New Order, Get Ready (London)

New Order - Get Ready New Order
Get Ready
By: Eric Greenwood

I've been awaiting the new New Order with an equal amount of trepidation, apathy, and excitement ever since the re-grouping rumors surfaced a few years ago. Would the band lampoon itself, sounding horribly dated after an eight-year hiatus, or would it return to the tension that has underpinned its entire catalogue since Ian Curtis hanged himself on the eve of Joy Division's first American tour in 1980? The honest answer is a little bit of both. Actually, Get Ready exceeds any best case scenario; it is as good a New Order album as could possibly be expected at this point in its twenty-year career. Peter Hook's high-end melodic bass lines still have quite a punch, and Bernard Sumner's self-deprecatingly juvenile lyrical style is as gloriously clumsy as ever.

For a band with no image, no gimmick, and no pretty faces, twenty years is quite an accomplishment, speaking rather highly of the quality of its music to have sustained this long. Granted, eight of those years were spent pursuing dead-end side projects (Sumner's middling Electronic with ex-Smith Johnny Marr; Hook's New Order-copycat Monaco; and Steven Morris' and Gillian Gilbert's unfortunately named The Other Two), but New Order has created a mythic following around its honest yet flawed music. The group didn't exactly have an easy time amassing its fan base either, despite the built in Joy Division crowd. A long string of tragedies begat strange opportunities and a plethora of material for New Order to mold its dark electronic rock around over the years.

1993's Republic was dead on arrival. The only sign of life was the lead-off single, "Regret", with its crashing guitars, memorable hooks, and classic Peter Hook bass line. The album's ho-hum reception was no accident. New Order's sound had always balanced a naïve experimentation with electronic music and high-energy rock. Republic's biggest fault was its dependence primarily on the electronic side, which has always been New Order's most awkward idiosyncrasy. Peter Hook might as well have not even shown up for the recording sessions, as his contributions were all but non-existent. The back-up singers, the lame attempts at house music, and the stale melodies landed Republic at the bottom of everyone's list in 1993 and deservedly so.

Though, the band never formally announced a break-up, the writing was on the wall. New Order had evidently run its course. Too bad it had to end on such a bum note. So now the idea that New Order is back to redeem itself is a bit of a relief. Nobody wants to see his heroes go down so easy even though we all know how hard it is for a band to recapture its glory days when it's been sidelined for so long. But New Order does its damnedest here to destroy that myth. "Crystal" sounds like vintage New Order once you get past the cooing back-up singers. The band's peculiar mix of disco, punk, and pop has been reinvigorated for a new era. The crashing guitars are back, and Steven Morris is thankfully behind the drum-kit instead of a wall of keyboards.

Get Ready is surprisingly aggressive, rocking even. New Order hasn't sounded this vicious since Low Life, almost sixteen years ago. "Crystal" is easily one of the best singles of the year even with curious lines like "here comes love, it's like honey/you can't buy it with money." "60 MPH" may have a fairly standard New Order chorus (which means it's catchy as hell), but Peter Hook's punk bass lines sound amazing synched up with Sumner's dance-rock grooves. The thought of Billy Corgan playing on a New Order album made me cringe with embarrassment, but my fears that this would be a lame Santana-esque celebrity comeback attempt were quickly assuaged because he plays only minor vocal role in the moody "Turn My Way."

As any New Order fan (or critic) knows, Bernard Sumner's lyrics have always been precariously poised between the bone-crushingly honest and the absurd. His rhymes are predictable and often childish: "I don't want to be like other people are/don't want to own a key/don't want to wash my car/don't want to have to work like other people do/I want it to be free/I want it to be true" ("Turn My Way"). As rife with cliché as Sumner usually is, he hits upon such simple truths that most songwriters take for granted. Much like Robert Smith, Sumner has an unusual aptitude for capturing a child's perspective on everyday mundanities. Pompous asses that take themselves way too seriously often mistake Sumner's fleeting lyrical brilliance for ineptitude. Even if you can't reconcile yourself to accept his lyrics for what they are, you can't deny the genius of his vocal melodies.

"Primitive Notion" is the highlight of the album, perfectly re-capturing the spirit of Joy Division in its tense build up of shards of guitars that sound like glass and, of course, Peter Hook's pummeling, cocksure bass. Sumner even alludes, albeit slightly, to Ian Curtis in the verse, as you can vaguely sense the melody from "Isolation" creeping in: "I'm doing my best to confound you/your behavior is so volatile/not even a zoo would impound you/don't look at me with your critical smile." Not even on the glorious Technique did New Order achieve this level of intensity, and there's a bracing chorus to boot.

