…and You Will Know Us By The Trail Of Dead, The Secret Of Elena’s Tomb (Interscope)

…and You Will Know Us By The Trail Of Dead - The Secret Of Elena's Tomb …and You Will Know Us By The Trail Of Dead
The Secret Of Elena's Tomb
By: Eric Greenwood

Since …And You Will Know Us By The Trail Of Dead fears nothing in its path, its inherent pretentiousness is so much easier to swallow. That's the thing about pretentiousness- if one can balance it out and justify its presence, then it quickly becomes an asset, particularly when it's utilized as fervently as it is by this band. For example, …And You Will Know Us By The Trail Of Dead's artwork is over the top in terms of wonderland-crypt absurdity, right down to the font of its name, but the music props up such indulgences, making it necessary to appreciate the full effect of its visceral musical assault.

Musically, on this five-song EP, …And You Will Know Us By The Trail Of Dead only vaguely hints at what the future holds, relying mostly on its tried and true formula of layered, epic rock and raw, pounding emotion. Dipping its pen into Sonic Youth's inkwell once again, …And You Will Know Us By The Trail Of Dead respectfully borrows the meat of its riffs only to brutalize them and take them to much greater heights than its idols were ever comfortable with for fear of being labeled too "rock and roll." …And You Will Know Us By The Trail Of Dead has no such fears, of course, as the colossal battering of "Mach Schau" proves beyond reproach, though it all seems a tad too familiar.

The clean, arpeggiated opening riff of "Mach Schau" dramatically builds steam until Jason Reece's thunderous drums kick in, and the dueling guitars immediately take on new life, sounding like something lifted straight off Daydream Nation. Conrad Keely's bratty half-yell usurps his familiar scream, lending the song a sense of controlled chaos. Reese takes over vocal and guitar duties for "All Saints Day", the opening riff of which sounds eerily familiar ("Dirty Boots", anyone?), but the song quickly recesses into a dreamy passage wherein Reese shows off his carefully honed vocal chops. He's got a guttural, raspy drawl that never sounds strained or forced, and he knows exactly when to shred it. The song straddles the line of beauty and noise, siding surprisingly yet distinctly on the side of beauty in the end.

The band begins to hint at growth by "Crowning Of A Heart", a Beatles-esque, mid-tempo ballad, reminiscent of the crystalline splendor of the title track off Source Tags And Codes. Weird, effects-laden harmonies glide atop the beautifully plucked guitar interplay. It never succumbs to the threat of full throttle rock that Reece's drumming hints at throughout the song. Equally pensive though somewhat lackluster is the acoustic ballad "Counting Off The Days." Keely's strained, choirboy voice sounds genuine and affecting, particularly when he pushes past his natural range. It's such a simple, open-faced song, which is uncharacteristic for a band that is constantly trying to fuck with the conventions of the rock tradition.

The real experimentation surfaces in another Reece-led song. "Intelligence" begins with a typically clean, contemplative riff but squishy electronics quickly start to gurgle in the foreground. And is that a drum machine I hear? I dare say it is. Reece launches a growling vocal attack over a dance beat, a disco bass line, and the shrillest guitar sound since Big Black's Songs About Fucking LP. It's an unexpected direction, yet it doesn't seem wholly out of place. The borderline industrial cacophony that ensues suits Reece's angry bark perfectly. If this dilettantish piece of experimentation is any indication, …And You Will Know Us By The Trail Of Dead has many deadly tricks up its collective sleeve for its next full-length, and this EP is just the beginning.

Cursive, The Ugly Organ (Saddle Creek)

Cursive - The Ugly Organ Cursive
The Ugly Organ
Saddle Creek
By: Eric Greenwood

If all emo were as good as Cursive's The Ugly Organ, it wouldn't be the embarrassing cliché it is today. Alas, all emo is nowhere near as good as this record is, so it will have to wade through the usual minefield of prejudgments and knee-jerk insults that accompany any release in such a maligned genre. The Ugly Organ, ostensibly phase three in Cursive's run of thematic albums, stands as the band's finest to date. It's a blistering set of self-deprecation, filled with all the hate and confusion and love that any emo album worth its weight in sweaters and horn-rimmed glasses should have. In fact, this is exactly how tense, emotional rock is supposed to be played.

