They Might Be Giants, Venue Songs (Idlewild)

They Might Be Giants - Venue Songs They Might Be Giants
Venue Songs
By: Kerry M

I can still vividly recall my first introduction to the two Johns. I was at most 16 and she was most definitely in college. We were in her car running an errand for our employer and this curious song began banging from her late model factory speakers. Suddenly, and slightly out of character (and I might add without a trace of irony), she began screaming the lyrics just as one might do to a classic Violent Femmes song.

D, world destruction
Over an overture
N, do I need
Apostrophe T, need this torture?

Only it wasn't the Violent Femmes, it was this band she called TMBG and the song was Don't Let's Start and well, I can't remember her name. To this day that song is by far my favorite TMBG track and never fails to remind me of those simple days of crushes that barely outlasted Side A.

Years later, I met the Johns while they toured in support of Apollo 18 and while we briefly chatted at the merch table, I tried to recount the aforementioned anecdote regarding the older girl and the mix tape and the loud off-key singing. Of course, it didn't come out very succinctly or even vaguely coherently, but they smiled, signed my poster and politely sent me on my merry way. Unpretentious to say the least.

Suddenly, it is 2006 and Venue Songs randomly lands on my doorstep bringing back memories of adolescent innocence and strange lyrical puzzles. 2006's Venue Songs is the result of the Johns’ attempt to creatively pass the time while driving between cities while touring the US. More specifically, the songs were written for the venue they were headed towards and were played that night. Kitsch, ambitious, and admittedly a bit silly, the true hallmarks of any TMBG project.

The DVD/CD combo is comprised of 35 minutes of clips from various venues, a travelogue, bonus studio tracks, and of course bonus videos, including one video featuring everyone's favorite Hotlantan, Homestar Runner. The CD also includes all 30 venue songs, for the curious or those that simply want to relive their experience of that last TMBG show in Charleston or Farmingdale.

The fact sheet that accompanied the DVD/CD package declares that They Might Be Giants have sold over 4 million records, including 2 albums of children's songs. An impressive feat for two quirky guys who for the past 20 years have made uncompromisingly quirky music for generations of even quirkier fans.

Ana Ng and I are getting old, indeed.

Here are some streaming (quicktime) videos for your viewing pleasure.

Asbury Park
Bastard Wants to Hit Me
Damn Good Times
Los Angeles

The Stills, Without Feathers (Vice)

The Stills - Without Feathers The Stills
Without Feathers
By: Eric Greenwood

Cashing in on the Interpol bubble with an album so hermetically sealed in '80's alternative goth-lite, The Stills immediately polarized itself amidst a very critical underground. The stylish gloom, which obviously borrowed heavily from both The Cure and The Smiths, managed to resonate beyond mere idolatry, presenting something more imaginative altogether.

To follow up the calculated melancholy of Logic Will Break Your Heart, The Stills have completely abandoned any trace of its roots with an utterly bewildering sophomore album. Drummer Dave Hamelin has ditched the kit to take on lead vocals and guitar, since founding guitarist Greg Paquet departed, and the result is a re-invention so drastic even loyal fans will be forced to question their allegiance.

The title Without Feathers coyly acknowledges the departure from Logic (the cover of which depicted cascading, silvery feathers), but the music is more extreme in its defiance of its predecessor. Aborting Logic's synthetic dreaminess and succinct catchiness in favor of organic tones and a laid-back, overextended '70's vibe, The Stills sound like a completely different band. Logic's primary vocalist, Tim Fletcher, has been relegated to only a handful of tunes here, while Dave Hamelin takes charge of the songwriting, moving the band into a mush of mid-tempo meandering. And his bad habit of dragging syllables awkwardly across too many measures of music is not exactly putting the band's best foot forward.

