Knocked Out Loaded, EP 7 (Elemo)

Knocked Out Loaded - EP 7 Knocked Out Loaded
EP 7
By: Eric G.

Blonde Redhead has only recently pulled itself away from the enveloping shadow of Sonic Youth references in both its music and reviews. Knocked Out Loaded is the next generation of New York City experimental noise pop, trailing just behind Blonde Redhead, and you can be sure this band will be dogged by references not only to Sonic Youth but also, ironically, to Blonde Redhead. This is a double-edged sword, of course. Where Blonde Redhead’s similarities to Sonic Youth were peripheral, Knocked Out Loaded uncomfortably mimics Blonde Redhead right down to the off-kilter guitar interplay and even the breathy, sexy female Japanese vocals.

Most bands wear their influences pretty blatantly when they first start recording, but Knocked Out Loaded could almost pass for a Blonde Redhead tribute band. This is dangerous position for a novice band. Ever heard of The Essence? How about Camouflage? Those bands were little more than jokes because they aped the trademark sounds of The Cure and Depeche Mode, respectively, and never successfully distinguished themselves from their obvious influences. The tricky part here is that Knocked Out Loaded has the potential to flourish on its own. While the band may be teetering close to the edge of thievery on this EP, there are definite signs of escape.

Knocked Out Loaded packs each song full of dueling, melodic guitar runs and weird electronic noises all sheathed in dark textures. Sometimes the lyrics don’t fit the emotional content of the music, though: “Did you find the Discman?/does it still work?” (“Dashed Off”). It’s easy to be put off by the indulgent pretense of New York City-style experimentation- a stigma Sonic Youth used to be able to overcome through solid songwriting but have recently fallen victim to with a string of lackluster efforts. Knocked Out Loaded seems too wrapped up in style and imitation to escape the inherent pretentiousness of its songs right now. If the band doesn’t shed its borrowed skin soon, it may miss the brief window of opportunity to redeem itself to an increasingly unforgiving indie rock community.

Boss Hog, Whiteout (In The Red)

Boss Hog - Whiteout Boss Hog
In The Red
By: Eric G.

You really can judge an album by its cover (to mangle a cliche). Well, Boss Hog albums, anyway. The band's major label debut (five years ago) featured a semi-goth cartoon on the cover that was like a cross between the Umbrellas Of Cherbourg soundtrack and an Alien Sex Fiend album; it sounded stale compared even to the wink wink nudge nudge irony of the band's early Amphetamine Reptile output. Those early Boss Hog records typically opted for the infinitely more marketable shot of vocalist Christina Martinez naked. On Whiteout the band returns to its roots (sort of) with a semi-nude shot of Christina, but it's far from the turn-on you'd expect. Martinez looks like a corpse with straw hair and pasty white skin. I couldn't put it out of sight fast enough.

The music is just as un-sexy and boring as the cover art. It's not hard to imagine why Geffen thought better of keeping this band on the roster. Boss Hog has always sounded like a watered down version of The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, which, in turn, has always sounded like a watered down version of the truly raunchy rock it so clearly mimics. You get the feeling Spencer runs the show here even though he stands in the background and lets his wife be the showpiece. The frustration of not being able to shout out 'Blues Explosion!' in between every riff must well up inside him, giving him enough energy and inspiration to crank out the next Blues Explosion album.

I'm not sure if Whiteout is a pun, but this album couldn't be less funky or raucous than if it had five of the whitest people you've ever seen playing on it. Wait a minute. (Looking back at the cover) it does in fact have five of the whitest people I've ever seen playing on it. How could former members of Pussy Galore end up sounding like second generation Garbage (the band not the refuse)? I don't know if my musical ear is just more in tune now than it was in college when I actually didn't mind Boss Hog, or if this is as wretched as it seems.

On the plus side, Martinez can sing better now than when she chose to grunt her way painfully through songs, but the songs just aren't worth the trouble. The cringe factor surfaces way too often, especially when Spencer does manage to squeeze in some of his 'patented' interjections: 'come on', 'get down.' The production is very cold and forcibly electronic. The grungy riffs are sparse and not very memorable. Occasionally, as on "Monkey" the band will hit a groove that seems to rock compared to the other songs on the album, but that's hardly a feat given cold detachment of the playing throughout. Whiteout is the sound of a band in dire need of some drugs, some perverted sex, or a kick in the face- just something to make it sound alive.

