In the Rotation #4
by Tom Körp
In the Rotation #4
Sweet sassy molasses, is it 2010? Already? What in the world happened to 2009?

A better question: what the hell has taken me so long to get through this blasted pile of albums?

What, indeed. Laziness, cable TV (specifically: Sterling Cooper and the Paddy’s gang), Wii-ing, bears, and a woefully short attention span all have something to do with it, if truth be told. Moreover, it would seem as though the aforementioned pile of albums has grown since last I looked at it—damn thing is worse than a warren full of horny rabbits, really—and the heretofore tacit agreement which I had made with myself back in the fall (to plow through ‘til I was current with September/October releases) is no longer applicable. Moreover, since I have not yet worked my way through said albums, I cannot rightly do a “Best of 2009” list, now can I? Quite the dilemma, that.

Unless… now, this may sound a wee bit touched… but what say we make this edition of “In the Rotation” into a haphazard “Year in Review”? Forget the highfalutin’ assignation of “best” or “worst”, and just think of it as an (over)arch(ing) list of what some dude listened to in naught-nine and neglected to write about properly during the course of the year. That’s pretty much what you were going to get anyway—and what year-end lists are to begin with—just in a slightly different (and arguably more honest) package.

But, whichever way you take it, thanks for reading, and be sure to check the back catalogue for previous installments of “In the Rotation” (#1, #2, #3) if you need to catch up. Rest assured, you’re not the only one.

Lucky Dragons / Ecstatic Sunshine – Friendship/Trip 02 Split 7”
hawksandsparrows.org | thelifestyle.info/ecstatic
(January 2009, Wildfire Wildfire)

In addition to hanging at the Wolfe Street beer garden and sampling the wares of various food vendors (delicious crab cake sammiches!), one of my favourite Fell’s Fest traditions is rifling through the stacks at Sound Garden for local Charm City treasures. Sure, this usually means that I’m “that guy” wandering around the Fell’s Point watering holes later that night, large orange bag of records in tow, one-handedly juggling drinks and cash when trying to settle up a tab. Messy messy. But it also means that, one heady hangover and a three-hour drive later, I’m able to kick back and relax with some newly-acquired wax—which is a fair trade, if you ask me. My most recent set of Fell’s Fest acquisitions includes Wildfire Wildfire’s second entry in the Friendship/Trip split 7” series, featuring LA’s Lucky Dragons and Baltimore’s own Ecstatic Sunshine. At first brush, the ethereal sound-tweaking of Lucky Dragons’ “Take Turns” brings to mind bright bits of Múm and Gastr del Sol—that whole “musique concrète” deal of non-traditional/non-musical sounds being sliced, diced, mixed, matched, and arranged in a musical fashion—plus or minus a bit of Unwed Sailor circa The Marionette and the Music Box. Strange and surreal, yeah, but thematically cohesive, wonderfully understated, and wholly captivating. Unexpected as Lucky Dragons sonic collages are (for me, at least), the real curveball on this split is Ecstatic Sunshine’s “Easy is Right”: I’ve grown so accustomed to Dustin Wong-era Ecstatic Sunshine’s stripped-down, rapid-fire guitar-duo face-melting that the very thought of them producing any sort of electronic, noise-infused squibs, blips and squawks seems completely out of the question. But they do, and it works. Better yet, Ecstatic Sunshine’s experiment with electroacoustics sits remarkably well with Lucky Dragons’ own sound-sampling alchemy, making for a surprisingly similar sonic experience and an excellent Fell’s Fest find. (!!!!!!!!!! 6/10)

Shinobu – Strange Spring Air
(March 2009, Quote Unquote Records)

