Gogogo Airheart, Exitheuxa (GSL)

Gogogo Airheart - Exitheuxa Gogogo Airheart
By: Eric Greenwood

Bands whose ideas tend to outweigh their talents typically lose any semblance of charm after two records or so, but GoGoGo Airheart has somehow managed to buck that trend over the course of four albums and remain fascinating, despite its seemingly limited means of expression. In generic terms ExitheUXA is an experimental pop record, fusing dub, garage rock, jarring post-punk, and 1970's classic rock riffs into a palpable, if slightly unnerving, amalgamation of freakishly eccentric rock.

GoGoGo Airheart reaches its danceable art-house noise by way of punk's loftier splinterings. Elements of disco and white-boy soul clash with the shrill chords and pansy-ish vocals a la The Make Up. Mike Vermillian's voice is whiny and thin, but he injects enough snottiness and attitude to compensate for its naturally nasal tone. The music sounds equally frail, as the recording quality is deliberately low tech (only four microphones, as the press notes proudly claim). The band's production aesthetic notwithstanding, ExitheUXA has an unique punch that the average "garage" recording lacks.

The music will seem jagged and jarring to first time listeners, but this album is actually far more accessible than much of the band's previous output. GoGoGo Airheart has clearly embraced traditional "rock and roll" values as a forum for its bizarre compositions this time around, as opposed to the off-kilter post-punk and heavily experimental dub of its early work. For GoGoGo Airheart to embrace rock so wholeheartedly is akin to your friendly neighborhood drag queen choosing to wear a bow tie and sear-sucker suit to the Laundromat.

"Sincerely P.S." has an old school garage feel musically, but as Vermillian's bratty voice kicks in, you're suddenly aware that this is a put-on of some sort. No "real" rock band would sound like this on purpose. "My Baby Has A Gang (Sign Our Hearts)" has an organ-drenched retro rock feel like mid-70's-era Bowie. Vermillian even lowers his voice momentarily in an affected Bowie mime, as though he's winking back at you, letting you know that he knows what you're thinking. "Sit And Stare" is the first straightforward rocker, and Vermillian drops the fey twinge in his voice to battle the guitars' testosterone levels.

The herky-jerky rhythm of "Mifi" recalls Mission Of Burma's Vs. album. It's a strangely danceable post-punk rocker, and GoGoGo Airheart sounds comfortable in its skin. "Here Comes Attack" is less obvious in its approach. A dirty, repetitive bassline holds a steady rhythm while the guitar unfurls in varying degrees of intensity. Vermillion's vocals are randomly applied, as he screeches like a trapped animal one moment and hits a shrill falsetto the next. The darkly sprawling "Last Goodbye" reveals considerable depth to GoGoGo Airheart's compositional skills. Discordant guitars duel in a minor-keyed spiral, allowing Vermillion to scale back the histrionics a bit.

With music so strange and so erratic that even a two-left-footed white man would feel like a suave player under its spell, GoGoGo Airheart clearly relishes its utter disdain for conventional musical expression. The influences are worn like patches on a jacket. There's no sense that GoGoGo Airheart lacks direction. It knows exactly what its doing, and it does it very well. ExitheUXA is a challenging record. The type of album most self-proclaimed musicians would ignorantly scoff at with a hollow sense of superiority. I'm not going to lie to you; this is an acquired taste, but once you get it, you'll be hard-pressed to ignore it.

Sonic Youth, Murray Street (DGC)

Sonic Youth - Murray Street Sonic Youth
Murray Street
By: Eric Greenwood

Oh, where have you been, Sonic Youth? For a full decade you've languished in the shadow of your own glory, spitting out half-assed records every few years that magnified your flaws while pushing the memory of your swollen greatness ever further away. Finally, you have released an album worth mentioning in the company of friends without feeling slightly embarrassed and anachronistic. Murray Street is the cliched return to form we've all been waiting for, although it's a far cry even from the dreaded major label debut, Goo.