On the summery "Slow Jam" Sumner shouts: "I don't want the world to change/I like the way it is/Just give me one more wish/I can't get enough of this." Everything has fallen back into place as though the eight years apart never happened. From the first clanging guitar notes you can feel in your bones that it's going to be good, and Hook's bass only confirms that suspicion, driving the rhythm section with built-in pop sensibility. For keyboards to take such a background role on a New Order album is unprecedented, and the fiery guitars will, perhaps, even surprise longtime fans. "Rock The Shack" continues the aggression with help of Primal Scream's Bobby Gillespie, who gives Sumner's chorus the gritty sneer it demands.

I just can't emphasize enough what a bad idea back-up singers are. "Someone Like You" slithers along perfectly with a rumbling bass line and ghostly keyboards until it hits the chorus, which smacks you in the face with a handful of girls helping Sumner out with some unnecessary "ooh-ooh-ooh-ooh's." New Order introduced back-up singers as early as 1986's Brotherhood, but it didn't work then and it doesn't work now. It's a small misstep, comparatively, and it's easily forgiven, especially in light of what a tremendous effort Get Ready is for a band that has threatened extinction for close to a decade. This album is certain to introduce a slew of new listeners to both New Order's and, by proxy, Joy Division's formidable and respective legacies. New Order fans can breathe a sigh of relief because Get Ready rocks.

The White Stripes, White Blood Cells (Sympathy For The Record Industry)

The White Stripes - White Blood Cells The White Stripes
White Blood Cells
Sympathy For The Record Industry
By: Eric Greenwood

Believe the hype. I kept reading so many glowing and ingratiating reviews of this band that I just instinctively put up my guard. Weeks went by and I still hadn’t heard The White Stripes. I felt like a leper. I couldn’t stand it anymore, so I broke down and downloaded the song, “Fell In Love With A Girl.” Goddamn. How could something so simple be so good? To read the ingredients you’d never guess that it sounded like this: raw, dirty guitars, occasional organs, intuitive drumming, and a voice that aches, squawks, soothes, and rocks with all the passion and fervor of Otis Redding, Black Francis, and Mick Jagger rolled into one.

Nothing is more evident when listening to White Blood Cells than the fact that Jack and Meg White live and breathe music. All kinds too: folk, country, rock, punk, and, of course, the blues. You couldn't make music like this if you didn't absolutely worship it. From the opening squeal of "Dead Leaves And The Dirty Ground", you can feel the true grit of The White Stripes, warts 'n all. Your parents can't say they don't make rock and roll like they used to because they do, and this is the proof. "If you can hear a piano fall/you can hear me coming down the hall." White's voice bends in and out of falsetto and a twangy, strained yelp: "soft hair and a velvet tongue/I want to give you what you give to me/and every breath that is in your lungs is a tiny little gift to me." The stomp and swagger of the guitar and drums exude bravado and daring. And, yeah, it fucking rocks, too.

"Hotel Yorba" spurts and crackles with an infectious chorus, evoking the Pixies at its most dazzlingly odd. It's manic folk rock with catchy lyrics to match. The Rolling Stones would chop off their arms to be able to write a song like "I'm Finding It Harder To Be A Gentleman" now. "I'm finding it harder to be a gentleman every day/all the manners that I've been taught have slowly died away/but if I held the door open for you it would make your day.” The slow grind builds into a classic rock and roll riff accentuated by piano and organ, in keeping with the band's utter devotion to simplicity, emotion, and subtle ingenuity. "Fell In Love With A Girl" makes Jon Spencer seem so distant and small. Noisy, garage rock never sounded so good. Billy Childish should be proud.

"Expecting" may resemble Black Sabbath a bit too much, but as soon as Jack White starts singing any visions of Tony Iommi simply fade away. The White Stripes' sound is built on a groundwork lain by others, and the band makes no bones about it. In fact, the band wears its influences proudly on its sleeve, but the catch is that Jack and Meg White inject enough energy and charisma to make this music uniquely their own. "The Same Boy You've Always Known" showcases Jack White's expansive songwriting skills. You can't just pick up a guitar and bang out songs like these, but he makes it sound like you can. Every half-assed garage band since the 60's has used these simple chords and predictable changes, but The White Stripes give credence to the theory that it's not what you play- it's how you play it.

Jack White's inner Paul McCartney surfaces on "We're going To Be Friends"- his "Blackbird." His voice sounds innocent and pure against a simple acoustic backdrop, and his lyrics complete the picture: "numbers, letters, learn to spell/nouns and books and show and tell/at playtime we will throw the ball/back to class, through the hall/teacher marks our height against the wall." It's so simple and honest and true that you want to kick yourself for not having thought of it first. At the other end of the emotional spectrum, White exposes his vindictive side on "I Can't Wait." The dirty riff portends the bile to come: "I can't wait til you try to come back, girl/when things they don't work out for you/who do you think you're messing with, girl/what do you think you're trying to do?"