I feel somewhat guilty for having not paid much attention to the goings-on of Shinobu over the past year or so. I say “somewhat” because, as far as I was aware, the San Josean quartet had been on a sort of indefinite hiatus, what with guitarist Matt Keegan hoofing it out to Brooklyn to moonlight with the likes of Bomb the Music Industry!, drummer Jon Fu and bassist Bob Vielma teaching English and eating horses in Japan (and playing in other bands besides), and guitarist/vocalist Mike Huguenor shacking up with Pteradon alums Morgan Herrell and Max Feschbach in Hard Girls (which doubles as the backing band for Jesse Michaels’ latest project, Classics of Love). So, yeah, the Shino-guys were all busy elsewhere, and the band itself was understandably out of sight and mind for some time before I noticed, quite accidentally at that, that Huguenor & co. had snuck one more album past the goalie. As Shinobu’s third (and possibly final) full-length, Strange Spring Air more than lives up to its name: it’s as enjoyably weird as anything they have produced in the past—emphatic, endearing, and messily DIY to a fault—and just as infectious and invigorating as its title would suggest. It’s also the first Shinobu album to be written near-entirely as a collaborative effort. Granted, primary songwriter Mike Huguenor still has his say with Sebadoh-ish guitar noodling and a casual smattering of obscure in-song references both literary and pop-cultural (to whit: Moby Dick in “Cetacean History”), but you also get to hear Vielma’s unabashed love for his feline friends (“Sometimes I Wish I Were a Cat”), Keegan’s six-string skills in “Amor Fati”, and Fu’s appraisal of the San Francisco Zoo “Tiger!” attacks. Also: the tale of the indomitable Moustache King, and an ode to friendship, videogames, and touring musicians’ camaraderie in “Jeff Rosenstock’s ‘We’”. Overall, the added creative voices make Strange Spring Air even stranger, which is no small feat considering the unapologetic oddness of Shinobu’s entire oeuvre. Yeah, these guys are undeniably weird, but always in a good (and frequently rewarding) way. (!!!!!!!!!! 6/10)

Peter Bjorn and John – Living Thing
(March 2009, Almost Gold)

Considering the auditory ubiquity and transatlantic success of Peter Bjorn and John’s Writer’s Block—the earworm whistling of “Young Folks” and the Levi Strauss & Co.-approved beat of “Up Against the Wall” were near-impossible to avoid in naught-six and -seven—I’m hard-pressed to consider PB&J’s proper follow-up album, Living Thing, anything but a misstep. Yeah, yeah, I know full and well that PB&J dropped Seaside Rock in naught-eight, but a limited release of 5000 LPs (plus however many intangible digital downloads) seems more like an intentionally rarified collector’s item than a dedicated—which is to say, “proper”—album replete with all of the marketing/promotional bells and whistles available to such a widely recognizable band. Speaking of which: whereas Seaside Rock limited itself with physical unavailability (not to mention a-lyrical ambience and off-the-beaten-path affectedness), Living Thing cuts back on the proven-popular lushness which was the bread and butter of Writer’s Block. In place of jangling guitars and organic percussion, we have electro synth and drum machine backbeats, infrequent and highly affected six-string riffs, and sparse blips, pops, and drones, all lying low in the mix while Morén, Yttling, and Eriksson float equally staid vocals overtop the lot. Conventional wisdom would argue that this is PB&J branching out and trying new things, forcing themselves to adapt to life outside of their comfort zone of tried-and-true guitar-and-drum pop; in the B-movie motif, it would be the equivalent of a warrior monk sparring while blindfolded, purposefully dulling one sense in order to focus on (and thereby strengthen) another. But whatever wisdom I pretend to should never be considered conventional, let alone practical, so my interpretation of Living Thing goes something like this: “Oh, you liked Writer’s Block, eh? Well, too bad. We’re doing something different. It’s minimalist! It’s electronic! Deal with it!” Fair enough, but it don’t move me in quite the same way. Would that Peter Bjorn and John were wholly successful in their own self-reinvention, but I just can’t hear a lick of Living Thing without thinking how much better it would have sounded built up and sans synthetics, its riffs composed of jangling guitars and harmonizing vocals riding the crest of a full drum kit… okay, maybe a keyboard here and there, but none of that auto-tuned, studio-heavy finagling. At the very least, I can take comfort in knowing that PB&J’s electro phase is probably just that: a phase. (!!!!!!!!!! 5/10)

Yeah Yeah Yeahs – It’s Blitz!
(March 2009, Interscope)