Wisely, you've pushed Kim Gordon's "songs" to the back of the album since her input has, let's be for real here, been the dead weight on the past few records, namely 2000's inexplicable beat poetry stinker NYC Ghosts & Flowers. Gordon's songwriting does not age well, perhaps because her tuneless, monotonous, one-pitch breathy gasp has only limited shelf life. Back when Sonic Youth was synonymous with "experimental", Gordon's feisty growl sounded like the incarnation of cutting edge music itself. The epitome of the hipster underground, if you will (I won't, but you might). Now it just sounds off-key and bad.

But don't despair- Gordon's contribution is practically swept out of sight here, leaving frontman Thurston Moore to redeem his band's fledgling reputation. "The Empty Page" is a glorious swirl of moody, recessive guitars and evocative resignation. It's simple and subtle. Two attributes Sonic Youth has been loath to embrace throughout its entire career. The eruption of guitar noise almost sounds pandering it's so good, as in the band's heyday, but the psychedelic breakdown shows that the band still has tricks up its collective sleeve. It's a brooding, beautiful opener worthy of the highest regard.

"Disconnection Notice" continues the adventures in "song"-oriented structures. Loose, jangly guitars hang in the foreground while a squalling wall lingers beneath them. Moore's sluggish cadence sounds compassionate and real. The guitar interplay grows surprisingly upbeat, and the squealing noise never overpowers the crystalline jangle. The parts actually make musical sense and ebb and flow like traditional pop songs. Is Sonic Youth fighting complacency with some reverse psychology here? I don't know the answer off-hand, but I sure don't want to jinx it by trying to deconstruct it. I'll just accept it and enjoy it while it lasts.

The crashing discordance that opens "Rain On Tin" is a false alarm because the music draws back within itself almost immediately. The effect is engrossing, hypnotic even. Producer Jim O'Rourke has mastered most of the band's idiosyncrasies. It probably doesn't hurt that he's become the "fifth" member, contributing to songwriting and instrumentation. Apart from Moore's brief vocal outburst at the onset, "Rain On Tin" builds into a lofty instrumental, replete with intricate interaction and frantic cacophony that ends in a dueling call and response game. This is the most exciting song Sonic Youth has written since 1988, hands down.

Lee Renaldo chimes in halfway through the record, and he sounds like an old friend you haven't heard from in years. His "Karen Revisited" is a pure pop song dressed up in a trio of dated guitar washes for the first three and a half minutes. The sonic whine that accompanies his catchy chorus reveals the band's inner turmoil: beauty versus noise. The song is an aural compromise, offering the best of both worlds. The remaining eight minutes of shredded feedback and splintering arpeggios is not fun to listen to more than once, but it shows that the band is still willing to fight the good fight.

Despite its self-referential, new-age-hippie title, "Radical Adults Lick Godhead Style" is a smart and aggressive rocker. The band's new found restraint allows the verses to build in succession, as Thurston Moore recites his random, rhyming word-associations. The lyrics weave in and out of nonsense and narrative in a style only Thurston Moore could conceive. O'Rourke finally lets the noise overpower the structure in the mix, however briefly. You can sense its impact instantly. The noise isn't just for the sake of noise- it pushes with the grain, which is another trick the band has been slow to absorb.

By the time Kim Gordon's songs hit, Murray Street has already made its point, so her showy non-songs fail to derail the album's momentum. "Plastic Sun" is tuneless gibberish and could have easily been on any of the band's mid-1990's throwaways like Washing Machine. "Sympathy For The Strawberry" has more depth and emotion, allowing Gordon to alternate between raucous build-ups and disconsolate meanderings, but her vocal melody leaves much to be desired.

Sonic Youth's relevance has leaned heavily on its past for far too long. Even its "non-commercial" recordings for its own label have failed to nurture the legend much. But finally, with Murray Street the band has made a persuasive case for its ongoing existence for the first time in over a decade.

