Sleater-Kinney, One Beat (Kill Rock Stars)

Sleater-Kinney - One Beat Sleater-Kinney
One Beat
Kill Rock Stars
By: Eric Greenwood

It isn't broken and Sleater-Kinney doesn't try to fix anything on its sixth album for Kill Rock Stars, which is good news on the one hand, but I wonder on how many more albums the band can churn out music cut from such familiar cloth. Label-mates Unwound sensed the flogging of a similarly dead horse by its sixth album, and, consequently, took time off to reassess its goals as a band. The break worked wonders, and Unwound ended up releasing its greatest artistic achievement on its seventh album. Such feats are unbelievably rare, as most bands fold by album three. So Sleater-Kinney is at a crossroads, artistically, and I'm not sure One Beat makes a convincing case for the status quo.

Sleater-Kinney is in, perhaps, the most awkward position in independent rock. Being an all-female band has way more cons than it does pros. Rising from the ashes of the slightly laughable riot grrl movement, Sleater-Kinney has bridged the gap between feminist empowerment and submissive emotional co-dependency for close to a decade, wielding raucous guitars and guttural vocal hysterics the whole time. When the band tries to be political it's often embarrassing, as it is here on "Combat Rock", where guitarist Carrie Brownstein decries US foreign policy. It's never been about what Sleater-Kinney says, but, rather, how it says it, and that's an area in which you'd be hard-pressed to find fault.

One Beat begins with a typically awkward rhythm, slightly reminiscent of Devo's version of "Satisfaction." The guitars play off one another in a disconcerting rise and fall of jagged notes. As soon as Corin Tucker's hearty lungs start bellowing, there's little doubt as to what you're listening to. She's singing with more affectation than usual, though. It's the closest Sleater-Kinney has ever come to strutting its stuff. It rocks, but only in an off-kilter way. "Far Away" may lack cohesion musically, but its spiraling riff uncovers the band's angst, bubbling at the surface. Tucker may be a one-dimensional singer, but she can certainly belt it out and make you feel it.

I've always found Brownstein's vocals to be painfully mediocre. She's much more effective in the background, as a compliment to Tucker's incessant wailing. But on the playful, retro kitsch of "Oh!" Brownstein is at the forefront and couldn't be more annoying, as she attempts to imitate Nina Hagen. The affectation is so grating that you'll likely reach for the closest sharp object. Thankfully, Tucker swoops in to save the song from utter collapse. No lesson learned, as Brownstein sings lead again on "The Remainder", but, predictably, Tucker saves the day with an explosive chorus. The band seems to be treading water on these tracks, relying on the tried and true formula of quirky verse/angry chorus.

"Light Rail Coyote" reveals an affinity for Led Zeppelin in its booming opening riff, but the song quickly reverts back into quirky, girly indie rock, much to its detriment. Unfortunately, the band seems unwilling to embrace either quirkiness or the rock wholeheartedly, which is a trick the band had mastered on its previous full-length, All Hands On the Bad One. When the horns surface in "Step Aside", it sounds not unlike Chicago (the band not the city). Such showiness is utterly unnecessary and serves merely as a way for the band to say "see, we've shaken things up a bit", when in actuality this song could have been on any of the bands past three albums, the horns notwithstanding.

I've already mentioned the ill-advised and sappily predictable political yammering of "Combat Rock", but it deserves another shot for Carrie Brownstein's irretrievably horrendous hiccupping. My God, it's so awful. The thing is, she's never sounded this annoying on any of the band's other albums, so that's what's so confusing. It's like Madonna suddenly deciding she's English and not a piece of white trash from Detroit. Well, maybe not that extreme, but it's a shocking late development, nonetheless. Corin Tucker deserves the MVP award for saving this album from the shit-heap. Tucker's voice soars in a glorious melody in the verse of "O2", the album's finest moment.

One Beat is not Sleater-Kinney's best album. It's not even close. No new ground is broken. In fact, little has changed, apart from a few horns and keyboards. I would argue that this is Sleater-Kinney's weakest album in years. The tension that marked the band's early work is all but forgotten, as there's nothing akin to the terror levels of "Dig Me Out" or even "Youth Decay", and the fresh-faced angular pop of its more recent output sounds utterly re-hashed here. Sleater-Kinney is in dire need of some inspiration. Motherhood, female empowerment, and, my God, September 11th are so hackneyed it's ridiculous. Rock bands aren't supposed to last this long. The goal is to go out in a blaze of glory- not a watered down version of yourself.