I've listened to the record repeatedly trying to figure out exactly what went wrong because my brain can't reconcile a misstep of this magnitude. I mean, I understand not wanting to be boxed into a specific sound- especially when the particular sound The Stills made its name with is so hackneyed and overdone. So, a reinvention is perfectly understandable, but the band doesn't even play to its strengths. Where melody, mood, and technique dominated Logic, Without Feathers sinks into a tuneless no man's land. I realize that being able to hum a song isn't the sole basis upon which said song is judged, but when melody was your bread and butter and nothing else steps up to take its place, it becomes the biggest chink in your armor.

Editors, The Back Room (Fader)

Editors - The Back Room Editors
The Back Room
By: Eric Greenwood

Instead of copping the nostalgic style of its post-punk, early '80's forbearers, Editors choose simply to imitate as blatantly as possible. I suppose, for anyone who didn't grow up on Joy Division or Echo & the Bunnymen, Editors would sound refreshingly inventive amidst the more commercial fringes of alternative rock, which are still draped in the last throes of emo. But the idiosyncratic and iconic music that Editors mime here sounds disingenuous when presented without so much as a wink to acknowledge what came before.

The frustrating part is that Editors imitate so well that it's almost forgivable. Vocalist Tom Smith's sturdy baritone betrays obvious influences that I'm pained to reference again, and his band employs a stiff intensity in its singular pursuit of Interpol's sloppy seconds. If it weren't for the fact that this has been done into the ground, Editors might be onto something. But as it stands, Editors are in the wrong place at the wrong time. In a vacuum, Editors are sleek, edgy, and exciting. However, in the context of the current musical climate, which is overrun with references to these very threads, Editors sound exploitative and uninspired.

Morrissey, Ringleader Of The Tormentors (Attack!)

Morrissey - Ringleader Of The Tormentors Morrissey
Ringleader Of The Tormentors
By: Eric Greenwood

Morrissey has made his name by acting like a high maintenance drama queen for two decades now. He's cultivated his hyperbolic, schoolgirl viciousness to such a shrill degree that it's hard to be shocked any more. With 2004's You Are the Quarry, Morrissey ended a seven-year hiatus from recording, and his return was as theatrical as could be expected. Showered with return-to-form praise, Morrissey received his highest marks in years. Whether it was a case of nostalgic projection or earned acclaim is up for debate. It's doubtless, though, that You Are the Quarry shamed his output in the latter half of the '90's.

While Ringleader of the Tormentors might be his finest album title, it's far from his finest album. Where even tragic missteps like Southpaw Grammar had character, Tormentors merely imitates vintage peaks. Any die-hard fan will admit Morrissey solo has never been as sharp or spry as any Smiths record, but he's put the golden touch on more than a handful of singles over the years, proving that Johnny Marr certainly didn't do it alone. But where Tormentors fails is in its rote sameness. It's beyond predictable. Morrissey complains using far too many syllables, and the music awkwardly traipses behind. There's not a single tawdry epithet or clever lyric worth repeating here, and that in itself is a crime even Morrissey wouldn't forgive.

Pretty Girls Make Graves, Elan Vital (Matador)

Pretty Girls Make Graves - Elan Vital Pretty Girls Make Graves
Elan Vital
By: Eric Greenwood

Maybe, I just haven't listened to it enough yet, but Élan Vital falls completely flat to my ears. Admittedly, I was very slow to accept The New Romance for the whip-smart musical piranha that it is, so I'm aware that Élan Vital could also be a grower. I'm more skeptical this time, though.

All of the attributes which previously vaulted Pretty Girls Make Graves above the slew of rabid-riffed, post-punk clones are missing here. Élan Vital is a softer, more experimental record, focusing on synthetics and a more expansive musical base. The music is still subversively smart and expertly crafted; it's just missing the bite (i.e. razor-sharp, dueling guitars). The other trouble is vocalist Andrea's Zollo's voice is so limiting in its hackneyed, monotone, riot grrrl yelp that she can't hold up her end of the deal, which compromises the record's inherent musical audacity from the start.

I'm not one to complain about a band taking risks in pursuit of creating new sounds, but it's a double-edged sword. Foregoing the instant gratification of approval for long-term vision is what bands that matter do. Not all of them survive the jump, though, and I'm not sure Pretty Girls Make Graves is destined to be one of them.