The Please, Never Complete (Self-released)

The Please - Never Complete The Please
Never Complete
By: Eric Greenwood

The Please couldn't have worse timing for its retro-new wave guitar pop, considering that the quintet sounds shockingly, disturbingly like The Strokes. If The Strokes hadn't just created a firestorm of polarizing press last year with its reinterpretation of The Velvet Underground and The Feelies complete with skinny ties, white belts, and tight pants, then The Please would have an easier time infiltrating college radio. As it stands now, though, The Please will be tarred and feathered with Strokes copycat accusations that will ultimately destroy any momentum the music itself might otherwise build.

The Please needs to start its PR spin campaign right now if it wants to stay afloat in today's ruthless underground music scene. The band should flat-out deny that it's ever even heard of The Strokes, much less ever having been influenced by it. Sure the plan would likely backfire, but it beats the hell out of taking it on the chin. Hailing from San Francisco, The Please at least has continental divide on its side. And The Please has a female keyboardist. All you have to do, though, is stick your thumb over the girl in the press photo, and you'd swear it was a picture of The Strokes.

The element that will be undoubtedly be overlooked after the rash of early dismissals is that the music on this EP is actually pretty good. The Please has surprising tautness and restraint for a quintet. Clean, jangly guitars drive the songs in short, angular spurts. The baritone vocals are melodic and eerily familiar. The Feelies' Crazy Rhythms sprang to mind immediately not only because of the monotone vocals but also because of the vacuum-sealed sound of the guitars and propulsive drums. The vocals are much cleaner than The Strokes' Julian Casablancas' but share some of his stylized inflections all the same.

The dual guitar attack on "Secret" is quirky and melodic. Both guitarists trade off alternating melodic lines, which change pace so quickly it's almost disconcerting. The bass is barely noticeable, hanging onto low-end root notes in what sounds like a fingerpicked style. The drumming is plain and simple, gaining prominence only through the band's lo-fi production aesthetic. The singer stretches out the syllables in the song's title to make it sound like he's saying "cigarette" instead of "secret", which is kind of a cool effect. It's a notable pop song. One that would certainly catch the ear of any Feelies fan.

The guitars are harsher on "No Style." The Please flexes its rock muscles a bit here. The music swaggers in a menacing clang of guitars. The vocals punch in the chorus, revealing more versatility and confidence. "The Conversation" is a driving burst of angular pop. The dark feedback that hangs over the beginning of "Orange Peter" explodes into an energetic squall only to recede again. The Please showcases its simple yet effective dynamics, recalling the twitching nervousness of early 1980's new wave. Then, the circular bass line in "About Me" evokes early Echo & The Bunnymen while the whiny vocals seem to mimic Mick Jagger circa "Ruby Tuesday."

The Please obviously wears its influences proudly on its sleeve. I just hope it's braced for the inevitable backlash from Strokes-haters in the media because the similarities are close enough to do some permanent damage. If the band can weather the storm, then it might be able to produce an album of relevant tunes all of its own.

Ugly Casanova, Sharpen Your Teeth (Sub Pop)

Ugly Casanova - Sharpen Your Teeth Ugly Casanova
Sharpen Your Teeth
Sub Pop
By: Eric Greenwood

It's a fine line separating envelope-pushing experimentation and gratuitous self-indulgence. Isaac Brock has had so much smoke blown up his ass in the past two years that I doubt he could tell you which side he is on right now. As the leader of Modest Mouse, Brock has firmly cemented his band into that upper echelon of artists whose every utterance is revered as gospel. The bad side effect is, of course, that since Brock now thinks everything he has to say is gold, we are forced to endure Ugly Casanova, which is little more than a vanity project to tide obsessives over until the next proper Modest Mouse album.