Beth Orton, Daybreaker (Heavenly/Astralwerks)

Beth Orton - Daybreaker Beth Orton
Daybreaker
Heavenly/Astralwerks
By: Eric Greenwood

Beth Orton has one of those rare voices that just educes sadness no matter what it's actually saying. It's her best weapon by far, especially since she proves on her third solo album that her songwriting chops could use some overhauling. Daybreaker begins promisingly enough, though, with the string-laden "Paris Train", wherein Orton pushes her voice over a swell of bombastic atmospherics. Her voice is coy as it glides across the acoustic plucking. When she sings at low volumes her voice cracks and sounds vulnerable, but when she tightens up her power can be overwhelming. The chorus soars over the billowing strings. Trumpet and glacial keyboards add to the dramatic setting. It's an exultant start, assuring good things to come, but it's a red herring.

The duet with Ryan Adams on the first single, "Concrete Sky", is a passable only as a nearly forgotten memory. The melody is so subtle that it barely registers with the ear. Only after multiple listens does it start to become familiar. Orton seems to be embracing the humdrum, schlocky sound of New Age crooners and adult contemporary mush like Dido. The production is so stifled and clean. Her folk roots are nowhere to be found, save in her emotive voice. Adams isn't high enough in the mix to be effective, so his presence is in name only. By the laborious "Mount Washington", it's clear that Orton has lost her focus. It's a squishy, electronic mess. The way she fused folk and electronic pop in the past sounded fresh and inventive, but now that it's become de rigueur, it sounds dated and forced.

The most shocking aspect of Daybreaker is how unbelievably boring it is. There's no tension or excitement past the first track. Orton just floats across these mediocre arrangements without any conviction whatsoever. The strangely funky "Anywhere" sounds like a late-1980's outtake from one hit wonders, Johnny Hates Jazz. You have no clue what I'm talking about? Well, suffice it to say it's not a compliment. The title track tries desperately to jerk the album out of its self-induced coma with a little Sade influence creeping into the mix. Orton is out of her element when she tries to wear the dark, seductive pop cape, and it's a tad embarrassing. Orton comes out of her hazy trance and actually sings into the microphone on the folksy "Carmella", but I'm afraid it's too little too late.

Bringing Emmy Lou Harris aboard the country-tinged "God Song" is a step in the right direction. The dour mood loses some of its punch, though, since every single song preceding it barely had a pulse to begin with. Taken out of context and on its own merit, though, "God Song" rises to the top of Orton's heap in terms of songwriting and emotional connection. She needs that stark openness to be convincing. When she surrounds herself with too much instrumentation and production it obscures her talent. The bleakness of "This One's Gonna Bruise" proves my point exactly. The latent strings notwithstanding, Orton is alone with an acoustic guitar and she commands your attention. She just seems to come alive when there's nothing to hide behind.

It's obvious that Orton wanted a consistent tone for Daybreaker, and in that regard she succeeded. However, it's no coincidence that her most "adult" work is also her most disappointing. This album will undoubtedly cast a wider net in terms of audience because it's more streamlined, more commercial, despite the brain-numbing lengths of the songs, but it will not keep her long-time fans on board much longer. It's uncanny how telling the artwork is. Orton stares blankly through a gauzy light into nothingness. And Daybreaker feels just exactly like that. Thank God this CD is "carbon neutral" because we wouldn't want it to bore us AND contribute to global warming too. At least Orton had her environment in mind, if not her fans.

Rules Of Attraction, Directed By Roger Avary (Lions Gate)

Rules Of Attraction - Directed By Roger Avary Rules Of Attraction
Directed By Roger Avary
Lions Gate
By: Eric Greenwood

Sex, sin, drugs, debauchery, and, oh, lots of cocaine and vomit- everything you always wanted in a teen film but were afraid to ask. Even though it seems like Rules Of Attraction is just a vehicle for James Van Der Beek to prove that he's not the stiff, precocious git he plays on Dawson's Creek, it's actually the darkest, most gloriously entertaining teen film since Cruel Intentions. And I say that with utmost sincerity. Sure it's a hollow, non-judgmental look at nihilistic, angst-ridden prep school kids, but it doesn't purport to be anything else. Such emptiness is the whole point, which you're fully aware of if you've followed Bret Easton Ellis' literary career even peripherally. Director Roger Avary, while not exactly faithful to Ellis' text in a literal sense, is extremely faithful to the spirit of Ellis' amoral, gender-bending, non-linear second novel.

