Ben Kweller, Sha Sha (Ato)

Ben Kweller - Sha Sha Ben Kweller
Sha Sha
Ato
By: Eric Greenwood

Now that he's old enough to have something substantive to say, Ben Kweller reinvents himself, somewhat deceptively, as a sarcastic slacker songwriter in the tradition of Stephen Malkmus and Rivers Cuomo. Kweller spent the late 1990's as the child prodigy star of the Texas trio, Radish, which, despite showcasing Kweller's penchant for melody, harped a bit much on the grunge- after grunge had long been buried. Now that's a fate no one wants to be damned with. So, Radish broke up after disappointing record sales, leaving Kweller bitter and disenchanted. I'm just guessing about that last part, but isn't that how it goes when you're dropped from a label?

Sha Sha immediately reveals Kweller's sharpened musical chops. He's quite the versatile songwriter at 20, showing affinities for everything from power pop to piano ballads to acoustic folk to crackling indie rock- all with a biting sense of humor. Kweller's lyrics carry more than just catchy melodies. He's self-deprecating and self-aware but never crosses the line into smothering self-indulgence: "'nothing isn't nothing, nothing's something that's important to me'/that's right/and everyone's a little nothing that's ok that's how it should be/that's right" ["How It Should Be (Sha Sha)]."

Having been a child star on a major label, it only follows that he would have a few famous faces to call friends. Friends like Evan Dando and Ben Lee seem to have been the biggest influences when it comes to Kweller's quirky pop. Such quirkiness rears it's head on the first single, "Wasted & Ready", which, I'm told, used to be called "The Doom Generation" after, that's right, that horrendous Greg Araki film starring Rose McGowan. The song's dynamics and dirty rocking edges recall Weezer's classic Pinkerton album. Even the lyrics mine the same obsessive weirdness that Rivers Cuomo used to revel in: "she goes above and beyond her call of duty/she is a slut but X think it's sexy/sex reminds her of eating spaghetti/I am wasted but I'm ready."

Kweller slips into his various musical guises with so much ease that you'd think he'd been doing this all his life. Well, I guess he has. Since he was 8 years old, anyway. The Beatles influence of "Family Tree" is unmistakable, as it feels like an updated version of "I'm Only Sleeping" off Revolver. Kweller's voice surprises you with its flexibility. He can slip into a falsetto or belt out a yell without so much as a hint of straining. Kweller's vocal ticks punctuate the dirty rock of "Commerce, TX." Lots of "ooh ooh ooh's" in between the solid, grungy hooks. Kweller really knocks you on your ass with his songwriting ability on the Ben Folds-ish "In Other Words." It's a simple piano ballad, but it's instantly memorable. Somehow it manages to avoid most of the cheese inherent to any piano ballad, and the climactic crescendo is staggeringly good.

Granted, Kweller is still searching for an unique voice, as his music still wears its roots a little too blatantly, but he's definitely on the right track. And when you've got as much talent as he does, you know it's only a matter of time until your songwriting shakes free the influence of your heroes. And even if it takes him another album or two, songs like "No Reason" with its distortion box stomping chorus and infectious hooks or the pop punk anthem "Harriet's Got A Song" with its killer dynamics will keep his seat amongst the top songwriters warm.

Future Bible Heroes, Eternal Youth (Instinct)

Future Bible Heroes - Eternal Youth Future Bible Heroes
Eternal Youth
Instinct
By: Eric Greenwood

Even genius songwriters with buckets of talent to spare have their weak moments, and Future Bible Heroes has long been Stephin Merritt's flimsiest endeavor. I think it's because of his lack of control over the proceedings. Merritt shares the songwriting with his old pal Christopher Ewen from the 80’s synth pop act Figures On A Beach. Actually, Merritt only contributes the lyrics, leaving all of the instrumentation up to Ewen, who is just as obsessed with 80's synth cheese as he is. Relegating all the vocals to his mother hen, Claudia Gonson, is somewhat disappointing, as her voice fails to command the songs quite like Merritt's would.