For what it’s worth, my initial reaction to the Yeah Yeah Yeahs was less than favourable. In spite of certain trusted friends who were hailing the Yeahs as the Next Big Thing, I couldn’t help but pick at the seams of the alt-rock trio, brushing both the band and naught-three’s Fever to Tell off as shameless cribbers of Siouxsie Sioux, Robert Smith, and garage punk and “New Wave” in general—modern upstarts mixing late 70’s/early 80’s post-punk with the new-bohemian artist-collective stance of Andy Warhol and the Velvet Underground. At a glance, the entire project seemed more a retro-minded fashion show than anything else, its sartorial trimmings and sensationalist posturing being the only apparent additions to an already long-established sound. Only after I opted in for a spare ticket to see the Yeahs at the 9:30 Club in early naught-six was I forced to reevaluate my opinion. Which is not to say that my initial assessment was off the mark—the Yeahs’ identity is as much visual as it is auditory, frontwoman Karen O’s haute punk wardrobe and guitarist/keyboardist Nick Zinner’s painstaking coif being primary examples thereof—but that I finally understood the Yeahs’ appeal. Specifically, that Karen O is a powerful performer and a veritable post-punk diva, shrieking and crooning and bodily emphasizing every sex-drenched syllable and heart-wringing verse for the benefit of her appreciative audience, an effort in which she is duly aided by Zinner’s ringing riffs and drummer Brian Chase’s uncomplicated yet ever-apropos rhythms. Old hat though it may be, it’s a vivid and visceral combination that K-O & co. once again employ in their third full-length, It’s Blitz!, dishing out floor-filling crowd-pleasers before drifting into more intimate fare (and returning to rock once again). Dance and drink and screw (until there’s nothing left to do) to the likes of “Zero” and “Heads Will Roll”, come down with the complications and introspectiveness of “Soft Shock” and “Skeletons”, and rise back up with “Dull Life” and “Shame and Fortune”. Though stylish and stylized to a fault, there is a beating, bleeding heart ‘neath all the glitz and glam which the Yeahs are unafraid to lay bare. While it’s true that the Yeah Yeah Yeahs do not stray any further afield from their already well-worn post-punk path, they do prove that they’re more than fit to tread the same ground as their forebears, and that is no small feat. (!!!!!!!!!! 7/10)

Butcher Boy – React or Die
(April 2009, How Does It Feel to Be Loved?)

For lyric storytellers, a song is as much a mode of transportation as it is a storage medium. That is: the song serves as both a place where memories are kept and a means of bringing an individual to that place. Better yet, think of the song as a conjurer’s sigil, a combined portal/destination, in and through which one might channel the past, rousing both long- and nearly-departed ghosts with cognitive scraps, psychometric triggers, and imaginative turns of phrase—vague descriptions and fine details which bear more weight and power than their immaterial nature would otherwise suggest. Though neither Paracelsian nor Faustian in nature, Butcher Boy’s John Blain Hunt is, himself, an old hand at such poetic alchemy and sonic evocation, deftly transforming words and sounds into images and ideas and using them to summon emotions and memories from the places and persons we’ve all been but quite nearly forgotten. Performed in the same upbeat-yet-sombre chamber pop spirit as Belle and Sebastian and the Smiths, Butcher Boy’s React or Die layers its classical strings, guitars, piano, and percussion with subtlety and aplomb, skillfully supporting Hunt’s airy croons as they recount tales of lovers’ spats and humdrum home life, of drunken kisses, trying friendships, and mental disquietude—everyday bits, bobs, trials and tribulations, all made lovely and precious in the mind’s eye. Like Profit in Your Poetry before it, React or Die lives off a steady diet of touchstones and sentimentality, its mental cupboards overflowing with random tschotchkes and scattered ephemera, baby teeth, buttons, seashells, postcards, and snapshots spilling out with each and every song. It’s a haunted album to be sure, but Hunt’s ghosts are often of the friendly variety, and React or Die is far more pleasant to live with than it is to exorcise. (!!!!!!!!!! 8/10)