The story itself isn't important. It never is in an Ellis novel, but this one revolves around the intertwining relationships of a bunch of spoiled brats trying to get stoned and laid and stoned and drunk and laid again ad nauseum, so, yes, it's just like Less Than Zero, except this time instead of L.A. it's based at the fictitious Camden college. So, complaints of the film's being "plotless" are superfluous because a plot would require an emotional connection, of which there is none. This is purely gratuitous celluloid. What matters, though, is the tension between the characters and how they respond to the absurd situations they find themselves in. That's why the casting makes this film. Van Der Beek isn't the only actor who gets to shatter his squeaky clean image. Fred Savage of Wonder Years fame has a genius cameo as a heroin junkie flaking out on a debt repayment. The scene is a complete mindfuck, as we get to watch little Kevin Arnold improvise a clearly smacked-out monologue, eliciting multiple guffaws.

Seventh Heaven's Jessica Biel also gets a chance to tarnish her moral façade (even though her pictorial in Gear pretty much sealed that deal a few years ago). She plays a coked-up slut who betrays her best friend every chance she gets (because being "best friends" in Ellis' world means about as much as a relationship with your drug dealer). Her best friend, well, let's say, roommate, is the reason to see the film, though. Relative newcomer Shannyn Sossoman has that slightly mysterious, slightly foreign, bad-girl-with-a-cool-haircut look that makes her role as Lauren play out effortlessly onscreen. She bites her lip and pouts at all the right moments, fully aware of how irresistible she is to the camera. Such frivolous eye candy is made palatable in the film through Avary's intuitive use of music. The soundtrack fuels much of the tension that Avary effectively exploits every chance he gets.

Avary's pedigree is impressive, having directed the darkly comic Killing Zoe as well as having been a co-writer of Quentin Tarantino's Pulp Fiction. He's a bit showy with the camera much like Tarantino, unabashedly using split screens, stop/start motions, and rolling the tape backwards while implementing quick, jagged cuts. Such "look at me" histrionics are typically off-putting, but in a world created by Bret Easton Ellis it seems to fit perfectly, especially given Ellis' elliptical narration. Avary interpreted the novel for the screen himself, and having worked so closely on stories with Tarantino reveals itself in his tightly wound dialogue.

Avary's sense of comedy is striking. Some of the best scenes of the film are built around shockingly absurd dialogue, which only occasionally crosses the line into caricature (I'm looking in your direction, Rupert the coke dealer). The scene where the recently out-of-the-closet Paul Denton meets up with an ex-boyfriend, Richard (It's DICK!), in a posh hotel is a solid five minutes of gut-busting hilarity, replete with a homoerotic George Michael lip-synching routine and classic drunken ramblings. Avary seems to relish in the lack of substance of his characters, the pinnacle of which is a tangential, stream of consciousness, scene-stealing segment following a minor character's jaunt through Europe. It's an MTV-style collage of fast cuts and voice-overs, as Victor callously narrates his hyperbolic exploits. Incidentally, Avary is directing another Ellis adaptation, Glamorama, which stars Victor (Kip Pardue), and, if this brief introduction is any indication, it should be a blast.

Rules of Attraction will likely make most viewers expecting a straight-laced teen comedy staffed by the WB rather angry. It's frustratingly cynical and full of itself, flaunting its unscrupulous and unsympathetic outlook in your face. Avary unapologetically delights in the corruption that unfolds. But it's also pitch-perfect in its representation of the shallowness that Bret Easton Ellis invokes in all of his novels. And if you can overlook some of the cheesy effects that Avary indulges in, you will no doubt walk away with a smile on your face because there's nothing more entertaining than watching other people fall apart right before your eyes.

