Atombomb Pocketknife, Alpha Sounds (Southern)

Atombomb Pocketknife - Alpha Sounds Atombomb Pocketknife
Alpha Sounds
By: Eric G.

When you wear your influences on your sleeve as proudly as Atombombpocketknife does you had better deliver the goods or be prepared to die by faint praise. The band obviously has Sonic Youth, Blonde Redhead, Unwound, and Girls Against Boys prominently placed in its record collection, but it doesn’t venture far enough away from the groundwork lain by those bands to justify its close resemblance, despite an handful of sturdy songs.

For its second album Atombompocketknife furthers the chaotic yet controlled formula of discordant guitars, dark pop meanderings, and abrupt rhythms of its debut. Justin Sinkovich’s voice may sound strikingly similar to Thurston Moore’s, but he disguises it with enough distortion to throw you off track. The band is tight and the songs are energetic and abrasive, so what’s the problem? Well, the music straddles the fence of wanting to explode into a maelstrom of emotional turmoil but never does. There’s just no payoff.

Whereas bands like Unwound and Blonde Redhead build complex and off-kilter riffs into explosive bursts of energy and release, Atombombpocketknife paves the way for a jump to the next level but seems to get scared and back away. This is where the similarity to Girls Against Boys becomes more obvious. Girls Against Boys’ music is notorious for its machine-like riffage that only hints at an eruption of noise.

With Atombombpocketknife it’s not so much the music as it is the vocals. Sinkovich’s voice is always so calm and detached even when the music calls for more involvement. “The Unofficial Guide To Backstabbing” is the catchiest and most effective song on Alpha Sounds. Its staccato rhythms work well with Sinkovich’s bored vocal style because the abrupt changes make it at least sound like he’s interested in what he’s saying.

Alpha Sounds makes the word ‘experimental’ refer to a style of music instead of being an adjective for pushing the boundary. Even the band’s feedback sounds tired and re-hashed. I saw Atombombpocketknife last winter, and it was the same story live. The band’s lack of ferociousness was exacerbated by the fact that And You Will Know Us By The Trail Of Dead blew them off the stage as the headliner that night. Maybe, Atombombpocketknife should stop listening to so many records by similar bands and see what happens.

All About My Mother, Directed By Pedro Almodovar (Sony Pictures Classic)

All About My Mother - Directed By Pedro Almodovar All About My Mother
Directed By Pedro Almodovar
Sony Pictures Classic
By: Eric G.

Who else would pay tribute to his mother with a film about men with tits, pregnant nuns, and babies with Aids but Pedro Almodovar? All About My Mother, of course, deals with more than just the showy eccentricities of gay culture; it is the story of a woman who witnesses the untimely death of her teenage son and travels to Barcelona to reconnect with the long-forgotten father, whom the son never knew.

Almodovar’s flashy style is in fine form here, but he never gets too carried away. Like A Streetcar Named Desire, the film that serves as the symbolic centerpiece, All About My Mother confronts tragedy and despair head-on, but it remains grounded in humor and universal truth. The film is packed with quirky, unforgettable characters that are expected by now in anything by Almodovar, but this time his flamboyance takes an artful back seat to thematic melodrama.

All About My Mother is almost a backhanded compliment to women. Almodovar’s women are eccentric, needy, depraved, and co-dependant, but he develops the characters enough to see them all through their various neuroses, where they end up empowered, triumphant, and, sometimes, even dead. Almodovar paces the film like a journey with several time spans and symbolic travel sequences, so you don’t feel cheated when the women emerge stronger and wiser.

Almodovar has always juxtaposed screwball zaniness with sentimentality, but All About My Mother doesn’t feel as jagged or quirky as some of his previous works did. Almodovar does, however, manage to sneak down a few bizarre pathways, all the while maintaining enough restraint to keep the plot focused and absorbing. Almodovar’s stylistic innovation has never been in question, but All About My Mother firmly cements the director into the role of storyteller as opposed to just another showy shocker.

Braid, Lucky To Be Alive (Glue Factory)

Braid - Lucky To Be Alive Braid
Lucky To Be Alive
Glue Factory
By: Eric G.

If you’re in high school and you’re not already a rap metal fan or a Goth and you have a soft spot for sensitive post-punk, then this might be your Frampton Comes Alive; otherwise, this is just another gratuitous live album (except its by emo’s poster boys instead of Pink Floyd). Braid made its mark fusing ridiculously overcomplicated riffs and changes with strained and warbled vocals, making the band sound even more frustrated than Jawbox, but, somehow, it struck a chord with a similarly frustrated legion of fans.

