All posts by Aaron Amstutz

Make Believe – Make Believe

Make Believe – Self-Titled EP (Flameshovel)

Since the early 90s, a certain sect of music lovers have been trying to figure out just where the hell Tim Kinsella has been going with his musical endeavors. All the while, Kinsella has happily confounded them all, reveling in his own weirdness and making undeniable stabs of pretense. People either love everything he does with reckless abandon or hate is so badly that it makes them want to stab themselves in the ears just thinking about his crooning, pre-pubescent whelp of a voice.

That voice is everywhere on Make Believe, sliding, babbling, and careening dangerously at times over the off-kilter time signatures that makes up this 5-song EP from Kinsella’s latest project. The closest thing to a “straightforward band” setup that Kinsella has been involved in for some time, Make Believe consists of a simple guitar/bass/drums approach, with a few injections of Hammond organ here and there. The first track, “We’re All Going To Die,” should surprise any listener who expected any sort of comparison to Tim’s other main project, Joan Of Arc. Avant-garde rock noise springs forth for just an instant before he begins screaming over the spastic guitar work of long-time Kinsella-collaborator Sam Zurick – and it’s apparent from Kinsella’s screechings that spending nearly a decade in the tweaked-out, artsy Joan Of Arc hasn’t drained him of the hyperactive, spluttering vocal style that made Cap’n Jazz distinctly endearing to many ears. Neither has he lost his wit or his ability to say whatever comes to him, but the surprise is that he may actually now be saying something that’s worth hearing.

“All the heavy metal songs are good when they say never surrender,” Kinsella playfully pokes, but then continues in his diatribe on the current state of music with: “All the hip hop hits are good when they say say my name / All the patriotic country hits are good when they say be patriotic / Because patriotism is critical.” Wait – hold on – those were some pretty straightforward lyrics. What, no clever word trickery or nursery-rhyme homoerotic imagery? Kinsella has reinvented himself through regression. His vocals on Make Believe call to mind his earlier musical endeavors, but his lyrics are a far cry from anything he’s done before. The trick: he’s making observations.

Kinsella shows no signs of letting up in his attack on major rock bands, declaring that: “If the radio is any kind of indication then I guess all they got is God and sports in Bakersfield / And of course who am I to know, but it seems they got neither of their own,” an obvious stab at the Bakersfield-born nu-metal/jock rock sound. And yet, Kinsella still has to throw in one last self-deprecating yet simultaneously “better-than-you” line with “And baby, you know I’m no athlete, but I’ve got a way with God.”

There are even “heart-goes-out” observations about third-world sweatshops and the desensitization of Americans: “Thanks to whoever made my shoes here / Wherever you may be now / I bet you think about killing yourself all the time.” And then, apologetically: “I was just born into my assumptions / A simple understanding of violence and central air’s seduction.”

The combination of Nate Kinsella (Tim’s cousin) on drums, Bobby Burg (Love Of Everything) on bass, and Zurick’s techy, noodling guitar style does little more than serve as a vessel for Tim Kinsella’s voice, which works as an instrument in and of itself. Zurick manages some impressive guitar playing, but brandishes few tricks that he didn’t use while playing in Ghosts & Vodka, while Burg and Nate seem to be more keeping up with Zurick and Kinsella’s freak-outs. The bottom line: Make Believe would be incredibly uninteresting without Tim Kinsella. With him, they serve of up the most intriguing music he’s been a part of outside of playing with Cap’n Jazz, both in their original form and as Owls. Moreover, as it was with those groups, it is Kinsella who packs the punch – and it will be Kinsella who will make or break the disc for a listener. Each of his projects has always carried the weight of trying to be different than his others, but Make Believe seems to throw that weight off and let its difference speak loudly, albeit in a voice that most people can’t stand the sound of.

Tristeza – Espuma

TristezaEspuma (Gravity)

The latest offering from the San Diego quintet (featuring Album Leaf mastermind Jimmy Lavalle, who has subsequently left the group), Espuma, the counterpart to the 2002 EP Mania Phase, is a seven-song effort showcasing several tracks that the band has been crafting in the live setting for some time. Like Tristeza’s name and many of their song titles, Espuma is derived from the Spanish. In this case “espumar,” which has three meanings (according to my handy Spanish-English Dictionary): 1. To skim off, 2. To froth or foam, and 3. To sparkle.

With each release since their emergence in the late 90s, Tristeza has stripped away more of the rock sensibilities that placed them as just another upstart from the post-Tortoise “instrumental indie-rockers” school. While Tristeza’s efforts require at least two or three listens to peel away the layers of sound enveloping each track, their music has always been marked by elegant, note-heavy guitars layered with humming keyboard washes, all piled atop a rhythm section steeped in jazz. 2000’s Dream Signals In Full Circles best signaled a new direction for the band, embracing elements of trance, ambience, and dub, with heavier electronic influence and more freeform jamming. Espuma illustrates that Tristeza has indeed been “skimming off” elements that have, in the past, adhered to their sound. They’ve all but abandoned the verse-chorus-verse-minus-vocals approach, leaving them free to develop textured tracks that, while they drone, still pack a punch. The result is both as simple and as dense as anything that Tristeza has ever done, and is also likely to be perceived as their most inaccessible work.

