Kings Of Leon, Aha Shake Heartbreak (RCA)

Kings Of Leon - Aha Shake Heartbreak Kings Of Leon
Aha Shake Heartbreak
RCA
By: Eric Greenwood

As an avid despiser of "southern rock" and pretty much anything that holds onto the south as the root of its identity, I was skeptical of Kings of Leon's schtick from the get go. Ostensibly from Nashville (yet none of my friends deeply involved in the Nashville music scene had ever even heard of them before they were signed), Kings of Leon gained prominence in the hyperbolic British press, which only provided me with another reason to mistrust this band's legitimacy.

This batch of shaggy haired, youthful know-nothings from the backwoods of Tennessee, Kings of Leon, played adequate country rock with a hint of southern twang and not an ounce of irony on its debut, Youth and Young Manhood. But the record did little to spark my interest above mere novelty. I chalked them up to a post-Strokes record company signing frenzy and forgot about them utterly- bad mustaches, mullet-haircuts and all.

When I first heard Aha Shake Heartbreak, the band's sophomore effort, I lamented the painful title. What is it with this band and its linguistically challenged titles? I quickly realized that the titles actually correlated well with the music. Random, yet perversely insightful, Kings of Leon's music sounds like the work of idiot savants. Caleb Followill's impossibly unintelligible drawl slurs lazily through the most stilted and awkward verse, yet there are flashes of enigmatic brilliance the average songwriter would likely never stumble upon.

The sublimely infectious single, "The Bucket", still carries with it the weight of the Strokes' limited musical influence with its repetitive and simplistic indie rock guitars, but it's Followill's distinctive voice that edges the song above the status quo. His inflection reeks of heartache and genuine longing, and his harmonizing with his brothers is both pristine and affecting. I was bowled over to hear it on commercial alternative radio, but it's so clearly superior to the dreck that swamps the Budweiser-underwritten airwaves that it feels like a sucker-punch in the gut.

The idea that this band is some sort of manufactured product lessens with every song on Aha Shake Heartbreak, particularly on the neo-psychedelic "Milk" and the CCR-inspired "Day Old Blues." Followill's ludicrous musings coupled with his band's exaggerated doe-eyed obliviousness to current musical trends lends a level of authenticity to the tangential country bends. Being sons (and one cousin) of a preacher man doesn't hurt the southern gothic mystique, either. The lyrical terrain is insultingly common (girls, life on the road, girls), yet the band has such an idiosyncratic method of expression that makes these everyday themes sound – at least over the course of each song – radically inspired.

The White Stripes, Get Behind Me Satan (V2)

The White Stripes - Get Behind Me Satan The White Stripes
Get Behind Me Satan
V2
By: Eric Greenwood

I just saw The White Stripes for the first time at Music Midtown in Atlanta a few weeks ago. Admittedly, it wasn't the best environment to see a band. Everyone knows that festivals are awful concert experiences, so my expectations were low. And the sea of douche bags trying to mosh and crowd surf to The White Stripes was an embarrassing situation to be in for sure, but it was the only date the band had booked in 2005 (at the time). So, I sucked it up and stood in the rain while Jack and Meg tore through their inimitable schtick, oblivious to the boneheaded minions cheering them on.

Jack hops from instrument to instrument like a man possessed when he performs, constantly providing Meg with specific visual cues as to how to follow his unpredictable lead. He improvises like a true showman, his voice sputtering and caterwauling from note to note as Meg holds down her bare bones beats with nary a fill in sight. Meg must hate drum rolls because I've never heard her do anything even remotely close to one. Actually, scratch that- Jack must hate them because watching this duo perform live it's obvious who calls the shots.

The band culled its setlist primarily from its fifth and newest album, Get Behind Me Satan. I'd only heard the new record once or twice before the show, and while I knew I was into the single "Blue Orchid", the rest of the album hadn't quite won me over yet. Eschewing the blistering blues-soaked guitar that dominated Elephant, Jack White now seems to favor the piano, which he plays with just as much fanaticism. The cacophonous stomp has tapered slightly. It's not a mellowing out so much as a deliberate change of pace. Let's just say White sounds more like Jerry Lee Lewis than Jimmy Page on this record.

The aforementioned first single, "Blue Orchid", is like nothing else on Get Behind Me Satan. White's guitar sounds shellacked and processed as his voice reaches up to an aggressive falsetto. I realize "aggressive falsetto" is not something you hear every day since falsettos are recessive by nature (unless you count Robert Plant), but he pulls it off with the help of some clever backing tracks. It's a foot-stomper of a song, and Meg rocks it out in her Bam Bam Flintstone style, bashing her ride cymbal with reckless abandon.

