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In the Rotation #3
by Tom Körp
In the Rotation #3
Welcome, readers, to the third installment of (what was initially meant to be) a three-part series, wherein I curb my slacker ways and tackle a prohibitively large pile of yet-to-be-reviewed albums. Wonderfully enough, the pile has since diminished to the point where we’re finally dealing with previously-overlooked releases from this calendar year. Slow and steady though it may be, it’s progress all the same—and, in the interest of picking up the pace a bit, In the Rotation #3 and its followers will be done in a slightly smaller format of five albums each rather than a giant block of ten or more. Faster to write, quicker to post, and easier to read: that’s a win-win situation no matter how you look at it.

And, for those of you just linking in, feel free to click back for Part 1 and Part 2 of In the Rotation. Playing catch-up is the name of the game, after all.

Weekends – Weekends
(November 2008, self-released)

I’m no marketing guru, let alone a marketing disciple, but I swear by word-of-mouth advertising. There’s just something about knowing the person who happens to be making the pitch, especially when that person is a step or two removed from the product being hocked. It adds a sense of credibility, of trustworthiness that goes beyond accredited degrees of “expertise” or “goodness” conferred by some stranger. Yeah, this mindset reeks of “Us vs. Them” sentimentality, but you know as well as I do that you’re more inclined to believe the testimony of a close friend (or, as the case may be, a vetted associate) than the emphatic gushing of someone with whom you have had no previous contact whatsoever, let alone the excited clamouring of a whole crowd of strangers. I don’t know about you, but the latter tends to come across a turn-off. Notwithstanding, close-to-home promo was the name of the game with the pitch for Weekends, a local lo-fi guitar/drum duo heavily touted both on the ‘Bots Boards and in the A/V Club, as well as by an erstwhile ‘Bots associate at City Paper (and by Aural States’ own Greg Szeto)—good press from good folks sans soapbox, and reasons enough for me to swing by True Vine during a late January jaunt down to Charm City. Now, $5.00 and roughly 9 months later, I finally get to weigh in on Brendan Sullivan and Adam Lempel’s self-titled, self-released debut and all its messy glory. Well… “glory” might be the wrong word, and “messy” is meant a lot more positively than it reads. Given, Weekends is fun music in the vein of basement shows and riotous house-parties: low-mixed vocals getting lost and found amidst understated percussive rhythms and rapid-fire, reverb-drenched guitar shredding, all guaranteed to set toes a-tapping, heads a-bobbing, and excitable kids a-moshing—bodies crashing through the plaster, party people smashing bottles, and rowdy yobs busting coffee tables, all while the neighbours wonder whether or not to call the cops. So, yes, it is indeed exciting—from the opening riffs of “No More Bands” straight through to the closing “thanks a lot” of “Camp Nowhere”, Weekends’ basement-recorded debut manages to capture the sonic rawness and anything-goes volatility of such live shows, nurturing a sense of off-the-cuff novelty and wide-eyed naivety which professional studios and over-rehearsing all-too-easily stifle. At the same time, the neat-freak pop-fan in me wants a little less distortion and somewhat tighter arrangements (with that much reverb, you can damn-near get away with anything), plus a lyrics sheet to figure out just what it is that Sullivan and Lempel burble and shout about. Joyous? Yes. Glorious? Not quite, but Weekends is a genuinely good start, and these two are well on their way. (!!!!!!!!!! 7/10)

Addendum: Lucky you, Weekends recently made their first album available as a free download. Check the ‘Bots boards, and then follow the yellow brick road.