If you take Sharpen Your Teeth as the superfluous wank-off side-project that it is, you won't be as offended by its utter lack of imagination and artistry. Brock's voice is impossible not to recognize. With that being the case, you'd think he'd try to mix things up a bit and show some versatility. Instead, we are treated to what amounts to a heap of Modest Mouse throwaways that any self-respecting musician would hide from the public. Meandering, aimless, turgidity abounds. The fact that Brock "collaborates" with Red Red Meat's Brian Deck and The Black Heart Procession's Pall Jenkins is merely an interiguing liner note, as the result is inaudible- even to fans of both bands.

Brock explores his mellower side with Ugly Casanova. You know, because, like, he's playing an acoustic guitar and not yelling as much and stuff. Brock's lyrics always revolve around wordplay. Sometimes it's clever; sometimes it's not. The point is that Brock's wordplay can grow tiresome, especially when it sounds like a bunch of random bullshit he wrote down after a high school acid trip: "she forgot to lay the eggs/awe shey shaw shey shaw/penny didn't have no whistle/awe shey shaw shey shaw/diamonds in the horses stable/the dancers didn't have their feet on the families in the graveyard/digging diamonds on the face of evil" ("Diamonds On The Face Of Evil"). Sounds catchy, doesn't it?

There are a small number songs where Brock actually sounds like he gives a shit. "Cat Faces" is one. Brock's moody, melodic vocal is accompanied by his own double-tracked voice in a separate vocal line, and the effect is haunting. The acoustic guitar that strums in the background is incidental, as it carries none of the song's weight. "Ice On The Sheets" is another fully-formed song that actually leaves you with somewhat of a lasting impression. Funky string pluckings bounce off programmed beats. Brock's vocals are annoying when processed through megaphone-imitating sound effects, though. Six minutes is an excessive amount of time for such a repetitive song to last, but when the pickings are this slim, you'll take what you can get.

It really is unfortunate that Deck's and Jenkins’ involvement wasn't utilized more fully. A true collaboration could have been interesting. The masturbatory excess that we are dealt instead is just plain boring. Ugly Casanova is pure ego stroking for Isaac Brock. It seems like he spent more time on the artwork than he did the music. He probably used every last scrap of paper he'd long since cast aside to flesh out the lyrics- even the ones that should never have seen the light of day. Sharpen Your Teeth is an unfortunate snoozefest posing as an album. Modest Mouse fans should be offended that such rubbish was inflicted upon them in the name of "experimental collaboration." Avoid at all costs, unless you just can’t resist that charming backwoods lisp.

The Vines, Highly Evolved (Capitol)

The Vines - Highly Evolved The Vines
Highly Evolved
By: Eric Greenwood

The Vines are currently experiencing a dangerous wave of hype. As The Strokes and The White Stripes know very well, this can only lead to that polarizing "love it or hate it" status amongst the music literati. Consequently, The Vines will be judged against the hype, which invariably leads to unfair scrutiny and ready dismissal. America likes underdogs, so bands that show up out of the blue with too many foreign accolades under their belts tend to be judged harshly.

You may remember The Vines from its contribution to the I Am Sam Soundtrack earlier this year…or you may not. Its cover of "I'm Only Sleeping" while inoffensive even to Beatles purists is questionable only because of its audacity. Who is this band you've never heard of covering the Beatles with such attitude on a lame, train wreck of a soundtrack, featuring The Black Crowes doing "Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds?" Any band with an ounce of integrity would object to being associated with this film and that goes double for the soundtrack. I actually forgot that The Vines were on this soundtrack until a few months ago when I rediscovered it playing Tops Of The Pops on BBC America. I couldn't place where I'd heard the band before, and it drove me nuts for weeks.

The song The Vines played on Tops Of The Pops that random Saturday afternoon was "Highly Evolved", and it rocked. As the only band that didn't mime its music, The Vines stood out amidst the faceless English boy bands and mind-numbing electronic pop acts. Craig Nichols' melodic screaming immediately reminded me of Kurt Cobain’s shredded wail, and the music had that cocky swagger that only young upstarts are brave/dumb enough to pull off. I immediately went off to download the song, but I was slightly disappointed by what I found. The screaming was blunted by numerous overdubs and the music lacked the edge the band displayed live, so my interest quickly waned.