The eerily seductive marimbas that open "The Nurse" make way for White's goth-chill lyrics. It's an unexpected detour from the White Stripes' playbook, to say the least. The random bursts of guitar and drums are jarring, as White tries to maintain a creepy calm. It takes a few listens, but the melody is haunting and strangely alluring. The chirpy "My Doorbell" switches gears again and is as catchy as they come. The hook is so simple and memorable that it's hard to imagine that no one thought of it before now. White pounds his piano and repeats the chorus ad nauseum. It'd be a sugary throwaway if it weren't so damn good.

Jack White's uncanny ability to make the hackneyed ballad feel like a new art form transforms "Forever for Her (Is Over for Me)" into a timeless composition. White is as clever with the words as he is with melding his voice to suit certain moods. Even when the emotion is affected, it still hits home. The childlike excitement of the country sing-along "Little Ghost" is palpable. White's voice squeaks out the words with convincing naïveté. Surprisingly, only when the band covers familiar terrain, as on the rollicking "Instinct Blues", does Get Behind Me Satan sound less than groundbreaking.

Finally, White cracks his guitar into shape on "Red Rain." It's a moody, caustic showdown with White attacking his guitar with fiery aplomb. The artistic jump from Elephant to Get Behind Me Satan is difficult to swallow in one sitting. The album honestly sounds like a heap of throwaways the first few listens. The fact that it was recorded in just two weeks doesn't help that lackluster air, either. It isn't until you've given it your full attention that the album starts to reveal its true depth and worth with songs that stick to your bones. Jack and Meg have calculatedly avoided complacency- a move that often backfires in lesser hands and for lesser bands, but The White Stripes prove that they are stars in the classic sense and above anybody else’s trends.

The Evens, The Evens (Dischord)

The Evens - The Evens The Evens
The Evens
Dischord
By: Eric Greenwood

Despite his intimidating pedigree in counter-culture music, Ian Mackaye is very easy to talk to. There was no awkwardness in my recent telephone conversation with the punk rock icon. Mackaye's eagerness and passion to discuss music is palpable. He returned every question I asked him with thoughtful, in-depth responses- never sounding bored or even bothered that he probably has to repeat the same answers more than he'd like to. In that sense, he'd have every right to want to get off the phone as quickly as possible with another anonymous interview. But like his entire 20-year-plus career, Ian Mackaye's outlook is contrary to what you might expect from an underground legend.

With Fugazi once again on indefinite hiatus, Mackaye has slowly ventured into new territory with former Warmers' drummer Amy Farina. At first, Mackaye said he and Farina had no intention of starting a band; the goal was simply to get together and play some music to kill the down time. He and Farina had been friends for years, so naturally the idea to experiment with some new ideas eventually resulted in a full-fledged band or duo, rather, called The Evens- a minimalist ensemble with skeletal song structures (similar to Mackaye's guitar demos on Fugazi's Instrument soundtrack) mixed with upbeat male/female vocal harmonies and unsurprisingly activist lyrics.

I asked Mackaye if the stripped down approach were a conscious decision from the beginning, and he pointed out the obvious fact that "with only two people things are inherently minimal." Touché. But then he admitted that, yes, he and Farina wanted to avoid the trappings of any sort of "rock music context", so the desire to keep the amplification down was indeed calculated. Mackaye was quick to rebuff any idea that he had an agenda, however, saying "I wanted to make songs that sounded good to me. I'm 43 years old- this is where I am now."

I was only half-surprised to learn that Mackaye hasn't listened to commercial radio in over two decades, so he's willfully oblivious to anything even remotely trendy. He reads the newspaper, so he knows the names like Coldplay or Oasis, but he wouldn't know an Oasis song if it "bit him in the ass." To discover new music, Mackaye prefers word of mouth and chatting up independent record store clerks for recommendations rather than obvious commercial outlets like MTV2. He keeps his ear to the ground and surrounds himself with people who are as passionate about educating themselves musically as he is.

Even after a relative lifetime in the music business experiencing both sides (running the perennially successful D.C. staple, Dischord Records, and playing in influential bands like Minor Threat and Fugazi) Mackaye is nowhere near retirement. He might be cynical about the corporate muscles that churn out shellacked versions of ideas he probably initiated (see Nike's new "Major Threat" campaign), but he hasn't given up on the art form itself. "New ideas don't have an audience", he intones in an unintentionally pedantic manner, which is a mantra that seems to serve as his inspiration to push forward. He's not at all bitter about his ideas being ripped off in contexts he himself would never venture: "Music is a gift that can be cared for and given or polished and sold." Fair enough.