Soft Cement – Think About It EP
(January 2009, self-released)

Full disclosure, and a little bit o’ history: but a few years ago, Baltimore & its surrounding environs played host to an experimental/noise quartet by the name of They Can Never Take Our Crow (later spinning off into Brazen Robbers), which featured instrumentals, electronic effects, and sundry noisenikery performed by Isaac Linder, Scott Enriquez, Geoff Wilt, and Justin Blemly. If you recognized those last three names right away, good on you—Scott and Geoff were two of the earliest contributors to the nascent Beatbots, with Justin being the webzine-cum-community’s creator and founder; feel free to thank him accordingly (fancy cakes and beer are always appreciated). Flash forward to the present, and Geoff and Justin have reunited (and it feels so good) as the punk-inspired lo-fi guitar/drum twosome of Soft Cement, whose debut EP, Think About It, has been floating about the local Charm City record shoppes since the beginning of naught-nine. Aesthetically, the fuzz, grit, and blown-out grime of Soft Cement’s lo-fi/DIY production values call to mind crustier old-school punkers like the Germs, with Blemly’s alternating themes of antipathy, pained idealism, and late-twenty-something ennui striking chords somewhat subtler than his guitar’s blaring buzz, yet hitting home with no less precision than Wilt’s staidly metronomic percussion. Really, Wilt and Blemly’s is a simple formula: post-punk without pretense, songs stripped down to layered rhythms and sing-shout vocals devoid of overly-interpretive subtext—quite the sharp left turn from the impromptu atmospherics of TCNTOC and Brazen Robbers. Title track “Think About It” may nod to Orwell with its references to “unspeak and mind control”, but Blemly’s apparent disgust with the personal limitations and career-path acquiescence of early adulthood is nothing if not direct and to the point. Likewise, the quarter-life crisis meets psychological breakdown of “Gainer” and creative-cultural scene-war saturation-point of “Green Zone” avoid beating around the proverbial bush, preferring to simply douse it in kerosene and send the damn thing up in flames. Even the somewhat ambiguous “Wet Concrete” comes off as a gimme track, a mantric four lines about faulty memory and mental malleability culminating in repeated shouts of “SOFT CEMENT!” Sure, it’s not the deepest thing out there, and four tracks at ten minutes is far too short for my liking (then again, it is a 3” CD EP), but for fans of pared-down post-punk, Soft Cement is bound to make a good impression. (!!!!!!!!!! 6/10)

Addendum the Second: Possessed as they are with the spirit of giving, Soft Cement recently made the Think About It EP available as a free download. Check the message boards, and get your fix.

A Day to Remember – Homesick
(February 2009, Victory)

From personal experience alone, it seems that every disaffected high school youth manages to self-identify with punk and/or hardcore music at least once during those four formative years of sleepy homerooms and crowded hall-crawling. Equally typical is the transient teen-punker tendency to avoid the socially conscious, politically active, and historically relevant punk or hardcore acts (i.e., the godfathers and progenitors) and gravitate more towards hyperbolically emotive and thematically derivative acts—one-sided jilted lover’s quarrels, directionless angst, general adolescent confusion, and maudlin shtick served up warm underneath a heavy coating of bubblegum-pop. In essence: music about being in high school. The silver lining is that most people grow up and out of it—after all, getting older seems to bring a wider, worldlier perspective not often available at age 14–18—eventually digging further down to the socio-political roots of the two aforementioned genres, developing a better sense of musical composition and narrative songwriting, or simply moving on altogether. In that sense, there’s still hope for the Floridian quintet of A Day to Remember, whose third proper album, Homesick, surrounds itself with all those old teen-punk tropes: power chords ad nauseum, gravel-gargling hardcore shouts, drop-D tuning, and a chorus-aided sense of self-importance that belies the banality of their central boy-meets-girl/I-miss-the-comforts-of-home/best-brahs-forevah pop-rock heart-wrenching. That’s all well and good in small doses… unless, of course, you insist on spreading said angst out for over forty minutes and dividing it into twelve separate songs, all of which are constructed more or less the exact same way. Yeah? Yeah. Musically, it’s not an irredeemably horrid affair; Jeremy McKinnon’s vocals are pleasant if blandly familiar (you could probably hot-swap him with any other latter-day Warped Tour pop-punk vocalist and be none the worse for wear), Neil Westfall and Tom Denney’s guitars adequately elaborate on their chugga-chugging riffs with infrequent lapses into lighter licks, and Joshua Woodard and Alex Shelnutt’s rhythms are full to bursting to with punchy four-string rumbling and pulsing double-bass. Double that down with full-band shouts, rasping shrieks, and emphatic choral flourishes, and you can kinda see what the kids find so appealing: pop-friendly moshing and all that rot; sing-along summer festival fodder, even. All told, Homesick is generally inoffensive and ready-made for the full-on “Guitar Hero” DLC treatment. But, for those of us with a few more years under our belts—meaning that we’ve heard this all before, and many, many times over at that—A Day to Remember’s self-possessed pop-punk meets post-hardcore bombast is all too forgettable. (!!!!!!!!!! 3/10)