The opening electro pop ditty, "Losing Your Affection" is perfectly bland. Gonson's flat and uninteresting voice only works on Merritt's quirkiest compositions in The Magnetic Fields. Without any of Merritt's flair, Gonson's vocalizations blend into the generic retro-schlock without making much of an impression. Ewen's programmed music gurgles and bubbles in a wet electric display, as on "Doris Daytheearthstoodstill", but again Gonson's double-tracked, blasé vocals leave much to be desired. Even Merritt's lyrics, which normally charm your pants off, seem forced and recycled, though the undead theme is a nice touch.

Eternal Youth shows signs of a pulse on "I'm A Vampire." The music is a winking nod to The Human League, but at least it's fast and catchy albeit in a sugary, dancey fashion. Gonson finally sounds interested in her own singing, and it marks the first time Merritt's clever wordplay jumps out at you: "Dear, for whose victims I shed no tear/I am neither sweet nor sincere/and I'd rather drink blood than beer/cause I'm a vampire." Gonson's inflection on "For Some Dying Star" is directly imitative of Merritt's own, and it makes you wish he'd just sing the damn songs himself.

If there's a single on Eternal Youth it's "Smash The Beauty Machine." The bouncy pop has panache and loads of hooks, including this golden Merritt nugget: "as the stars come out ad nauseum/everyone stands and applauds/suddenly we're all remembering/why we need all those Gods." Merritt's brief backing vocal appearance on "Kiss Me Only With Your Eyes" is an unnecessary teaser. Don't taunt us, just sing! Ewen has his finest moment musically on "No River." The subtle wash of keyboards is exquisitely gloomy, and the syncopated beats perfectly underscore the Twin Peaks aura he's created.

Eternal Youth is a niche record for Stephin Merritt junkies and those that still crave campy 80's electronic sounds. It's far from the level of a Magnetic Fields release – or even The 6ths for that matter – and, therefore, won't appeal to casual fans. It's not awful, but there's enough filler here to whittle this down a single with two or three solid b-sides. Releasing a whole album’s worth of material is a tad presumptuous.

Interpol, Turn On The Bright Lights (Matador)

Interpol - Turn On The Bright Lights Interpol
Turn On The Bright Lights
Matador
By: Eric Greenwood

From the first notes of Turn On The Bright Lights I knew that all of my preconceived notions about Interpol were wrong. I imagined a fey, new wave throwback similar to The Faint based on photographs of these guys in conjunction with all the heavy-handed Joy Division references being casually bandied about. Not that a Joy Division reference connotes anything “fey”, but, lately, it seems that all the bands with so-called “Joy Division influences” tend to land on the less-than-rocking side of the fence.

One listen to Turn On The Bright Lights will clear everything up immediately, though. Interpol has an extraordinarily commanding presence for a band releasing its debut album. Its music is dark and tense with references both subtle and obvious, harking back to all the right bands. Honestly, all the talk of Joy Division puzzles me a bit; I hear far more Echo & The Bunnymen, Bauhaus, Televsion and even The Feelies than anything from Manchester’s finest. Perhaps, it’s just the deep, resonating vocals that generate such comparisons- well, that and lazy writers.

Interpol eases you into its dark labyrinth of echoing guitars and fractured emotions on the heavy-lidded opener, “Untitled.” It’s a gorgeously swaying melody, recalling early Jesus And Mary Chain and Disintegration-era Cure. “Obstacle 1” reveals considerable muscle in its “Marquee Moon”-style guitar interplay, squashing any fears that Interpol might be a bunch of light-weights. Interpol wraps its catchy, well-constructed pop songs up in dark capes, but the tense, rocking edge keeps the “gothic” tag at bay. The urgency with which the band attacks each song is jarring- even the slow ones like “NYC” are tough and resilient.

“PDA” is an astoundingly good rock song. The nervous energy is contagious, as the echoing guitars descend upon the tight, potent rhythm section. Paul Banks' deep cadence is almost frightening in its seriousness (though the lyrics are biting and witty in an eerie way), and he punches his voice to match the crisis of each moment that passes. It’s a brilliant song that I’ve played over and over and over again. Each part is perfectly composed, right down to the overly long anticlimax. “Say Hello To The Angels” has had several Smiths comparisons thrown at it in the press, undoubtedly for its unabashed jauntiness, which is fair enough, but I think it has more in common with Brian Eno’s “Third Uncle”, particularly in the chorus.