Black Dice, Cold Hands (Troubleman Unlimited)

Black Dice - Cold Hands Black Dice
Cold Hands
Troubleman Unlimited
By: Eric Greenwood

Experimental noise is pretentious enough when Japanese noise freaks make it, but at least it's expected, fitting nicely into our lazy pigeonholes and common clichés. When it comes from a bunch of pretty boys from Providence, Rhode Island, it's a bit harder to stomach. At least the Japanese have the mystery and illusion of distance and a foreign culture to justify such tunelessness to our seemingly unlearned ears. Spoiled, white-bread, art-school schmucks pretending to be of the same ilk is entirely suspect, however. Black Dice wants you to think it's borne of the same unlistenable noise-as-art school of The Boredoms, Fushi Tusha, and even American wank-officers like Harry Pussy, when, in actuality, it's little more than an aural joke.

Bashing out atonal noise is hardly breaking new terrain. Only whiter than porridge hipster wannabes would possibly give this music the time of day. I'm not averse to noise when it's audibly arresting, but this is just relentlessly boring. The title track hints at something creative, as toy noisemakers clank and sputter in an hypnotic pattern, amidst ghostly atmospherics and low-end buzzing. But by track two, "Smile Friends", Black Dice has folded, exposing its utterly shitty hand. Feedback, screaming, and plodding drums jerk in and out of false starts and random abrasiveness. It's unbelievably awful. It might be funny to see live. Once. But that's a pony you won't be riding again. "The Raven" features more of the same arbitrary clatter.

The fact that these guys are riding a wave of hipster hype is almost as embarrassing as the "music" itself. No one would listen to this on purpose without some sort of practical joke in mind. And anyone that said he did listen to it for pleasure deserves a swift ass kicking for being a pretentious git. I'm ashamed of myself for having sat through the full ten minutes of "Birthstone." It's pure sonic terror, full of, surprise, shrill feedback that morphs into various tones of white noise. Black Dice takes the suck factor to the power of ass. Getting such a reaction is exactly the point, I imagine. I'm just a sucker playing into their, oh, so clever, hands. Except that, wink, wink, I know that you know you suck too.

Q And Not U, Different Damage (Dischord)

Q And Not U - Different Damage Q And Not U
Different Damage
Dischord
By: Eric Greenwood

In the two years since revitalizing Dischord with its impressive debut, No Kill No Beep Beep, Q And Not U has lost a key member in its bassist, Mathieu Bourlique, and consequently morphed into a slightly unrecognizable beast. This new beast takes a while to find its footing, but once it does the old days are almost forgotten. Q And Not U has pushed its erratic post-punk formula to its creative limits and successfully discovered a truly unique sound. Incorporating more polyrhythmic and jazzy structures into its sound has given Q And Not U the new lease on life that a band requires after losing a key member.

Different Damage may surprise Q And Not U's core fan base, as it emphasizes melody over brash antagonism. Drummer John Davis shows he's not unfamiliar with the output of the Thrill Jockey label, sputtering away on his snare like John McEntire. Singer Chris Richards is fearless in his quest for melody, even at the risk of alienating fans of the band's harsher moments. The opener "Soft Pyramids" is the most shocking moment of the album. I couldn't believe it was the same band that produced No Kill No Beep Beep. Richards coyly spells the song's title in a double-tracked harmony with himself and proceeds to coo his way through the strangest pop song on a Dischord release in over a decade.

Things return to slightly familiar territory by the second song, "So Many Animals Call." In addition to the splintering, herky-jerky guitars the band employs infectious, almost danceable grooves in an aggressive and driving display. It's undeniably catchy even with deliberately atavistic noise effects lurking in the background. The soft, clean guitars and slightly feminine vocal melody of "Air Conditions" sustains itself through quick, quirky rhythms and warm chord structures that threaten to rock but never do. "Black Plastic Bag" is the first time the band revisits its previous sound. Gang Of Four-ish guitars clang beneath Richards' frantic scream as Davis pummels his kit.

Trading attitude for substance is the overriding strength of Different Damage. There's far less punk rock posturing than on No Kill No Beep Beep much to the benefit of the songwriting. The band actually explores its strengths with unflinching confidence. It doesn't always work, but when it does the music shines, as on the testosterone charged "Meet Me In The Pocket", perhaps the most straightforward rock song on the album. The thudding low end and flashy affected behavior of "This Are Flashes" contradicts what I've just said, straining for style over substance, but it's not the standard. The far too brief punk experiment "Everybody Ruins" is a highlight with its growling intensity and frenzied energy.