Tim Kasher's formula has improved by leaps and bounds. Not only has he carefully honed his songwriting skills, but he's also become a much more versatile vocalist. The post-Fugazi yell has morphed into a layered, mellifluous voice capable of matching the tension of the explosive dynamics. The Ugly Organ emits ugly sounds, like a saxophone squawking amidst the barrage of riffs or awkward, off-kilter percussive runs, but these abrasive moments are always countered with delicate interludes, revealing Cursive's unrivaled dynamic precision. Incorporating cello into the den of guitars effectively heightens the drama, as well, as Kasher addresses the listener in a santa-claus-isn't-real barrage of confessions and revelations.

The Ugly Organ is a thinly veiled sexual reference, and Kasher beats himself up for a variety of transgressions, mostly of a sexual nature. After peeling off the scabs of his divorce, which he exorcised on the equally cathartic, Cursive's Domestica, he apparently tackled hedonism head on, becoming somewhat of a sexual predator. Being a reflective emotional guy, Kasher can't help but hold a magnifying glass up to his behavior and dissect it for the benefit of his listeners. It's this overt sense of self-awareness of his position as a conduit through which people vicariously experience pain that also pervades this album's lyrical minutiae.

Every single song is an extension of the one before it, making The Ugly Organ more of a unified piece of music than merely a standard collection of songs. The bombastic swirl of post-punk and melodramatic rock of "Red Handed Slight Of Hand" is a pummeling tour de force. Its catchiness is undeniable and, barely scratching the two-minute mark, leaves you desperate for more. "Art Is Hard" is equally infectious, though the abrasiveness is less overt. The riff swings like a pendulum with the cello eclipsing even the shrillness of the guitars. Kasher's anger is never out of control; he's bottled it perfectly into short, cathartic bursts.

Even when pulling the throttle back as on "The Recluse" Kasher never fails to entertain, especially with lines like "my ego's like my stomach/it keeps shitting what I feed it." The song is orchestrated sublimely with a catchy arpeggiated guitar run backed by a languid pass on the cello. Everything drops out for the verses, except for the booming, echoing drums. There's no climax or shift in tension to speak of, but the song swells in your head, leaving a distinct imprint. The real anger kicks in half way through the album, specifically on "Butcher The Song." The riffs hammer away, rising and falling in dramatic crescendos, reminiscent of Led Zeppelin's self-indulgent mid-period, but Kasher does not allow indulgence to get the best of him. He keeps everything short and sweet and to the point. No extraneous notes. No bullshit.

The highlight of the album is "Driftwood: A Fairy Tale"- what has to be the best emo song ever written. That's a double-edged sword, I realize, but I'm operating under the hypothetical premise that emo can indeed be good. It's a devastating love song with true anguish at its core, the climax of which will make the tiny hairs on your neck stand bolt upright. Kasher's songwriting prowess is in peak form here, as he tells the tale of a Pinocchio-like boy that falls in love a girl, who only strings him along to break his heart. The way Kasher builds this tale is nothing short of genius, and when his voice rises beyond his natural range for the climax the effect is staggering.

This album is packed so full of memorable hooks and melodic runs that it immediately demands repeated listens. You won't be able to turn it off. It's practically redundant for me to say that this is easily the best album of 2003 so far. I guess, after years of eschewing anything even remotely emo, fate or karma (or whatever hippie tag you want to give it) is forcing me to eat crow- and lots of it. Next thing you know I'll be walking around with an "emo goddess" t-shirt from Hot Topic. Actually, Tim Kasher has elevated his band so far beyond some lame sub-genre tag with this album it's absurd for me – or anyone – even to try to pin it down. The Ugly Organ will go down as one of the best dramatic punk albums ever. Mark my words.

Hot Hot Heat, Make Up The Breakdown (Sub Pop)

Hot Hot Heat - Make Up The Breakdown Hot Hot Heat
Make Up The Breakdown
Sub Pop
By: Eric Greenwood

Idiosyncratic rock rarely extends as big a welcome as Hot Hot Heat's first full-length, Make Up The Breakdown…never mind that the band is from Canada. Equally dividing new wave, prog, garage, and all the eccentricities of early XTC and, perhaps even, the poppier side of The Cure, Hot Hot Heat whips out its manic, hyperactive pop with giddy enthusiasm in sharp, cookie-cutter bursts. Singer Steve Bays has one of those polarizing voices, which will either endear you to his wordy, spasmodic euphoria or send you reeling for the button that makes it all stop. I find myself stuck uncomfortably somewhere in the middle.

