Faun Fables, The Transit Rider (Drag City)

Faun Fables - The Transit Rider Faun Fables
The Transit Rider
Drag City
By: Eric Greenwood

Dawn McCarthy's fetishistic interpretation of long-forgotten British folk music is creepy beyond what mere words can express without auditory aids. Her two previous Drag City records, Family Album and Early Song, respectively, both revel in archetypal atmospheric folk, which were far weirder than they were engaging.

With a controlled, cold, and distant voice, McCarthy's cadence is slightly reminiscent of Sinead O’Connor's but without the histrionics or the anger. Admittedly, I'm not an expert in mystic folk musings or paegan poetry, but this forthcoming soundtrack to McCarthy's theatric piece, The Transit Rider, under her stage name, Faun Fables, sounds like it could have been easily employed in Marc Singer's Beastmaster series, replete with hooded, burlap capes, torches and lots of owls. Not to make light of McCarthy's art or anything, but a little subtle humor might break up the tension a bit because McCarthy is just a tad too serious. Add to that the fact that Sleepy Time Gorilla Museum's Nils Frykdahl lends his multi-instrumental talents as well as his even freakier baritone (the latter of which, I've decided, sounds far too much like that guy in Crash Test Dummies to take too seriously). Needless to say, this is an odd campfire tale, even if it is ostensibly (as her biography pretentiously states) about the New York City subway system “in all its repetitious and transient glory.”

Blackalicious, Interview (Anti)

Blackalicious - Interview Blackalicious
By: Eric Greenwood

Groundbreaking and influential West Coast hip hop duo, Blackalicious, passed through the University of South Carolina's campus recently for a show in the student union, supporting its third full-length, The Craft, on Epitaph subsidiary, Anti- records. I had the pleasure of speaking to the musical half of the equation, virtuoso producer, Chief Xcel, in between stops on the current tour.

DB: Is your positivity and almost spiritual intellectualism a reaction to much of hip hop’s inherent negativism, or is that simply a natural calling for both you and Gift of Gab?

CHIEF XCEL: We don't set out to make anything spiritual or positive; the music just reflects who we are as people. We're just trying to make music as honest as we can possibly make it, you know? It's not a reaction to anything. It's much deeper and more complex than that. I mean, we're as much influenced by De La Soul as we are N.W.A. and Ice-T. We have good days and bad days just like anyone else, but there's no mantra or agenda or anything we're trying to promote.

DB: In the past, your attitude towards independent labels vs. major labels has been a matter of semantics- that the label is merely a vehicle for the music, so whether it’s big or small is of little consequence. Has your attitude changed having experienced both sides now?

CHIEF XCEL: No, I think it's still pretty much the same. There are aspects…advantages and disadvantages to both, you know? On the major side, you have more money and more resources to promote your records. On the independent side, there's less bureaucracy to deal with but more creative control, so it's just up to you to work with the tools you have before you. I think, at the end of the day, the industry is changing so much because of technology, and you have to build your fan base brick by brick, person by person. We sort of started out that way out of necessity. We just keep making the music we make and building upon our foundation of die-hard fans.

DB: On The Craft you integrated more live instrumentation into the mix, but the production is so tight it’s often hard to distinguish between the samples and the live sounds. The result seems to have pushed the songwriting in more adventurous directions. What was your goal in fleshing out the sound with more organic tones?

CHIEF XCEL: Fully realized ideas I start with a drum machine, you know what I mean…watching those ideas come to full fruition. Everything that I do revolves around never giving in to limits. In the studio I want the instruments to help tell the story. That's very important to me.

DB: With well-respected peers like Outkast crossing over into more commercial domains, while retaining critical acclaim but without watering down its cultural roots, did that widen the net for Blackalicious' potential reach in your mind? And was that something you and Gab were conscious of while creating The Craft?

CHIEF XCEL: Yeah, I mean, how could we not be conscious of it? But the minute you take that into the studio you're done. We can't put expectations on our creative process. We have to go in respective of making music at our peak. We don't even know which songs are gonna be the singles when we're writing them; that's just something we process after the fact.

DB: After the critical success of Blazing Arrow, you and Gab both set out on separate projects. How did that affect Blackalicious' perspective and forward progress once you regrouped for The Craft? I mean, you guys have been together over 14 years, which is almost twice as long as the average band, much less any current hip hop act…

CHIEF XCEL: Working with other people you find different ways of exploring the creative process, so when Gab and I get back together we have new ways to communicate. As long as you have motivation and inspiration, there's always something new to say.

Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Show Your Bones (Interscope)

Yeah Yeah Yeahs - Show Your Bones Yeah Yeah Yeahs
Show Your Bones
By: Eric Greenwood

No longer buoyed by underdog hero status, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs are poised for their first taste of disappointment. Not because their new album, Show Your Bones, is bad (it's not), but because the pressure to follow up the success of Fever to Tell forced them to become conscious of themselves in a way that destroys most bands.