Seeing adds for the band's debut album every few minutes on MTV recently peaked my curiosity again. I decided that I could risk the "special low price" of $9.99 to see if the album were any better than the two songs I'd heard. Having listened to it three times, I'm still undecided, leaning towards "no." Perhaps, I should wait a few more weeks to write a review, but I have a hunch things won't improve over time. It's not like the music is so dense that it takes time to absorb. This is uncomplicated pop music to say the least. The album definitely has a few remarkable moments, but it's really just not very good. I knew it was a bad sign when I liked the blunted version of "Highly Evolved" better than any other song.

The biggest flaw is inarguably the production. Craig Nichols has an amazing voice. That is a given. He screams his nuts off, but he can make notes out of it the same way Kurt Cobain could. He can also belt out high notes without breaking up his voice, and he has a flawless falsetto. The problem is that he overdubs so many takes of his voice that you can't distinguish what is happening. It's just a blurry, messy chorus of vocals, and it sounds like complete shit. The music suffers the same problem. Everything is so slick and glossy that it never really rocks. Yeah, the guitars are loud, but they don't slice through the speakers the way they should. Nirvana's Nevermind was probably a bit too slick as well, which Kurt Cobain would have been the first to admit, but at least it maintained its edge.

The second biggest flaw of Highly Evolved is the songwriting. Craig Nichols may possess an extraordinary voice, but his music has yet to evolve into anything that could constitute memorable rock and roll. Everything on here is a retread, and Nichols does little to reveal himself as a writer. His influences are numerous and varied (Beatles, Beach Boys, Nirvana), but they display themselves in short irreconcilable bursts that lack cohesion or consistency. And his lyrics are hackneyed and trite to the point of utter embarrassment. I've always been suspect of lyricists that rely on excessive "yeah’s" to get them through choruses, but Nichols has no shame whatsoever in that regard. Nor does he mind utter mundanities like “I left my home/I left my home yeah/where I should go/where I should go yeah, yeah/Nothin’s gonna save you/nothin’s gonna save you out there” (“Homesick”).

Highly Evolved is a spotty debut at best and an over-hyped failure at worst. The hype will most likely be destructive in the end because The Vines don't yet possess the chops to back it all up.

The Bourne Identity, Directed By Doug Liman (Universal)

The Bourne Identity - Directed By Doug Liman The Bourne Identity
Directed By Doug Liman
By: Eric Greenwood

It's been a very slow summer for movies so far. After the early peak of the Spider-Man and Star Wars double whammy in May, the studios have been shoveling out a mound of manure that is de rigeur for this time of year. So, The Bourne Identity almost slipped by me unnoticed amidst the showy onslaught of big budget schlock. From the previews it seems like a dozen other anonymous spy thrillers, but director Doug Liman puts his distinctive touch on his interpretation of Robert Ludlum's Cold War page-turner.

Liman is quickly becoming a versatile director, having tackled three different genres in three consecutive films. He's done the fast-paced comedic buddy flick (Swingers), the frenetic post-Pulp Fiction teen fare (Go), and now his first crack at a big budget thriller is easily his most streamlined and successful yet. The Bourne Identity is a taut, intensely focused action film. While serving up healthy doses of spy novel cliches, Liman manages to cut any trace of fat so as to make every scene essential to the plot.

Matt Damon plays Jason Bourne, the amnesiac assassin trying to figure out his identity. Damon brings just the right amount of heroic stoicism and controlled panache to the role without stooping to campy Bond-isms. He may even play it too cool, as it's hard to warm up to his character, but the detached aloofness adds to the film's cut 'n dry immediacy. And Franka Potente's eurotrash hippie character adroitly balances Bourne's "just the facts, ma'am" directness. She's the emotional foil to Bourne's unflappable personality.

