Mogwai, Rock Action (Matador)

Mogwai - Rock Action Mogwai
Rock Action
By: Eric Greenwood

With media culture catering to shorter and shorter attention spans, it's difficult for bands to justify songs that run triple the time of what is universally acceptable in the context of rock music; Mogwai not only thumbs its nose at such absurd notions but runs in the opposite direction, defying both expectation and tradition on its third album. The elements themselves are hackneyed and played out, but the execution is immediate and completely relevant. Mogwai makes listening to painfully slow rock a gripping experience, which is an art in and of itself. Long gone are the days when a band could get away with only a well-honed loud/soft dynamic. Entertainment is always the bottom line, and too many self-indulgent bands have made cynics out of the indie rock underground.

Mogwai is here to make the cynics sit up and beg. Rock Action is a bold title for such an experimental album. The band's thick, heady music envelops you in a haze of melody and languid riffage. Rock Action is far busier than any of the band's previous output, but it still subscribes to the Psychocandy-inspired philosophy of coating beauty with an uncomfortable and grating hiss. Vocals are also obviously more prominent in the band's sound. The songwriting focuses on song structure without caving in to any post-rock trappings. The goal is no longer to lull you to sleep only to blast you awake with a monstrous wave of distortion. The ebb and flow is much subtler on Rock Action, but the songs still all seem to trudge along at the same mesmerizing yet plodding tempo.

"Sine Wave" sounds like garbage the first time you hear it- like one of those artsy throwaway tracks comprised only of noise. It drones on almost five minutes full of static and distorted patterns. After four or five listens the song no longer sounds like aural masturbation but a carefully plotted exercise in tension- both beautiful and surreal. The song grows into an alarming and unnerving wall of sound with heavily masked voices that whisper underneath the electrical disturbances. "Take Me Somewhere Nice" couldn't sound more entreating after such an abrasive opener. The riff is quiet and familiar as a second guitar joins it in a slight variation. The keyboards are soothing and serene leading up to the droning feedback with slow, deadpan vocals, recalling Flying Saucer Attack at its finest.

Mogwai's sound effects are as essential as its riffs to the atmosphere of each song. The warped keyboard loop is not a new trick, but Mogwai incorporates it beautifully on the uncharacteristically brief "O I Sleep." With vocals having played such a minor part in the past, Mogwai displays a daunting command of them on Rock Action. "Dial.Revenge" showcases the band's latent penchant for sweeping orchestration and gorgeous harmonies. With differing arpeggios panned hard in each ear, Mogwai layers the song with faux-strings that climax with the foreign vocals. The cacophonous drone of "You Don't Know Jesus" bludgeons you into submission and threatens to show you the face of your creator through its sinewy guitars.

The epic track and centerpiece of the album is "2 Rights Make 1 Wrong." The straightforward rock introduction gives way to multiple horns and an antiquated organ sound. Coupled with vocoders, strings, and booming percussion the song bends in and out of aggression and surrender until a strange breakdown with banjos, electronic spurts, and radio static overwhelms the mix, carrying the song to its noisy conclusion. The relatively brief Rock Action concludes with "Secret Pint", a lovely piano driven coda with meek vocals and slight acoustic strumming.

Mogwai will undoubtedly confound both enemies and fans with this stylistic leap; although, I predict some of the naysayers will defect into the pro-camp with the newly prominent vocals. Rock Action sets out to defy and re-define rock music with rock music being its only tool. Whether or not it succeeds depends on the context in which you experience it. If you listen to it alone and on headphones you certainly will think that it does.

The Mother Hips, Green Hills Of Earth (Future Farmer)

The Mother Hips - Green Hills Of Earth The Mother Hips
Green Hills Of Earth
Future Farmer
By: Eric Greenwood

How many different ways can you announce that you're a hippie? Well, you could have the word "mother" in your band name. Or you could mention both "green" and "earth" in your album title. Or, better yet, you could record for a label called "Future Farmer." Okay, so this band has "hippie" written all over it, but surprisingly, its new album is not unlistenable. I was fully prepared to eject the disc after quickly scanning through the songs, but I didn't. As much as it pains me to pay compliments to a band with a name like The Mother Hips, I must admit some of these songs are well-crafted, catchy pop songs in the classic sense of the term.

