In the Rotation #1
by Tom Körp
In the Rotation #1
With tips of the hat to Beatbots’ own Miriam DesHarnais, John Darnielle’s “Last Plane to Jakarta” (by extension, Roctober magazine), and the short-form crit of Robert Christgau, I thought it high time to carve through the ever-growing pile of albums that has been accumulating on and around my desk(top) since, oh, the spring of last year. Blow off the dust, give ‘em a spin, see what I’ve been missing and all that jazz (or rock, or pop, or whatever). Given that timeliness is not much of an issue, odds are good that I’ll be treading on some pretty well-worn ground, and chronologically at that. Apologies to the too-cool kids if this seems a little behind the curve; feel free to jump around, and rest assured that I’ll do my best to keep things light and snappy. So, without further ado, here's part one of three:

The Most Serene Republic / Headlights – Split 7”
themostserenerepublic.com | headlightsmusic.com
(May 2006, Polyvinyl / Arts & Crafts)

Vinyl singles occupy a weird space in this day and age. Once the industry’s bread and butter (and often scratched thin after innumerable spins in jukeboxes and on portable turntables), 7-inches and 45s are now more akin to short-run collector’s items and mercantile mementos—B-sides and rarities, cut from the final album, destined for a dusty cubbyhole or crate after barely a listen or two. It’s a shame, really, as few things (in my opinion) beat the tactile experience provided by a pair of sturdy headphones plugged into a turntable and the conscious act of repeatedly flipping a record, resetting the tone arm, and pressing play. Which is just what I’ve been doing with The Most Serene Republic’s 2006 split with Headlights, a genuine pop gem of overflowing instrumentation, bursting percussion, pulsing piano, ringing guitars, and vocals both mewlingly plaintive and hauntingly airy. It’s sweet to be sure, but only as short as you allow it to be. With two great cuts like “Tragedy of the Commons” and “Put Us Back Together Right”, odds are that the vinyl will wear out before you do. (!!!!!!!!!! 8/10)

Shinobu / Pteradon – Pteradon + Shinobu!!!!! Split 7”
myspace.com/shinobu | myspace.com/pteradonband
(November 2007, Asian Man / Phat N Phunky)

Then there’s the age-old punker tradition of the split single, all quick-and-dirty DIY with lo-fi production values, infectious and/or abrasive riffs, and at least one cover song per side. (“Thalassocracy” and “Harder to Tell”? Check and check.) In the case of these two San Joséan bands, there’s also a crayon-drawn cover, plus a Xeroxed ‘zine-booklet chock-full of lyrics, doodles, photo collages, and the occasionally lucid ramble about living life and making music. Endearing messiness is part of the Pteradon + Shinobu!!!!! package; hardly half-assed, it feels rather like a heartfelt kindergarten craft, a coarsely-made macramé or puff-painted piece of refrigerator art that you need to stare at really, really hard to comprehend. (Is that frog on a skateboard? What’s with all the cats?) You might not like it, per se, but you still cherish it because it was made especially for you. It’s messy, yeah, but in a good way: Mike and Morgan shout, Ian and Matt (and Mike) shred, Bob and Jon and Max (and Morgan) throw down the righteous rhythms, and you sit back and quietly nod your head in bemused, headphonéd agreement. You might not get it right away, and you may never grow to love it, but you know full and well that (1) these guys had a lot of fun making it, and (2) they really wanted you to have it. (!!!!!!!!!! 6/10)

Voodoo Economics – If : then :: iminami
(December 2007, self-released)

Avant-rock is a bit of a crapshoot: the very point of being “avant” is to move beyond the pale, to challenge the conceptions and perceptions of whatever mode, medium, or stylistic framework in which you happen to working. Moreover, it’s a challenge to the audience, and, in the case of music, it often involves large quantities of a-melodic dissonance, unconventional instrumentation and/or sounds, and diverging/conflicting rhythms. The difficulty, then, is in making this experimental arrangement of sound contrapuntal rather than merely contrary, a feat which the Philadelphian trio of Voodoo Economics manages to achieve, albeit not universally, with If : then :: iminami. Alison Conard’s soft-sung lilts frequently run up against the shifting, math-y rhythms of Justin Gibbon and Jeremy Prouty, while blasts of electronics, synth affects, and found sounds further expand upon the band’s oft-uneasy-listening tunes. It doesn’t always work—intro track “Air Barriers” sounds like 8-bit RPG dungeon music with awkwardly dubbed vocals—but when Voodoo Economics pull it off, as they do with the clipped ‘spherics, plodding bass, and burgeoning drumbeat of “The Gängeldorf Scours the Wreckage for Plants and Brains and Things” the rabid bass riff and fuzzy, tinkling chimes of “The Red Phone is Ringing”, and the airy vocals, brassy percussion, and squiggled synth of “In the Next Place, Cement Will Float Like Trees”, the results are nothing if not intriguing. (!!!!!!!!!! 4/10)