The New Trust / Pteradon – Split 7”
thenewtrust.com | myspace.com/pteradonband
(April 2009, Silver Sprocket)

As noted in the premier edition of “In the Rotation”, vinyl singles are something of an odd duck in the era of the digital download—an anachronistic holdout from the days of Top 40 singles racks, monthly 7” subscription clubs, and unsigned bands with just enough scratch to put out a two-song 45rpm record. In this day and age, it seems far more cost-effective to simply self-record a track and release it through the usual for-free online venues (MySpace, YouTube, etc.) or go the professional route of studio time and $.99-a-pop iTunes/eMusic distro than to fiddle about with small supplies of an outdated medium. Sure, neither of the aforementioned modern options has the collector’s appeal of exclusive/limited-edition tangibility—let alone the snap-and-crackle warmth which is the crack-cocaine of audiophiledom and the merch table hockability of a physical record—but the limitless availability of digital media nevertheless translates into (the possibility of) a listening audience far and away greater than the mere 500- or 1000-copy pressings typical of most split-7”’s. That said, I’m still a sucker for records that I can hold in my hand and, given that nothing motivates a buyer quite like rarity (that is: market scarcity), it’s not too surprising to hear that I jumped at the news of Pteradon’s split 7” with The New Trust like a caffeine-fueled commodities trader upon hearing reports about the Exxon Valdez. The New Trust end of the 7”—comprised of “Wretched and Unwanted” and the darkly comedic “Ethan Hawke is a Dead Man”—brought me right back to the late nineties/early naughties tradition of “emo”-tinged post-hardcore, a time of sludgy rhythms, echoing power chords, and adenoidal vocals emphatically waxing romantic and melodramatic about this or that. Entertaining, yeah, but still just an appetizer for what was, to me, the main course: Pteradon’s deep-throat growls, fist-pumping rhythms, hammer-heavy guitar tricks, and shout-along choruses, all laying waste to your ears with wave after unstoppable wave of pure rock goodness. That said, “Apeman” and “Z-Axis (You Want It, You Got It)” are just the tip of the Pteradon iceberg, but they are more than enough to get you excited for everything that hasn’t yet broached the surface. (!!!!!!!!!! 7/10)

Pele – A Scuttled Bender in a Watery Closet
(April 2009, Polyvinyl Record Co.)

Ah, yes. Whenever a band or artist has a number of limited-release singles and short-run EPs, they are sure to one day have a retrospective and/or posthumous compilation comprised principally of those rarified recordings. Quite a different breed from the old-standard-harvesting “Best of” comps, rarity & B-side collections are explicitly designed to provide the listener with something that s/he most likely has not heard before, and to serve as a quick and easy way of shoring up the cracks in one’s collection. Such is the grab-bag-cum-completist spirit of Pele’s A Scuttled Bender in a Watery Closet—which, coincidentally (or not), dropped but four months after the fifth anniversary of the Milwaukeean experimental-instrumental outfit’s final live performance (in Tokyo, Japan, of all places). Moreover, given that primary Pele alums Jon Mueller and Chris Rosenau have since gone on to focus their attentions on the erstwhile side project Collections of Colonies of Bees, A Scuttled Bender in a Watery Closet serves as a condensed timeline of sorts, a two-disc highlight reel documenting Pele’s slow but steady transition from jazz-infused and electronics-augmented post-rock (as heard in “Blue Cecil”, “Apiary”, and “Gas the Nutsy”) to a far more outré brand of computer-aided sound-finagling that has since become synonymous with Mueller and Rosenau’s work with Collections of Colonies of Bees (and, currently, with Volcano Choir). Fittingly, Pele’s transformation from a jazzy trio into an outfit of electronic sound-tweakers begins to take shape on disc two, which is comprised near-entirely of remix tracks by Mueller, Rosenau, and fellow Pele alum (and Bees associate) Jon Minor. Whereas the early Pele of disc one (c. 1998-2000) focuses on creating and constructing intricate compositions using live instruments in a live setting, the latter-day Pele of disc two (c. 2001-2003) experiments with taking those compositions apart, breaking them down into their constituent elements, and using Powerbooks and whatnot to rearrange the pieces into even more intricate patterns. Sure, the early permutations of this formula are a little rough on the ears (“Banana Pudding”, “Cigarette Papers”, and the Crouton No. 1 quartet especially), but, when heard in the context of A Scuttled Bender in a Watery Closet, Pele’s gradual metamorphosis into Collections of Colonies of Bees is a remarkably coherent and organic one, even if their methodology becomes increasingly fractured and digital. (!!!!!!!!! 8/10)