Don’t be fooled by the constant references to other bands. While the foundation upon which Interpol is building, certainly is borrowed, its music is not a miming act. It’s clear that someone (if not everyone) in the band has a solid record collection, and, by thoroughly absorbing its roots, Interpol is able to start well ahead of its peers. Most bands take at least one or two records to shake the derivations out of its songwriting. Amazingly, though, Interpol is able to bring much of its own personality to the table right from the onset. That point is perfectly illustrated on the moody, punchy "Obstacle 2", which flaunts the band's aggressive bravado all the through to the howling falsetto in the finale.

Turn On The Bright Lights is full of artful, rhythmic shifts, punchy, melodic bass lines, and layers of moody atmospherics, all of which avoid major chords like the plague. Interpol's gloomy, gritty sound is powerful and polymorphous, as it meanders through a kaleidoscope of moods. All it takes to turn Paul Banks' deadpan apathy into heightened melodrama is the crash of the right chord. His band's intensity is its driving force. Sure, some of the songs run a bit long, but when they're this good and they rock this hard, it doesn't much matter.

Superdrag, Last Call For Vitriol (Arena Rock)

Superdrag - Last Call For Vitriol Superdrag
Last Call For Vitriol
Arena Rock
By: Eric Greenwood

I saw Superdrag on Conan O'Brien the other night, and I couldn't believe how much they rocked. It was sweet relief witnessing such a raucous performance after having to listen to Al Franken wax unfunny with a bored Conan about the Bush administration's Iraq quandary. I've been vaguely aware of Superdrag since that "Sucked Out" single came out way back in 1996, but I'd never given them the time of day, mainly because I'd always thought that single was cloying and annoying. I'd consequently written them off as flash in the pan buzz bin drones. However, I'm more than willing now to wipe the slate clean; that performance earned as much.

This may sound trite, but Superdrag plays rock music. I point this out because not many bands play actual rock music anymore. The mainstream and underground music scenes are clogged up with so many complicated sub-genres and micro-genres and crossbreeds with meaningless names that the uninformed music fan wouldn't even know where to begin. Superdrag takes a much simpler approach than its peers do, opting for traditional rock licks over gimmicks rife with trends and pretension. The verse/chorus/verse formula is fully intact, of course, but a few outdated modes of expression make a resurgence, such as the guitar solo and the chunky 70's rock riff a la AC/DC.

"Baby Goes To Eleven" is such a pitch perfect pop song that it's easy to overlook the guilelessly saccharine lyrics: "she's riding beside me/her bright lights will hide me/she's one with the heavens/baby goes to eleven." Having Bob Pollard of Guided By Voices chime in on the backing harmonies doesn't hurt either. The way John Davis places his pristine cadence over the chords is right on the money and, once the drums kick in, the song transforms into a driving, power-pop rocker that's at once familiar and memorable. The true rock reveals its dirty head by the second song, "I Can't Wait." There's definitely some ZZ Top and Cheap Trick lurking in the back of the band's mind as it pummels through the dueling power chords.

"The Staggering Genius" is the song the band tore through on Late Night With Conan O'Brien, and it delivers just as much punch in recorded form. It's got that raw, rocking energy found on early Replacements records with even a hint of Husker Du. The chunky, chugging verse is instantly hummable, as it quickly lurches into an even stickier pre-chorus before the opening riff rebounds and blasts the song into your permanent memory. The arrangement is not unlike Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Sprit", though the dynamic is less extreme. Superdrag rocks out at full throttle as Davis wails "tell everyone you're happy and slip into oblivion." "So Insincere" is an abrupt comedown after such an intense rocker, but it boasts a Foo Fighters-style chorus, take it or leave it.

I must admit I tend to get lost through the middle of the record, as my mind wanders and several tracks slip by unnoticed, due to their middling mediocrity. "Extra-Sensory" dips into Soul Asylum territory with its sappy melody and jangly, rootsy guitars. "Feeling Like I Do" makes a half-assed attempt to rock, but there's no build-up or release, just a driving repetition of the same three parts, though the bended guitar lines are duly noted. The woe-is-me party takes a nose-dive on "Way Down Here Without You." The back-up vocals are unintentionally funny, as they play some kind of retro call and response game. Fast forward to "Safe & Warm." Ugh. Another ballad. What happened to the rock? Ahh, "Remain Yer Strange" kicks it back into gear. More like this one, please.