MGMT – Oracular Spectacular
(January 2008, Columbia)

With regards to the aforementioned well-worn ground, it must be said that MGMT’s little patch of psych-shambling, vowelectomied Brooklynite Korg-pop has known no shortage of listeners’ footfalls (and presumably dance steps) since its physical release last year, with indefatigably infectious floor-filling grooves like “Time to Pretend” and “Kids” being (probably) the most pressing reasons why. Y’know, aside from having the mighty might of Columbia Record’s promotional prowess at its disposal. Even though Oracular Spectacular is a hot sonic mess—debased by Fridmannic excesses and live instrumentation made synth-like, doused in the cloying reek of ironic self-effacement, and wadded up inside a DayGlo plastic package in yet another retro-riffic effort to shock the senses—it almost never fails at being fun. Easily disposable fun, maybe, but fun nevertheless. And, even when things start to lag on the latter half of the album (circa the oh-so-nasal “Pieces of What”), there’s always the skip button to take you right back to the good ‘uns. (!!!!!!!!!! 5/10)

28 Degrees Taurus – How Do You Like Your Love?
(February 2008, self-released)

Y’know, I like sludgy, droning, psychedelic shoegaze as much as the next guy. Kick up the reverb on the low end, dampen the drums, throw in some drawn-out strings, brightly shambling guitars, and echoing synth notes, and keep the vocals understated and muddy. In short, make the mix thick and chunky—nothing too clear or upbeat, nor too excited and emphatic. From this standpoint alone, and judging by their sophomore album How Do You Like Your Love?, Boston-meets-NYC trio 28 Degrees Taurus is an A+ psych-gaze act. Karina DaCosta’s bass and vocals are punchy yet reserved, never demanding your attention but acquiring it all the same. Likewise, Jinsen Liu’s slick Rick’ guitar riffs ring and rush like waves, swelling and rolling into the near-constant percussive breakers provided courtesy of drummer Kyle Courcy. It’s a classically Eighties sound, with smatterings of the Pixies, Sonic Youth, the Cure, and My Bloody Valentine all coming through loudly, if not altogether clearly, in tracks like “Something to Feel”, “Endless Sea”, and “Freeze, Die, Come Back to Life”. And, even though the lyrics seldom drift past party-hard instant-gratification or surface-level barroom romance, it’s still an entertaining ride. A little gritty, but none too shabby. (!!!!!!!!!! 5/10)

Dead Leaf Echo – Pale Fire
(March 2008, Year of the Gallon)

At first listen, it would seem that the New York quartet of Dead Leaf Echo were channeling their shoegazing Eighties forebears in both style and production values, what with their brassy percussion, shimmering riffs from both six and twelve string guitars, echoing synth, round bass notes, and burbling, airy vocals in the vein of Robert Smith and Kevin Shields. It’s damnably similar, really, and I can even hear a bit of Spacemen 3 and early Brian Jonestown Massacre coming through Dead Leaf Echo’s space-y, wall-o-sound mix—but, all implications of cribbing aside, such similarities are not necessarily bad things. As I mentioned before, I do enjoy shoegaze, and hearing a modern, actively performing band employ such a classic sound (and employ it well) is altogether heartening. Meaning that Dead Leaf Echo’s sophomore album, Pale Fire, is further evidence of shoegaze’s longevity, with dreamscape tracks like “Warm Body”, “Thought Talk”, and “Reflex Motion” holding the banner high for another generation of mumbling droners. In this case, the fact that it’s nothing new isn’t a black mark so much as a badge of pride. (!!!!!!!!!! 5/10)

Kadman – Sing to Me Slower
(March 2008, Slo.Bor Media)