The (international) Noise Conspiracy, Survival Sickness (Burning Heart / Epitaph)

The (international) Noise Conspiracy - Survival Sickness The (international) Noise Conspiracy
Survival Sickness
Burning Heart / Epitaph
By: Eric G.

Former Refused frontman Dennis Lyxzen gave up punk for sixties mod garage rock? What is going on? His style of music may have drastically changed, but his message remains the same as Bart Simpson’s and Public Enemy’s: fight the power. It’s impossible to ignore Lyxzen’s political yammerings on his band’s album sleeves. He’s so outspoken he can’t help but draw attention to himself. With Refused it was very easy to stomach the anti-capitalist preachings because the music shot through your heart like a fresh injection of steroids. With The (International) Noise Conspiracy, however, the ranting isn’t quite as convincing simply because it’s hard to take any message seriously when it’s accompanied by a perfectly palatable and catchy chorus.

Lyxzen tricks the listener into reading his manifesto in the liner notes through eye-catching cut and paste artwork and a sheer bulk of information because he wants to apologize for his “hollow” lyrics. Evidently, rock music is too restrictive, making it impossible for him to express himself fully. He’s got a point. If you listen to the lyrics, there’s really nothing very deep or philosophical going on that, say, The Yardbirds didn’t cover decades ago. It’s comical to read what Lyxzen claims each song is about, though. On “The Subversive Sound” Lyxzen sings “tonight we’re gonna feel the heat/right now between the sheets” (among many other similar traditional rhyming couplets), but when we turn to our guidebooks (liner notes) we learn that what he’s really trying to say is that “music is nothing but a(n) abstraction of an old and dull idea of bourgeois self-realization.” Right. Good thing he told me that. Otherwise, I would have really been lost.

Survival Sickness is a good record despite Lyxzen’s socio-political call to arms. Sure, musically, it’s been done. It’s even been done much better by countless underground sixties bands too numerous to name, but Lyxzen’s a charismatic entertainer. His mutilating scream doesn’t surface very much, but his antagonistic, punk-rooted vocal inflection drives the rock and roll home with enough energy and fervor to keep Refused fans pacified for the time being. The music may be garage rock in style, but the production is too good for garage purists. The guitar and organ riffs are as catchy as Lyxzen’s vocals, and the music is a retro-bluesy racket. It’s just all sort of anti-climactic after hearing The Shape Of Punk To Come, though. Survival Sickness is a solid debut, but it won’t start the riot Lyxzen envisions.

The Busy Signals, Baby’s First Beats (Sugar Free)

The Busy Signals - Baby's First Beats The Busy Signals
Baby's First Beats
Sugar Free
By: Eric G.

This is not exactly the type of record you’d expect a guy who used to be a roadie for Babes In Toyland to make. Howard Hamilton III patches together analogue electronics with a cut and paste sample style that favors melody over the abruptness that hip hop acts usually employ. Hamilton’s vocals are laid back and lazy, matching his random word-associating lyrics a la Steven Malkmus from Pavement. Clearly, he listened to a lot of Beach Boys and schmaltzy 70’s crooners from the abundance of orchestral backdrops and retro-sounding instrumentation on his debut record, but he avoids being lumped into that retro-fad of Burt Bacharach-style pop sophistication by virtue of his eclectic sample library and resigned vocal stylings.

The dopey hip-hop beats mix well with Hamilton’s smooth layering of samples and indie rock. “I’m So Slippery” sounds like a lo-fi Moby song with pristine, faux-orchestration, chirpy female background vocals, and Hamilton’s slacker philosophizing: “You’re a vacant lot/I’m a plastic bag in the wind.” “Birds On High” recalls Lou Reed’s “Walk On The Wild Side” with its wilting guitar sample and half-spoken vocals. The seventies pop saturation kicks into high gear on “Clogged Airways.” Light horns twitter on top of cheesy organ samples and sweeping string arrangements; if you don’t gag you might just find yourself humming along. The only signs of modernization are Hamilton’s DJ skills: frequent starts and stops and loopy beats.