If you can overcome the inherent wackiness and goofiness of the band's persona, there are some impressive harmonies and arrangements embedded in its music. Green Hills Of Earth is The Mother Hips' fifth album and also its return to an independent label. The band flirted with the majors on Rick Rubin's American Recordings (haven't bands learned by now that signing to American is a one-way ticket to obscurity?). Pegged into the alt-country scene, presumably for its involvement in the past with the H.O.R.D.E. tour, The Mother Hips actually have very little in common with that scene's insulated, predictable sound.

The band wears the fact that it was influenced by pure pop acts like the Bee-Gees and the Kinks on its sleeve. There's very little mimicry of these acts, but the seeds of their influence certainly have a strong presence. The instrumentation is acoustic-based but very full and fleshed out. The band incorporates plenty of keyboards, piano, and sound effects into its lush sound. Some songs tend to outstay their welcome while others dig holes that can't be covered up. However, "Given For You" is short and sweet, opening with a 1970's Fender Rhodes riff and mockingly pitch-perfect harmonies. "Life In The City" is a Meat Puppets-style rocker, complete with a dirty guitar solo/outro.

The stretched-out vocal melody on "Take Us Out" is reminiscent of old Neil Young, except far more accomplished musically. The Mother Hips can't help but sound like seasoned musicians. Dumbing down its playing to sound more authentic would be pointless. That sense of perfection may turn off those that get off on having a patronizing view of musicians that are unremarkable players but happen to write remarkable songs. "Pull Us All Together" could easily be three decades old. Classic vocal melodies and the threat of a rocking explosion cement it into your memory. "Singing Seems Easy To Me" recalls 1960's British invasion-style harmonies. Very Dave Clark Five and very hard to resist.

Songs like "Protein Sky" remind you that this could all be a big joke, though. The silly lyrics ("put your lips to the straw and draw") give it away. Sung with fake desperation, the song's disingenuousness could easily be construed as condescension. It's times like this that the band's overly educated style could alienate some listeners. Mediocrity and indulgence plague the band intermittently throughout Green Hills Of Earth, particularly on "Channel Island Girl" and "Emotional Gold", but the good easily outweighs the bad when you shake it all out ("Rich Little Girl" is hard to top). If you can get past the hippie connotations, which is, admittedly, very hard to do, Green Hills Of Earth is an exceptional album that should garner The Mother Hips some much-deserved respect.

Guyana Punch Line, Irritainment (Prank)

Guyana Punch Line - Irritainment Guyana Punch Line
By: Eric Greenwood

Guyana Punch Line's last seven-inch hinted only slightly as to the direction of the full-length to come. Irritainment is this Columbia, South Carolina quartet's tour de force, melding what are now hard core cliches with a brutal new beat. Where the band's debut, Maximum Smashism, relied heavily on traditional melody before exploding into a seething cacophony, Irritainment uses rhythm as a means to the same end. Kevin Byrd's frighteningly precise guitar playing leads the rhythmic assault, which is an extension of his work in the much-revered mid-90's hard core band, Initial State. Chris Bickel's voice matches the squall of Byrd's guitar work with equally powerful screams. The dynamic is so severe it's hard to swallow in one sitting, but if you're even slightly inclined to accept the Smashist philosophy, you'll undoubtedly be worshiping at a new altar after experiencing Irritainment.

The first forty seconds of "Better Off Dead (One)" are the most melodic of the whole album. What follows is a paranoid rant so relentless and angry that it feels like you're being slammed against metal siding. The repetition of the rhythms synchronized with Bickel's screaming isn't exactly catchy, but the sentiment comes across loud and clear. Just when you think it couldn't get any louder or more abrasive everything surges to a higher frequency in "Better Off Dead (Two)." How Bickel manages to sustain the natural distortion in his voice for so long is a mystery. "Cracked" continues the agitation with cagey guitar/bass interaction. Bickel's self-referential lyrics work on two levels. Not only is he unleashing his personal demons with a fractured shriek, but he also manages to spurn someone who dared think a song off Maximum Smashism was not about himself: "when I said I'd 'rip your heart out'/did you think I was talking about you?/spare me your vanity/I was talking to myself/I feel so cracked."