The story itself isn't necessarily as dated as most critics will have you believe. Just because it was written twenty-two years ago doesn't mean it is implausible today. The idea of the CIA hiring assassins to take out political adversaries is certainly reasonable. Granted, it's currently illegal under international law to assassinate enemy leaders without declaring war on them first, but the idea is actually very timely, especially considering our efforts to ferret out Osama Bin Laden and dethrone Saddam Hussein.

Liman's directing is less stylized than his previous efforts, particularly in Go, where the camera played a pivotal, if somewhat obtrusive, role. Here Liman is more hands off, allowing the actors to set the tone. Apart from his quick cuts and lingering close-ups, Liman's hand is practically invisible. The film plays like an homage to classic spy thrillers but with a modern edge. The action supplants tricky edits, the best example of which is a mesmerizing car chase through the narrow streets of Paris.

The Bourne Identity is not a substantive film, but it doesn't purport to be one either. It fulfills every promise a spy film makes from nervous energy to edge of your seat suspense to cold-blooded murder. Matt Damon finally steps out of the "awe shucks, I just won an Oscar" act and successfully carries a film on his own. And Franka Potente (Run Lola Run, The Princess And The Warrior) is dazzling to watch in her first commercial role. She should make the transition from indie darling to mainstream actress without much effort and her sexy German accent and pouty lips certainly won't hurt.

For pure escapist entertainment that doesn't patronize or dumb itself down, The Bourne Identity is hard to beat. It's easily my favorite film of the summer.

Benett, Welcome To The Jungle (March)

Benett - Welcome To The Jungle Benett
Welcome To The Jungle
By: Eric Greenwood

Benett's syrupy, girlish voice has garnered her a small legion of fans in the twee-pop world since her work with Charles Brown Superstar in the mid-1990's. Her solo output is still just as sickly sweet but, perhaps, more adventurous than her former indie rock band's ever was, as it incorporates spaced-out guitars, moog, harpsichord, manipulated tape samples, viola, and piano, among others. Welcome To The Jungle is her second solo album, following her 1999 debut, So You're Not Coming Over, both of which were created with producer Tom Grimley (Beck, The Rentals). The focal point is clearly Benett's crystalline voice, which is surrounded by oddball instrumentation and an erratic lo-fi aesthetic.

I'm not sure I understand the "underground Britney Spears" tag that follows Benett around in her press, but that's neither here nor there. Her voice will undoubtedly annoy some, as it has a polarizing cadence. You'll either love it or hate it. It's the aural equivalent of injecting glucose straight into your veins. I must admit that an entire album's worth of it is almost enough to make me want to listen to nothing but Swedish hardcore for a month. But don't get the wrong idea; some of these songs are undeniably catchy- just in small doses. The five-minute opener, "Don't Look For Me", almost pushed me over the edge, but the infectious pop of "Must Be The Whiskey" pulled me right back in.

"All Of Me" is equally catchy with jangly, fuzzy guitars, drum samples, and, of course, Benett's double-tracked voice to add more sugar to the mix. The noisy freak-out midway through the song is both unexpected and unnecessary, as it derails the song's momentum. The chorus is so irresistible that such digressions fail to leave a negative impression. Unlistenable, instrumental interludes such as "My Death March", however, do indeed leave a lasting bad taste. It's the only song written and performed by Benett by herself, and I hope that doesn't mean she's helpless when left to her own devices. It's the type of crummy throwaway that's best left to bedroom experimentation.

I know there are factions of people that write off twee pop as too derivative and too self-referential, but I say a good song is a good song, regardless of who writes it and what genre it's in (actually, I'm paraphrasing Johnny Rotten because I can't remember the exact quotation). Indie rock tends to thrive on elitism, and it's ok to go through that phase (in college) as long as you can come out the other side. Being able to appreciate both Journey and Fushitusha without hesitation or embarrassment when you are twenty-five is what being a fan of music is all about. That said, Benett is not the best of her genre, but she has a few good tunes under her belt. And, likewise, Welcome To The Jungle is far from a life-changing album, but it's charming enough to kill a Saturday afternoon with.