Fontanelle, S/T (Kranky)

Fontanelle - S/T Fontanelle
By: Eric G.

I was so hoping that Fontanelle was going to be an electronic tribute to Babes In Toyland, but as you can imagine (from glancing at the label) I am extremely disappointed. That is not to say that Kranky is a bad label, but it’s not exactly known for its sense of humor. Two Jessamine leftovers are responsible for this ‘experimental’ fusion of art wank and instrumental rock. The drums scuffle in jazzy rhythms while the rest of the band meanders aimlessly with a standard guitar/bass setup- no climaxes, no crescendos- just random scales and jumbled notes. Keyboards are prominent, of course, because what experimental instrumental lacks them these days?

This is the kind of music that naive college radio deejays obsess over, thinking it’s, oh, so innovative and avant garde when the plain fact is that this type of pretentious jam rock is as ubiquitous as a Nokia cell phone. I don’t know who would sit back and crank this up for pleasure, except for, maybe, a coffee house nerd eating hummus and wearing a black Banana Republic turtleneck. Once the blindly open-minded ideals of the college years wear off, though, these types of records sit in a dark corner of the used bin collecting dust while people listen to the real thing: Miles Davis.

The Concretes, Boy, You Better Run Now (Up)

The Concretes - Boy, You Better Run Now The Concretes
Boy, You Better Run Now
By: Eric G.

I’m always apprehensive about bands that have more than five members. Maybe that’s close-minded of me, but I like the unity of close-knit ‘bands.’ When you start crowding the stage with backing singers and horn sections, things inevitably start to decline. If you’re not in the band, you shouldn’t be on stage. Most bands would be better off if they subscribed to that theory. Anyone who saw the Police on the Synchronicity tour (or at least the video) will know what I mean. The Concretes are from Sweden, and, like Lambchop, feature a revolving door of musicians that can swell to eighteen in concert. The whole ‘music collective’ approach is a tad on the hippie side for my taste, but, luckily, the music is pretty damn good.

The Concretes play simple yet quirky, unaffected pop. The music only seems unconventional because of the ‘no frills’ production. There’s a definite sixties influence but not in a kitschy sense. The vocals are strangely alluring. I can’t tell if it’s that patronizing way I like female Japanese singers when they stumble through their English, or if it’s just a sensual voice. Either way it sucks you into this den of engaging pop. The songs are loose and stark with guitars plucking away at unobtrusive melodies and keyboards holding down extended notes. It’s easy to see how this music could sound like a jumbled mess live, which might explain why the band rarely plays out, but it works well in this context. There are dark overtones to the music, for sure, exacerbated by the echo on the vocals and the heavy doses of reverb on the guitars, but, for the most part, The Concretes keep things pretty cheery.

“Teen Love” is an undeniably catchy opener, pairing infectious keyboards with a jaunty bass line. The vocals are pouty but irresistible. “Sunsets” presents itself as a ballad, slowly building around a simple drumbeat and sharp guitar arpeggios. The fluctuations are very subtle- it never actually climaxes, but it’s lethargic and wistful. Some songs have an immediate appeal while others take a few listens to reveal themselves completely. The strings and the horns play minor but effective roles; they certainly aren’t just used for show. On “Other Ones” The Concretes experiment with schizophrenic new wave. The wispy vocals echo over top indie rock guitars, handclaps, and a strange but effectual harmonica solo. The abrupt meter shifts make the song.

American bands like The Ladybug Transistor carve out a vaguely similar niche to The Concretes, playing on vintage equipment and churning out pleasant earcandy, but The Concretes seem to be more about music than their thrift-store-obsessed American peers are. Boy, You Better Run Now is hard to pigeonhole because The Concretes don’t really sound like too many other bands. You can certainly hear various influences, but nothing stands out too much. I mean, “Cabaret” has the same chord progression as “Stray Cat Strut”, but I wouldn’t necessarily accuse the band of listening to The Stray Cats. It’s pop music, and there are only twelve notes. The Concretes use them wisely.

Refused, The Shape Of Punk To Come (Epitaph / Burning Heart)

Refused - The Shape Of Punk To Come Refused
The Shape Of Punk To Come
Epitaph / Burning Heart
By: Eric G.

Politics and music make strange bedfellows, but when the delivery is as phenomenal as this, I can listen to wacko pinko rhetoric all day long. Throughout the history of punk, politics has plagued the pens of everyone from The Sex Pistols to Fugazi. With the former it was a much needed right hook in the mouth, but when you have to listen to the latter’s Ian Makaye endlessly complain about abortions and commercialism it can be pretty embarrassing. Sometimes, though, the music is creative enough to overshadow any hackneyed socialistic dross and such is the case with Refused’s The Shape Of Punk To Come.

