Duster, Contemporary Movement (Up)

Duster - Contemporary Movement Duster
Contemporary Movement
By: Eric G.

This is the last band you’d expect a former member of Mohinder to be in. Or, maybe, this is the next logical step. Relentless noise has its limitations, but melody is expansive. Duster explores rock through drifting textures and lazy, laid back vocals. The guitar fuzz hangs overhead like an ominous cloud or like a quiet Bardo Pond song. Duster’s second album is a dark and atmospheric rock record, where you feel like you have to squint to see the beauty at the center of the haze.

Contemporary Movement has an immediate, almost live feel; it sounds like the band just set up a microphone in the middle of a big empty room and started playing. If it weren’t for the guitar overdubs, it would be hard to tell that it’s a studio product. For Duster vocals take a backseat to the sound of the music as evidenced by the band’s monotone delivery, which acts like a bored antagonist to the melodies. Every now and again the band attempts vocal harmonies, which drone sweetly beside the lingering guitar lines.

“Get The Dutch” is a sprawling opener, building tension and setting the scene for the murky soundscapes to come. The drummer pounds his repetitive and tribal beats while the guitarist clangs unsettling chords. The vocals don’t even start until the last minute or so. Very Cure. I wouldn’t associate Duster with the slowcore movement defined by the likes of Low and Codeine before them because even though the tempos are similar Duster’s sound is looser and more dangerous- as though the noise could erupt at any second.

“Diamond” lives up to its name with its detached vocals, sweetly melancholic melodies and a climax that makes the hair on your arms stand up. The lyrics are intelligible only at certain moments, keeping its air of mystery and sadness at bay. Musically, “Travelog” recalls the band’s instrumental alter ego Valium Aggelein. The bass and guitar interplay scuttles beneath a swirl of unending harmonics. The rough production gives it an added sense of intimacy.

From the catchy riffs in “Cooking” to the spooky half-spoken lull of “Contemporary Breakups”, Duster proves its no one-trick pony on song after song. The band’s sense of humor surfaces often enough to let you know that nothing here is sacred: “Goddamn I wish I was a little bit smarter” (“Contemporary Breakups”). The forcibly sarcastic inflection stretches into a tuneless drag in “Everything You See (Is Your Own)”, but the music compensates for the vocal shortcomings. If you give it your undivided attention, Contemporary Movement can suck you into its gorgeous hopelessness, but a casual listen would probably bore you to tears.

Elastica, The Menace (Atlantic)

Elastica - The Menace Elastica
The Menace
By: Eric G.

Let's face it, the bag of tricks was pretty small to begin with- Justine Frischmann had a sexy haircut, good taste in music, and a famous boyfriend. Now she looks like Chrissie Hynde, has the same taste in music she did five years ago, and Damon Albarn has long since moved on. Elastica may have plundered freely through Wire's early catalogue, but the band showed enough spunk at least to seem threatening to the whole Brit Pop movement back in 1995. Five years on and Elastica hardly seems like a band at all much less a threat to any scene. Guitarist Donna Matthews bolted after very public rows with Frischmann, but it's all water under the bridge now because The Menace is a snooze.

Maybe, it would be an interesting story if the band hadn't pulled a Tears For Fears, er, I mean, a Stone Roses by waiting five years to make another record. The sheer gall it must take to think you'd still be relevant after five years of nothing just shows how disproportionate a rock star's ego can be compared to anyone's in the real world. Nobody ever accused Elastica of making deep music, but depth can be sacrificed for other strengths. The old Elastica rocked. The new Elastica tries to rock, but ends up sounding like a stale, idea-less shell of its former self.

Elastica has moved on to Wire's Chairs Missing for its current thievery, and it's even employed a true post-punk icon to join the heist. Mark E. Smith adds some level of credibility to "How He Wrote Elastica Man", but it sounds more like exploitation than reverence. The other songs on The Menace are barely worth noting. Hell, half of them appeared on last year's Six Track EP, anyway. On the EP they seemed to promise an experimental direction. Their subsequent recycling as album tracks sounds desperate and suspect. The best song on the album is a solo demo by Donna Matthews, "Nothing Stays The Same", which was, of course, previously released on the aforementioned EP.

