming The Only Place into a forgettable piece of polished mope, highlighting Bethany Cosentino’s discontent with her recent brush with fame thanks to Crazy For You.

If the bear on the cover doesn’t clue you in, Bethany will profess her love of the Golden State with about as much intelligence as Miss California’s question and answer section during the Miss America pageant. “We have fun / We have fun / We have fun when we please.” She tells us during the title track, adding, “We’ve got the ocean / We’ve got the sun / We’ve got the waves.”  As appealing as that all sounds, it doesn’t hold a candle to Brian Wilson’s simple declaration of “two girls for every boy” which was good enough for most boys to head for the coast with just the shirt on their backs.

Why would you live anywhere else? To avoid having to listen to Cosentino’s lyrics, for one.

Again, I fell head over heels for Crazy For You, including its inadequacies, so I’m not expecting her to turn into Joni Mitchell. What I didn’t expect was Brion to place Bethany front and center in the mix, neglecting the entire dream-girl fantasy that she conjured up underneath all that echo and reverb just a few years ago. Now she seems like any other California girl: made-up, plastic, and with very little personality to draw listeners in.

And what’s with all the moping? Before, the self-loathing was trying to nab a dude’s attention, but now it’s all about “my life, my life, my life” as she mutters on, yep, “My Life.”

Guitarist Bobb Bruno is lost within Brion’s banana hands over the guitars and gear he’s earmarked for each verse and chorus. The entire thing sounds like it was storyboarded to death with rhythms full of light ‘n airy complacency and guitars that never show much attitude for their part either. Bruno’s now become a session player, forgoing any voice he mustered previously and letting Brion turn him into a silent partner that only the fine print of the liner notes identifies.

Ironically, The Only Place uses the same old school paradigm that a major label would have used in introducing the first major label record from some underground darlings in an attempt for mass consumption. But since it’s coming from independent means already, the only excuse left for Best Coast is that all of that California sun seems to have baked away all of their charm and creativity, leaving outside influences with the duty of lathering on the sunscreen to cover it all up.

Audio: Best Coast – “The Only Place”