The title is unabashed bravado. This band is confident enough to lay claims to the future of a genre that seems to have been treading water for decades. Who do they think they are? Even after listening to the band’s argument, I don’t believe anything will change the shape of punk any time soon- at least not in the terms suggested. I do believe that this record is essential listening, though, and I think it will be revered as much as any important punk record of the past fifteen years. Refused sounds as harsh as its name. This record storms through your speakers with relentless energy and cunning calculation.

The ‘punk’ aspects of Refused’s sound hark back to hardcore bands like Born Against, as well as early Pink Flag-era Wire, Entertainment-era Gang Of Four and an healthy dose of Fugazi- not so much in the music but certainly in vocalist Dennis Lyxzen’s phrasing. Lyxzen has a deafening voice. He toys with its inflections to make the harshness sound even more severe. For example, in “Liberation Frequency” he coos over the quiet guitar chops in a gentle falsetto. When the bass kicks in he adopts a typically bratty half-yell, but the explosiveness of his full on attack is hard to describe. It’s more than a scream. It literally shreds right through the buzzsaw guitars and grabs you by the throat and shakes the shit out of you. This guy’s not fucking around.

For punk purists Refused’s sound may dabble too much in ‘metal’ territory, but it would be silly to write the band off for such a shallow reason. The song structures are sophisticated but punk at the roots. The metal influence only occurs when the songs burst into their ‘choruses.’ Lyxzen’s vocals keep the music grounded in authenticity. Any other style of singing would surely sink these parts into heavy metal cliches. Punk purists might also flinch at Refused’s fusion of electronics and jazz into its assault. These guys are stellar musicians with an ear for caustic dynamics as well as melody and arrangement, and they veer off into eclectic musical styles effortlessly. Refused is the first band to meld these styles so that it works on this level.

Refused comes from a hardcore background, and The Shape Of Punk To Come reflects its origins. There’s a sense of desperation in hardcore that isn’t expressed (as well) in any other genre. Harsh heavy metal usually just sounds silly, almost like a cartoon. Death metal is even more ridiculous. Refused sounds real and it has something to say. You may or may not agree with it, but it is expressed with sincerity and vehemence. The Shape Of Punk To Come is Refused’s ultimate manifesto. The band had to break up- how do you top a record like this? The nature of punk and all of its intentions succeed on this album. It is a revolution on record. Despite all the shortcomings inherent to punk, politics, and uprising, Refused manages to break the barriers and wipe the slate clean.

The Jazz June, The Medicine (Initial)

The Jazz June - The Medicine The Jazz June
The Medicine
By: Brent R.

Ask twenty different music critics to define “emo” and the only common link among their definitions would be the negative connotations of their adjectives. However, Pennsylvania’s The Jazz June just might have added enough math rock experimentation for said critics to think twice before dismissing its style of music. On The Medicine, the band's latest effort on Initial Records, The Jazz June tries leaving the sophomoric emo stereotypes behind in favor of a more mature indie rock sound and comes very close to succeeding. Some of the cliches inherent to emo remain, such as the whiney vocals and building and slacking intensity within songs, but the band throws in tempo changes, a harder edge, and better musicianship to raise the level of the music.

Granted, The Jazz June borrows heavily from The Promise Ring’s lyrical style and Braid’s musical style, but it has refined these influences in order to avoid “copycat” status. For example, the group uses the lyrical repetition that The Promise Ring has popularized, but the subject matter is not so much in the “look at me, I’m so rejected” vein. The Jazz June utilizes the start-stop/intense-soft music that Braid is known for, but the band has more musical talent, producing a fuller, tighter sound than the now-defunct Illinois band did.

The Medicine kicks off with an up-tempo song that is guaranteed to be every emo kid’s favorite in the summer of 2000: “Viva La Speed Metal.” You can tell that the style is characteristically emo, but the song's tempo mixed with the distinctive vocals makes you think otherwise. The second song clearly indicates that The Jazz June has not forgotten its emo roots; it builds slowly with deadpan vocals and a typically whiney chorus. By the end of the song, however, there are enough tempo changes and background vocals to redeem it. The next few songs stay true to the first two with shades of math rock and abrasive indie rock but still anchored in the emo category. The band experiments more on the last half of the album with staccato drumming, off-the-wall guitar meandering, sampling, and various tempo changes.

The Medicine will definitely be a top-five pick for emo fans this summer, and with any luck it will turn some naysayers’ heads with its musicianship and math rock tendencies. It will probably take another release for LeHigh Valley’s The Jazz June to shake the white elephant of “emo band”, though.