For me, male-fronted Nineties alt-rock boils down to rhyming couplets, ringing guitar ballads, and throaty sing-speaking à la Darius Rucker, Mark Kozelek, and Adam Duritz. Theirs is a well-established and familiar sound, especially in the world of radio-enabled office spaces, yet it hasn’t quite aged to the point of nostalgic appeal—at least, not to the same extent that Eighties Pop, Seventies Punk, and Sixties Folk and Rock have managed to clamber back into popular music’s “in” crowd. Simply put: Nineties alt-rock isn’t so “old” that it has the ability to become “new” again. Moreover, Naughties bands that mimic the aforementioned Nineties’ sonic staples tend to come across as dull or tired rather than smart or refreshing, which was more-or-less how I first wrote off the languidly guitar-centric songwriting of Kadman’s Sing to Me Slower. Granted, I’ve allowed David Manchester & co.’s work to grow on me since then, and have found it to be surprisingly engaging despite its familiarity. Quiet skepticism, brushed percussion, watery bass, and an organ outro make “Blue Walls” a nice entry point, with the resounding drums, shimmering guitar, and affected layering of “Diesel” following soon after. Not bad, those. And, even though Manchester’s occasionally hackneyed lyrics (see: “Raise the Curtain”) never quite live up to the simple strengths of his bluesy guitar riffs and the band’s rhythmic fills, his pleasant and oft-emphatic vocal delivery helps you to overlook his lyrical blandness, allowing you to focus, instead, on the emotions behind them. Check the bright guitar reverb, punchy percussion, and rousing chorus of slow-grower “Honeymoon’s End” for more of that, and keep your ears open for news of Kadman’s forthcoming sophomore effort. (!!!!!!!!!! 5/10)

The Bloodsugars – BQEP
(April 2008, Engine Room)

Oh, Dance Rock, you bastard child of Punk and Disco, you. As much as I may want to, I cannot fault you for your youthful optimism and jangly guitar riffs, your swirling synth effects, pulsing bass and drumbeats, cloying falsettos, and high-register harmonies. Even if you all-too-often err on the side of casual come-ons turned lyrical and tired boy-meets-girl stories, there’s something about you that I can’t help but like (if not love). To their credit, NYC foursome The Bloodsugars manages to eschew many of your more negative tropes, wrapping their lilting vocals, bright chords, and inarguably danceable rhythms around subjects more sociopolitical than barroom social. Opening track “Purpose Was Again” picks and kicks its way towards the celestial-existential, while the oh-so-catchy “Bloody Mary” picks a roundabout bone with the policies of the past administration. “Cinderella” ups the riffage and the paranoia with its storybook metaphors, and “Breakfast on the BQE” cools things down a bit for some slice-of-life imagery and hometown shout-outs. Rounding out the EP, “Saint of Containment” does more of the day-to-day under heavy synth, blaring guitars, and peppy percussion, while the acoustic guitar backdrop and underlying vocal rounds of “Uh Oh” provide The Bloodsugars’ first and only foray into hopeless romantics. Points for self-restraint, and for proving that the genre is far from played-out. (!!!!!!!!!! 6/10)

Billy Bragg – Mr. Love & Justice (Special Edition)
(April 2008, ANTI-)

For the record, Billy Bragg’s Talking with the Taxman About Poetry was the first LP I ever purchased—which is not really saying much, since I picked it up at Own Guru some eighteen years after its initial release. Prior to that, I had enjoyed quite a few day-long spins of Bragg’s Back to Basics compilation, as well as Discount’s EP of punkified Bragg covers, Love, Billy. So it’s fair to say that I’ve come to know and love Bragg’s work the long way around: firstly (and secondhand at that), through his flagrant mixing of pop and politics. Second—and, perhaps, more importantly—through Bragg’s reticent romantics and autobiographical balladeering. Wonderfully enough, Bragg’s latest album unites these two aspects of his songwriting under the oh-so-fitting title of Mr. Love & Justice. And, in the case of the two-disc special edition, it then divides them into both full-band studio versions and solo guitar-and-voice outings, with the differences between the two being quite stark at times. “The Beach is Free”, for one, ranges from a twanging full-band skiffle romp to a slower, more soulful lament with just Bragg and his guitar. The title track shimmers with Hammond organ under layered guitars and brassy percussion, while the solo guitar track leaves Bragg some room to let his palm mutes and plaintive vocals work their busker’s magic. Either way, Bragg’s wry mash-up of unabashedly liberal ideology and lovers’ anecdotes is as palatable as ever—doubly so, even. (!!!!!!!!!! 8/10)

The Fairline Parkway – A Memory of Open Spaces
(May 2008, The Kora)

