Rocket From The Crypt / The Get Up Kids, Split 7 Inch (Vagrant)

Rocket From The Crypt / The Get Up Kids - Split 7 Inch Rocket From The Crypt / The Get Up Kids
Split 7 Inch
Vagrant
By: Eric G.

Ten years on and Rocket From The Crypt can still pull off its punkish blend of R&B and fifties rock and roll without sounding like it’s too far passed its expiration date. I doubt the same will be said of The Get Up Kids in a few years, however. Already, the band's sentimental pop punk is wearing thin. The pairing on this split 7" puzzles me to no end. Is it a marketing scheme trying to attract the old school indie rock crowd while still appealing to the young emo kids, or just a bad judgment call by Vagrant Records? One good thing I can say is that the packaging is first-rate. As for the music…

Rocket From The Crypt has top billing despite the overwhelming popularity of The Get Up Kids right now. Seniority, I guess. I can't really see the crowd that goes for The Get Up Kids ever flipping the record over to listen to Rocket From The Crypt, but they should because "Free Language Demons" destroys "Up On The Roof." John Reis' gravelly snarl mixes well with his trademarked power chord assault. I'd forgotten how good the horn section sounds over top the noisy stop/start punk. This is the best Rocket from The Crypt song I've heard in years, or has it just been years since I've heard a Rocket From The Crypt song? Either way- it's a good one.

I can't get over just how manipulative The Get Up Kids sound with those bratty and slightly angst-ridden vocals that have just enough gruff not to sound too cheesy for the poser punk kids. The happy go lucky sing along chorus, the harmonies, and the Superchunk-lite musical foundation all add up to a bad stomachache for me. And then there are the lyrics: "Just know I wouldn't hate you if you/try you might- decide to fight/try you might- decide it's right/is this everything you thought it'd be/waited for religiously/you know I wouldn't trade you for the world." Don't succumb- this is bad music. Some people call it emo- I call it sucky.

Barcelona, Zero-One-Infinity (March)

Barcelona - Zero-One-Infinity Barcelona
Zero-One-Infinity
March
By: Eric G.

Nerds make the best synth-pop, I guess, because they know how to twiddle all the right knobs, and Washington DC's Barcelona revels in its own brand of nostalgic nerdiness on its second album, Zero-One-Infinity. Sonically, it's a step forward from the band's debut, Simon Basic, but the songwriting isn't as instantly catchy. The kitsch factor is laid on pretty thick this time at the expense of some the songs' impact, but despite the obsession with everything 80's the album does manage to rise above mere retro-fluff to showcases a true knack for pop songcraft.

Jason Korzen and Jennifer Carr still share vocal duties, and their voices are by turns nasally and spastic but charming all the same. The references in each song sound more forced than they did on Simon Basic. New songs like “Studio Hair Gel” and “Paging System Operator” don't quite reach the level of sentiment of instant classics like “Why Do You Have So Much Fun Without Me?” On Simon Basic the ace in the hole was always that the songs were strong no matter how geeky or self-deprecatingly clever the lyrics were. On Zero-One-Infinity, though, it seems like the band is trying too hard to live up to its reputation for being the new purveyors of retro-indie chic.

Even its vacuous songs are hummable, though, so at its worst the band can make you sing along. “Bugs” is a perfect example of what I'm talking about. It's a harmless, meaningless pop song, but Korzen's vocals are so meek and unassuming that they sound endearing over top the clean chop of the indie rock guitars. Barcelona's schtick is unique, don't get me wrong- not many bands come to mind that zero in on computer nerds consumed with 80's pop and 90's indie rock. When the band holds up all sides of its formula the result is irresistible. "I Have The Password To Your Shell Account" masters the art of 80's sequencers, and the chorus is catchy as hell with its hilarious insider-techie lyrics.

Barcelona seems far more self-aware on Zero-One-Infinity than on Simon Basic, but when the meat of the songs outweigh the window dressing of 80's nostalgia then the band is too charming to ignore. The music on "Obsoletion" sounds nervous and slightly ominous in the verse but then unfolds into a dreamy chorus. The lyrics, of course, counter any possible tension the music might create with constant human/computer comparisons. "Have You Forgotten The Bomb?" is the standout gem of the album. The speedy jangle of Korzen's guitar recalls Mark Robinson's ecstatic strumming in Unrest, and his double-tracked vocals soar in the chorus.