Hamilton has a cheery voice that strains to hit the high notes, but his lyrics are playfully self-referential, as alluded to in titles like “Futon Hopper” and “I’m So Low On The Food Chain.” It’s not surprising that Baby’s First Beats is the product of some guy being holed up in his bedroom with a sampler and an eight track for months at a time, but that type of self-indulgent behavior does not always lend itself well to listenable music. Baby’s First Beats is almost an exception. There are a few really good songs here; others fall victim to premeditated cleverness (“Constantly Awesome”). It’s like an emasculated hip-hop album right down to the pink and flowery cover art. Listening to Babes In Toyland every night must have scared the rock right out of Howard Hamilton III.

Sgt. Rock, Live The Dream (Wiiija / Beggars Banquet)

Sgt. Rock - Live The Dream Sgt. Rock
Live The Dream
Wiiija / Beggars Banquet
By: Eric G.

If Fatboy Slim hadn’t already cornered the market on stoopid beats and funky samples, Sgt. Rock might be sitting on a commercial goldmine, but, as it turns out, he’s about two years too late. This type of techno party jam funk had long since lost its appeal by the time that “skankin’” Nike ad had aired for the millionth time. I understand the theory of repetition in music- make it sink in so that it’s remembered easily- but Sgt. Rock rides the same lame-ass beats and samples until you’re willing to do anything to make it all stop. Remember what commercial techno sounded like in the late eighties/early nineties? Divas moaning over thin, forgettable keyboard samples and cheesy beats? Evidently, Sgt. Rock has a soft spot for C&C Music Factory and Technotronic.

There is no question that Sgt. Rock designed his music for a party atmosphere, but his blatant plea for acceptance from the suits who decide which songs go on the next teen flick soundtrack is almost sad. He makes Fatboy Slim look like an underground God. “Rock The Biscuit” is a prime example of pointless indulgence. It’s so calculatedly light-hearted and “fun” that it’s the musical equivalent of sucking on a bottle of syrup. I could almost even live with the “dope” song titles like “Yeah Word Party” and Deeper ‘N’ Deffer” if the music didn’t sound like pale, watered down Parliament Funkadelic through the eyes of a very white DJ.

Bluebird, The Two (Pacifico)

Bluebird - The Two Bluebird
The Two
By: Eric G.

At first Bluebird seems to have one leg in its obvious post-punk roots and the other stretching desperately to reach MTV’s Buzz Bin.’ The thick, thudding bass and the frequent starts and stops give way to the punk shadow that looms large over Bluebird, but the band seems to be fighting its origins with melodies and, specifically, vocal lines that threaten to knock Third Eye Blind off TRL. The vocals are breathy and a tad too emotional so that they sound insincere on the first two songs, but by the third song, evidently, the visions of Carson Daly and screaming teens have escaped them because it’s an aggressive and pummeling piece of punk abrasion. And I don’t just mean it’s fast. It’s not. The vocals are shrieked in a scratchy and erratic manner over a wiry bassline, much like a Gravity Records release. Bluebird is going to be hard to pin down.

It makes you wonder how calculated this album is. Did the band sit back and say ‘well, all we need is one song on the radio to break out’, knowing that even if that didn’t happen they’d still have their punk cred to fall back on. Somehow I doubt it. “Shedding Skin” sounds truly manic. The singer emotes like a supercharged Guy Picciotto. Were those first two songs accidents? It’s like a different band took over. “Low Gear” incorporates some of that Minneapolis noise-rock like Hammerhead with its growling, distorted bass and discordant guitars, but the chorus is too catchy for Amphetamine Reptile fans. Bluebird also seems to have a taste for dirty rock and roll swagger. “Rider” takes its cues from early American punk, but the band never loses its overriding sense of melody. Bluebird has mastered two extreme strengths: caustic punk terror and melodic, introspective rock.