Hmm, less than half of the record actually sports the rock I salute it for, but when it does Superdrag shines like a blast from the past but without the feeling that it's a calculated throwback to anything in particular. Last Call For Vitriol is a more aggressive title than the record itself is, but Superdrag proves its bag of tricks is not about to run out. I'll just have to program my stereo to keep the rockers coming.

Mull Historical Society, Loss (Blanco Y Negro/xl/baggars Banquet)

Mull Historical Society - Loss Mull Historical Society
Loss
Blanco Y Negro/xl/baggars Banquet
By: Eric Greenwood

Flirting with that ever-so-English world of whimsical pop, the Mull Historical Society dresses itself in a cloak of many colors, each one representing a different musical flavor. Like its Welsh counterpart, Super Furry Animals, Mull Historical Society relishes its offbeat fancy with an arsenal of hooks and unpredictable musical tangents.

Songwriter and vocalist Colin MacIntyre prefers his pop in the grand English tradition: cheerfully bombastic. MacIntyre clearly learned more from McCartney than he did Lennon in his Beatles upbringing, if his bright, boastful pop is any indication. He's a multi-instrumentalist with a penchant for odd noisemakers and soaring melodies. And his tongue is always planted firmly in his cheek. Those Brits- always with the irony.

"Public Service Announcement" is a rather subdued introduction to MacIntyre's kaleidoscopic world, but the pomp and circumstance of his arrangement should clue any listener in that he doesn't have an indie bone in his body. His music is joyously self-indulgent, layering multiple vocal tracks on top of concurrent melodies and myriad instruments. If there's a flaw it's MacIntyre's somewhat nasally voice, which seems more suited for a maudlin pop act than a hipster-be-damned display of jaunty kitsch.

"Watching Xanadu" is a psychoanalyst's dream with its infectious sing-ability yet darkly comedic lyrics- not to mention its references to Olivia Newton-John. MacIntyre masterfully juxtaposes isolating, contradictory lyrics against a backdrop of camp and frivolousness: "sit on your world/if I could just do what you do/if I could just be what you don't want me to be/you know it really doesn't matter it really does." The over-the-top pomposity of songs like "Instead" separates the genius from the overly ambitious. The children's choir is wholly unnecessary. Really.

When MacIntyre tries to be soulful as on "I Tried" he trips over his own inability to let the music speak for itself. He piles so many ridiculous sounds on top of one another that he sucks the blood right out of the tune. Someone needs to tell him that the silly keyboard sound effects aren't working. "Barcode Bypass" is probably the album's best hope. It's by far the most simplistic arrangement, focusing on MacIntyre's languid vocal melody. But just when you're ready to add some points to his column, he's got to go on and drag it out for seven bloody minutes.

"Only I" is Elton John by way of Liberace on Quaaludes. Cue the dramatic horn section. Just in time. And here is the background chorus of falsetto "ooh ooh ooh's." I guess when you take into account that this guy is from a dreary, remote Scottish island some of this starts to make sense. "Animal Cannabus" threatens to rock with its driving bass line and MacIntyre's punch-drunk vocals. It could easily be a single. Well, in England, anyway. It's far too weird for the U.S. charts. Actually, almost every song on here could be a single, if MacIntyre would calm down and focus. A good hook works wonders by itself. No need to drown it in superfluous instrumentation.

MacIntyre clearly has talent sweating out of his pores, but it's the self-defeating kind. Loss is an interesting album musically and intellectually, but it's not one you'll turn to for pleasure very often. There are hooks and melodies galore, but they're stymied by gratuitous self-indulgence. MacIntyre's got the chops to make a great album, but this is not it. This is just a promising album.

Enon, High Society (Touch And Go)

Enon - High Society Enon
High Society
Touch And Go
By: Eric Greenwood

I found out that I'd been pronouncing Enon incorrectly when John Schmersal introduced his band at a live show recently. "Hi, we're 'E-nun'", he said- emphasis on the long 'e' with no attention paid to the second syllable whatsoever. I found his pronunciation puny and submissive. "E-NON" (with emphasis on both the long 'e' and the 'non'- the way I'd been saying it all along) sounds so much more authoritative and commanding, not to mention futuristic and cool.