"Now Mary" is another piece of gold. Between his guitar and his voice, Jack White has an emotional range that is overwhelming. There is no doubt that his seemingly casual melodies will stand the test of time because he's got the voice to burn them into your memory. And likewise, "This Protector" perfectly caps off this monumental album. With only a foreboding piano backing them up, Jack and Meg sing together: "300 people living out in West Virginia have no idea of all these thoughts that lie within you now." I have no idea what that means, but damn if I don't feel like I do. This band deserves every bit of the hype surrounding it. Go buy this album now.

Computer Cougar, Rough Notes On High Stress (Gern Blandsten)

Computer Cougar - Rough Notes On High Stress Computer Cougar
Rough Notes On High Stress
Gern Blandsten
By: Eric Greenwood

Don't be fooled by any "featuring ex-members of" flyers for Computer Cougar, despite the fact that this New Jersey quartet does, in fact, feature former members of both Rorschach and Born Against. The band takes its cues from early British art-punk and late 70's garage rock instead of the quasi-metal hardcore scene of the early 90's from which its members spring. Along with obligatory nods to Gang Of Four, Wire, and Pere Ubu, Computer Cougar also pays homage to Mission Of Burma through its angular riffs and erratic rhythms.

This eight-song full-length (?) compiles the band's demo and one track off its debut seven-inch. Minimal to the point of mimicry, "Too Much" perfectly captures the controlled frustration and anger of the post-punk movement that flourished in Britain in the midst of new wave and new romanticism. By stubbornly summoning only those melodies and progressions that are famously familiar, however, Computer Cougar limits itself to a one-dimensional sound, albeit one that most assuredly rocks. And for only eighteen minutes of music, it's a worthwhile history lesson.

Computer Cougar's brevity lends its songs an air of immediacy. The guitars on "Stunt Pilot" jerk clumsily for exactly one minute while heavily affected and strangely British-sounding vocals frantically shout obtuse lyrics about fame. To say that "Good Morning' is pithy is an understatement. It's essentially two riffs and a paranoid rant: "It's six a.m. I want to know how you would say good morning to a nightmare." "The 8-Month Fantasy" is a bit meatier, showing off the band's terse dynamic. Generously borrowing tension from Mission Of Burma, Computer Cougar explores fiery melodies amidst its somewhat amateurish musicianship.

Computer Cougar's meticulously retro production may keep the DIY spirit alive, but it often hinders the music's impact. "Photos That Don't Exist" is a hurried and frantic onslaught of herky-jerky rhythms and noise, but the guitars are drowned out by the pistol-shot snare sound and the thuddy low end. The possessed vocals steal the spotlight, however: "got to make a move/got to make a move/that's what I say/hey hey." Flexing its experimental muscle, Computer Cougar tries its hand at spoken word, and even though it defies the universally accepted notion that all spoken word is bad, "Picture Perfect" actually works, building tension through repetition and explosion.

As much of a fan as I am of the short and sweet is best aesthetic, Rough Notes On High Stress should probably be priced as an EP instead of a full-length. Eighteen minutes at almost two dollars a song is pushing it, but I must admit I don't get my Wire fix often enough.

Stereolab, Sound-Dust (Elektra)

Stereolab - Sound-Dust Stereolab
By: Eric Greenwood

Morphing through another phase in its equally dilettantish and brilliant musical career, Stereolab returns on its ninth album with a proclivity for 1970's schmaltz, among other things. The squawking jazz bursts of its last album, Cobra And Phases Group Play Voltage In The Milky Night, have all but disappeared only to be replaced with the familiar cut and paste stylings of, perhaps, its finest album, 1997's Dots And Loops. With the same production team of Jim O'Rourke and John McEntire in tow, it's no wonder the band's past few albums have been so sonically consistent.

Musically, Sound-Dust is a pastiche of the band's recent sonic explorations, as there's no defining sound to speak of. In fact, the first few listens might even lead you to believe that Stereolab has finally run out of steam. Not so fast. So, the scaling, futuristic tones of "Black Ants In Sound-Dust" could easily have been on any Stereolab album of the past five years; the same cannot be said of "Spacemoth" or of many other tracks on this album, however. The notes and arpeggios sound eerily familiar, of course, but the execution is far more organic than usual. Repetition is still a major factor in Stereolab's passive aggressive seduction, but there's a new emphasis on song structure.

Ever the fighters of complacency (?), Stereolab paradoxically slashes its new found sense of structure by pursuing seemingly random musical strands all within the context of single songs. "Spacemoth" has several fully formed stages. The parts are connected loosely, but the song never sounds forced or half-baked. The same goes for the instantly catchy "Captain Easychord" with its airy pop piano bobbing monotonously. Fusing jazz with country and western in itself is bizarre and certainly not recommended, but Stereolab not only pulls it off but does so astoundingly well. "Captain Easychord" demands repeat listens for its depth and wacky, uncharacteristic charisma.