Starting off with a brief ambient track, the songs quickly develop into longer jams, locking onto a tune and to stretching it as far as it can withstand. The second track, “Glimpse Exposure,” strikes as almost an impromptu piece, as it slowly creeps up from simple guitar intro (which serves as the backbone of the song, barely changing) into a cascading crescendo of keyboards and splash cymbal hits. Whereas on past efforts, Tristeza has always seemed more collaborative sound-wise, it is the bass / drums / keys that seem to be demanding most of the attention here, with the guitars picking softly underneath. On the following two tracks “Avant Reverse” and “Enchanter,” there are virtually no guitars, but plenty of noise effects and tweaking beneath the rhythm. The result is a decidedly more dub-heavy sound than anything Tristeza has done before, and it is here that we get our second definition of espumar.

It has become common for things to move slowly with Tristeza. And while repetition was always a weapon brandished on their past work, it seems to be their primary method of songwriting these days. Like the best instrumental music, they manage to keep their repetitiveness interesting enough to demand some attention from their listeners as they neatly nullify us with the music. In truth, the second definition of “espumar” seems to be the most accurate in describing Tristeza; the sounds on Espuma do indeed froth and foam, like the breaking of waves against sand, over and over again. It is soothing, relaxing, trance inducing, and the most it will make you want to do is close your eyes before you drift off.

The EP’s most interesting and “rocking” track, “Living Stains,” was recorded live, and one can feel the energy surging from each note and cymbal hit as if the band were performing it right in front of you. A heavy keyboard buildup laces the track with the typical Tristeza sonics, but it is the timing and musical communication that is apparent between the band that results in the final correlation between Espumar‘s title and the music it contains. Tristeza has moved slowly but gracefully up to this point, but “Living Stains” puts the EP into a whole into new perspective – that of an encapsulated flash of brightness emerging from a bleak soundscape. Each note and sound on the EP suddenly seems to truly sparkle with the new smoothness of polished stone.

Some MP3s available from Epitonic.

The Casket Lottery – Possiblies And Maybes

The Casket LotteryPossiblies And Maybes (Second Nature)

From the get-go, let it be known that Possiblies And Maybes is not a new Casket Lottery full-length. No song on here was intended to be thrown into the mix together with the hope of creating a completely consistent and fresh record. The “previously recorded, unreleased, and rare material” label is very important to such records.

That said, The Casket Lottery already has a lot of dangerous premeditations with which to contend. First is the “metal guys who found their soft side and stopped playing heavy music” factor (both guitarist/vocalist Nathan Ellis and bassist Stacey Hilt did stints as bass player for defunct Kansas metalcore outfit, Coalesce), which seems to have been an “in” trend over the last several years. Being from the same hometown as The Get-Up Kids can’t be much help either, since it can easily get them slagged off as a crybaby emo band without so much as a listen, particularly given the rise of other Lawrence-based Get-Up Kids copycat acts like The Anniversary.

The fact is, however, The Casket Lottery has come to a point smack in the middle of Coalesce and The Get-Up Kids, and nowhere is this more apparent than on Possiblies. The band still retains much of the technical creativity and distorted grooves they mastered in Coalesce—off-time riffage dodges in and out of the verse-chorus-verse format, all the while firmly supported by the incredibly solid pounding of Nathan Richardson. No doubt, they have taken the distortion down a few notches since their days in hardcore, and adapted to the dual-vocal harmony approach, with Ellis’ high-pitched voice taking the forefront on most tracks. However, songs like “March On To Babylon,” “Unteen” and “Blessed/Cursed” beckon back to The Lottery’s earlier releases, Choose Bronze and the Dot Dot Dash EP, making comfortable use of heavier riffs that could easily have slipped into some of Coalesce’s later work. Conversely, tracks like “Better Off” and “Bill And Axe” showcase the pop/rock sensibilities of the group.

Then there are the covers. Some are good, others less so. A pleasing cover of The Cure’s “Six Different Ways” graces the album, as does a fine rendition of Shudder To Think’s “Red House.” They belt it out like Coalesce on Helmet’s “In The Meantime,” and much of this is due to the guest appearance of ex-Coalesce frontman Sean Ingram’s guttural scream. The cover of The Police’s “Synchronicity II” is a bit disappointing. Ellis is no Sting, and his voice and singing style don’t seem to adapt to the song as well as they should, and it’s easy to see why this one stayed unreleased until now. More obscure covers include a Kill Creek rarity and a Government Issue cover taken from their split 7″ with Hot Water Music.

So is The Casket Lottery worthy of a compilation release of their harder-to-find material at a point where many are still asking “Who the hell is The Casket Lottery?” The Casket Lottery has come out on top. Possiblies And Maybes shows that the so-often stated indie belief that bands put out their best work as B-sides and comp tracks may have some credence. What is most impressive about this release is that the band was not squeamish about releasing it. This is, in every way, a complete collection, from their first demo songs, to tracks left off their most recent LP, songs they wanted to re-release, and others that they didn’t particularly want heard. It’s all here, to satisfy completists and non-completists alike, and it should do both very well. The fact is that The Casket Lottery is an important and talented band, and it has shown on every release. In their own words: “No, I’m not too old for this. And I hope I never outgrow my dreams.”