Show Your Bones has very little in common with the blistering quasi-goth garage frenzy of Fever to Tell, a record that revealed a band searching for footing and stumbling upon gold along the way. Whereas, initially, Karen O's manic yelps and grunts thrust her band forward, she now seems to have given up control over to the music. This distinction doesn't diminish her talents; it simply conforms them to standards this band couldn't have lived up to in its infancy because it was too busy pulling its dress over its head.

Being overly sensitive to the demands of your audience versus the pull of pushing your art forward rarely leads to great records. The Strokes choked on album number two because they chickened out; they played it too safely and consequently derailed much their precious momentum. The Yeah Yeah Yeahs have bravely faced their fears and made a record that isn't afraid to fail, for better or worse.

The first single, "Gold Lion", doesn't even sound like the same band. It sounds more like Siouxsie and the Banshees trying on an indie rock hat that doesn't quite fit. It's still catchy as hell, weirdly alluring, and passively aggressive, as is much of the album. Karen O's voice cuts through the mix like a laser beam, but her hooks are sure slow to grow. Too much time in the studio has sapped much of the band's fire. Fans of the reckless spontaneity of Fever to Tell will be frustrated by Show Your Bones' calculated moves. It sounds overcooked, over-thought, and overly ambitious, but such growing pains are preferable to pandering.

I Love You But I’ve Chosen Darkness, Fear Is On Our Side (Secretly Canadian)

I Love You But I've Chosen Darkness - Fear Is On Our Side I Love You But I've Chosen Darkness
Fear Is On Our Side
Secretly Canadian
By: Michael Jones

I've been hearing about the wonders of Austin, Texas' music scene for
years – The Butthole Surfers in the late '80's and an ill-conceived
shoegaze/psychedelic movement in the mid-'90's did little to convince me that anything noteworthy came from this city. That is, until …And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead, Spoon, and I Love You But I Have Chosen Darkness showed that Austin's music scene was being backed by music as epic as the hype people were laying down.

On their last release, the stunning "According to Plan" 12-inch , I Love You But I've Chosen Darkness exorcized all traces of the indie-pop of its 2003 self-titled debut EP in favor of brooding epics and finally began penning songs worthy of their portentous name. On their first full-length LP, they show great promise, but also fall victim to the uncertainty of a band drastically altering their sound and trying too hard to make grandiose statements.

Having scrapped the initial sessions for this album, the band reconvened with Ministry's Paul Barker producing. The union has mixed results: Barker brings his pristine sonics to the proceedings, but the band's sometimes-lackluster performances and overwrought compositions dull the impact. Take the album's opener, "The Ghost," an amazing song that builds towards what should have been a memorable climax but fails to deliver in the crucial moment. Imagine all the tension of Slint's "Good Morning, Captain" without the cathartic release. I imagine it slays live, though. Well, if those distorted guitars have the proper volume behind them and singer Christian Goyer projects the wonderfully macabre lyrics "I think about how I miss you/and how I will remain…" as if he were actually the dearly departed ghost of the song's title.

I praised the band's particular arranging skills in my former review, but over the course of an album it seems as if they are going out of their way to avoid standard song structures. Sometimes this works; sometimes it doesn't: intros go on too long and offer little payoff when the choruses finally kick in; lyrical phrases are repeated ad nauseam when that space could've been used to expand the narrative; genius riffs and phrases that should be a focal point are forgotten after a few repetitions and moody atmosphere takes precedence over actual hooks.

The album does succeed in most ways, however. The reworking of "According to Plan" is tougher and thicker than the minimalist 12-inch version. "Lights" is – dare I say it – almost perky in an album of dirges and the final third of the album, particularly the final number, the mind-boggling "If It Was Me”, is astounding. When the band plays to its strengths, it is unstoppable and worthy of every last bit of hype and expectation that has been directed toward them since their debut. The members all display a mastery of their respective instruments, and have the ambition and talent to make great records. But perhaps they should consider doing it one EP at a time.

Band Of Horses, Everything All The TIme (Sub Pop)

Band Of Horses - Everything All The TIme Band Of Horses
Everything All The TIme
Sub Pop
By: Eric Greenwood

Band of Horses' jangly twang is borne of heartache and hope- a wistful, atmospheric blend of weathered country blues and insurgent indie rock. Columbia native Ben Bridwell's voice is slathered in reverb, and it floats above a den of shimmering guitars. Neil Young has met Mr. Bridwell's turntable on more than one occasion, but the influence is proudly displayed, not smugly intoned. His soporific songs alternate between a mid-tempo sway and a slow, gritty rock. Both he and Matt Brooke are alumni of Seattle, Washington's Carissa's Weird (sic), whose fetishistic sad-core met an untimely end in 2003, allowing the duo to kick up the beats per minute, if only slightly.

Everything All the Time is an astoundingly seductive debut. Its elements will not be unfamiliar to fans of The Beach Boys, Palace Brothers, the aforementioned Neil Young, or even R.E.M, but Band of Horses manages to sidestep the trappings of regurgitation by producing songs that sound genuinely inspired. The chimey, arpeggiated undulation of the shrewdly-titled "The First Song" allows Bridwell to showcase his impossibly high-end, crystalline voice, which pushes the languorous music to peaks and valleys it otherwise wouldn't reach.