Assfactor 4, Sports (Old Glory)

Assfactor 4 - Sports Assfactor 4
Old Glory
By: Eric G.

This is frantic, frenzied, and spastic hardcore played with chaotic craze. The boys in Assfactor 4 scream their often-hilarious stories with absolutely no regard for their vocal chords. You can hear the nodes forming as they shriek against a backdrop of bracing guitars and super-fast changes. The band plays each song as though their lives depended on it. Their screaming isn’t just abusive noise either- there’s melody and emotion in the inflections (all four members sing); it just takes a few listens to hear it. The songs are all very catchy, but, again, your first listen will leave you puzzled as to where the hooks are. Once it sinks in, though, you’ll be playing air guitar and going hoarse just trying to keep up.

Sports is Assfactor 4’s second full-length, but it was recorded almost three years ago. The band has been on hiatus because one of the guitarists moved away from the band’s hometown of Columbia, South Carolina. Assfactor 4 is semi-legendary in hardcore circles for being one of the most frenetic and abrasive bands around. If you’ve seen them live, then you know what kind of harshness and fury they can wrest from their guitars. Sports is consistent with the band’s formula for unique hardcore, which was perfected on the Smoked Out 7” in 1994. Every song is incredibly short (Smoked Out is nine songs packed onto a 7”!), and they repeat the bursts of lyrics several times, each time with more desperation and anxiousness than before. The two guitars provide the melodic structure, veering off into tricky starts and stops but always meeting back up for a double dose of some memorable riff. Amazingly, amidst all the noise, the band retains an incredible dynamic, where certain parts literally explode through the speakers.

Assfactor 4’s songs are brutally frank but playful for the most part, focusing on personal and political areas with a self-deprecating sense of humor. The band is as unpretentious as you can get even when politics enters the agenda: “the White House is alright if you like saxophones…but if you don’t like southern pig motherfuckers who straddle the fence (who pull down their pants and ask you to inhale) you might be wondering why G. Gordon Liddy sounds so reasonable lately” (“The White House Is Alright If You Like Saxophones”). Of course, this is screamed so hard that it would be impossible to discern without a lyric sheet, but that’s half the fun. On “Free Tibet And Pussy” the band mocks MTV’s coverage of the Beastie Boys’ futile attempt to get teenagers to care about politics: “In golden days a glimpse of pussy meant more than hip hop clad Czecks slurring ‘f— Communism’ on TV/they’re slashing prices at the monk house while Bono orders pizza from stage three/and I don’t give a fuck about the price of eggs in China when I’ve got Free Tibet and pussy on MTV.”

As the title suggests, life for Assfactor 4 is all about sports and punk rock. The album cover art is a deconstructed version of the famous Huey Lewis album of the same name with Assfactor 4’s faces pasted over those of the News’. The noise that this band makes is unlike anything you’re likely to hear in or out of the punk rock community. Assfactor 4 makes most punk bands sound limp. If you hear this record, I guarantee you’ll go out and find everything they’ve ever recorded. Sure, there are plenty of punk rock bands that play fast and scream, but these guys take it all to a whole new level, where wit and intelligence and fury rule the day.

The Posers, Anti-christian Animosity (Cargo/headhunter)

The Posers - Anti-christian Animosity The Posers
Anti-christian Animosity
By: Eric G.

Musical inadequacy and a sense of social anarchy typify the whole idea behind ‘old school punk’, but most hardcore bands these days pretty much play mind-numbing yet perfectly executed heavy metal with dimwitted moral agendas and anti-religious imagery. The Posers sound like an anachronistic anomaly. You couldn’t pin a date on this music if you tried; it could just as easily be from 1982 as 2000. When you have to suspend disbelief to listen to music it’s probably not worth listening to anyway. There are exceptions, of course. Nevermind The Bollocks, Here’s The Sex Pistols sounds pretty tame compared to all the extreme mutations of punk over the years, but when you consider the music scene when that album was made, then it hits pretty hard. The same goes for stuff like Robert Johnson and, certainly, even Elvis Presley in their respective genres.

The Posers don’t deserve much deconstruction because this record is barely worth three sentences. It’s fast, the vocals are guttural, the lyrics try desperately to be preachy, and the music is, well, predictable ‘old school’ hardcore. Maybe, listening to this stuff is still a rite of passage for severely alienated suburban teens, but it sounds like a caricature to anyone over seventeen. I must admit, though, that The Posers sometimes have me convinced it really is 1982. The band cranks out its power chords with a mosh pit in mind. The breakdowns are all conveniently placed mid-song in lieu of any kind of bridge for the goons that still think slam dancing is some kind of rebellious act.