There's no denying the hooks, though, as saccharine as they may be. "Naked In The City Again" is infectious with its jerky guitar riffs and Bays' overexcited vocal delivery. Lyrically, Bays covers familiar themes of alienation and loss, but his approach is so unexpected that you find yourself questioning the meanings of the words themselves. He just sounds too damn happy to be complaining. By "No, Not Now" it's clear that this band knows how to write a hit song. The affected guitar intro sounds like a distorted sequencer, spilling into a disco-style jaunt that immediately pulls you into the band's tightly knit sonic patchwork.

Sure, the chorus of "Get In Or Get Out" wouldn't have been out of place on No Doubt's Tragic Kingdom with its pogo-in-place, ska-revivalist energy (all it needs are some horns to make it official), but the utter catchiness supercedes any awkward pigeonholing or premature dismissal. Hot Hot Heat flaunts its musicianship with quick, quirky flashes of brilliance amidst all the sing-along choruses. Dazzling, show-off organ interludes creep into seamless changes that Bays glosses right over without even pausing for a breath.

The frivolous sideshow step of "Bandages" is a double-edged sword with cloying cheeriness on one end and undeniable infectiousness on the other. You'll either want to sing along or punch the singer in the face. I pretty much want to do both. The ridiculously silly lyrics of "Oh, Goddamnit" are kept afloat by Bays' uncanny knack for finding the melody in any twisted word combination: "cos Saturday my tax deductions make me function like a blue collar, white collar, I don't know so I got to holler." He spits out lines like that hurriedly and flippantly (and shamefully without remorse), but his delivery is so clownish and odd that it works more often than not.

Midway though Make Up The Breakdown, I feel so pummeled and annoyed by all the quirky gaiety that I have to take a break. Stinkers like "Talk To Me, Dance With Me" and "In Cairo" prove beyond a doubt that catchy songs do not always mean good songs. Bays' perpetual cheeriness is grating. Obviously, Hot Hot Heat is something I can only ingest in small doses. Perhaps, you are different. It's clear that Hot Hot Heat is a good band, but whether Make Up The Breakdown is a good album depends on your threshold for incessant quirkiness and sugary choruses.

Peaches, The Teaches Of Peaches (Kitty-yo)

Peaches - The Teaches Of Peaches Peaches
The Teaches Of Peaches
By: Eric Greenwood

I could maybe see how this would have been slightly offensive twenty years ago when sex was still cause for alarm in pop music, but having been through Lydia Lunch and Wendy O. Williams on the underground side and Madonna and even Courtney Love on the commercial side, Peaches is hardly visually arresting or verbally shocking in the least. She's trying hard, though. Peaches wants to disturb you with her vulgarity and bluntness and androgyny, but she flaunts her sexual appetite – if you can even call it that – in the most hackneyed ways possible.

This is pure novelty. It'd be one thing if her shocktart lyrics were ensconced in music that were even remotely challenging, but her sound is the basest form of electronic pap imaginable. It's all part of the carefully calculated show, though. Peaches knows that, wink wink, her music sounds like a second rate rap act from 1987. The beats are simple, thudding, and monotonous. Her casual numbness to sex is supposed to be scandalous or maybe even erotic in some twisted way, but it comes across as forced and sad. But she's set herself up with a golden parachute so that if you don't like it, you're obviously not getting the joke.

With celebrity friends telling you to "be very scared" and opening slots on tour with …And You Will Know Us By The Trail Of Dead and Queens Of The Stone Age, Peaches has surrounded herself with people who know people who can get the word out for her. Her reputation for being an omnisexual freaktard precedes her. The word of mouth she's established is quite impressive, but without having known powerful people, there's absolutely zero chance that Peaches would have gotten much further than a cassette demo and a bad karaoke gig. It's the wave of hipsters giving Peaches credibility that blows my mind.

Her mantra, "Fuck The Pain Away", causes me barely an elongated blink. Call me jaded, but it's just not anything I haven't heard or seen before (and in far more disturbing incarnations- even on MTV, for God's sake). Honestly, Christina Aguilera frightens me much more than Peaches possibly could. And Peaches isn't even amusing in a shit-eating grin sort of way. Watching Peaches perform live didn't help shape my impression either. It was like a bad drag show with prerecorded music and a white Canadian female rapper trying to frighten me with her willingness to talk about her "titties" like they were soggy, waterlogged tennis balls.

