Barcelona, Robot Trouble Ep (March)

Barcelona - Robot Trouble Ep Barcelona
Robot Trouble Ep
By: Eric G.

I bet Matt Sharp of The Rentals is really pissed off at Barcelona for putting him to shame. Barcelona mixes an indie rock ethos with retro-synthesized computer rock and nerdy male/female vocal interplay, which is precisely what Matt Sharp has been desperately trying to emulate on both of The Rentals’ albums but has failed miserably, especially on the most recent stinker, Seven More Minutes.

Barcelona is unabashed ear candy. Double tracked vocals, saturated keyboards, and sparse guitars mark its pop-oriented brand of retro-futurism. Even when the music is slightly melancholy you can’t help but smile and sing along. “Robot Trouble” is very Gary Numan-esque musically, but the confusion ends as soon as the nasally vocals kick in. The chorus is filled with call and response ‘Ooh wah-ooh’s’ and early-eighties synth lines. The remix veers into more experimental electronic territory with programmed beats, heavy, effects-laden vocals, and a distinct lack of guitars.

“Social Engineering” is just as catchy as “Robot Trouble”, employing similarly endearing keyboard lines and technologically obsessed lyrics. It hovers in a whirl of bubbling keyboards and simple beats. The vocals are slow and drawn-out in order to sound vaguely robotic. This five track EP also includes a remix of “Sunshine Delay” off Simon Basic by Trevor Holland, and a twee version of Men Without Hats’ Pop Goes The World.” Barcelona is pixie-stix pop for computer geeks like you.

Small Time Crooks, Directed By Woody Allen (Dreamworks)

Small Time Crooks - Directed By Woody Allen Small Time Crooks
Directed By Woody Allen
By: Eric G.

Woody Allen comes full circle with a slapstick comedy about bungling, white trash criminals in his first picture for Dreamworks. Not since Take The Money And Run has Allen been so overtly about getting gut-busting laughs. He doesn’t go for the easy way out either, despite the ‘fish out of water’ premise of a pack of low-rents who strike it rich and find themselves rubbing shoulders with ridiculously wealthy movers and shakers. Allen only stoops to low brow comedy when it’s absolutely necessary. Most of his jokes are literary references or insightful mockeries of vapid Manhattan elitism. In a span of only a few minutes Allen manages to squeeze in a joke about Polish carpools and turn around with an even funnier allusion to Oscar Wilde’s The Picture Of Dorian Gray.

Allen’s films aren’t designed for the masses. Matt Lauer recently told Hugh Grant (who was promoting Small Time Crooks on the Today Show) that “it’s not that people don’t get Woody Allen films; it’s just that many people simply don’t like them.” I would question the veracity of that statement, but even if that were the case, that’s fine by me. Weed out the morons. If Joe Moviegoer hates Woody Allen films, he can keep all the Amageddons and Wild Wild Wests for himself. That is not to say that if you don’t like ‘Woody Allen films’ you are stupid, but it’s a good measuring stick for an offbeat sense of humor. Allen’s own sense of humor is of a particularly neurotic but well-read breed. His persona may be annoying to some, but when he’s on the material is unquestionably funny. What other director could make Tracy Ullman watchable for ninety minutes?

Small Time Crooks starts very slowly with uncharacteristically awkward dialogue. The jokes take about fifteen minutes to warm up, but once Allen catches his stride the film is consistently funny. Hugh Grant plays up his fey image to great comedic effect as an art dealer, trying to woo Tracey Ullman’s naive, nouveau riche, and social-climbing character out of her fortune. John Lovitz puts in a brief but memorable appearance as a wisecracking (surprise) ex-con, whom Allen befriends in order to lure him into the big scam, and Michael Rapaport plays the usual ditzy-blonde-guy character that he perfected in True Romance. The ensemble acting works amazingly well under Allen’s strangely unnerving direction.

Allen packs so many jokes into Small Time Crooks that it practically demands repeat viewings. The laughter in the theater would spill over the tightly paced punch lines, which is unusual at Woody Allen films- not the tight pacing but the actual crowd (I’m used to the theater being completely empty for a Woody Allen opening). When first I heard Allen was consciously making a slapstick feature I was nervous that he might be lampooning himself, but I was worried for nothing. Allen is too obsessively self-aware to let his guard down so easily. I should have known he wouldn’t be so careless as to look like a caricature of himself. He has flirted with absurdity in the past, though, in regards to his pairings with young Hollywood starlets like Julia Roberts and Elisabeth Shue, but he’s never actually crossed the line into farce.