The Evens aren't setting out to reinvent the wheel. Mackaye just wants to write good songs that reveal a dimension of his songwriting ability that he's unable to showcase within the confines of Fugazi. On this record Mackaye utilizes his latent singing voice in lieu of the gruff yell that has become his patented means of expression for decades. He tunefully harmonizes with Farina, who has an affecting voice of her own that pierces the space between the baritone guitar notes. With lower amplification and quieter parts, Mackaye has learned that the tension can be just as high without ear-splitting noise. Volume doesn't always dictate intensity. The politics are predictable and benign with messages as ape-simple as "war is bad" and "D.C. cops aren't always polite." But despite the preaching to the choir aspect (how many right-wingers are going to curl up with an album featuring Ian Mackaye?), The Evens debut is refreshing and powerful and shows that Ian Mackaye is far from running out of steam.

The Blood Brothers, Crimes (V2)

The Blood Brothers - Crimes The Blood Brothers
Crimes
V2
By: Eric Greenwood

Depending on your perspective, The Blood Brothers are either musical terrorists or the punk equivalent of Terrance and Phillip. It's a tough call. But, then again, any band that polarizes on extreme levels is doing something right. It's better to be either loved or hated than not thought of at all.

For eight years, The Blood Brothers have been pushing the boundaries of punk from the inside out. Wearing its influences proudly on its collective sleeve, the band combined a love for punk staples like The Damned and Dead Kennedys with the noisier assault of the San Diego noise rock scene led by Gravity Records' artists like Angel Hair and Mohinder.

Honing its skills for several years, The Blood Brothers didn't debut in album form until 2000's This Adultery Is Ripe. That album's destructive intensity foreshadowed how abrasive and shocking the band would become. With relentless energy and verve, The Blood Brothers ripped the entrails out of punk's boneheaded playbook with disjointed, shrill guitars and a pair of blood curdling screams, adding its own twisted sensibility and impressive arsenal of unorthodox melodies and hooks.

By 2002's March on Electric Children, The Blood Brothers had taken its shriek show to even more radical depths by spazzing and screeching the melodies and rhythms into your skull via clever wordplay and memorable refrains. Lyrically, The Blood Brothers avoided the trappings of emo by hurling disdain and mockery outside of its own frame of reference. The politics of personal despair are overlooked in favor of assaults on the media, exploitation, and politics.

Decrypting the band's message is no easy task, however. The dual-screaming is an assault on the senses above and beyond the typical hardcore growl, especially since the band uses screaming in untraditional ways. Instead of reserving a full-throated rasp to express rage like most bands, The Blood Brothers deconstruct predictable tension by screaming – whether the music deems it necessary or not – to shift the dynamics within songs just like any instrument would.

I asked one of the vocalists, Jordan Billie, if he felt the screaming pushed would-be fans away, and he said, "It's definitely abrasive. The words are hard to understand, so, yeah, I can see how it might be difficult for the uninitiated." I also asked how it was possible to tour and maintain a voice after such relentless abuse. Billie dismissed it as anything too serious, saying that quitting smoking has helped the most.

Being rooted in punk is a ball and chain for most evolving bands because typically the abrasiveness tapers with age, and the fans that were there from the beginning cry sell out the moment things start to slow down. But Billie doesn't fear any such transition. I asked if he could see the band together ten years from now, and he immediately said that "there's no reason to stop as long as we are pushing ourselves creatively, and the ideas are still good."

After hooking up with nu-metal guru Ross Robinson for its sonically ferocious yet borderline grating Burn, Piano Island, Burn album in 2003, The Blood Brothers faced a new level of commercial exposure. Billie denied any pressure or concerted effort to cater to any sort of commercial medium now that the band is on a subsidiary of Virgin Records, and the band's latest, Crimes, certainly defends that stance.

Heavier on the politics this time around, Crimes lashes out at the Bush administration in typically cryptic and mocking abrasiveness, specifically on "My First Kiss at the Public Execution." Crimes indulges more hooks, computer noises, melodies, and actual singing than anything preceding it, specifically on "Teen Heat." The dual-screaming is still a constant, as are the herky-jerky guitars and spastic changes ("Trash Flavored Trash"). The tangential musical interludes erupt into ferocious walls of noise like carnival music on crack. Sarcy nods to dance-punk are cleverly disguised by metal-edged clamor, and there's no denying this band's prowess. Crimes is a mass of contradictions that are scary and hummable; you'll either be dancing in an epileptic fit or curled up in the fetal position.

Spoon, Gimme Fiction (Merge)

Spoon - Gimme Fiction Spoon
Gimme Fiction
Merge
By: Eric Greenwood

Britt Daniel’s minimalist hooks and snarling vocals (think Elvis Costello without the pomposity) have evolved past the imitative on to the inventive on its close to perfect, fifth album Gimme Fiction, which drops some of the dilettantish electronics for a more tribal yet eclectic rock punch.