American punk rock is a strange beast. ‘Punk’ is actually a pretty meaningless word these days, encompassing everything from straight edge skinheads to wimpy emo elitists. The Posers offer the kind of punk inadvertently lampooned in Penelope Spheeris’ Suburbia, where the dregs of society latch onto the punk scene by default rather than by any conscious decision to create a scene. The Posers play boneheaded punk, where the targets are easy and obvious and the logic is beyond flawed. I mean, how hard is it to make fun of yuppies and Christianity? Check out this piece of genius logic sampled by The Posers in “No Clue”: “Their God is never gonna come…that book is not gonna prove nothing to them…if they had any intelligence they’d go see a psychiatrist or fucking study astrology.”

It’s hard to imagine that there are bands still preaching this tired gospel. On “Suburban Cokehead” The Posers condemn some imaginary yuppie schmuck, who drives his BMW off a bridge because he’s “empty inside/no will to live.” When you’ve got some guy who sings like he’s got socks in his mouth trying to teach you a lesson it’s hard to stifle the laughter much less learn from it. These guys definitely weren’t on the debate team in high school (if they even went) because most of their arguments are thwarted by an extreme deficit of articulacy, resulting in such unconvincing slang as “fuck that” and “I’m pissed off.” Invariably, in each song, The Posers are against some set of “rules”, which they pick apart with all the savvy of, well, your typical American hardcore band. Anti-Christian Animosity is strictly for one-dimensional punk-purists who don’t take themselves or their music very seriously.

Glossary, This Is All We’ve Learned About Living (Champ)

Glossary - This Is All We've Learned About Living Glossary
This Is All We've Learned About Living
By: Eric G.

Only a band from the south could get away with an album like this. Glossary is a quintet from Murfreesboro, Tennessee that churns out fairly melodic, southern-fried rock with pleasant boy/girl vocal interplay and doesn’t sell itself short by limiting its spectrum of musical influences to just ‘countrified alt-rock.’ The whole alternative country scene is pretty haggard, anyway, with bands hopping on the bandwagon and rubbing down its edges. Thankfully, there’s a solid dose of indie-pop in Glossary’s repertoire, and it actually feels more natural than the blatant ‘southern’ mannerisms inherent to the songwriting.

“West Liberty” opens the band’s second album with a meek acoustic guitar and a scratchy, almost practiced southern drawl. The song builds into a melodic monster, though, climaxing with a noisy surge of guitars and then taking a sharp left turn into the quirky land of Built To Spill-style guitar-pop. I can’t decide if the amateurish vocals of “Just Be A Rampart” are charming or just annoying. The high-end strains can be pretty painful. The guitars are busy noodling away in concurrent melodies that all seem to gel in the, admittedly, catchy chorus. Glossary maintains a sense of optimism throughout the album that isn’t contrived in any way.

The music is lo-fi by design, mixing folk, pop, and southern rock into a palliative, hook-heavy formula. “Daydream Drifting” exudes enough personality to separate this band from droves of Wilco acolytes. You can hear the years of listening to Sebadoh, Dinosaur Jr., and various Chapel Hill exports in everything from the vocal inflections to the musicianship. But then along comes a song like “Feeling Transcendental”, which, on top of its ill-advised title, wanks obnoxiously with screeching guitars and forced, heavily affected vocals. Being a twangy rock band is not a license to act like a hippie, and no band can get away with using a word as embarrassing as ‘transcendental’ even if it is slightly tongue in cheek.

Glossary switches up vocalists from song to song, and it’s pretty obvious which writers have more experience. This Is All We’ve Learned About Living is only slightly uneven as a whole, though. The songs that stand out really make an impression. “Frozen Satisfaction” has a distinct, indie-pop sound, where the aforementioned vocal strains actually sound palatable. The band tends to be a bit long-winded with the bulk of the songs topping five and even six minutes. Fast Walkin’ Shit Talkin’ is a notable exception with its buzzing guitars and memorable harmonies. “Counterculturalism” is also a standout, recalling early Elvis Costello with its high-end keyboard line and aggressive vocals.

The last half of the record seems much more consistent than the first. Maggie Manley makes her first noteworthy contribution in “Wandered Off Too Far.” Her voice sounds girlish and shy and not too dissimilar to Bridget Cross’ from Unrest and Air Miami in its double-tracked harmonies. If Glossary can tighten up its songwriting and weed out the duds, then future albums should truly be remarkable.