Old age hasn’t dulled Allen’s edge or wit a bit. Perhaps, he dabbles too much in cliche when he plays himself down for a character, but the laughs outweight the missteps. He really is crazy, and this film, despite some of its glaring flaws, is truly one of his funniest in years. It won’t rank up there with Love And Death or Manhattan, but it’s good for a few laughs. And, at the very least, it’s funnier than anything by Kevin Smith.

Dianogah, Battle Champions (Southern)

Dianogah - Battle Champions Dianogah
Battle Champions
By: Eric G.

I can’t just say ‘I don’t like it’ or ‘it’s boring’, so I’ll bore you with the details of why this is so boring. The musicianship is stellar, but so what? The guys that back up ‘NSYNC are probably really talented musicians, but that doesn’t mean what they play is good. This is ‘good’, though, and that’s my quandary. I just have no desire to listen to it. Had this record come out ten years ago, maybe I would care, but since this has been done to the point that it makes me sick I can’t really fake a hard on for it. Noodly, go nowhere bass interplay has its place, but there has to be some sort of payoff. Derivative experimentation is musical masturbation. Dianogah’s music just hangs in this pretty limbo, where modal scales are the holy grail. Yes, it’s pretty, but I still don’t want to listen to it because it makes me fall asleep.

All of the tones are gray. You know the drill- lots of harmonics and tumbling melodies. The songs ebb and flow with majestic sweeps. These guys are incredibly talented- just uninspired. The band has the loud/soft dynamic down to a science, but it’s too safe and cozy. The unpredictability of the musical tangents is predictable. Know what I mean? If making music comes this easy for you, you’re not playing the right kind of music. If there is no tension or sense of the unexplored, then what’s the point? Shuffling drums may underpin beautiful bass arpeggios, but I’m still numb. It’s all here- even semi-spoken word vocals. If Slint-lite is your bag, turn off your computer and go buy this CD. I just can’t take any more of it.

Sleater-Kinney, All Hands On The Bad One (Kill Rock Stars)

Sleater-Kinney - All Hands On The Bad One Sleater-Kinney
All Hands On The Bad One
Kill Rock Stars
By: Eric G.

Corin Tucker's earthshaking wail is impossible to fake. She sounds so honest and sincere, especially when she's angry, and anger is the best emotion for her voice because it makes the hair on your back stand on end. In Heaven's To Betsy she frantically spewed out her teenage angst, but since forming Sleater-Kinney she's gotten the beast under control, somewhat. Her voice can relate myriad emotions now, but it hasn't lost an ounce of its bite.

Sleater-Kinney's momentous breakthrough, Dig Me Out, focused on the band's anger and punk roots. The Hot Rock expanded the band's musical landscape, incorporating darker, more complex riffs into its bastion of power chords. All Hands On The Bad One sounds unabashedly happy compared to the aforementioned albums, embracing pop structure into its jarring assault. Success is a mixed bag. Sleater-Kinney has always been self-aware, but that awareness has practically turned into a fourth member.

Almost all of the songs put up defensive shields, and they're full of self-references. On an infinitely smaller scale, this is Sleater-Kinney's Tusk. "The Ballad Of A LadyMan"confronts the temptation to sell out: "They say I've gone too far with the image I've got/they know I'd make a mint with new plastic skin/and a hit on the radio." On "Male Model" Tucker complains about her band constantly being compared to its male counterparts: "Does he write my songs for me?/should I try to play just like him?/kick it out could you show me your riffs?/you always measure me by him."

Much in the vein of "I Wanna Be Your Joey Ramone" off Call the Doctor, there a some silly, upbeat songs mixed in with the more challenging and sincere revelations. "You're No Rock N' Roll Fun" is as pop as Sleater-Kinney gets, but it still manages to feel sorry for itself: "Fill our Christmas socks with whiskey drinks and chocolate bars/and when the evening ends/we won't be thinking of you then/although the best man won't hang out with the girl band." Tucker can also be downright bitter about her role as the default "Riot Grrrl spokeswoman": "Bearer of the flag from the beginning/now who would have believed this riot grrl's a cynic/but they took our ideas to their marketing stars/and now I'm spending all my days at to buy back a little piece of me" (“#1 Must Have").