Elastica's faults (awkward song structures, weak lyrics) were easy to overlook in the beginning, but now they stick out and practically beg for attention. Here's a line from "Your Arse, My Place": "your hard/I'm not/you're shit/shit hot…get with it baby." This was printed on the sleeve. What happened to melody? Barring, maybe, three songs (including a cover of Trio's "Da Da Da"), I dare you to remember a single snippet of melody, or phrase, or guitar line from this album. It's a jumbled mess. The vocals are buried in distortion. The songs lack direction and sound half-finished. If you don't want to burst your bubble for Elastica avoid The Menace and just keep those memories of the band that wrote "Stutter" and "Line Up" and "Annie" untainted.

The Queers, Beyond The Valley… of The Assfuckers (Hopeless)

The Queers - Beyond The Valley… of The Assfuckers The Queers
Beyond The Valley… of The Assfuckers
By: Eric G.

No matter how wimpy and sensitive punk continues to grow, there will always be bands like The Queers, who, despite being older than your dad, will churn out silly, numbskull pop punk until their guitars are buried with them in punk rock hell. The Queers represent the greasers in Grease, the dunces in the classroom, and the losers at prom- anyone who rejects society and its conventions or is rejected by society and its conventions. Sadly, and, predictably, such anti-conformity has turned into its own brand of conformity, complete with its own uniforms and attitudes. Welcome to the world of joke punk rock, where bad puns serve as album titles, artwork is almost always a cartoon, and bands like The Queers make a career out of writing the same song hundreds of times.

I’ve never quite understood how the same genre that Bad Brains and Rudimentary Peni called home came to encompass and even embrace toilet humor and the same three braindead chords, but I guess it all goes back to The Ramones. The Sex Pistols were crass but never self-referential, and The Clash was too busy trying to make a difference to have much fun. The next wave of American punk cemented all the modern day cliches for the joke punk movement. From the aforementioned Ramones to MDC to The Meatmen to The Descendents to Flipper on to the modern day stuff on Fat Wreck Chords and bands like NOFX and Screeching Weasel- the inherent silliness and ‘don’t give a fuck’ attitude of which morphed into a culture of smelly suburban teens that has become a commercially acceptable period of adolescnece.

The Queers hark back to these early days of American punk, but very little has changed along the way. Maturity is the death of punk, and these guys refuse to grow up. Joe Queer may be in his late thirties and use a cell phone, but he’s not above song titles like “My Cunt’s A Cunt” and “I Just Called To Say Fuck You.” It’s stupid and silly, but somehow I can’t help but laugh at the lyrics to “Stupid Fucking Vegan”- not because they’re very clever but because they will probably piss of a lot of hippie straight edge kids: “You always pray to Jah when you smoke your fucking pot/you fucking vegan/you like the Grateful Dead and think they’re really hot/you fucking vegan.”

So The Queers keep writing the same song over and over again, but any band that can make a chorus like “I hate your fucking guts” sound catchy, more power to it. As much as they would hate to admit it, The Queers thrive off the success of fluff punk like Blink 182, Green Day, and the stuff on the Warped Tour because it provides endless fodder to mock even though there’s really very little difference between any of them. Beyond the barriers of success, their formulas are pretty much the same: catchy hooks, bratty vocals, and speed. The Queers’ music is so wrapped up in being ‘old school’ that there’s little room for any new ideas, but fans of this stuff don’t want any new ideas. It may be embarrassing, ridiculous, and crude, but at least it’s consistent. For every Hot Water Music there’s a band like The Queers to balance it all out.

Spring, The Last Goodbye (March)

Spring - The Last Goodbye Spring
The Last Goodbye
By: Eric G.