Double Dagger – MORE
(May 2009, Thrill Jockey)

Looking back, naught-nine turned out to be quite the solid year for Double Dagger. The Baltimore-based post-punk trio signed on with Chicago’s Thrill Jockey, through which they released their third full-length album, MORE. They spent quite a bit of time touring the States—including a stint with the Baltimore Round Robin tour—and received a ton of positive press from a variety of sources (BBC, Rolling Stone, Aural States, AMG, City Paper, etc.). Hell, two of the band’s members even had the time to publish a book about typography, which makes sense given their fine arts backgrounds and extensive portfolio of professional design work under the moniker of Post Typography. Neat stuff, that. Granted, this biographical info is hardly news, particularly if you are a Baltimore native who is even remotely familiar with Double Dagger or its members, but it is important to understand (or, at the very least, be aware of) the trio’s long-standing creative-cultural connections with the Greatest City in America, particularly since said connections frequently fuel and inform their music. That being said/written, the modus operandi of Double Dagger is loud, raucous rock in the DC-hardcore vein, driven by the weighty percussion of Yukon alum Denny Bowen, emboldened by the mutative bass lines of Bruce Willen, and empowered by the emphatically sung-spoken-screamed mix of localized sociopolitical commentary and dour self-examination that issues forth from the mouth and mind of Nolen Strals. Topically, Double Dagger rocks and rages with anti-unilateralist sentiments in “No Allies”, muses on a lifelong death fixation in “Vivre Sans Temps Mort”, and rallies the class war casualties in “We are the Ones”. Then there are the empty consumer comforts of “Camouflage”, the anti-Manichean ambiguities of “The Lie/The Truth”, the everyday actors (“all the world’s a stage”, etc.) of “Surrealist Composition With Your Face”, and the nightly urban disquiet of “Helicopter Lullaby”. Rounding out the album, the ironic title and slow instrumental growth of “Neon Grey” fades into the down-and-out quarter-life crises of “Half-Life”, after which Double Dagger closes things out with the self-righteous solipsism of “Two-Way Mirror”. Add a smattering of harmonium and some intentionally lo-fi grit and grime to go along with the fist-pumping rhythms and anxious, anthemic shout-along vocal diatribes, and you have MORE in a nutshell. While often coarsely confrontational with their content and abrasively assertive in their presentation—never let it be said that Strals does not embrace the act of lyrical pontification—Double Dagger’s sly critiques are frequently as self-aware as they are outwardly-directed. It’s cutting, yeah, but MORE is better thought of as a therapeutic bloodletting than an attempt to kill. (!!!!!!!!!! 7/10)

Passion Pit – Manners
(May 2009, French Kiss)