I think the main problem with Zero-One-Infinity is the sequencing of the tracks. The weakest songs are packed at the beginning, but by the end of the album Barcelona has won you over again with its geeky yet undeniable charm.

The Softies, Holiday In Rhode Island (K)

The Softies - Holiday In Rhode Island The Softies
Holiday In Rhode Island
K
By: Brooke McDermott

Listening to The Softies is like sneaking into your big sister’s bedroom with a hairpin in hand ready to pick the lock of her diary. Hoping to find the secrets of her perfect life, you stumble upon a whirlwind of broken hearts, ghosts, advice, and tears. You instantly develop a deeply intimate relationship with the intertwining electric guitar melodies, haunting vocal harmonies, and real-life lyrics big sisters Rose Melberg and Jen Sbragia have to offer on their third full-length album, Holiday In Rhode Island .

This time Rose and Jen have sprinkled their creation with more sugary treats than ever before. While staying true to the soothing dual guitar style they're known for, they incorporate a slew of new instruments into the mix. The Softies have found their niche in pop music’s underworld with jangly guitars, soulful melodies, and harmonies accompanied by xylophones, drums, keyboards, bass and acoustic guitars.

“Me and the Bees” strays furthest from their trademark, minimal style. Ironically, this waltz-y song about loneliness is the only one on the album that incorporates all the added instrumentation. Even with the fuller sound, the duo remains loyal to its cardinal rule that no other musicians play on its records. The Softies' approach to music is far too personal to include outsiders.

The Softies tackle heartrending issues honestly and delicately in their lyrics. The sweetly posed “are you loving how you’re living?,” is a rhetorical question that hits home, and “Yellow Sundress” deals with death using a gentle metaphor of a hem coming loose to ease the pain softly. There is naïve desperation rooted in the plea, “I hope you never leave me,” and childlike, dreamy wishes to “draw a line through all of 1999”, which made me feel like I could too.

With Holiday In Rhode Island, The Softies explore new territory while perfecting an already unique style. They inadvertently offer advice about boys, loss, and adulthood. They are honest , almost painfully so, and they are everything about which good indiepop music should be.

Orbiter, Mini LP (Loveless)

Orbiter - Mini LP Orbiter
Mini LP
Loveless
By: Eric G.

Orbiter is a Seattle-based duo dabbling in a trip-hop/electronic pop fusion that wouldn’t be out of place on your local adult contemporary radio station. I probably don’t need to tell you that that is not a compliment. There’s nothing edgy or risky about this 7-song EP. The bio uses the term “guitar-erotica” to describe the band's sound, which I can barely even type with a straight face and should give you a pretty good idea where this band is coming from. Evidently, the guitarist met the singer in a karaoke bar. This is not a surprise, considering the amount of straining that goes into trying to sound “soulful.” Fiia McGann’s breathy, faux-sexy singing-style is a staple in karaoke bars.

Beyond the Portishead-lite backdrop is a fairly organic guitar-based structure. The beats are light and airy and keyboards float around the heavily affected guitar bits. Mini LP sounds like an homogenized trip-hop record directed at the lowest common denominator with just enough electronic sputter to make it seem “cutting edge” to the uninitiated. The vocals are far too loud in the mix, which only make the embarrassingly adolescent lyrics stand out even more: “bite my tongue or stick it out/or do something dumb to remove all doubt” (“Stray Dogs”). An even bigger mistake is passing the microphone to guitarist Harris Thurmond, whose self-deprecatory inflection sounds like a confused Randy Newman on “You” and “Paper.” Again, not a compliment.