"(Smiley) Smile" takes its cues from traditional hard core structure but speeds it all up almost beyond recognition. Byrd's guitar showmanship is on display here, if you can catch it. The notes he's playing aren't necessarily of consequence so much as the rhythms are, but the breakdown and ensuing build-up lead into a particularly amazing muted guitar run. The song beats you up and then picks you back up and asks you for a dance. "Remote Control" is less scathing lyrically but spiteful all the same: "you're an alpha wave transmission junkie/a boob tube casualty/the world inside your TV screen/penetrates your reality/living through remote control." The second half of the song is a whirlwind of noise at the heart of which is this hilarious movie treatment: "My movie is titled Poo Poo For Cocoa Cocks, in it I play a strapping young African American who likes to stick his dick in various piles of shit. Critics have already touted the film as exploitation, but at this point I'd do anything to put some food on my plate. Don't we all whore ourselves out in one way or another? Lest we forget: A brother gotta eat!"

Bickel's sense of humor permeates the whole album through his cut and paste/collage art and prose. One-line, seconds-long joke songs al la Napalm Death are also interspersed throughout the record with self-explanatory titles like "Everybody's Doin' The 8.0.3", "Where's The Fucking Lyric Sheet", and "Old Guy In The Pit." Bickel takes every opportunity to humiliate shallow scenesters and poseurs, but his most heated wrath falls upon the much-maligned (and rightfully so) emo movement in "Tears On The Backpack": "how much more emo can you get?/you've got tears spewing from every orifice/you're a crying sack of potatoes…you're not intelligent enough to be pretentious/the word for someone like you is prick/it's time to give you something to cry about/you're gonna get it!" The music mockingly replicates an emo introduction before launching into the aural blast you've come to expect but this time with the added bonus of metal chugging breakdowns and shrill overdubs.

Irritainment is subtitled "Songs to Disturb The Comfortable/Songs To Comfort The Disturbed", which states the band's mission pretty clearly. This album is a barrage of carefully structured noise- too complex to be called hard core yet too abrasive to be called anything else. Guyana Punch Line is hammering out its own path, creating a map for the future of punk at the same time.

Appendix Out, The Night Is Advancing (Drag City)

Appendix Out - The Night Is Advancing Appendix Out
The Night Is Advancing
Drag City
By: Eric Greenwood

Appendix Out still wallows in the beauty of its own rustic musings on its third album, but this time there's a hint of aggression beneath the fragile discontent. Ali Roberts' voice is the centerpiece of this dark, sparsely arranged neo-folk. His Glaswegian drawl luring you into his tales of winter and woe. The delicately picked acoustic arpeggios serve as his primary backdrop. However, you'll hear experimentation with electronics, electric guitars, and myriad wind instruments creeping into the mix.

On "A Path To Our Beds" Roberts' plaintive cadence floats over a gorgeous, finger picked melody. The acoustic strumming sounds like leaves shuffling. The repetitive guitars layer one on top of the other with only slightly differing riffs, and it has a mesmerizing effect. "The Seven Widows (The Sprigs Of Night)" comes as close to rocking as Appendix Out would dare. The tension is thick with uncharacteristically audible drums actually attacking the beat, but the achingly beautiful riffs never acknowledge the aggression. The melody is sad and familiar. Roberts sounds devastated, cracking as he reaches for the notes to sing.

Despite the deliberate despondency of the music, Appendix Out sounds less insular and self-obsessed this time around. The lyrics avoid Roberts' past individualistic approach for something altogether more universal. The stories would seem vague on paper, but Roberts' desperate inflection puts it all into context. There's no misinterpreting that voice. "Golden Tablets Of The Sun" is almost a cheery bar song. Its typically pensive beginning morphs into a chorus of guitars chiming happily amongst flutes and jaunty percussion. The merriment is short-lived as the laborious, chant-like "Fortified Jackdaw Grove" lets the cold breeze back in.