Wait a minute. The ‘Buzz Bin’ bound band from the beginning of the album seems to be back now. “Moonless Night In The Monument” is an unabashed ballad. Pained vocal inflections, guitars that build to a crunching climax, it’s all here. But it’s not bad. The vocals don’t seem as exaggerated as they did on the first two songs. It makes you wonder what kind of crowd this band attracts. Do the punk kids leave when the slow songs start? Do the sensitive kids then scramble to the front to watch the singer croon over the pretty chords? I bet Bluebird sneakily mixes up the set so everybody stays. “Silver Touch” builds to a huge swell of beautiful noise that levels off as the clean vocals float amidst the receding wash of sound. Bluebird ends The Two with a fierce rocker called “Bird On A Wire”, which blends its abrasiveness and softer side masterfully. It’s rare that a band can cast this wide of a net, pinning noisy punk against melodramatic rock, but Bluebird pulls it off with a sense of immediacy and desperation.

Take Me Home, A Tribute To John Denver (Badman)

Take Me Home - A Tribute To John Denver Take Me Home
A Tribute To John Denver
By: Eric G.

I never thought that I would find myself extolling the virtues of John Denver songs, but here it goes… Yes, John Denver was a goofy hippie. The bowlcut…the glasses…he was a cheeseball for sure- the type of guy who would use the word “golly” and not think twice about it. But he did, evidently, write some damn fine country-folk tunes. Try to block out the memories of the Oh, God movies, the Muppet Show appearances, and the footage you’ve seen of his embarrassing variety show, and just listen to the songs. I never even realized I had a soft spot for John Denver because, like you, I had written him off as an inevitable byproduct of the seventies, which was, undeniably, the darkest period in American cultural history.

Badman Records timed the release of this tribute well, coinciding somewhat with VH-1’s recent made for TV movie, which recounted the perpetually frustrated activist’s life and career. Chad Lowe starred as John Denver, and for some reason he looked like he was trying to act mildly retarded. The movie was so bad it was deliriously funny, but it somehow managed to portray Denver as a victim- a strange angle, considering his massive success, but it worked. Denver came across as a good ole boy just trying to make his daddy proud. Granted, he neglected his family to pursue his do-gooder save the world eco-maniacal missions in Africa, but, of course, in the end he repented to his family and all was forgiven. He was just a country boy, after all.

Mark Kozelek compiled these covers, and, as you might expect from the leader of the Red House Painters, the tribute is fairly solemn, focusing on Denver’s darker, more obscure musings. A few of his big hits are represented, though. Rachel Haden offers a multi-textured vocal on “Poems, Prayers, And Promises”, and she does a good job capturing Denver’s doe-eyed innocence. The Sunshine Club dares to reinvent one of Denver’s finest openhearted love songs, “Annie’s Song”, and manages to pay tribute while also drawing out Denver’s inherent sadness. Another huge hit is “Leaving On A Jet Plane”, which Peter Paul And Mary made famous. Tarnation may add some electronic sound effects here and there, but it’s hard to lose the song’s naturally downbeat aura. Mercifully, there are no ska interpretations of “Thank God I’m A Country Boy” nor any ska at all. Why tributes have been reduced to bad ska albums lately is still a mystery. I guess the ‘funny’ just knows no bounds when bands like Goldfinger and Save Ferris get a hold of your songs.

After Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy’s stark and beautiful a capella version of “The Eagle And The Hawk” it comes as no surprise that Denver’s songs lend themselves well to melancholic interpretations. The Innocence Mission brings its ethereal folk fragility to “Follow Me” with a faint horn section and pristine guitar pluckings. Singer Karen Peris sounds inexplicably Irish, though. The Red House Painters’ turn “Fly Away” into a seven-minute shoegazing instrumental anthem. Kozelek joins Mojave 3’s Rachel Goswell for a faithful stab at “Around And Around.” Even the male/female harmonies can’t quite reach Denver’s clarity and purity, though. Low trumps everyone with its goose-bumps-inducing version of “Back Home Again” in typical dirge-like fashion.

Denver’s mass appeal is easy enough to understand, especially after hearing how he has influenced a younger generation of songwriters. His songs are simple and ring true effortlessly. Denver couldn’t have been ironic or sarcastic if he had tried. This tribute follows suite. There’s not a trace irony or condescension in these homages. No winks or nudges that say ‘hey, Denver sure was a geek but this song ain’t bad.’ It’s respectful and sad. You get the feeling these musicians were deeply saddened by Denver’s death and wanted somehow to show him what he meant to them.