Lucky To Be Alive is the first of Braid’s posthumous releases, and it is an exact account of the band’s final show at Chicago’s Metro recorded late last August. Musically, Braid is only slightly more annoying than any number of post-punk, herky-jerky, calculated rock bands, but the vocals send the cringe factor into the red. Bob Nanna’s semi-melodic, belabored yelling is one thing, but when he tries to harmonize with Chris Broach’s uptight barking everything hits rock bottom.

Braid’s sound was a bastardization of Fugazi’s controlled rhythms and explosive vocals, but it was never as effective. Stretches of melody pepper each song on this live record, but the trappings of contrived post-punk expose the inherent posturing. Lyrically, Braid covered the sensitive-but-coy-but-also-clever ground with careful machination and, consequently, cemented the band forever into the much-maligned “emo” genre.

Lucky To Be Alive draws heavily from Frame & Canvas, the band’s last studio album, and Braid performs each song with energy and feeling. Admittedly, certain tracks are bearable, particularly “The New Nathan Detroits” and even parts of “What A Wonderful Puddle” despite its awful title, but the latter borrows a bit too much from Sonic Youth’s “Tunic (Song For Karen)” off Goo to stand on its own. Braid will probably and undeservedly have a bigger impact now that it has disbanded because a new breed of sensitive punk youths looking for a scene to latch onto is born every minute.

Mycomplex, If We Keep Moving (Cargo)

Mycomplex - If We Keep Moving Mycomplex
If We Keep Moving
By: Eric G.

Mycomplex mixes pistol shot hardcore with fringe metal riffs and throaty, shouted vocals, which is nothing new under the sun, but at least it’s played here with aggression and precision. It hits harder than your typical pop punk band while still searching out melody underneath the noisy exterior. The drumming is incredibly tight, but the puny, airgun sound makes it less effective in the mix. The band incorporates every single pop punk and hardcore cliche in the book, but its execution is so fiery that some missteps are forgivable (while others are not).

The lyrics are naive and idealistic to the point of comedy even, but such is the case with most punk bands these days. The singers play call and response games. Well, one sort of half-yells while the other one shrieks a response. You know the drill. Fugazi did it first, and Fugazi does it best. The songs are hard to distinguish the first few listens. They all follow the hardcore formula: an onslaught of guitars, and then a breakdown with fast, choppy harmonics and a few strained false stops. The typical hardcore beat bores me to tears, but when bands take it to a new level it’s easier to overlook. Mycomplex rarely tries to break the mold. It seems content just to mimic its idols.

The band loses any semblance of credibility it had gained on the preceding tracks, however, with the sappy closer, “Vent.” It’s a poorly sung acoustic ballad(!) with cheesy, embarrassing lyrics: “I’ve never cried so hard in my life” and “I still want to make you proud.” Ugh. Punk needs a kick in the ass.

Knifehandchop, Fighting Pig Learns Judo Tricks (Irritant)

Knifehandchop - Fighting Pig Learns Judo Tricks Knifehandchop
Fighting Pig Learns Judo Tricks
By: Eric G.

19 year old Billy Pollard Scarborough is Canada’s Knifehandchop, and Fighting Pig Learns Judo Tricks is his debut album recorded in mono on his parents’ PC to retain that “in-front-of-the-TV-feel.” Scarborough sifts through pop culture and junk culture with maniacal obsessiveness. Growing up a product of pure technology, he has years of computer games and electronic music built into his system. His music charges through samples and stuttering effects without ever losing the crux of its pulsating rhythms.

Scarborough’s music plays like it was created with a short attention span. The rhythms are jerky and the songs veer off in random, unexpected directions. You can tell he grew up on techno, but he never lets the trappings of old school rave music bog down his music even though all of the ingredients are in there somewhere. Some songs sound like the mutated soundtracks of video games. “Billy” starts off like Depeche Mode on speed while “No Seriously Fuck” sounds like Pong getting raped by Neu.

Fighting Pig Learns Judo Tricks is a condensed version of a gadget geek’s life in less than thirty-nine minutes. “Neuromancer” has a rhythm track that recalls the sound of a dying spaceship in Atari’s Asteroids coupled with inventive and memorable yet slightly familiar keyboard lines. Scarborough’s sense of humor weighs heavily in each track, especially in “Dancemix 1992”, which stacks, staggers, and deconstructs cheesy samples by awful “artists” like Bobby Brown. Knifehandchop is the soundtrack to your Playstation nightmares.

Melvins, The Crybaby (Ipecac)

Melvins - The Crybaby Melvins
The Crybaby
By: Eric G.