Spring is part of that retro-French-pop contingent, where fashion and taste are almost as important as the music itself. There are throngs of imitators trying to capture this mishmash of light, dreamy pop, sixties art, and ultra-modern lifestyle, but they pale in comparison to bands like Spring, who have the chops to pull it all off without sounding too contrived. The Last Goodbye explores classic French pop through an eclectic lens that incorporates bossanova, moogs, jazzy pop, wispy acoustic guitars, and charmingly petite vocals.

It’s entirely possible that some might find the vocals nothing short of grating as they are decidedly coy and girlish, but their effect will surely encompasses more than what would appeal to your average twee fan. Spring’s music is admittedly syrupy, but it has an authentic air about it, recalling vintage sixties soundtracks (“Shooting Stars” even features dialogue snippets from Barbarella) and what you would imagine Parisian cafe life is like (whatever that means). Fans of simple, stylish pop will easily latch onto Spring’s lush melodies at the very least.

Adding to the band’s mystique is its penchant for bi-lingual harmonies. The male/female vocal interplay on “Microclimat” is both soothing and seductive. The flamenco guitar style on “The Naked Kiss” conjures up images of hedonistic parties in Spanish castles while the layered keyboards and sunny guitar lines of “Baby Blue” are simple, timeless, and catchy without any other connotations. It’s obvious that the members of Spring all have similar musical tastes because each song has a consistent tone. Modern elements such as electronics and ethereal textures are all reshaped to fit in with a particular strain of sound. The art is in the fact that the band can filter eclectic styles through such a small musical scope and still sound appealing outside of its self-imposed niche.

The Last Goodbye is packed full of breezy, lighthearted pop songs in the grand French tradition. Spring proves itself to be a leader in the retro-pop resurgence with its debut full-length, joining the ranks of bands like Cinnamon and St. Etienne for marrying style with substance.

Six By Seven, The Closer You Get (Mantra / Beggars Banquet)

Six By Seven - The Closer You Get Six By Seven
The Closer You Get
Mantra / Beggars Banquet
By: Eric G.

Everybody knows that a bass guitar should never be played through a wah-wah pedal. Six By Seven breaks this rule by the third song on its second album, The Closer You Get. It’s a forgivable mistake, though, and Six By Seven pulls through it relatively unscathed. The band certainly won’t be consigned to the depths of obscurity with the likes of The Soup Dragons for mocking sixties cliches, especially since the rest of the album rocks with a mix of aggressive space rock and bratty punk bravado.

Six By Seven sounds like it has something to prove, which is true to an extent. Early in its career the band blew a big opportunity with a shoddy performance at a show in Leicester, where labels were prepared to fight to sign a deal, and, consequently, the band had to self-release its first single, “European Me.” The single generated enough buzz to overshadow the bad press from that infamous concert and Beggars Banquet immediately snatched the band up. Its first album, The Things We Make, was a bit overblown, as the band indulged some of its more heavy-handed influences at the expense of a batch of decent songs. The band quickly discovered that the world only needed one Spiritualized.

The Closer You Get showcases the Six By Seven’s sharpened songwriting skills. Very few of the songs ramble on past the dreaded five-minute mark, but you can still hear plenty of influences from The Jesus And Mary Chain and My Bloody Valentine to Smashing Pumpkins and Radiohead. “Eat Junk Become Junk” is a fine opener with its squealing swirl of guitars and anthematic vocals. “Sawn Off Metallica T-Shirt” keeps the pace up, adding some disjointed changes to the punk-ish attack. The vocals whine and howl like some sort of manic Mark E. Smith.

The falsetto vocals notwithstanding, “Ten Places To Die” tips its hat to Radiohead in several ways. The textured orchestration recalls Ok Computer’s expansive soundscapes as do the space-age effects. The aforementioned bass wah wah drags it all back down to reality, though. Some songs don’t quite live up to the new standards: “New Year” starts off promising but stumbles into a pompous, Oasis-style chorus, and “England And A Broken Radio” is a pointless and self-indulgent waste, comprised of distorted vocals and meandering melodies. However, tracks like “My Life Is An Accident” and “Don’t Wanna Stop” show both extremes of the band’s dynamic, from dark, droning rock to full throttle punk.