O Pioneers!!! – Neon Creeps
(February 2009, Asian Man / Quote Unquote Records)

It’s not often that music pubs (digital or otherwise) post double reviews of the same album, and rarer still that they do so without at least some collusion between writers. So it is with due deference to fellow ‘Bots contributor Mike Riley that I offer up my own thoughts on Neon Creeps by O Pioneers!!! Furthermore, considering that Mike beat me to the punch by a good three months, you should definitely go back and read his take on the album before we continue. Go ahead. It’s cool, I’ll wait… Back? Alright, then—pressing on: Neon Creeps is the second full-length album from the Houston, TX-based guitar/drum punk outfit O Pioneers!!!, and the first to see frontman and I Heart U co-owner/-operator Eric Solomon joined by Aaron Ervin on drums and Zach Klaine on bass (a four-string first for the band). With the fist-pumping percussion, jangling guitar riffs, and bumbling bass lines of “Saved by the Bell Was a Super Good Show”, O Pioneers!!! set themselves up as a band long on energy yet short on ideas. Their songs are upbeat and operatively fun, sure, but Solomon & co.’s take on pop-savvy punk isn’t providing anything terribly new or novel—nothing that the likes of Against Me!, the Loved Ones, Hot Water Music, and their ilk haven’t already made all-too-familiar. As for lyrics, O Pioneers!!!’ non-specific narratives of interpersonal problems, self-doubt, community-building, and faceless urbanity are hardly worth deconstructing; short and to the point, such songs suit themselves with free verse riffs rather than developed narratives, worthy metaphors, or other such trappings of full-on lyric poetry (granted, such things are rare in punk, but you miss them once you’ve grown accustomed to hearing them elsewhere). Lyric simplicity notwithstanding, Solomon’s delivery is so emphatic that you’re often willing to forgive O Pioneers!!! for their overt sonic familiarity and general fudging of the finer details. Consider “The Architect of Disney World”, wherein Solomon rants about the never-ending cycle of creation and destruction inherent to, well, just about everything this side of perpetual motion. Rushing forward with quick-flick riffs and crashing percussion to fuel his anthemic “It’s up to us! It’s up to us!” refrain, Solomon pulls back at the very end to admit that, despite the best of intentions, “There is only so much we can build until it starts to collapse under the pressure”. As if to say, “We need to try our hardest to make this work, just keep in mind that whatever we accomplish probably won’t last very long.” How’s that for a caveat emptor? Again, Solomon is not telling you anything that you haven’t heard before, just as the calls to personal productivity in “9 A.M. Everyday” and “My Life as a Morrissey Song” hew pretty close to the well-worn carpe diem path of latter-day pro-active pop-punk rock (à la Ted Leo & the Pharmacists). Even so, as in “The Architect of Disney World”, there is a sense of ambiguity to O Pioneers!!!’ outwardly positive energy, a not-so-subtle self-effacement that creeps up in the likes of “I Have a Major Weightlifting Problem” and “Chris Ryan Added Me on Facebook”, not to mention the snarky sniping of “Cool Kid City”. Thankfully, it’s not nihilistic self-flagellation (let alone irony for irony’s sake) but latent self-awareness that keeps O Pioneers!!! from taking either themselves or their music too seriously. If you can do the same, then Neon Creeps will find you well. (!!!!!!!!!! 5/10)