The title-track is a short folk song with poetic lyrics: "the night is advancing/a wild cat protracting her claws…I stood in the mist with my hands covered over my eyes. "Cyclones Vernal Retreat" stays afloat with a beautifully woven guitar melody. Bagpipes creep in but surprisingly don't disrupt the communal chorus. "Hexen In The Anticyclone" just proves there's no tiring of a formula that works. Appendix Out has no shortage of heartbreaking chord progressions. The subtle climax of guitars and banjos as the bottom falls out of the song is, perhaps, the album's defining moment.

Appendix Out's dark folk is naked and emotional. It never feels affected or insincere. The Night Is Advancing is unquestionably its finest album on every level from songwriting to production. It is a quiet, inconspicuous album that haunts you at every turn- the perfect marriage of melody and despair.

The Sisterhood Of Convoluted Thinkers, Ume Sour (Darla)

The Sisterhood Of Convoluted Thinkers - Ume Sour The Sisterhood Of Convoluted Thinkers
Ume Sour
By: Eric Greenwood

To say that The Sisterhood Of Convoluted Thinkers' music is unconventional doesn't even begin to cover it. Underneath all the weirdness you can hear Rob Christiansen's indie rock roots. He played with Mark Robinson and Jenny Toomey in Grenadine and was the trombone player in Eggs in the early 1990's. The Sisterhood Of Convoluted Thinkers (comprised of Christiansen and his wife Jeannine) toys with the structure of Western pop music. Christiansen and Jeannine soaked up loads of Asian culture teaching English in Japan for the past two years, and the influence is undeniable throughout these ten tracks. With quirky electronic noises and acoustic instruments, the duo creates an unique sonic palette- the origins of which are difficult to discern.

Sometimes the insular weirdness overshadows the songs themselves, but silly yet clever lyrics intertwined with snippets of matching melody are never far off. Jeannine's voice is small and extremely feminine, and it blends well with Christiansen's minor strain. Listening to Ume Sour all the way through is somewhat baffling, though. The transitions between songs are often smoother than changes within particular songs. "Ami-chan, Mai-chan" exploits Jeannine's very Japanese sounding voice. Backed by what sounds like a toy casio, a tinny, programmed beat, and a bass line playing only root notes, Jeannine coos a Gaijin story- her voice multi-tracked to sound even stranger. The explosive, noisy interlude toward the end is invasive and unexpected but only a minor interruption.

"Ne-ne Ami-chan" kicks off with a Pixies-style bass line and a catchy "dododo dododo" duet. The rest of the song veers off into wacky experimentation, complete with shrill guitar noises, dissonant voice/bass interplay, and silly, nonsensical lyrics: "please, please eat up your peas/possum's gonna fall from the trees/candy's gonna dance on the dish/ferry's gonna grant you one wish." "Lunchdate" is as straightforward as things get. Perky electronic noises fluctuate around a stable groove. Christiansen's choirboy inflection accompanied by his wife's distant murmuring is accessible enough to sing along with. Even the scatterbrained changes adhere to the main riff. On the other hand, "Song For Tony And Ian" collapses under the weight of its own pretentiousness. Dull melody, superfluous sound effects, and meandering structure drag this ballad into willful obscurity.

This album plays like a diary of the couple's experiences over the past year in Japan, but as is the case with most diaries- bits of it could have been left out ("Nen-Ga-Joo", for example). Granted, these bits are few and far between, but there are times when the license to experiment expires and the excess starts to undermine the progress. "Tottori Made" is not part of the excess, however. This twangy gem fuses clashing cultures and styles without regard for the consequences. Luckily, the result is endearing. Part American country, part indie rock, and part Japanese pop, "Tottari Made" is a duet the likes of which you've not heard before. Joining indie rock with an electronic backbone may not be original, but "Yakusoku (A Promise)" doesn't sound like the typical fusion of those genres. Christiansen adopts a fey inflection, which builds into a punkish growl as the song gains steam. From the overdriven chorus of back-up singers to the catchy, one-line keyboard melody, to Christiansen's hurried delivery, the song rocks without any real rocking instruments to support it.

