Knodel, The White Hole (Spongebath)

Knodel - The White Hole Knodel
The White Hole
Spongebath
By: Eric G.

Any band that purports to emulate the doctrine of Phil Collins and ends up sounding like a mutant mix of Six Finger Satellite, Gary Numan, and Kraftwerk is all right in my book. Knodel is a trio from Portland, Oregon, but the band claims its hometown is still French soil because it doesn't recognize the Louisiana Purchase. Awesome. Sure, the group wears matching suits on stage, but Knodel is no Man Or Astroman? wannabe. The band plays a deviant strain of synthetic rock with a self-absorbed philosophy inspired almost certainly by Devo.

All gimmicks aside, Knodel rocks. Songs like "We're Knodel", "Knodel World", and "Knodel On Tour" don't just seem self-indulgent- they are, and Knodel doesn't care. The band isn't trying to break any new ground on its debut full length, which piles layers and layers of synthesizers and programmed beats on top effects-laden vocals and edgy bass lines. The band wears its influences proudly on its collected sleeve. The songs are so damn catchy it hardly matters that Devo and Gary Numan already did this twenty years ago.

Knodel's music is dark and aggressive, but its lyrics are ridiculously funny. "O.F.R" features a vocoder repeating the mantra "Out-fucking-rageous/let's break the rules, y'all" while a keyboard line reminiscent of early Depeche Mode builds on top of a dance-floor beat. It's absurd but addictive. "Knodel In Stereo" sounds just like pretentious early-eighties electro-pop, complete with affected, paranoid vocals, but with lyrics like "coming in the right channel/Knodel in stereo" you can't help but laugh.

Knodel injects a white-hot poker into the face of new wave without even cracking a smile. The band would have you believe that The White Hole is a concept album about the complex sound of Knodel in futuristic France, where Phil Collins and the Scorpions rule. Just take a look at the cover art: a giant Tron-like face stares up at a dark sky over an open highway. It looks like a bad Styx outtake, but it sounds like the catchiest batch of retro-electronic pop tunes I've heard all year.

Bald Rapunzel, Diazepam (Resin/dischord)

Bald Rapunzel - Diazepam Bald Rapunzel
Diazepam
Resin/dischord
By: Eric G.

It’s hard to get past a name as awful as Bald Rapunzel, but, luckily, the band is much better than its turgid appellation would lead you to believe. Led by the soulful voice of Bonnie Schlegel, Bald Rapunzel fuses D.C. post-punk tendencies with haunting pop melodies. This debut album reveals a band just growing out of its awkward early stages. The song writing is pretty solid for the most part- full of energy and startling technical precision, but some of the musical tangents seem a bit self-indulgent.

Schlegel’s voice carries much of the weight on Diazepam. It’s mixed very high, and the guitars are often strummed timidly as she sings. The band knows how to manipulate the emotional charge of its music very well. Many songs begin with swaying mid-tempos and quiet, jangly guitars that build into a swirl of controlled noise. The riffs alternate between angular arpeggios and driving octave chords. The production is very straightforward matching the band’s no frills execution.

The lyrics are a mix of ambiguities and heart-on-your-sleeve sensitivity. Schlegel delivers her words with an expressive but sultry wail. Elements of the D.C. hardcore scene are discernible in Bald Rapunzel’s minor-keyed textures. The best example of what Bald Rapunzel is capable of is “Ms. Leading.” Schlegel’s voice interacts soulfully with the guitars, which climax in a sharp and affecting chorus. Diazepam is a confidant and engaging debut.

The Ruby Doe, The Flame And The Fury (Burnout)

The Ruby Doe - The Flame And The Fury The Ruby Doe
The Flame And The Fury
Burnout
By: Eric G.

If you’re looking for a relentless yet melodic assault on the ears in the vein of Karp or Mule, then The Ruby Doe is your band. The Flame And The Fury is full of explosive guitars and pounding rhythms. The vocals are guttural and aggressive while the lyrics are showy in a police-crime-scene kind of way. “KFC” is a prime example of the band’s sardonic humor: “two heads and one lung sinking teeth into vein/deviate circulate replicate/they can’t call you chicken anymore.”

The music has elements of early nineties grunge, evidenced by the thick, plodding pace of “The Out Crowd”, but, for the most part, The Ruby Doe blasts through its songs with West Coast punk ferociousness. The Ruby Doe’s wound up energy showcases itself in controlled bursts. “Integument” introduces a refined sense of the loud/soft dynamic perfected by the Pixies well over a decade ago, but the Ruby Doe takes it to the next level. The bass tone is similar to that of Unsane’s early stuff, but The Ruby Doe connects on a more intimate level than Unsane’s detached madness.

The trio incorporates tape loops and keyboards into its tribal attack, which works well and adds a modern edge. Over the course of the record the punk influence slowly shifts into a noise-rock cacophony, a direction to which the band seems more suited. Some songs are even anthematic: “Greasy-Like Ribbon” features a shout along chorus, complete with rolling ‘r’s and a southern fried guitar riff. Don’t mistake the band’s sense of humor for irony- this is not a pose; these guys know exactly what they’re doing.