It’s too easy just to coast on paths that have already been cleared, and, unfortunately, Orbiter makes a habit of it here. “Sentimental” revives late-1980’s pop hooks and light-funk in an ill-advised mix of electronic noodling and saccharine lyrics. “Bribery” sinks even further into no man’s land with a forgettable stab at a noir-ish trip hop. Compared with Thurmond’s contributions, however, McGann’s songs sound absolutely inspired, which is a sad state of affairs indeed. The band should probably focus more on atmospheric instrumentals like “3A.M.” with its layers of concurrent melodies and scuttling percussion because it is the only sign of hope on this EP.

Q And Not U, No Kill No Beep Beep (Dischord)

Q And Not U - No Kill No Beep Beep Q And Not U
No Kill No Beep Beep
Dischord
By: Eric G.

Other than the infrequent Fugazi album, Dischord releases have not really been cause for celebration in recent years. Q And Not U categorically ends the bad streak, however. This is the best non-Fugazi Dischord release since Hoover's The Lurid Traversal Of Route 7 in 1994. Q And Not U boasts of familiar ingredients: squalling guitars, jagged rhythms, erratic interplay, and bratty but melodious vocals- all of which spells DC post-hardcore in giant bold letters, but Q And Not U will not rest easy being lumped into such an obvious pigeonhole. The band rewrites the book of modern punk in eleven songs.

No Kill Beep Beep- like any good punk album- makes you want to smash things up and dance and play air guitar until you can't stand up anymore. Ah, but before you put on your leather jacket and shave your head- be aware that this band is from DC, so traditional punk rules are out the window. This is the thinking man's punk rock. Predictable influences permeate each song from DC classics like Circus Lupus and Gray Matter to more traditional punk mainstays like Gang of Four and Public Image Limited on to more frantic punk acts like Drive Like Jehu and Universal Order of Armageddon, but none of them is overbearing or particularly dominant. Q And Not U fuses the best bits of its predecessors with carefully honed dynamics and a raucous energy.

The band smartly tapers its aggression with angular histrionics- that is to say the guitars flail by fits and starts while the rhythms remain steady and structured ("A Line In The Sand"). The discordant guitars do quiet down but only for calculated and effective build-ups ("Kiss Distinctly American"). The vocal interplay is just as abrupt and staccato as the music with varying degrees of singing and screaming. The hardcore roots are latent and only reveal themselves in occasional bursts of emotion as on the brilliant "We Love Our Hive." Since all four members sing, the band is able to incorporate varying vocal techniques into its complicated noise (like harmonies and call and response verses), but the most common style is that monotone half-yell made famous by the engineer of this record and proprietor if its label, Ian Mackaye.

Q And Not U has jumpstarted the wilting DC punk scene with this debut full-length. There is not a dull moment here. Even the slower songs lock into ace grooves and then dart off in unexpected directions ("Sleeping The Terror Code"). Despite all dissonance, Q And not U has an impeccable ear for melody, and even in its shrillest moments the band never leaves the catchy hooks far behind. This is by far the best punk album of the year, and I can't recommend it enough.

Chuck, Directed By Miguel Arteta (Artisan)

Chuck - Directed By Miguel Arteta Chuck
Directed By Miguel Arteta
Artisan
By: Eric G.

Buck is hapless. At twenty-seven he still lives with his mother who's been sick for years. She sits in a lazyboy and hacks up her guts while watching daytime talk shows. Buck's room is frozen in time- like that of a child who died at a young age and whose parents were too devastated to change a thing. With a sucker constantly in his mouth, Buck wears a mischievous expression- part innocence, part ignorance- that contradicts everything about your typical man of twenty-seven years. Something is clearly wrong with this picture, but we're given no explanation right away.

Buck's mother dies and he invites a childhood friend to the funeral. Chuck is Buck's hyperbolic opposite- he's successful and handsome and grounded, making it hard to imagine that these two were ever friends. He brings his fiancée with him to Buck's mother's funeral. The reunion of the two childhood friends is beyond awkward, and the director relishes in twisting the knife in our backs. Buck acts like an eleven-year-old kid while Chuck tries to be cordial and empathetic. Is Buck retarded? Socially, perhaps. Emotionally stunted- absolutely. It is painful to watch Buck's social retardation play out. He couldn't care less about his mother's death, despite the giant button on his lapel (a blown-up and unflattering picture of his mother). He's obviously only interested in seeing his long-lost friend again.