The loose, trippy "Snow Patterns" throws the type of curveball that the opener does, but it's less shocking the second time around, though equally effective. Richards' double-tracked vocals are soothing and serene as he lobs out angular verse: "crowds they heat me with deceit the weather has been hiding secret messages in snow, little fortunes so well hidden in the snow, just waiting in the snow." Davis tests his quickness and endurance on the raucous "When The Lines Go Down", which uses the high-hat to great effect. Thankfully, the indulgent "O'No" is only a minute long, saved by the dark arpeggios of "No Damage Nocturne." "Recreation Myth" ends Different Damage on an abrasive yet emotional note.

Q And Not U proves itself as much more than a post-punk one trick pony on Different Damage. The energy and excitement of its earlier incarnation is still present, but the music reveals more depth to its bag of tricks. Different Damage is an artsy record, requiring more attention than flashy, frivolous aggression typically does. The result may alienate some fans, but the awkward growth spurt should prove more rewarding in the end.

The Rapture, Out Of The Races And Onto The Tracks (Sub Pop)

The Rapture - Out Of The Races And Onto The Tracks The Rapture
Out Of The Races And Onto The Tracks
Sub Pop
By: Eric Greenwood

The title track of this EP is a mind blowing, neo-post-punk, dance rock fest that I cannot stop listening to no matter how hard I try. The obligatory Gang Of Four reference must be made, but it's so much more than that. Throw in some Pixies, the guitar sound from Bauhaus' "A God In An Alcove", and three decades of garage rock and let the dancing begin. The Rapture's methods are unorthodox and technically inaccurate to say the least; it's music is loose, jittery, spastic and completely unhinged, wrought with mistakes and missteps, but it's the most infectious combination of ranting vocals, clanging guitars, and reckless drumming I've heard in years.

Without the title track this EP would sink like a stone. But just sharing space on the same disc makes the other songs seem more important than they are. "Modern Romance" strays from the title track's disjointed momentum, replacing it with wildly abrasive guitar thrashing that is so shrill it sounds like metal trashcan tops being clanged together. The driving, propulsive bass doesn't seem to have any direction in mind, and the vocals lack the utter insanity of its immediate predecessor. "Caravan" really sounds like the Pixies, vocally, though. Luke Jenner's manic vocalizations lend just the right air of madness to the tightly wound mayhem that unfurls. It's relentless, unmelodic, and rocking all the same.

"The Jam" is practically unlistenable noise. A searing wall of trill feedback underscores stubbornly digressing rhythms. Jenner tries to pull a chorus out of this antagonistic racket, but it's futile. "The Pop Song" is only half-sarcastic in its title. The Rapture knows how to be accessible when it wants to, but looking into the crowd and seeing heads bobbing in unison must irk it to no end because the music is constantly trying to throw you off its trail. Jenner's vocals are strained and piercing, but they sound absolutely nuts, which is a glorious thing to behold. "Confrontation" caps off the EP with another dose of sheer lunacy. Jenner's high-pitched wail caterwauls amongst forceful, repetitive grooves. There's not a hook in sight, but it's still a sound that promises great things.

Nirvana, S/t (Geffen)

Nirvana - S/t Nirvana
S/t
Geffen
By: Eric Greenwood

Despite the legal train wreck impeding its release, this Nirvana retrospective kind of gets the blood flowing again. Regardless of whether you give Kurt Cobain's songwriting an ounce of credit or not, Nirvana changed the course of music, which sounds utterly bombastic and over the top, but it's true. What is up for debate, though, is whether the course of music changed for the better. I argue that it did not, but that has nothing to do with my opinion of Nirvana. It reflects more on the nature of the music business and how unflattering mimicry can be when it's watered down to the point that it's unrecognizable.