Even if you do subscribe to The Teaches Of Peaches in theory, you wouldn't really listen to this album for pleasure, would you? It's a one-trick pony if there ever were one. Peaches' "flow" isn't exactly going to bowl you over with its smoothness, and her rhymes are not comprised of the stuff that will instill fear in the likes of Missy Elliott. So what's the appeal? Sure, there's a kitsch factor, and her fearlessness exhibits a respectful amount of bravado, I suppose. But none of that changes the fact that the music is insipid and boring, "sexually explicit lyrics" and all. Ignore the bandwagon-esque, hipster word of mouth- Peaches blows.

Ms. John Soda, No. P. or D. (Morr)

Ms. John Soda - No. P. or D. Ms. John Soda
No. P. or D.
By: Eric Greenwood

A band with a bad name can come up with the goods, occasionally, especially when said band features a member of The Notwist behind the controls. The Notwist's Neon Golden hit me harder than any other album in 2002; its mix of sparse electronics, sputtering, minimal beats and plaintive melodies gelled into one of the finest pop albums I've ever had the pleasure of being obsessed with. Ms. John Soda traverses similarly otherworldly terrain to its German kin on its debut full-length, No P. Or D. – not at the same level of staggering genius – mind you, but still very worthy of your attention.

Despite its deliberately off-putting title, No P. Or D. is immediately beguiling, as Micha Acher's glitchy experimentalism bubbles within the context of pure, unadulterated dance pop. Stefanie Bohm's voice is monochromatic, robotic even, as it presents the same bored detachment that Stereolab's Lateitia Sadier has built a career upon. The moody opener, "Technicolor", builds slowly around Acher's layered synthetics and futuristic soundbursts. Once the lazy beat kicks in, Bohm's reticent voice bends around the repetitive, polyrhythmic progression, lulling you into its hypnotic snare.

The structure of "Misco" may be lifted straight from New Order's analogue versus electronics playbook, but it gives even prime New Order a run for its money. The way the dourly melodic bass line interlaces with the simple, shuffling beats (both organic and programmed) is dead on. The bouncy undercurrent is misleading. It's one of those songs where the melody sort of languishes above a den of propulsive momentum, and this dichotomy is the formula that bands like The Smiths used to make its sulky disciples dance whilst wallowing in self-pity. In other words, it's genius.

"Go Check" drops the sullen intrigue for a more direct pop approach. Here Ms. John Soda sounds like Broadcast, losing some of its experimental edge but certainly not its knack for hooks. Bongos, overdriven keyboards, tambourines, and fuzzed out low-end lead a kitschy, retro soundtrack in which Bohm coos like a Japanese pixie circa 1964. The acoustic bass and plucking strings that open "Solid Ground" are obvious and expected tips of the hat to The Notwist. The sad piano line follows Bohm's mournful vocal line, which seems to lack the depth or character of The Notwist's Marcus Acher.

Acher's ability to layer while retaining a sparse atmosphere is best evidenced in the meandering stoicism of "By Two's", in which Bohm's ghostly whisper trickles in amongst diverging plucks and plonks. The intensity picks up in the final minute, leading up to the ominous opening notes of the driving "Unsleeping." The carefully controlled tension of the guitar and bass interplay reveals that the British post-punk trail extends even to Germany's clubs. Bohm's aloofness melds perfectly with the cold synthetics. The robotic vocal effects on "Hiding/Fading", while very Kid A, add to Acher's mystique behind the soundboard. He knows exactly when to deconstruct his pop confections, lest they start to sound predictable.

A warm organ underscores the infectious "Elusive" while Acher piles on twitching atmospherics, but it's the vocal melody that steals the spotlight. Bohm loses some of her reserve and actually involves herself in the emotion of the lyric ("looking back on failings we once made/illusion framed with games we played/we're getting back what humans took away/and now we can't recall these days"). It's by far the album's most impressive song, and as a closer – as the last hand bell rings – it leaves you wanting. In fact, No. P. Or D. is a bit of a tease in itself, but it leaves the distinct impression that Ms. John Soda is capable of – and will quite probably produce – even greater things in the future. This is a debut, after all.