Despite having only two albums under its belt, Six By Seven has been slaving away since 1991. The Closer You Get is an impressive step forward, but it lacks consistency. At this rate, though, album number three should be something exciting to behold.

Fantastic!, Sun: What A Wonderful Word! (Aquatic / Riviera)

Fantastic! - Sun: What A Wonderful Word! Fantastic!
Sun: What A Wonderful Word!
Aquatic / Riviera
By: Eric G.

Twee French pop is something of a cliche these days because of all the American indie rock imitators, so it’s kind of strange to hear the real thing (or what purports to be the real thing). Fantastic! is another French pop band obsessed with pastels, The Beach Boys and the 1960’s. From the duotone cover art to the retro-sophistication of its breezy pop, Fantastic! sounds (and looks) like it hasn’t listened to any records since Pet Sounds, but its own sound is chiseled out of only one dimension of that Beach Boys classic. Why are French pop bands so happy? And what’s with all the sappy titles?

Fantastic! is fairly minimal compared to fellow French hippies The Cherry Orchard, but it mines the same sunny terrain, minus the doe-eyed love-struck fluff. What Fantastic! lacks in passion it makes up for in cheese. Moogs, acoustic guitars, horns, and cello flesh out the band’s anachronistic sound. The only clues that this wasn’t actually recorded thirty-five years ago are the mentions of “1987” in “Supernova” and “Jarvis Cocker” in “Beauty Queen.” It is entirely possible that I misunderstood that stopped-up sounding accent, though.

As cloying and annoying as this stuff can be sometimes, Fantastic! isn’t too bad when taken in small doses. The band should make a career of contributing songs to compilations because even five songs in a row sent me reeling for some Motorhead. By the fifth song I thought I was listening to bad karaoke in some lounge in Paris. It’s not the style so much as the content. Or, maybe, it is the style- and too much of it. The Cherry Orchard may be as sickly sweet as you can get with its sentimental lyrics and Bacharach-style arrangements, but at least it transports you somewhere. Fantastic! merely reminds you of some other place and time, and, while I might get suckered into going there by a stray good song, I definitely don’t want to stay long.

Tracker, Ames (Film Guerrero)

Tracker - Ames Tracker
Film Guerrero
By: Eric G.

Tracker plays country-tinged indie rock for those with a little blues in their blood, but the blues here doesn’t always sound quite real. You can sniff out everything from Neil Young to Slint on this Portland, Oregon quartet’s debut album, which is a mix of indie country, post-rock, and roots rock and roll. The slacker vocals have an exaggerated drawl akin to Pavement’s Steven Malkmus but without any of the ironic posturing. These guys are at least trying to be authentic even though they’re probably a bunch of white suburbanites getting off on some mysterious ‘Old West’ schtick. Just because you have a picture of the desert on your album sleeve does not make you a cowboy.

Tracker’s songs aren’t quite as flawlessly constructed as its image is, though. The moods are too disparate, sounding brittle and aching one moment (“We Don’t Need To Speak”) and then borderline adult contemporary the next (“Liquored”). The vocals drag things down far too often. The twangy inflections sound more forced than affecting. Tracker seems to have its eye on the same dark, ghost town as The Black Heart Procession, but it fails to conjure up the latter band’s tortured aura. And just when you’re ready to toss the album back into the pile, the band busts out with a mind-blowing musical breakdown in “The Telephone.”

“The Man Who Never Left His Apartment” wouldn’t be out of place on a Wilco album with its radio-ready mix and crisp production. It sways at a moderate pace like all that post-Uncle Tupelo country rock. The vocals are surprisingly effective here, finally abandoning that fake, down home accent. “Drinker” also works well with its acoustic minor chords and distant piano. For every mediocre song there’s a gem to match it (“The Road Is Sticking” is the true standout, combining a reverb-drenched electric guitar with muted trumpet and Rhodes-style piano), but the album as a whole is too inconsistent. Ames is not a bad debut- it’s just not the album that you’d turn to when you’re driving alone across the country.