Such insight and bare bones honesty is rare in today's pretentious bag of self-obsessed ambiguity. The amazing thing is that Sleater-Kinney turns all of this honesty into brilliantly crafted and catchy punk rock. "Was It A Lie?" is a thinly veiled reference to Princess Diana's fatal car crash. Tucker rails against the media and the public for lapping up the coverage: "You broadcast it in 50 states/you looped it on the internet/and a woman's life got cheaper that day…did it fill your head?/did it entertain?/will you feel alive at the end of it?" Sure, there are a few embarrassments like "Milkshake N' Honey", which honestly contains the line: "Visa, MasterCard, Discovered that I was spent", but Tucker invokes enough self-deprecating humor to make up for any bloopers: "took my heart my best jeans/and left me payin' the rent."

All Hands On The Bad One takes several listens to sink in. The Hot Rock had a very consistent mood, and the angular arpeggios all seemed cut from the same cloth. This new album covers more emotional and musical ground. Sleater-Kinney is turning into an amazing band and emphatically not on a 'novelty-act' level either. It's so boring to point out that they are girls playing punk rock- that's not what's unique. Sleater-Kinney stands out because it lays its heart out for you to stomp on with no regrets and no shame, and, most importantly, because the songs rock.

The Cure, Live @ Lakewood Amphitheater, Atlanta (05/18/00)

The Cure - Live @ Lakewood Amphitheater, Atlanta The Cure
Live @ Lakewood Amphitheater, Atlanta
By: Eric G.

If you’re not a fan, watching a Cure concert is the emotional equivalent of watching a fungus grow: the murky, effects-laden swell of guitars all blur together with Robert Smith’s antagonistic whimper, sounding like a slow wash of tuneless angst, but to the initiated it can be an emotionally draining and profoundly fulfilling experience. The Cure reeks of nostalgia. Every album the band released in the eighties defined that particular year in some way. From the sparse yet tightly wound guitar pop of 17 Seconds to the graphic new wave deconstruction of Pornography, The Cure always managed to sound both dated and ahead of its time: in essence, a mass of contradictions. How can the same band that released an album as streamlined and depressing as Faith also be responsible for a trite, ‘everybody’s working for the weekend anthem’ like “Friday I’m In Love?”

While it’s never been fashionable to listen to The Cure, it was at one time, sort of, subversive. The danger may be long gone, but the overwhelming sense of nostalgia still presses emotional buttons no matter how much you may try to fight it. I miss the years when Robert Smith was on so much acid that he didn’t even know who was in the band with him. He gave up the drugs and the music went limp in many ways. Correlation? There’s no question. The booze didn’t exactly set the pen afire with bright ideas (Wish, Wild Mood Swings). Bloodflowers, however, tries to recapture the dark and ugly side of the band, but ends up sounding like a trip down memory lane, where everything is safe and familiar. It’s pretty and coherent, but it sounds like a fading portrait. Bloodflowers is no Pornography. To this day Pornography is a bitter pill to swallow but ranks as one of the most disturbing and essential albums of its decade. Time has not dulled its edges. The music burns and the lyrics are venomous. Bloodflowers by contrast is a tame lullaby with twinkling keyboards and lush arrangements.

Robert Smith knows how to manipulate us, though. It’s no accident that the band’s current setlist consists mainly of the darker reaches of its oeuvre. The opening date of The Dream Tour in Atlanta, Georgia delivered the goods. This show was designed to please the hardcore fans, almost certainly disappointing the stray yuppies and teenyboppers who typically yell out “play show me, show me.” You’ve got to give Smith credit: if he just wanted to cash in he could have played all the pop hits in an endless, emotionless string. Instead, The Cure sought out to relive the emotional impact of tours past, pulling out obscurities that only the dorks who read the message boards at fan sites drool over. The Bloodflowers songs sounded more life-like and virulent than they do on record, particularly “Watching Me Fall” and “There Is No If.” The band played with uncharacteristic energy. Bassist Simon Gallup pogoed all over the stage (even on the trudging numbers). Perhaps, the band set the standards high since this may in fact be the last tour.

The Cure has always sounded grand and imposing in concert, and this line-up certainly has the theatrics down pat. The light show was state of the art, matching the tone and tension of each song (even the color when applicable). “Shake Dog Shake” was a surprising bonus. It sounded just as furious and maniacal as it did sixteen years ago on The Top. “Sinking”, off the underrated The Head On The Door, brought the concert to an early peak. The band hit every cue, and Smith punched his voice in all the right places, rivaling the version off the classic concert film, The Cure In Orange. The setlist equally balanced old and new, avoiding singles when at all possible. Tracks off Disintegration sounded especially heartfelt, but the fiery blast of “The Kiss” from 1987’s tour de force Kiss me Kiss Me Kiss Me upstaged many of the classic live staples. The band closed its initial set with a smattering of songs off Bloodflowers, including the prophetic title track.