The Fairline Parkway’s A Memory of Open Spaces was one of those albums that took me pleasantly by surprise last year, so much so that it came within spitting distance of making my top albums of the year. It’s a fresh, summer-y album, full of wispy vocals, unassuming percussion, twangy acoustic and bluesy electric guitars, synth keys, punchy bass, and the occasional hints of brass and strings. It’s folksy without being folk, poppy without being out-and-out pop, and just plain fun to listen to during a long, slow car ride with the windows down and a warm breeze running its fingers through your hair. Hell, I’d argue that’s the only way to listen to this album. Ruminatory head-clearers like “Westward Bound”, “Homesteaders”, and “Storms and Gales” start the album off right, drifting languidly from dreamy travelers’ tunes to earthy farmers’ ballads and sombre lovers’ quarrels. “A Given Day” absolutely nails what it feels like to be stuck in life’s great transition from youthful indulgence to adult resignation, of “thinking too much to sleep” and “seeking too much to see”, sentiments of loss and uncertainty echoed in the bright riffs, slide guitar, and underlying organ of ending track “Jackson”. A Memory of Open Spaces may be a bittersweet ride, but it’s one you’ll want to take again and again. (!!!!!!!!!! 7/10)

Islands – Arm’s Way
(May 2008, ANTI-)

Given: I am a drop-dead sucker for Canadian pop-rock outfits, the more members the better. Make it busy, keep it bustling, layer those guitars, keyboards, strings, reeds, drums, and vocal tracks ‘til I’m drowning in sound. C’mon, hit me—I can take it. Nasal vocals and quirky lyrics? Mid-song tempo changes? Danceable rhythms? Oh, man, now we’re talking… Sure, it seems formulaic on paper, but there’s something about multi-member orchestral-pop insanity that our brothers and sisters in the Great White North simply get, with Islands being a primo example thereof. The Montréal band’s second effort, Arm’s Way, rings and rumbles, coos and howls, rages and reminisces, its gritty guitar-and-drums backbone fleshed out by Wilsonian harmonies, strengthened by shots of violin and weighty four-string thumps, and decorated with twittering synth and twinkling ivory. It’s a little overwhelming and -long at first brush—most tracks sit within the 4-5 minute range, breaking up their lyrical ditties about life’s everyday anxieties with extended bridges and instrumental segues (à la “The Arm” and “Life in Jail”)—but the overall pace is quick enough to keep the indie-shambling dance floor filled for the duration. (!!!!!!!!!! 7/10)

Russian Circles – Station
(May 2008, Suicide Squeeze)

As previously mentioned in a review of Russian Circles' debut full-length, Enter, the primary concern I have when listening to music sans-lyric is one of communication: what is the artist trying to express, and how well is s/he conveying that in absence of the spoken/sung word? In the case of Russian Circles’ sophomore effort, Station, Mike Sullivan’s metal-inspired riffs, hammer-on runs, and looped/layered phrases, Brian Cook’s weightily warbling bass lines (previously provided by Colin DeKuiper), and Dave Turncrantz’s always-apropos percussion—whether flaring up with his flourishes or cooling down and keeping time—offer a mixed bag of hair-raising thrills and solemn sentimentality, all with a seemingly martial bent. “Campaign” leads off with droning feedback, tapped-out notes, and light hits of brassy percussion, building up and up and up to its inevitable halfway breakout of coruscating reverb, more prominent guitar and bass riffs, and punctuating kick and sticks. Weighing in at over six minutes, it’s a remarkably reserved intro for the jabbing drumwork and heavy hooks of “Harper Lewis”, which, in turn, becomes the rough-and-tumble body blows of title track “Station”. But it’s not all aggression and apocalypse, as “Verses” dials back for an airier combination of bright licks and subdued percussion, only to once again sludge it up in preparation for the thick riffs and heavy beat of “Youngblood”. Even then, Station goes out more quietly than you’d expect, as the clearly echoing guitar and staid drumwork of “XAVII” remains clean and light ‘til Cook and Turncrantz weigh it down a bit at the very end. It’s brooding, yeah, but never so heavy that it ruins your day. (!!!!!!!!!! 6/10)
Posted by: Tom Körp

Features (July 27th, 2009)

Tags: beatbots, features, in the rotation, the most serene republic, headlights, shinobu, pteradon, voodoo economics, mgmt, 28 degrees taurus, dead leaf echo, kadman, the bloodsugars, billy bragg, the fairline parkway, islands, russian circles