Simon Reynolds, RIp It Up And Start Again: Post-punk 1978-1984 (Penguin)

Simon Reynolds - RIp It Up And Start Again: Post-punk 1978-1984 Simon Reynolds
RIp It Up And Start Again: Post-punk 1978-1984
By: Eric Greenwood

“Punk seemed to be ‘over’ almost before it really got started. For many early participants, the death knell came on October 28, 1977, with the release of Never Mind the Bollocks. Had the revolution come to this, something as prosaic and conventional as an album?”

Venerable British music writer Simon Reynolds perfectly times an historical document of the period directly following punk’s anticlimactic demise with Rip It Up and Start Again: Post-punk 1978-1984. Just as post-punk’s second wave has pushed beyond cutting edge independent music to infiltrate recycled commercial domains, Reynolds explains how it all began with a balance of acute historical reverence and wide-eyed, fanboy enthusiasm.

Since Reynolds never definitively defines post-punk itself in one static context (the term is used with such incongruent bands as Devo, Gang of Four, Pere Ubu, and Talking Heads, and that barely scratches the surface), its net predictably casts far and wide. Much like punk, post-punk exists as much in theory as it does sound. Reynolds narrows down the impetuses for the concurrent movements and pieces together ideas and sounds with anecdotes and an encyclopedic knowledge of parallel scenes, which follow linear and logical paths. But trying to label all that falls under the generic umbrella of “post-punk” as represented here is almost too much to bear. In the literal sense, he’s dead on, however. The rebellion of punk having inspired so many disparate styles, it only follows that the next movement be defined in terms of punk’s cultural zeitgeist.

Fittingly, Reynolds heavily credits punk’s scapegoat, John Lydon, for instigating post-punk’s momentum with his post-Pistols band, Public Image Ltd. And who better to have steered life after punk than the man most commonly associated with punk’s ubiquity? A few months before The Sex Pistols’ disastrous tour of the southern United States, Lydon was featured on a radio show called The Punk and His Music on London’s Capital Radio, wherein he deliberately undermined everything about his cultivated “punk” persona (much to the chagrin of manager, Malcolm McLaren), playing loads of roots reggae as well as songs by Tim Buckley, Captain Beefheart, Can, and Lou Reed, which immediately outed Lydon as a closet hipster, a man of complicated tastes, or, as Reynolds dubs him, “an aesthete.” McLaren exploded, calling Lydon a “sissy”, and moved on to his next protégée, Sid Vicious. To have such an esoteric music collection contradicted the chaos and disorder of “Johnny Rotten’s” vision of punk as “anti-music.”

Reynolds asserts that Lydon subconsciously spelled out the elements of his future band on that fateful radio show, as Public Image Ltd. would go on to incorporate dub reggae bass tones, machinated German deconstruction, and spiky, angular guitars, all of which were indicative of post-punk’s experimental ethos. But PiL was only a drop in the bucket of what was to come. No one could have predicted how influential this period of music would be, and for decades it has languished as a relatively undocumented and uncredited era. But now with practically every underground band ripping off Gang of Four, Wire, and Joy Division, it’s about time post-punk got its proper due.

Having been too young to witness punk’s explosion first hand, Reynolds came of age during post-punk’s heyday, and his retelling of this era is as vivid as if he were recounting last weekend. His passion for the music is palpable, as he delves into regional British scenes as well as the American underground with an idiosyncratic, conversational prose that’s decidedly British yet sustained with descriptors so caught up in reference points they border on nonsense. However, he clearly understands the music, its roots, its context, and its impact like few music writers today, many of whom seem so hyper-self-aware and steeped in mocking ironic one-upmanship that substantive reporting of this kind truly is rare.

Rip It Up and Start Again: Post-punk 1978-1984 will invariably inspire more than a few trips to the record store, as Reynolds reminds you of albums you’d forgotten about and introduces scores more you probably missed.