Laetitia Sadier's voice has gotten even more sensual over the years. Her wall of bored detachment crumbles here to reveal an expressive and emotional tone. "Baby Lulu" exemplifies this mild transformation. When she sings "away-oh-way-oh" I am humbled to the point where I would believe anything she said (barring any more communist propaganda, of course). For Stereolab to venture sideways, backwards, and well into the future on an album is hardly news, but to be so consistent about it is remarkable. "The Black Ants" swathes you safely in warm tones of guitar, organ, tack piano, and Sadier's ephemeral voice, which is noticeably higher in the mix than expected.

Stereolab loves switching gears in the second halves of songs- a common occurrence on Sound-Dust. "Double Rocker" builds so slowly as Sadier's French vocals lull you into a trance. The music twinkles and whirs in the background until suddenly everything swells and breaks into a light disco groove. The transition is seamless. Both sections could easily exist in their own right as separate, fully-formed songs, but Stereolab keeps them linked out of some sort of thematic obligation. And "Gus The Mynah Bird" relishes in the sounds of 1970's schmaltz but makes it sound sad and authentic without succumbing to the inherent cheesiness before scattering into futuristic noise debris.

"Naught More Terrific Than Man" would be utter schlock in anyone else's hands, but somehow Stereolab takes what sounds like a Carpenters throwaway and turns it into a hip mid-tempo ballad. And you thought there was no such thing. When Sadier sings "you're not a doctor/you're a wanker" in "Nothing To Do With Me" so happily and sweetly you'd almost think she were being facetious, but that's an old Stereolab trick. Don't let the bouncy delivery fool you. Sadier has a very sharp tongue. Most of her lyrics are hopelessly depressing when you can make them out.

The casual listener will wrongly think that Sound-Dust is just another in a long line of Stereolab albums when it's actually one of the band's most consistent and finely tuned. All of the reasons you ever listened to Stereolab are present on Sound-Dust, only the songwriting has improved and expanded. I think Sadier and guitarist Tim Gane are far under-appreciated as songwriters. It pains me to remove this disc from my stereo, as I am inclined to remain in a state of futuristic limbo with Laetitia Sadier cooing me into a suspended calm, indefinitely.

Wolfie, Tall Dark Hill (March)

Wolfie - Tall Dark Hill Wolfie
Tall Dark Hill
By: Eric Greenwood

Wolfie bounces through its frivolous pop with three chords and an endless supply of second-hand hooks. Guitarist Joe Ziemba sounds like your typical early-90's indie rock nerd, gurgling the snot between his forced falsetto and a bratty affectation. Luckily, he has Amanda Lyons' virginal voice to pick up the slack, but she can only do so much with his liquid sweetener songs. Granted, Ziemba writes all the songs, so he's inclined to want to sing them. But for the good of the band (and the listener) he should seriously consider passing the microphone more often, if not for good

Power pop, new wave, 60's bubblegum- it's all regurgitated here for your lighthearted entertainment. With vastly improved production, Wolfie moves away from the garage-band noise emitted on earlier albums (Where's Wolfie? and Awful Mess Mystery) in favor of a slicker and sleeker approach. Still, there's still an inherently underdog spirit to the amateurish musicianship. Lyrically, Ziemba runs against the grain of his indie pop and, forgive me, "twee" peers, attempting silly things like an emotional connection. Nobody wants a dose of reality with his pixie stix. This music is supposed to be mindless fun.

The vocal trade-offs between Ziemba and Lyons are too cutesy and not particularly memorable, which is surprising since, ostensibly, Wolfie's bread and butter is its penchant for melodies. Maybe, it's because the melodies feel so used. "What I Want From The World" is one of the few songs where the vocal combination half-works, but Ziemba's voice is borderline intolerable. By contrast, Lyons' voice seems to soar over fuzzy guitar pop like "Waiting For The Night To End" and the Juliana Hatfield-esque "Crab And The Beach." Her girlish voice radiates innocence much like Hatfield's did before she hooked up with Evan Dando.

Ziemba's voice isn't the only thing to be wary of. He can suck the life out of an otherwise rocking riff under the guise of "fun" like it's nobody's business. Take the ill-advised fusion of mock-Led Zeppelin guitar riffs and organ-drenched, soda fountain pop in "You Are A Woman" for example. It sounds just as awkward as it looks- a mish-mash of parts thrown together without regard for either melody or coherence. And closing this brief yet strangely forgettable collection is an eight-minute sleeper called "Happy State Of Mr. Bubbins." Just because the lengths of your songs have expanded does not necessarily mean that the quality of your songwriting has improved. Wolfie can't seem to find any tunes despite its melodies, but it's not for lack of trying.