Bomb the Music Industry! – Scrambles
(February 2009, Quote Unquote Records)

Speaking of bands that refuse to take themselves too seriously: Bomb the Music Industry! is a punk-meets-ska-meets-electro collective of sorts—think acoustic and electric guitar riffs, plus bass and percussion, mixed with brass, reeds, piano, synth and digital effects, crowd choruses, and even an 8-bit chiptune or two—lead by former Arrogant Sons of Bitches frontman Jeff Rosenstock, with on-album support from a wide and varied cast of fellow musicians too numerous to name here. It’s also the flagship band for the DIY, digital, donation-based label Quote Unquote Records, whereat anyone with the time and inclination can download the entirety of BtMI!’s recorded output for free, plus full albums by a number of other DIY bands, the above-reviewed O Pioneers!!! included. Musical collectivism and interesting business practices aside, the most intriguing (and seemingly inconsistent) thing about BtMI! is the fact that this punk-as-a-duck project is fronted by a man who viscerally hates “punk”—a man who openly despises the party politics, power-posturing, and philosophical inconsistencies inherent to an ostensibly non-conformist countercultural movement that frequently fosters a strict sense of authoritarian conformity. That punk often reduces itself to its own antithesis is certainly not lost on Rosenstock, as evidenced in the bitter jabs and self-effacing humour of “(Shut) Up the Punx!!!”, cut from BtMI!’s fifth full-length album, Scrambles. As one of its jaded veterans, Rosenstock cannot help but snipe at “the scene” every now and again (an equal opportunity offender, he snipes at all the scenes); still, his primary focus is one of self-examination and slice-of-life observations filtered through hectic, communitarian ditties, often recorded piecemeal on a shoestring budget (matter o’ fact, the given figure for Scrambles is $50). That the end result is even listenable is amazing; that it is both musically engaging and thematically cohesive is nothing short of a miracle. Self-aware to a fault, it’s obvious that Rosenstock has a knack for taking masturbatory introspection and long-form navel-gazing and turning them out as something both accessible and entertaining. Seriously: the man can spin a drawn-out yarn about trying to avoid New York’s cocaine-fueled hipster population (“Stuff That I Like”) and then knit it into a guitar-shredding party tune to which said powder-snuffling crew would probably groove. Then there are the job-finding and relationship-seeking existential crises of “Fresh Attitude, Young Body” and the flat-broke depression of “Wednesday Night Drinkball”, two oddly rousing downer tracks that bounce back up with the spastic (and none-too-proud) anthem to delayed maturity that is “25!”, only to once again regress with “$2,400,000”’s ballad of crushed punker idealism. Given such happy/sad vacillations, it’s easy to argue that BtMI!’s tunes can come across as a bit bipolar, the two extremes being the anxious curmudgeon and the self-pitying mope—see “9/11 Fever!!!” and “Saddr Weirdr” for further examples of each—yet it’s also interesting to note that no song ever fully embraces either pole. Rather, Rosenstock offsets both his griping and his pouting with well-placed shots of humour, his tongue firmly planted in his cheek even as he spits fire, a twinkle in his eye even as he wallows in the shit and offal of his own charmed life. Such self-effacing self-awareness makes for a nice coping mechanism, and lends even more weight to the blunt-force honesty which Rosenstock wields with apparently reckless abandon. The odds are incredibly good that both BtMI! and Scrambles will strike you the wrong way more than once, but, honestly, the only strange thing about it is how often you will find yourself nodding in agreement even as you reel from the blow. (!!!!!!!!!! 8/10)
Posted by: Tom Körp

Features (September 25th, 2009)

Tags: beatbots, features, in the rotation, weekends, soft cement, a day to remember, o pioneers!!!, bomb the music industry!