I mention this only because its capsulizes the dichotomy of Enon's stage presence versus its musical intensity. In between songs, Enon is mousy and diminutive, but as soon as a song like "Old Dominion" starts with its raucous, retro-rock riffs, the band transforms into a wildly frenetic and intense spectacle. Schmersal rants and writhes whether he's holding his guitar or just messing with his box of effects. Such showmanship is unexpected after a painful plea for a place to stay that it almost seems disingenuous.

Enon's second album, High Society, thrives on such unexpected and off-putting juxtapositions. It's a dilettantish amalgamation of retro-futuristic pop, classic rock, and new wave deconstruction that, despite its deliberate awkwardness, sets out to redefine the concept of the pop record. No song gives away any clues as to what's lurking around the next corner, and that sense of anticipation threads High Society together like few albums in recent memory.

The addition of Toko Yasuda (Blonde Redhead, The Lapse) on bass and part-time vocals has kicked open the new wave door that Schmersal had only peaked through on Believo!, the band's debut (which, incidentally, featured a completely different line-up). Yasuda's voice is stereotypically girlish and innocent. The campy female Japanese vocal trick is almost a cliché in indie rock these days, but Yasuda has some undeniable songwriting chops under her belt that should silence the jaded scenesters ready to dismiss anyone who dares to repeat what's supposedly already "been done."

Schmersal's weirdly verbose compositions butt heads with Yasuda's sleek, bouncy pop, but both share dark edges that make the flow of the record more logical as it plays on. The aforementioned "Old Dominion" kicks off High Society with fists flailing. The meaty, 70's riff meshes perfectly with Schmersal's versatile voice. He bends a falsetto and a whiny brashness around the calculated pauses in the rock to create the year's strangest retrofitted anthem. Yasuda's "In This City" couldn't be more contrary with its static propulsion and warm synthetics.

"Window Display" adds a rotten ingredient to Enon's highly unscientific formula. Sounding like The Lemonheads on a particularly uninventive day, Schmersal strums a jangly, straightforward pop song with a cheesy chorus, leaving a very bad aftertaste. For a moment I thought I was listening to Freedy Johnston and almost switched off the stereo. "Native Numb" overcompensates for the previous song's weaknesses with too much studio trickery and too little substance. "Leave It To Rust" puts High Society back on track, though, bringing Devo, The Cars, and Sonic Youth to mind all at once with its dead pan vocals and subdued, staccato guitars.

Yasuda's infectious, candy-slick "Disposable Parts" is a driving, danceable pop gem that will be stuck in your head all day long. The way her voice matches that masterful keyboard hook is just too good. Schmersal trumps Yasuda's finest moment with a flash of his own brilliance on "Natural Disasters", which is arguably the album's catchiest song. Schmersal's squawking guitar bits seem odd at first, but the vocals are so intuitively fitting and memorable, as they synchronize perfectly with the song's mounting, eerie tension, that you can't help but sing along.

High Society expands upon the hurried schizophrenia of Schmersal's previous band, Brainiac, elevating songwriting to the same level of experimental deconstruction to both the detriment and advancement of the band's core sound. Schmersal's overreaching ambition still probably outweighs his songwriting talents to a degree. There are just a few too many missteps on High Society to heap blind praise on it, but it's clear that Enon is headed in the right direction.

Shiner, The Egg (De Soto)

Shiner - The Egg Shiner
The Egg
De Soto
By: Eric Greenwood

I met this guy at a party recently who absolutely freaked out because I had never heard of Shiner. Bands slip through the cracks. It happens. You can’t know about every good band all of the time; otherwise, life would be boring. But this guy really could not believe I’d never heard Shiner and would not let it drop. He then proceeded to go on and on about the genius of The Egg, Shiner’s most recent album, promising ridiculous things like “once you hear The Egg, you will have a new favorite album, not to mention a new favorite band.” Ok, I was intrigued to say the least.