Following Santana’s example of recruiting famous singers to make music that is palatable for the lowest common denominator of music fan, the Melvins release the final installment of its self-proclaimed trilogy with tongue firmly planted in cheek. The Crybaby features the Melvins playing all the instruments and hiring out various freaks to handle the vocals. Leif Garrett kicks things off with a candy-assed version of Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” I guess it’s supposed to be funny to have Leif Garret teaming up with The Melvins, but the result is pretty tame. Garret’s vocals are cheesy and overproduced, which is presumably to add to the kitsch factor. The Melvins just play the song straight, but when coupled with bombastic 70’s style vocals it all ends up sounding like Queensryche (read “bad”).

The band’s interpretation of The Jesus Lizard’s “Blockbuster” lacks the tension and ferociousness of the original, but letting David Yow loose on a song always provides entertainment enough- even if it’s a song you already know. Hank Williams III faithfully covers Hank Williams Sr.’s classic “Ramblin’ Man”, and he successfully mimics his grandfather’s patented hillbilly inflections. Mike Patton lends the Melvins one of his originals, indulging in plenty of his notorious vocal experimentations and forcing the Melvins to branch out into the world of electronics, and it actually works.

“Mine Is No Disgrace” sounds like recent Melvins’ material with a slow, trudging riff and vocals that hang on each note, but Foetus’ raspy voice doesn’t have the menacing quality of King Buzzo’s. The collaboration with Skeleton Key is aggressive and consistently rocking, and that’s always appreciated on a Melvins’ record because the band is renowned for its plodding pace. Teaming up with Tool doesn’t really seem advisable, but “Divorced” is not too bad, despite being over fourteen minutes long. It builds like a Shellac song with a thudding repetitive bass line that blasts into a screeching but controlled release.

The Melvins have always been a metal band at heart, and the band’s latent roots shine through in “Dry Drunk”- a song co-written by David Yow. After an initial explosion of balls to the wall metal, the song digresses into a free jazz interlude with this curious sample: “Well, I’ve got a new friend. His name is ‘sobriety.’ Yeah, but ‘sobriety’ is boring as fuck.” Despite the (ironic?) attempt to cast a wider net, The Crybaby will doubtfully recruit any new fans for the Melvins- unless college stations think that Leif Garrett song is funny.

The The, Naked Self (Nothing)

The The - Naked Self The The
Naked Self
By: Robert H.

Matt Johnson has been making albums under the moniker "The The" for over twenty years, but as Naked Self proves, he is not, and will never be, an obsolete voice in the music world. He continually weans himself from genres in which he has flourished and reinvents his sound to show just how far his songwriting and performing abilities can stretch. For this incarnation Johnson wears a hat not unlike that of the early Trent Reznor (with whom he is reported to be working on a new project), using heavy, synthetic beats and razorlike electric guitars that slash through the, otherwise, stable soundscape. Predictably, this complements Johnson's tenor voice (his most versatile and impressive instrument) as well if not better than the bluesy sound of Dusk or the synth-heavy sound of Soul Mining.

Despite the dissonant tendencies of some of the guitar work, there is hardly anything cacophonous about Naked Self (excepting, perhaps, "Diesel Breeze", but no one will complain about that, I predict.) The music is vibrant but held in check by a crisp and resonant acoustic guitar backdrop played by the seemingly ever-present Eric Schermerhorn (who co-wrote half of the songs on the album). The surprising result is that the album, upon reflection, bears more similarities to Dusk than almost anything else in The The's oeuvre.

Even the high points of Naked Self fail to reach the sublimity of the 1993 album, though. At times the lyrics are questionable, reminding one of the rather stretched bleak poeticism of some of David Bowie's later efforts. For example, Johnson relies too much on easy "-ise/-ize" rhyme schemes. It would be surprising, however, if many Dusk fans were disappointed with Naked Self. Think of it as blues shot through with lightning. (Listeners who lamented "Hanky Panky", the 1995 tribute to Hank Williams, can relax: that somewhat indulgent homage is behind us.)

Regardless of one's opinion of the album as a whole, there are songs on Naked Self that characterize essential The The listening. Foremost on the list is "Weather Belle", which features the brilliant addition of an hauntingly plucked banjo to the, otherwise, wholly electric mix (as well as some of Johnson's best lyrics to date). "Phantom Walls" is a perfect synopsis of Johnson's dark-but-hopeful vision, and it displays his melodic intuitions as brilliantly as anything he has ever written. On the heavier side of things, "Salt Water" rocks, plain and simple, and shows a punk conviction we rarely see from Johnson.

Incredibly, this year looks like it's going to bear two more releases from The The (perhaps a singles compilation?), and Naked Self can only raise expectations for the future. It is a perfect 'stormy day' of an album, replete with violent thunder and reflective lulls. It might not please fans stuck on Johnson's 1980's sound, but anyone else should be pretty damn satisfied.