The reunion comes to a grinding halt when Buck walks into the bathroom where Chuck is relieving himself. Chuck exclaims an understandable "what the fuck, man" or something similar as Buck just smiles like he does this kind of thing everyday. Chuck continues to be polite- the discomfort of the situation notwithstanding. The tension and awkwardness of this scene makes your skin crawl much like a Todd Solondz film does. Buck rushes to embrace Chuck, and Chuck complies- not wanting to deny his old friend the polite amount of emotional support. But when Buck reaches for Chuck's ass…it's time to go. Chuck grabs his fiancée and bolts.

Seeing Chuck has triggered an obsessive reaction, and Buck moves to Los Angeles to be closer to his former friend. The rest of the film sleepwalks through all the stalker cliches. Despite all the overt and often disturbing signals (like Buck suggesting that they stick their dicks in each other's mouths: "Chuck and Buck…suck and fuck"), Chuck can't seem to shut the door completely on Buck. Why? Guilty conscience? Anybody else would have either called the police or beaten the shit out of this guy, but Chuck lays down the law verbally only to back down emotionally. It quickly becomes clear that we don't have the whole story.

Buck's suspended adolescence is a chore to watch at times. His child-like persona teeters on the brink of absurdity. Buck is not autistic or retarded or even dumb. His behavior is a reactionary state. He's stuck inside of his childhood, and Arteta is careful to get all the details right from the toys and his obsessive collage artwork to his Bert and Ernie shirts. What drove him so deeply into this unreality is certainly depressing but Miguel Arteta approaches the whole subject with an air of quirkiness. This is a light-hearted black comedy with a disturbing core. There are hilarious moments, as you'd expect from a low budget film as hyper-aware of itself as this one is, but the humor is understated. The climax is surreal but well within the parameters of Arteta's absurdist vision. As is the case with the bulk of experimental independent films, Chuck & Buck is a lot more fun to talk about than it is to watch.

French Kicks, Young Lawyer (Startime)

French Kicks - Young Lawyer French Kicks
Young Lawyer
Startime
By: Eric G.

This transplanted New York City quartet has its feet planted in diverging musical styles that culminate in a relatively catchy mix of grating punk, trashy glam rock, and British invasion harmonies. Admittedly, the French Kicks are not very original on the surface. How many glam rock rehashes have you heard in recent years, anyway (Vue, Makeup)? Beneath the trendy facade, though, the French Kicks do offer some gritty rock and roll that packs a fairly memorable punch. You've heard Jonathan Fire*Eater, I presume? Well, the French Kicks owe just as much to the Rolling Stones and the New York Dolls as to those now-defunct Birthday Party plunderers.

French Kicks support their harmonies with angular rhythms and jagged guitars. The vocal melodies are truly remarkable considering the jarring musical foundation over which they are lain; most bands, in fact, would find it hard simply not to yell over the shrill emissions. The vocals are confident yet slackjawed, dragging slowly over the alternately plodding and dancey rhythms. Imagine if Steven Malkmus took himself seriously when he sang and you'll begin to get a sense of what the French Kicks' vocal approach is like (times three- for three different yet hardly distinguishable singers).

The title track dumps the band's bag of tricks all over the floor, revealing the reverb-drenched guitars, the shuffling rhythms, the groovy bass lines, and the abrasive changes. Gluing it all together are the seemingly out of place harmonies. "Living Room Is Empty" refines the formula slightly with a more digestible guitar pattern that trots along slowly enough for the vocals to sound even more soporific. The tinny recording doesn't really do justice to the music, which sounds like it would be a rollicking racket live, but such is the drawback of being a throwback- you can't really embrace new technology either.

Like any good glam rock band, the French Kicks lace their songs with the requisite amount of sexual energy. The singers sound as if they are sucking on the microphones the way they stretch and slur their syllables so much. You get the feeling the irony of the rock star mentality is lost on these guys. Are we expected to take such posturing seriously without so much as a semblance of self-deprecation? I doubt these guys give much of a fuck. Bands don't analyze themselves in those terms. It's only rock and roll to them. And that's the way it should be.