Living up to the promise of a three-hour show, The Cure returned to the stage for three encores. The band got the obligatory “Just Like Heaven” out of the way for true gems like “Play For Today” and “A Forest” (no "10:15 Saturday Night, no "Boys Don't Cry, no "Killing And Arab"- the band stuck to its guns, avoiding the obvious crowd pleasers). Typically, Smith botched the lyrics to "Play For Today", but it's the thought that counts, I guess. The absolute highlight of the concert, however, was from the Faith album. "All Cats Are Grey" sounded majestic and surreal. The title track always manages to cast a pall over the audience. It's an affecting song, and Smith approaches it with delicacy and reverence. Why thousands of people show up to be deliberately made unhappy is a strange anomaly. I've never understood how such private music could be communicated in such a public way. The Cure has never made sense, but at least its bowing out with its head held high.

Belle And Sebastian, Legal Man EP (Matador / Jeepster)

Belle And Sebastian - Legal Man EP Belle And Sebastian
Legal Man EP
Matador / Jeepster
By: Eric G.

This three song EP is a quick teaser to get people excited about the band's forthcoming album, hilariously titled (in the grand tradition of Morrissey), Fold Your Hands Child You Walk Like A Peasant. Though none of these songs is featured on the new record, you get a sense as to the band's new direction, which, surprisingly, ignores the self-conscious blend of folk and light electronics of its first three albums and takes cues from psychedelic sixties guitar pop.

Stuart David is gone but hardly missed- his Looper-esque contributions to The Boy With The Arab Strap were uneven and obtrusive. Stuart Murdoch, however, is still a member, of course, but his presence is not felt on any of these songs, unfortunately. "Legal Man" is an upbeat rocker for Belle And Sebastian. The party crowd vocals led by Isobel Campbell harmonize with the rest of the band on top of scuttling percussion and an infectious organ line. The biggest shock is the band's newly found proficiency with its instruments. Past releases were wrought with hesitation and an amateurish charm, but all the kinks seem to be gone.

The questionably titled "Judy Is A Dick Slap" is another organ drenched pop rocker. It's an instrumental led by an onslaught of keyboards and jangly guitars (an extended version of which is available only on the 12" version). The production is far superior to any of the band's past releases, relishing in reverb drenched nostalgia. "Winter Wooskie" only hints at Belle And Sebastian's humorously morose folk rock. It gallops along gently with breezy acoustic guitars and what sounds like a stand up bass. Its light melancholic haze doesn't impede its inherent melodiousness, much as you'd expect from Belle And Sebastian.

Stereolab, The First Of The Microbe Hunters (Elektra)

Stereolab - The First Of The Microbe Hunters Stereolab
The First Of The Microbe Hunters
By: Eric G.

Just a few months after releasing the long-awaited Cobra Phases Group Play Voltage In The Milky Night, Stereolab churns out another EP, begging the question of whether this a response to the lukewarm reviews of Cobra Phases… or just another characteristic over-saturation of the market. The reviews of Cobra Phases… were prematurely assuming that Stereolab had run its course- a ridiculous and sweeping judgment made in haste by countless independent zines. The only real fault of the album was its length (pushing the limit of space on a compact disc). Other than that it quite effectively expanded the landscape harvested on Dots And Loops into jazzier territory.

The First Of The Microbe Hunters abandons the jazzy overtones of Cobra Phases… and returns to the band's patented obsession with earthy grooves and numbing repetition. Laetitia Sadier's vocals are impossible to tire of- her voice has that rare ability to lure you into other worlds. The music is a tad more aggressive here than on recent efforts, harking back to the days of Switched On… or even Transient Random Noisebursts. The riffs still blend a sixties aesthetic with futuristic intentions. The band can't seem to escape the grasp of Chicago luminaries on production, though. John McIntyre once again lends his heavily syncopated agenda to the mix.

"Outer Bongolia" is a jaunty instrumental that runs a sprightly riff into the ground, but all the bleats, beeps and layers of noise keep the song from being burdensome. "Intervals" sounds like an outtake from Cobra Phases… piling Sadier's vocals in double-tracked harmonies against sparse but machine-like arrangements. The guitar line drips with effects, and the piano supplies a buoyant substructure for Sadier to coo on top of. The band has reached a level of sophistication that by nature eschews complacency. Sadier sounds most ebullient when she sings in French, and "Nomus Et Phusis" is the highlight of the EP, complete with odd meter shifts and disco-seventies organ progressions.

Stereolab only gets better with age. This EP doesn't replace Cobra Phases…, regardless of its intendment, but it certainly proves that this band won't rest on its laurels.