Devo, Dev-o Live (rhinohandmade.com)

Devo - Dev-o Live Devo
Dev-o Live
rhinohandmade.com
By: Eric G.

The importance of Devo cannot be overstated in modern music. Countless bands have dug deep into the Devo songbook and taken the band's innovative cues to create splinters of the de-evolutionary process. This CD combines two promotional live albums and one commercially available EP that has long been out of print. Rhino Records has issued Dev-o Live as a limited to 5,000, internet-only release, which is a shame because every Devo fan should own this, as it captures the band in flawless live form.

In 1980 Devo still primarily used guitars, and the sound on Dev-o Live showcases Devo's punk roots as well as its foray into the land of cold electronics. The setlist at this show is pretty amazing. Recorded in support of the Freedom Of Choice record in August of 1980, Devo played a smattering of current (at the time) hits like "Whip It" and "Girl U Want", but also pulled out live staples like "Be Stiff", "Blockhead", "Uncontrollable Urge" and "Gut Feeling/Slap Your Mammy."

Rhino handmade has taken careful measures to be true to the packaging and tracking of the original releases, which means it comes in the same annoying plastic sleeve as the EP. Oh well, the disc contains the Devolutionary Oath printed around the perimeter, so that should make up for the inconvenience. The only other drawback is the tracking, which repeats the six tracks from the EP again, in the main set. Rhino, perhaps, got carried away with trying to please Devo completists.

When Devo first started making waves in the mid-seventies in Akron, Ohio, the world was hardly prepared for a concept as bizarre as de-evolution. Devo's early live shows were practically performance art, as the band dressed in elaborate and often offensive costumes to perform such songs as "I Need A Chick", "Bamboo Bimbo", "Goo Goo Itch" and "Midget." It's a miracle a band this strange got signed to Warner Bros., but Devo capitalized on its novelty and, consequently, created some of the most revolutionary and catchy electronic-based punk the world has ever known.

Dev-o Live is essential listening because it documents Devo at its commercial peak. In an act of sheer genius, the band managed to live out its own theory of de-evolution, getting worse with every record, but in a live setting Devo couldn't be stopped (until the band abandoned guitars for synthesizers a few albums later). Spuds, don't let this album slip you by- there are only 5,000.

Bright Eyes, Fevers And Mirrors (Saddle Creek)

Bright Eyes - Fevers And Mirrors Bright Eyes
Fevers And Mirrors
Saddle Creek
By: Eric G.

Desperation is an essential ingredient for music that digs deep enough to make a lasting impression. Conor Oberst understands this concept and exploits it for all it’s worth on Bright Eyes’ third full length, Fevers And Mirrors. Oberst has a sketchy voice; it trembles fiercely as he sings, but it relays his emotions like no other instrument could. His songwriting has evolved from four-track bedroom ramblings into a florid and expansive landscape, where layers of melody and instrumentation underpin his fragile voice.

Oberst tells melodramatic stories full of rage and despondency. His lyrics are showy and emotional, but they certainly paint the picture of his self-proclaimed pain well: “But no matter what I would do in an attempt to replace/All the pills that I take trying to balance my brain/I have seen the curious girl with that look on her face/so surprised she stares out from her display case” (“When The Curious Girl Realizes She Is Under Glass”). Oberst’s voice cracks and threatens to fall apart as he wavers between a singing voice and a scream.

Bright Eyes’ music has never been easy to digest, but as Oberst grows as a songwriter the accessibility of his music becomes heightened. The fidelity of his records is improving as well. Oberst recorded Fevers And Mirrors to twenty-four tracks, which seems worlds away from his first collection of songs only two years ago. Everyone stresses how advanced Oberst’s songwriting is for his age (he’s not yet old enough to drink), but that’s merely a patronizing aspect to stress, no matter how true it may be.

Fevers And Mirrors threatens to rock on occasion as evidenced by “Sunrise, Sunset.” The songs builds from a meek waltz to an explosive crescendo of mandolin, keyboards, and guitar along with Oberst’s dramatic cries: “Hold your sadness like a puppet/just keep putting on the play/But everything you do is leading to the point where you won’t know what to do/And at that moment you may laugh but there is someone there who will be laughing louder than you.”

The imagery is consistent and thematic throughout the record. Oberst discusses some of his obsessions from the obvious ‘fevers and mirrors’ to ‘scales’ and ‘time’ in a strange radio interview tacked onto the end of “An Attempt To Tip The Scales”:

“Interviewer: ‘How about this Ariennette? How does she fit into all this?’
Oberst: ‘I’d prefer not to talk about it- in case she’s listening.’
Interviewer: ‘Oh, I’m sorry. I didn’t realize she was a real person.’
Oberst: ‘She’s not. I made her up.’
Interviewer: ‘Oh, so she’s not real.’
Oberst: ‘Just as real as you or I.’
Interviewer: ‘I don’t think I understand.’
Oberst: ‘Neither do I, but after I grow up I will. I mean, a lot of things are really unclear for me right now.’”