Apart from the overall trendiness of anything Japanese in indie rock circles these days, The Sisterhood Of Convoluted Thinkers avoids any real musical bandwagoning. Sure, the ingredients in and of themselves are common enough (electronics, drum machines, acoustic guitars, sound effects, silly lyrics), but what this duo does with them is truly in a category all by itself. The only real question is whether Christiansen takes some of his loopier antics too far, which I've already recognized he does do, occasionally. Thematically and musically, though, this album bears little resemblance to anything dumped under the increasingly meaningless umbrella of 'indie rock.' So, if you want to hear the eccentricities of a couple interpreting their life in Japan through bizarro pop, then don't miss this record, drawbacks and all.

The Revolutionary Hydra, The Swiss Admiral EP (Burnout)

The Revolutionary Hydra - The Swiss Admiral EP The Revolutionary Hydra
The Swiss Admiral EP
By: Eric Greenwood

The Revolutionary Hydra follows up its quirky, idiosyncratic if not longwinded opus, The Antiphony, with this slightly more straightforward and ear-catching EP. Catchy pop rarely comes cloaked in this much dissonance and nonchalance; but then again Pavement made a career out of such anti-pop-is-pop sentiment. The Revolutionary Hydra hails from the extreme Northwest and plays a self-deprecating brand of intellectualized indie rock. Loose and jangling guitar arrangements are coupled with strained, translucent vocals- the likes of which you'd hear on a Death Cab For Cutie album (coincidentally, Death Cab For Cutie's vocalist Ben Gibbard sings back-up on a few tracks).

"World's Phair" is somewhat of a nerdy inside joke for the thick glasses and v-neck sweater crowd. The butt of the play on words is indie rock princess Liz Phair, of course. It's a simple, two-chord verse with vocals that steal a page from Lou Barlow's book of tricks on how to get laid. The chorus is an oddly toe-tapping affair, particularly when Allisyn Levy's backing vocals kick in: "And all the kids who showed up/they came because of Liz Phair/but she's not my idea of fun." "Into Yr Thumb" is equally hummable. It sounds like a long lost They Might Be Giants demo not only because of the vocal inflection but also because of its geeky, polysyllabic lyrics. The clanging climax is unexpected but suits the song's laid back, anything goes attitude.

As far as The Revolutionary Hydra is concerned the second half of the 1990's needn't have passed; the band seems happily lost inside of a K Records compilation circa 1992, which, admittedly, isn't a bad place to be. "Multitrack Recording" is awash in noodling, diverging guitars that culminate in a noisy dose of chaotic pop. Ben Gibbard's backing vocals are instantly recognizable and can't help but lend an eerily serious tone to the otherwise jocular atmosphere. Mixing deliberate affectation with thinly veiled silliness, "Bomb Squad" steals the show. The looseness recalls a calmer Trumans Water, but The Revolutionary Hydra is certainly honing this type of haphazardry into a style all its own.

"20,000 Softball Leagues Under The Sea" kicks off with a half-sung/half-laughed wish "to be a cool indie rocker." After such a schizophrenic opening, the song merges into a beautiful verse led by a high-end guitar melody. The pre-chorus gives you chill bumps until you realize that he's talking about "joining 20,000 softball leagues under the sea." At which point you feel silly for falling into the trap. The lyrical silliness conflicts with such an earnest delivery, but that is, of course, the whole point evidenced when Ben Gibbard joins the chorus, singing "I'm in a big hurry/cause my girlfriend's making curry." The absurdity, I assure you, does not escape the band.

With The Swiss Admiral EP, The Revolutionary Hydra confirms its place among the new generation of ironic pop enthusiasts, who just happen to prefer a low fidelity sound. Melodies like these are not a dime a dozen, and five short catchy songs are all you need to drive the point home.

Kristin Hersh, Sunny Border Blue (4ad)

Kristin Hersh - Sunny Border Blue Kristin Hersh
Sunny Border Blue
By: Eric Greenwood

"I wanted you to sleep with her and hate yourself instead of me/I wanted you untrue, hating yourself like me" ("Spain"). Kristin Hersh has never been one to mince words, but Sunny Border Blue finds her in a much darker place than usual, and if you're at all familiar with her past albums- that's a scary prospect to say the least. On her last album, Sky Motel, Hersh actually seemed somewhat at peace- as much as a bi-polar woman with well-documented mania can be. Even Sky Motel's artwork was bright. Neon colors graced the cover while she sang of her superstitions and insecurities with that unforgettable wail, and it was as calm and graceful as Hersh has ever been- only slightly less disconcerting than her previous solo work.