I bought The Egg without even downloading a preview first. It’s on De Soto Records and since I was a Jawbox fan, I figured it probably wasn’t too risky of a purchase; the fact that The Dismemberment Plan is a label-mate didn’t hurt either. I guess I should also mention that my new friend gave The Egg the most hilarious description for me to go on, which I will quote verbatim: “The Egg is like Tool without the metal and Radiohead without the puss.” I was doubly intrigued at this point- not that I’m a Tool fan by any stretch of the imagination, but I was dying to hear what he meant by such a ludicrous statement.

Out of some kind of defensive reaction for being made to feel out of the loop, I think my first impression of The Egg was hypercritical. I found myself immediately naming influences and derivations and thought my friend had, perhaps, overstated The Egg’s grandeur to some extent. However, I must have listened to The Egg four or five times in a row, becoming drastically less captious each time until, finally, I saw The Egg for what it is: a smart, dynamic, aggressively tense and darkly emotional rock record.

Since purchasing The Egg I’ve gone back and listened to Shiner’s earlier work, and I was ashamed I'd never heard it before. It's that good. My friend’s Radiohead remark actually makes sense even though he was drunk when he said it (the bit about Tool still has me puzzled, though). Alan Epley’s voice is obviously gruffer than Thom Yorke’s but when he slips into falsetto there’s no loss of power or toughness. His voice possesses a smoky edginess that most vocalists of independent bands lack these days. There’s no overt sensitivity, yet you still experience whatever emotion it evokes.

You’ve undoubtedly read this about countless bands before, but Shiner is an extraordinarily tight-knit quartet. It has to be said, so there it is. Booming, complicated drums underscore melodically dueling guitar lines and subtle, growling bass. The airtight precision of the drumming is at the forefront of Shiner’s sound. Epley’s voice is a contrasting tool with its husky passive-aggression. On top of the borderline mathematical arrangements are towering melodies, which, by turns, swell and surrender to the flow of the cultivated songwriting.

“The Truth About Cows” opens The Egg with a sprawling, mid-tempo rocker, recalling Radiohead's guitar side but with much more meat. From Epley’s gravelly cadence you'd imagine him wearing sunglasses, standing legs far apart, guitar strap hanging as low as it can go, and hair slicked back. He sounds rough and tough, the epitome of cool. I can't emphasize this enough. This type of confident bravado is sorely lacking from music lately. It's as far away as you can get from all the self-absorbed whiners clogging up the record bins. "Surgery" is more immediate in its accessibility, Epley's vocal line once again stealing the show, as it straddles the line of singing through a controlled scream. It's hard-hitting, cerebral rock with ace hooks to boot, and it's truly one of the best songs I've heard in months.

"Play Dead" maintains the mid-tempo rock angle with another catchy chorus, but it's the drumming that stuns. Shiner takes a sharp left turn on "The Top Of The World", a moody, atmospheric come down. The title track launches right back into the rock with some clever production tricks in tow. It's a nervous and tense build-up that culminates in goose-bump-inducing chorus, wherein Epley's falsetto shines. Everything seems to lead up to the focal point of The Egg, "The Simple Truth", however. Jangly guitars strum in a tense, repetitive drone until the boiling point is reached, and then everything falls apart. The song then mutates into a five-minute breakdown of electronic noises, ghostly keyboards, and gorgeous intermingling clean guitars. The most astounding thing is that there's not a dull moment. Shiner has your attention until the very last fluttering blip fades away.

The Egg maintains a thematic lyrical consistency as well as a musical one. "Spook The Herd" lulls you in with its serene melodies and safe electronic pulses only to jerk the rug out from under you with a thunderous onslaught of heavy, low-end guitars. "Pills" is the jolt of electricity towards the end of the record that keeps you guessing. Shiner has masterfully arranged the track order to maintain a high level of intensity and anticipation. What's scary is that a casual listener could probably dismiss The Egg without having grasped it fully and feel confident in such a decision. Shiner's sound stems from familiar things for sure, but it absolutely brings new ideas to the table, as well as a fist-full of blistering, unrivaled rock.

Being new to the world of Shiner I feel like The Egg is an unknown treasure- the type of album you wander into a record store hoping to find every time you go. In my friend's drunken ranting he probably did make The Egg out to be more than it is, but his persistence worked. I'm a fan, a convert, a worshiper at the shrine of Shiner. The Egg is an astonishingly great album, and I will do what I can to spread the good word.