Following hard upon their debut EP, Chunk of Change—so hard that it shares the radio- and commercial-friendly single “Sleepyhead”—Passion Pit’s first full length release, Manners, attempts to prove that this Cambridge electro-pop quintet is anything but a one-hit wonder. Though you could easily argue that the jury is still out on that one, it does bear noting that Manners managed to make its way onto quite a few “Best of 2009” lists, with Passion Pit themselves logging over 300,000 unique listeners via Last.fm, as well as having the cojones to embark on a rather lengthy international tour in early 2010. That’s quite a bit of momentum for a relatively new band, and all because some nasal whinger with a laptop recorded a demo of love songs for his then-girlfriend. With that in mind—or out, the past is past, moving on and such—Passion Pit’s Manners is far more lovelorn than loving, its sad sack sentiments sitting in stark contrast with the album’s upbeat façade. Even so, Passion Pit’s eminently danceable rhythms and shimmering synthetics (plus a smattering of guest instrumentals by the likes of Seth Jabour and Cale Parks) serve to offset lead singer Michael Angelakos’s woeful bleating and twee pity songs, effectively making light of his downer moods and helping him to rise above them. Or try to, at least—that seems to be the underlying theme of the album: Angelakos working to clear his head with post-break-up musings on life, death, love, and faith, as well as figuring out just how to deal with the sudden fame and potential fortune of his band’s burgeoning musical career. As singles like “The Reeling” plainly show, Manners is a melodramatic affair full to bursting with mixed metaphors pushed along by the dire immediacy of twenty-something angst, but its songs are never so forced (either preposterously overblown or dully pedestrian) that you feel as though Angelakos doesn’t fully believe in what he’s doing. Still, it will be interesting to see how Passion Pit fares through the coming year, and whether or not Angelakos & co. can both transcend the hype and translate their popular momentum into a sophomore album that’s actually worth its salt. (!!!!!!!!!! 6/10)

Phoenix – Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix
(May 2009, Loyauté / Glassnote)

In all honesty, I find the popular and critical hoopla surrounding this Versailles foursome a bit difficult to understand, particularly in that Phoenix tends to come across as a French (yet willfully un-Francophonic) version of The Strokes… which is not to imply that one is necessarily imitating the other, only an acknowledgment that their source materials and general presentations are remarkably similar. Sveltely tailored looks, staccato guitar riffs, synth textures, punchy bass lines, unpretentious percussion, vocals meandering from quiet understatement to a more strident yelping—great if you can’t get enough of that sort of new-millennium New Wave meets Velvet Underground-ish garage-rock apery, meh-inducing if you’re looking for something a little more innovative. But it’s not as though Phoenix’s fourth studio offering, Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix, is a woefully lackluster album from a wholly untalented band. Hardly; lead singles “Lisztomania” and Cadillac-endorsing fan favourite “1901” have shown Thomas Mars, Deck D’Arcy, Laurent Brancowitz, and Christian Mazzalai to be worthy composers of catchy pop music, their gleaming hooks and alluring rhythms landing them a goodly number of admirers stateside. Nevertheless, Phoenix’s latest album is a disconcertingly shallow affair: absent the falsetto flourishes, ringing riffs, and danceable rhythms (that is: taken as unadorned poetry), the ten tracks of Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix are underwhelming bland and frequently nonsensical, their vaguely romantic and marginally reflective offerings cobbled together from awkward ESL couplets and un-idiomatic metaphors so confusing and/or mismatched that they regularly defy interpretation—which, in turn, leads me to believe that Phoenix’s pronounced Anglophonic shtick is all about appealing to a wider audience, and that conveying some sort of deeply personal sentiment or telling a coherent story through song is the furthest thing from their minds. Si vous pouvez parler, parler naturellement, non? Not that anyone has ever needed to be unique or intelligent (let alone genuinely artistic or intelligible) in order to sell a pop song, but you must admit that the results are so much better (and understandable) that way. (!!!!!!!!!! 4/10)

Classics of Love – Walking in Shadows EP
(June 2009, Asian Man)

As much as I am a fan of music—both as a creative act and as a packaged product—I have never, myself, wanted to be in a band. Blame it on performance anxiety, an admitted lack of talent, or whatever, but I was never one of those kids who dreamt of being on stage in some sacrosanct venue, singing and strumming in front of hundreds of screaming fans, let alone of touring the nation in support of one of my favourite bands. True, I’ve never wanted such things for myself, but I do understand their appeal. That, and it’s not too difficult to appreciate the surreality of actually being in a band, on tour, with a musician and songwriter you may very well have idolized as a teenager. Which is essentially the case with Classics of Love, a Californian punk outfit lead by elder statesman Jesse Michaels and backed by the twenty-something trio of Mike Huguenor, Morgan Herrell, and Max Feschbach, who also operate under the name Hard Girls. Considering the age difference between Michaels and his new bandmates (roughly 15 years), it’s pretty easy to think of Classics of Love as a sort of dream gig, a once-in-a-lifetime chance for a handful of relative unknowns to live out the childhood fantasy of performing and touring with a punk rock icon. To that effect, Classics of Love’s debut EP, Walking in Shadows, does an amazing job of channeling SoCal’s late-80’s punker soul: Michaels’s emphatically sung-shouted sociopolitical and -economic rants are well-matched by Feschbach and Herrell’s rhythmic runs and Huguenor’s bright riffs, plus full-band back-ups for the frequently anthemic choruses. It’s an old formula, sure—if you’ve ever listened to Operation Ivy or Common Rider, then you pretty much know what to expect—but Classics of Love’s obvious enthusiasm (as heard in title track “Walking in Shadows”) makes it all sound fresh and new. Not too shabby for an old soldier and a couple of young recruits, eh? (!!!!!!!!!! 6/10)