Thankfully, this black-packaged, no frills, self-titled compilation lets the music speak for itself. In my estimation, Kurt Cobain knew how to write a catchy hook. He once said that everything comes back to melody because it's the most palatable thing to the human ear. Cobain also possessed a voice that, when combined with his dejected style of songwriting, created something extraordinary. It was the vocal equivalent of a Jeckyll and Hyde persona. Jumping from a whisper to a scream has become as ubiquitous as the power chord in the years since Cobain's death, as every scene from commercial alternative rock to emo to hardcore has co-opted his trade-mark style, but when Nirvana hit the mainstream such extreme vocal histrionics were only to be found in the dregs of underground punk and on obscure indie records.

Of course, Cobain stole his vocal tricks from underground idols like Black Francis and Steve Albini, but he made them work in new and unintentionally accessible ways, which his idols had been unable or unwilling to do. There's a big difference between screaming and screaming in tune, and by the time Nirvana recorded Nevermind, Cobain had mastered the latter. When Nirvana burst onto the scene in the fall of 1991, it was like a punch in the gut that nobody saw coming. Everything else just seemed silly and pointless by comparison. It's true that all hair metal died the moment "Smells Like Teen Spirit" premiered on MTV. Axl Rose suddenly seemed like a pansy. I listened to nothing but Nevermind for at least six months straight. It was raw and angry and melodic all at once, and it permanently changed the way I listened to music.

Of course, I can't listen to Nevermind the way I did when it was new. It doesn't pack the same punch. Nothing could after that much exposure. It sounds way too produced and slick to me now. Maybe, I've just heard it too many times. It's more likely that I'm just too accustomed to the dynamic that Nirvana imbedded into popular culture. It's like listening to the Sex Pistols in 2002- it sounds like bad bar rock, but at the time of its release it was the craziest thing ever, so you have to put it in context. I can still appreciate the songs on Nevermind, though, because the melodies are what make them special. That's where Cobain's true talent reigned supreme. Nirvana's noisier, weirder songs – like the ones that comprised Incesticide – sound too disjointed, forced even. Cobain was a fish out of water when he tried to be weird, but when he let his ear for melody do the work, everything just gelled.

This compilation seems way too short- unrepresentative of what Nirvana was about, but it gets the point across well enough. The one new song, "You Know You're Right", is the only reason to make the purchase if you have all the studio albums. As everyone knows by now, it was the last song the band recorded together just months before Cobain blew his own face off with a shotgun. It embodies the same extreme soft/loud dynamic that Nirvana had perfected even before "Smells Like Teen Spirit" broke, but it sounds just as tense and vital as anything the band ever recorded. Lyrically, Cobain employs his usual set of dour phrases full of self-mockery and sarcasm: "things have never been so swell/and I have never felt so well…pain." But he also takes a jab at his wife, the malignant Courtney Love: "nothin’ really bothers her/she just wants to love herself", which may explain why she delayed its release for so long.

The rest of the compilation runs through the hits in a strangely digitized and remastered format that makes me long for the original masters. From the sensitive yearning of "About A Girl" to the child-like nostalgia of "Sliver", it's clear that no matter the subject, Cobain never sounded like a faker. His ability to put his confusion and frustration across so succinctly is what fuels the zeitgeist even to this day (forgive me for using the word "zeitgeist"; I typically want to punch people who use it, but I couldn't think of a more appropriate substitute). The singles from Nevermind wash by me without effect, stripped of all impact; they just make me want to hear the lesser-known (by comparison) album tracks like "Lounge Act" and "On A Plain." "Been A Son" is the only random surprise. It's an average Nirvana song in the midst of such selective company, but it stands out, perhaps, for its simplicity and lyrical empathy (Cobain liked to put forth the notion that he was freakishly anti-male, often writing from a victimized woman's perspective).

Nirvana is comprised of practically one half of Nevermind and one half of In Utero- its two most commercially successful albums, which makes Nirvana an inessential purchase for fans. It's merely a convenient mix, but not one any fan would make. As an introduction it serves as a glossy Cliff's Notes. The omissions are egregious. Bleach is horribly ignored, apart from the sappy "About A Girl", as are most of the band's classic b-sides like "Aneurysm" and "Dive." The songs off In Utero sound strikingly fresh and alive, as though the dust has yet to settle- much more so than anything off Nevermind, particularly "Pennyroyal Tea", but still Nirvana, the compilation, will leave you wanting. So the wise, economical fan would download "You Know You're Right" and dust off the original albums instead of investing in this thinly veiled cash cow.