At least Oberst has enough humility and self-deprecation to include such a ludicrous discourse on an album that practically implodes from claustrophobic intensity. Fevers And Mirrors flaunts Oberst’s unique and undeniably sharp songwriting skills as well as his growing penchant for melody and orchestration. It is also a challenging record that succeeds on levels most bands wouldn’t have the gall to attempt.

Death Cab For Cutie, We Have The Facts And We’re Voting Yes (Barsuk)

Death Cab For Cutie - We Have The Facts And We're Voting Yes Death Cab For Cutie
We Have The Facts And We're Voting Yes
Barsuk
By: Eric G.

Praise follows this band around like a dog, but music hyped this much rarely lives up to the word of mouth. Death Cab For Cutie, however, not only lives up to it but the Bellingham, Washington quartet topples any expectations or preconceived notions you may have had. We Have The Facts And We’re Voting Yes is the band’s second full-length of versatile indie-pop with sullen, introspective lyrics. Vocalist Benjamin Gibbard approaches his singing with a lightly strained cadence not unlike Elliott Smith or even Doug Martsch of Built To Spill. The music sounds sorrowful, almost nostalgic, but it never loses any sense of its complex melodic structure.

Components of the band’s sound fit together like a puzzle. If any piece were missing it would totally change the dynamic. For example, the music on its own might blend into the melancholic indie-pop tradition, but Gibbard’s vocal interplay is urgent and distinctive, stimulating the band’s musical landscape. Death Cab For Cutie’s songs are not overtly catchy, but you’ll find yourself singing along after only one listen. Just when a riff starts to sound familiar it immediately veers off in an unexpected but logical direction. Death Cab For Cutie doesn’t hide its sensitivity; Gibbard’s lyrics are honest and sincere. The music elevates his musings with sophisticated changes and a fundamental sense of harmony.

The melodies flow like early Shudder To Think without the abrasive backdrop or the inherent ostentation. “Title Track” showcases Gibbard’s streaming sense of melody: “I must admit I was charmed by your advances your advantage left me helplessly into you/talking how the group had begun to splinter and I could taste your lipstick on the filter.” The lyrics are even clever about being bitter: “When your apologies fail to ring true, (you’re) so slick with that sarcastic slew of phrases like ‘I thought you knew’, while keeping me in hot pursuit” (“For What Reason”). It’s rare that music does exactly what it’s supposed to do, but the members of Death Cab For Cutie complement each other so well.

Death Cab For Cutie actually takes its name from the Beatles’ Magical Mystery Tour film (after the Bonzo The Dog Band song), so it, thankfully, isn’t a concession to embarrassing indie-rock cliches. We Have The Facts And We’re Voting Yes is an astoundingly good album, despite the half-wimpy name. The band barely raises the volume enough to call for a line like: “it’s so appropriate: the way we amplify the sound, and then the neighbors drop by and they ask (us) to turn it down again” (“The Employment Pages”), but the textural pop sound makes up for any lack of noise or energy. Death Cab For Cutie has made a giant stride into the realm of bands not to miss.

The Cherry Orchard, This World Is Such A Groovy Place (Riviera / Darla)

The Cherry Orchard - This World Is Such A Groovy Place The Cherry Orchard
This World Is Such A Groovy Place
Riviera / Darla
By: Eric G.

The Cherry Orchard puts you right inside a time capsule back to the swinging sixties on its second full length, This World Is A Groovy Place, and for some reason I’m not fighting to get off. This is a rare day because I could barely stomach the band’s last record, The Start Of Our Affair. Jason Smith’s songs are so happy and carefree that it’s easy to forget where you are. His lyrics are gushing with love and giddiness- things that usually make me cringe and want to vomit, but, somehow, Smith charms you into joining his happy party. Smith perpetually sounds like he’s head over heals in love, and he’s surrounded by breezy, light-hearted arrangements of retro pop and doe-eyed female backing vocals that are too charming to ignore. This is fluff, for sure, but it’s listenable fluff.

From the suave orchestration of “Everybody Knows” it’s clear this is going to be an upbeat record: “The sun and the rain makes a rainbow/the moon and the stars light our sky/the ship that we sail leaves the harbor/together we’ll sail you and I.” I know this looks sappy on paper, but you should hear how incredibly catchy it is. The Cherry Orchard has an endless supply of hooks and choruses. Smith’s voice is sincere and boyish- sort of like amateur choirboy, but what he lacks in talent he makes up for in cheese. I want to see the girl that makes him write these lyrics: “so gentle was your touch I never thought I’d find this love/no I’ll never let you go/a love like ours was meant to be” (“Love Among The Stars”).

To flesh out the grand French pop sound the band employs trumpets, moogs, fingersnaps and handclaps. The guitars are so airy that they seem to float amongst the layered instrumentation as opposed to leading the songs. The Cherry Orchard is sort of the cartoonish, French version of David Gedge’s Cinerama with the same sweeping melodies and Bacharach-inspired arrangements. It’s hard to be in a bad mood after listening to The Cherry Orchard. This is stylish, well-constructed pop music of the lampoonish and overblown kind. Understandably, it may be too sickeningly sweet for some, but the band has created its own desperately contrived world of cartoonish gaiety and sunshine, where it wishes everyday were Sunday and the biggest problem is the weather.