There's just enough clanging dissonance in "Wicked Grill" to offset the infectiousness of Bridwell's cadence. The music is certainly catchy, but not in a this-is-the-chorus kind of way. The arrangements are more spread out; the hooks are more subtle. Once the heartbreaking majesty of "The Funeral" kicks in you're a goner. It's one of those songs that just floors you the moment the guitars surge. Chills, hair standing on end, the works. It's a passive aggressive anthem of stoicism and restraint with lyrics that wield as much power as the music. When Bridwell ekes out "at every occasion I am ready for the funeral", his voice betrays a level of insight you just can't fake.

Prince, 3121 (Universal)

Prince - 3121 Prince
By: Eric Greenwood

Prince's last great, forward thinking, and groundbreaking record was in 1988, and Prince posed nude for the cover. He had the world eating out of his hand, awaiting his every move. At the time, Lovesexy seemed like a bit of a letdown, having been burdened with following the brilliance of his master opus, Sign 'O' the Times, but it was still the weirdest music on Top 40 radio by a long shot.

The intervening 18 years have been bumpy to say the least, and, if we're going to be honest, nothing has come close to touching Prince's 80's heyday. Sure, there have been hints of greatness along the way. The Gold Experience was better than decent. Emancipation had its moments, too, but a triple album? I don't think anyone has ever pulled off one in the history of rock 'n' roll. The chinks in Prince's armor started to deepen the moment "Batdance" fell off the charts.

Prince used to be a mysterious master in the studio- an eccentric purple sprite in heels who could out-write and out-play all of his pop contemporaries, Prince had that rare coup of critical acclaim and worldwide pop superstardom. Since his "emancipation" from Warner Bros. in the mid-90's, Prince has saturated his fledgling market with a mixed bag of undercooked pop leftover from the vaults, dilettantish jazz, new age religiosity, and retread funk.

In 2004 Prince sold over 2 million copies of his self-purported come back album, Musicology, by cleverly bundling his new album with ticket prices for his sold out tour that focused mainly on his indelible hits. While Musicology was a valiant effort to re-establish Prince as the master of his pop, soul, and funk domains, it merely made critics and fans yearn for the real draw of that tour: the hits.

No one can touch Prince in concert, but these days he's got competition in the studio, namely from disciples like Outkast and Timbaland, who take Prince's past fearless studio experimentation and continue to break new ground. 3121 may be funkier, edgier, and dancier than Musicology, but it still doesn't push the envelope on a level that would constitute a true return to form. The man could probably never duplicate a run like he had in the 80's. It's a near impossible feat, and as Fitzgerald once famously said "there are no second acts in American lives." Evidently, Prince is no exception.

The sparse sexual overtones of "Black Sweat" recall "Kiss"'s wild bravado, but it's more of a quaint or nostalgic homage than an extension of a good idea. The synth-happy "Lolita" evokes the jubilance of Dirty Mind's infectious singles, but not even Prince can re-write history. And try as he might to convince us otherwise, God ain't sexy. The ladies don't want to dance, Prince, they want you to get nasty again.

Mogwai, Mr. Beast (Matador)

Mogwai - Mr. Beast Mogwai
Mr. Beast
By: Eric Greenwood

Mogwai's crash course in post-rock noise is a blistering jolt even to the most jaded of ears. On its fifth album, Mr. Beast, the band sounds singularly focused on re-discovering its dynamic roots, adding subtle flourishes along the way to avoid any self-referential mockery, and the result is decidedly retro for this typically forward-thinking Scottish quartet.

The piano-laced "Auto-Rock" is a driving dirge, building upon a simple, mournful phrase, twittering electronics, and a booming percussive thrust. The guitars weave in, layer upon layer, until the cacophony couldn't possibly be any louder. The cymbals surge in a clanging sheet of noise, but we quickly learn it's all a tease, as there's no pay-off or climax. Bastards.

The arpeggiated riffage of "Glasgow Mega-Snake" returns to vintage Mogwai, though, in heaving, heavy bursts of noise that ebb and flow in a lumbering, heavy-lidded sway. In the loud-is-more-but-louder-is-most spirit, the song climaxes repeatedly, dipping in and out of a soft/loud pattern, and ratcheting up the volume to ear-bleeding doses. Yessss.

Seemingly out of nowhere, Mogwai veers hard left into Western-tinged guitar balladry on "Acid Food", replete with vocoder, over-driven drum machines, and, believe it or not, pedal steel overdubs. It's gorgeously alluring in its simplicity and atmospheric effect, and shows that the band eschews stagnation as much as it aches to blow your hair back with sheer volume.

The post-rock genre has dug itself into a pretty confining hole over the last decade. Fewer and fewer bands even bother with the whole post-Slint schtick any more, which is a relief since barely any could actually pull it off with any panache. But Mogwai manages to balance its return to its roots with an ear for change. Mr. Beast isn't Mogwai's most challenging or daring record, but it might be its most beautiful or powerful.