The Shitty Limits – Beware the Limits
(June 2009, La Vida Es Un Mus / Sorry State / Boss Tuneage / Wallride)

Not to beat a dead horse—you would think that its remains had been pulverized and scattered to the four winds by now—but the music industry is in trouble. Album sales are way down, instances of “freeloading” (nods to TMT’s Chris Ruen) are ticking ever upward, and the RIAA is getting its East India Company on in a questionable effort to stem the tide. Then you have bands like The Shitty Limits, who, in order to increase their audience, have made their entire catalogue available online, free of charge, including their debut full-length, Beware the Limits. It’s a practice which first struck me as a bit odd, ‘til I remembered something that I had written in an installment of “Hip to the Groove”: that one possible future for the music industry would be an inversion of the present relationship between recorded material and live performances. Instead of tours being used to promote a physical album, bands would provide free downloads and sanctioned P2P file-sharing to drum up support in advance of their shows. Live performances would then become the main saleable good, with the tangible album being relegated to the position of a rarified collector’s item or merch-table memento. Seems that wasn’t so much prescient as presently accurate, at least with regards to the constantly-touring (nearly 200 gigs in less than three years), limited-pressing (CDs and LPs combined, only 3064 printed copies of Beware the Limits currently exist), album-uploading habits of The Shitty Limits. This is somewhat less surprising when you consider that The Shitty Limits is a hardcore/punk band, and that said sub-genre has a storied history of being resolutely non-commercial and reliably DIY. Not to mention a pronounced tendency towards raucous, participatory live performances, the frenzy and fury of which are just barely hinted at in Beware the Limits’ brief twenty-three and a half minutes of rough-and-tumble rhythms, brightly blaring riffs, and sneering, shout-along vocals. In this sense, Beware the Limits is less an event in and of itself than it is an open invitation to one of The Shitty Limits’ live shows—which, if the lo-fi likes of “Your Limits are My Limits” and “Hard Wired” are to be believed, are one hell of a good time—and reason enough to look forward to their next jaunt across the pond. (!!!!!!!!!! 6/10)

Finn Riggins – Vs. Wilderness
(October 2009, Tender Loving Empire)