In its early years, Spoon struggled with mimicking idols from the abrasiveness of Pixies (A Series of Sneaks) to the muffled indie rock bombast of Guided By Voices (Soft Effects). After an abysmal major label experience with Elektra Records, Spoon bounced back on Merge with Girls Can Tell- the touchstone album for Spoon's rapid ascendancy to indie rock darlings. Every single song worked its way into your subconscious, despite Daniel's often-ambiguous lyrical refrains.

On Kill the Moonlight, Daniel's stark minimalism hit its stride, incorporating electronic experimentation, tons of reverb, and even a human beatbox. Daniel's ability to compress his emotions into such an affected delivery was risky because it straddled the line of seeming disingenuous. But pure pop sensibility was on his side in a string of unforgettable singles like "Jonathan Fisk" and "The Way We Get By."

For the first few listens of Gimme Fiction, it sounds as though Spoon has barely altered the formula. The guitars take up more space in the mix, but Daniel's pithy ability to emote with a snarl almost sounds redundant until you realize that the songs themselves are so well constructed it hardly matters.

Sure, Spoon has been here before, but such infectiousness is rarely so consistent. "The Beast and the Dragon, Adored" immediately sets the mood of the record. The threat to rock looms large, but Daniel flirtatiously fights the temptation the whole way through. "The Two Sides of Monsieur Valentine" cleverly includes strings and a parallel piano line to compliment the tight rhythmic propulsion.

Daniel's restraint behind the guitar energizes his songs. The less he plays the more you want to hear it. And, strangely, as Gimme Fiction unfurls the less it sounds akin to other Spoon records. It's definitely darker than its two predecessors, despite laid-back and jaunty acoustic numbers like "Sister Jack" and the flawless "I Summon You", and, perhaps, it suffers slightly from a lack of buoyancy evidenced in the latter. But the genius of a song like "I Turn My Camera On" could sustain an entire album in and of itself. It's a Rolling Stones homage through the eyes of Prince as interpreted by Daniel's multi-tracked killer falsetto.

Gimme Fiction isn't as showy as Kill the Moonlight or even Girls Can Tell nor is it as immediately endearing. It's the work of a band that has refined its skills as both composers and as engineers of sound, so there's more depth beneath Daniel's casual grit. Gimme Fiction may not be your favorite Spoon record right now, but give it a few years.

Sleater-Kinney, The Woods (Sub Pop)

Sleater-Kinney - The Woods Sleater-Kinney
The Woods
Sub Pop
By: Eric Greenwood

Returning from the creative slump of One Beat, Portland, Oregon's Sleater-Kinney has jumped from long-time label, Kill Rock Stars, to almost-major-label, Sub Pop, and surprisingly churned out its most explosive album in years with The Woods. Even if Corin Tucker's flailing vibrato wail grates on your nerves after a few songs, her new found appreciation for bristling, feedback-drenched, borderline psychedelic guitar interplay with bandmate Carrie Brownstein will surely make you re-evaluate the cause. Flaming Lips producer David Fridmann is responsible for nurturing the abrupt dynamic shift, but Tucker and Brownstein rise to the challenge with fistfuls of artful noise. Not exactly radio friendly, The Woods explores sonic deconstruction a la Led Zeppelin and Jimi Hendrix instead of the preciously catchy indie pop hooks you've come to expect.

It's far and away the most raucous thing the band has ever recorded and Janet Weiss' drumming pounds harder than anything since 1997's Dig Me Out. The band sounds urgent and reinvigorated on caustic barn burners "Wilderness" and the 11-plus minute epic "Let's Call It Love"- like it's making music because it has to or it will whither up and die. With an album this uncommercial and experimental, I seriously doubt you'll see Sleater-Kinney on The O.C. next season, but you will see the band on my iPod.

Oasis, Don’t Believe The Truth (Sony)

Oasis - Don't Believe The Truth Oasis
Don't Believe The Truth
Sony
By: Eric Greenwood

Idiotic album titles aside, the music is even worse (I still can't shake the grammatical fiasco of Standing on the Shoulder of Giants). Mediocre melodies ride atop formulaic songwriting on Don't Believe the Truth, Oasis' latest bombastic trash. Liam Gallagher's voice has even lost its patented sneer. Why this band is still putting out records in 2005 I have no idea. The expiration date had to have been in 1997 when the muddled, ostentatious, and lackluster Be Here Now dropped and quickly bombed. Noel Gallagher's delusional Beatle mimicry has led to adding Ringo's son, Zak Starkey, to the band's fledgling line-up (which features a far under-used Andy Bell of Ride fame). Oasis sounds beyond irrelevant on record and even more desperate in public (despite the mildly hook-ish first single, "Lyla"), as both Noel and Liam have been shooting their mouths off, slagging the new wave of British bands (Bloc Party and Franz Ferdinand, among others). It's the sad, last gasp of the brothers moron, trying desperately to deflect their utter irrelevance on those who are directly cutting into their dipping record sales.