If Sky Motel was one step forward in terms of sanity then Sunny Border Blue is two giant steps backward- back into the type of paranoid darkness that fueled so many years of the Throwing Muses. Hersh is back to flaunting her hysteria, and – I am ashamed to admit – it's honestly a welcome return to form. As much as I'd like to see her happy, I don't think it would facilitate a fruitful solo career. Musicians prove over and over that pain produces the best art. There's just something hypnotic and forbidden about wallowing in someone else's depression. Art shouldn't be a pastime, and sadly for Hersh (but lucky for you and me) it's not.

Hersh's severe bangs and distant gaze on the cover of Sunny Border Blue bear and an uncanny resemblance to pictures of Sylvia Plath in the final year before her suicide. I've always thought of Hersh as a modern day version of Plath, despite the physical likeness in the picture. Hersh's hyperbolic expressiveness recalls Plath's wild exaggerations in her poetry, but, where Plath lacked a proper outlet, Hersh has the benefit of immediate release through her music. As you've invariably seen reported in anything ever written about Hersh, she's always claimed that her songs just come to her fully formed, often in the middle of the night, so that she has to hash them out on her guitar before she can go to sleep again. The sudden mood shifts and cathartic releases on Sunny Border Blue give credence to this claim as the songs often follow the illogical paths of dreams.

"It's not my fault you don't love me when I'm drunk" Hersh exclaims in "Your Dirty Answer" while her lucid alter ego coos "carry me" in a child-like refrain in the background. Such is the dichotomy of Hersh's persona. The part of her that lashes out is severe and dominating, but buried beneath the flash is always the same vulnerable woman. "Spain" is the perfect example of Hersh's Jeckyll and Hyde persona. She builds her restrained vocals over clear and clean acoustic guitars while weird electronic white noise patters in the background. Her sudden explosion is more dramatic than the typical stomping of a distortion pedal. Here Hersh wails as a rumbling, wiry bass line kicks in. Her voice is stinging and somewhat frightening- never sounding like a put on. The galloping riff is at once menacing and catchy, while Hersh, seemingly possessed, spews some of her most vindictive lyrics (see opening quotation).

"37 Hours" marries sophisticated production techniques with a spiraling lullaby. The song examines a well-worn relationship: "I don't want this to be over/you're what I do every day/the only thing that makes sense." As inextricably bound to the relationship as she is she still feels lost and disconnected: "I don't know where I am/plus, I don't know when I am cause you insist on using fucked up military time/cause you are better off alone." Again accompanied by acoustic guitars, pattering percussion, and an electronic presence, Hersh cuts through the gauze of her effects-laden vocals with dead-pan honesty: "the day I quit smoking I heard some advice from above: ducking under, cramming it in isn't falling in love."

The only thing separating her solo work from that of her catalogue with the Throwing Muses is the instrumentation. In Throwing Muses there was always a need to rock. Hersh doesn't heed that burden in her solo work. On the surface her solo songs probably seem as quiet as they sound, but as she proves repeatedly on Sunny Border Blue, her caustic approach to songwriting can be just as potent without distorted guitars. "William's Cut" adds credence to that theory. "How many times can you get fucked/in how many different ways/you separate the good guys from disaster/and it's even sadder/I lost every hope I ever had/cause I like it too much." Only a faint organ and her acoustic guitar underpin such oddly personal ruminations.

Every single song holds up a magnifying glass to the fucked up minutiae of her life. Even the upbeat ones. It's not depressing to listen to so much as it is purgative. Hersh has the uncanny ability of showing you all the broken pieces without wanting any sympathy. She fully understands what's happening in her life, and the very act of expressing it is all the help she needs. Sunny Border Blue sounds exactly like a Kristin Hersh album- no surprises for the initiated. But there's no such thing as too many good songs, and Sunny Border Blue will go down as her finest album outside of the Throwing Muses because it's her finest batch of songs. As long as she can stand dissecting her own life while staying sane enough to put it all on tape, there's no question as to whether I'll keep listening.