If there is one thing about Finn Riggins that continues to impress me, it’s the Idahoan trio’s ability to create music that manages to appear off-the-cuff yet well-rehearsed, spontaneous yet highly refined. Theirs is a combination of unapologetically coarse pop-rock—snap-crackling-ly bright guitars riffs, sing-to-shout-along vocals, and punchy percussion that cannot help but invite clapping hands and stomping feet to join in on the fun—mixed with esoteric nuances like steel drums, off-time signatures, a wide variety of synth melodies, and various effects both choral and instrumental. That Eric Gilbert, Lisa Simpson, and Cameron Bouiss are technically apt is hard to deny; that they tour unceasingly is fairly well-documented; that Finn Riggins’s second full-length, Vs. Wilderness, is pretty effin’ rad is but a matter of opinion. But it’s a pretty sound opinion on a pretty damn good album: Vs. Wilderness queues up with the light steel drum, eerie ambience, and modulated synth of “Rush of Animals (Prelude)” before cutting to the chase with the crunchy guitar, layered vocals, prog-ish keys and staid percussion of “Battle”. Next up, “Dali” gets a little more creative as Simpson’s skronking guitar plays off of her own vocal samples, Gilbert’s burbling keys, and Bouiss’s well-measured rhythms—all while Simpson’s lilting lead vox allude to a variety of works by famed surrealist Salvador Dalí. The trapping and trading of “Furs”, on the other hand, hearkens back to comically idealized frontier living of “Pannin’ for Gold”, off of 2007’s A Soldier, A Saint, An Ocean Explorer. The calming yet crusty melodies of “Shaky” later give way to Vs. Wilderness’s lead single, “Wake”, which is one of the most out-and-out pop-rock tracks on the entire album with its upbeat percussion, ringing keys, blaring riffs, trade-off vox, and sing-along “whoa-oh-oh-oh-oh-o-oh” back-ups. The likes of “Mahoney” and “Vs. Birds” keep to the more ethereal side of Finn Riggins, all overdriven guitar, affected keys, and flexible percussive fills (lyrics being near-entirely absent from the latter), while the two-part “Antoinette” tends to keep Simpson’s voice near-center, if not entirely up front. And, in a nice bit of sonic circularity, album-ending “Rush of Animals” reintroduces and builds upon the similarly-named prelude which kicked off the album. Though not immediately as captivating as A Soldier, A Saint…, Finn Riggins’ Vs. Wilderness contains its fair share of memorable moments and pleasant surprises, and hints that this trio has more than a few tricks still tucked up their sleeves. Good on them. (!!!!!!!!!! 7/10)

Hard Girls – Hello EP
(October 2009, Quote Unquote Records)

Looking back, 2009 was a banner year for Hard Girls, both for the band as a whole and for its individual members. After releasing their first album in December 2008—a split CD on Silver Sprocket with fellow San Joseans The Albert Square—the Hard Girls trio of Morgan Herrell, Max Feschbach, and Mike Huguenor saddled up with Jesse Michaels’s Classics of Love to tour the US and the UK along with singer/songwriter and Asian Man Records owner/operator Mike Park. Mike H. also released an album with his other band, Shinobu; Morgan and Max released a split 7” (with The New Trust) with their other band, Pteradon; Mike, Morgan, Max and Jesse released Classics of Love’s debut EP on Asian Man; the three M’s dropped their own EP, Hello, on Quote Unquote Records just in time for a cross-country tour complete with a performance at Gainesville’s The Fest. Busy busy. All that aside, it’s best to think of Hard Girls as a synthesis of Shinobu and Pteradon—raucous guitar-rock riffs and narrative songwriting beefed up by punchy punker rhythms and shout-along choruses—with Mike and Morgan swapping lead and backup vocal duties while Max’s driving percussion keeps everything moving along at a comfortable speed. It’s quite the fast ride, too: clocking in at little under eighteen minutes, Hello’s seven tracks are collectively shorter than the five provided for the Gainful Clumps split with The Albert Square, but no less enjoyable. Morgan switches back and forth between slice-of-life sing-speaking and full-body shouting (as heard in “Shame Your Name” and “Quinceanera”), and his gruff approach is nicely complimented by Mike’s reservedly literary tone (as in “Evening Constitutional” and “Strange Carafe”). Though the two have very distinct singing styles, Mike and Morgan manage to strike an effective balance with “Lazer Parade”—Morgan leading the way in and out with hearty yawps, Mike cooling it down with a reflective crooner core, Max deftly varying his tempos accordingly—and are never so contrary that Hard Girls sounds like two completely different bands smashed together, let alone two singers vying for the position of primary frontman. Rather, it’s one big bundle of San Josean goodness, and an excellent capstone for an auspicious year. Oh, and Hello is available to download (donations greatly appreciated!), so get on that. (!!!!!!!!!! 8/10)
Posted by: Tom Körp

Features (February 2nd, 2010)

Tags: beatbots, features, in the rotation, butcher boy, classics of love, double dagger, ecstatic sunshine, finn riggins, hard girls, lucky dragons, new trust, passion pit, pele, peter bjorn and john, phoenix, pteradon, shinobu, shitty limits, yeah yeah yeahs