As you may or may not have guessed, all of the albums up for consideration in this edition of ItR mini-reviews can be legitimately downloaded and/or streamed in their entirety for a nominal fee—which, in most cases, is cheap-as-free. Oddly enough, it turns out the nonphysical trappings of the Digital Age are not all bad.
Granted, those bands who distribute via pay-what-you-want labels like Quote Unquote Records anticipate a small donation in exchange for the privilege of downloading—which is only right, and what’s $5 or so for a full-length album? Also, let’s not forget that the streaming bands are, for their own part, hoping against hope that you like what you hear enough to make the monetary jump to a full-on purchase. It’s all about the sales pitch, after all.
With that in mind: Click the appropriate LINK at the end of each review and enjoy your near-instant musical gratification, just don’t be a freeloader. If you like what you hear, kick back a couple bucks to the folks responsible, whether by donating, buying the album outright, or catching a show next time they come your way.
Cheap Girls – Find Me a Drink Home
(2008 Quote Unquote, Paper and Plastick)
In keeping with a trend that has become all-too-common in my listening life these days, Lansing, Michigan trio Cheap Girls have clung to the periphery of my musical awareness for the better part of the past two years. You know how it goes: the band writes songs, plays out, pops up in the background here and there, but is always far too polite to grab me by the scruff of my neck and forcibly bring me to attention. Of course, that’s my own fault for being so blinders-on. Having first seen their name dropped in association with the Shinobu+Pteradon wunderkinder of Hard Girls—a connection which I had somehow chocked up to an odd nominative coincidence and then neglected to pursue any further—Cheap Girls have since crept into my recommended artists playlist on Last.fm, whereat they have made themselves more than welcome. In particular, the brassy percussion, punchy bass, crunchy guitars, and lilting vocals of “Kind of on Purpose”, “Parking Lot”, and “Kill Your Mood” have been thrilling the associative areas of my brain with warm memories of the Smoking Popes, Superchunk, and Piebald, while also serving as a stark reminder that, yes, bands still make this kind of power-chord-heavy, pop-fueled and punk-friendly style of rock. Better yet, Cheap Girls make it all sound new, which is a rare achievement for a band working with such a familiar formula. As such, debut full-length Find Me a Drink Home is as much a trip down memory lane as it is a breath of fresh air. Though already two years old at this point—and since succeeded by 2009’s My Roaring 20’s—Cheap Girls’ Find Me a Drink Home is well worth a look and a listen. And it’s only a click or two away, so get on that.
Score: !!!!!!!!!! (8/10) | “FREE” DOWNLOAD (donations appreciated!)
Penpal – Penpal
Though objectively a spun-off guitar duo comprised of ex-members of Central, IL-based rock foursome Marquette, one could easily be forgiven for thinking that Penpal is some sort of American Football tribute band. Honestly, bandmates Scott and Brett may only be a cover or two away from being able to accurately bill themselves as such—which is not intended as a knock by any means. Although the influence of Mike Kinsella, Steve Lamos, and Steve Holmes is palpable from the opening arpeggiations of “Times & Dates” through to the closing riffs of “In Bed By”, it would be hard to argue that Penpal do anything but justice to the established mode and motifs of their stylistic forebears. After first digging into that solid foundation of layered six-string polyrhythms, subtle percussion, ambient effects, and mellow vocals, Penpal branch up and out with the more complex, affected, and outwardly mathematical hammer-ons of “Plains, Trains, Places, & People”, “Two by Two”, “The Year Before TJ Got a Blazer”, and “Japanese Bonus Track”. While Penpal may not go far enough afield in their instrumental excursions, and, generally speaking, their sound may not be anything terribly new or novel to begin with—especially not to those who sweat textured and technical Chicago-style math-rock guitar riffs—it is nevertheless pleasant to hear a band like Penpal dust off the old and maybe not-so-well-known musical tropes for a new go-around. Let’s just hope that, with time, they’ll be able to take it somewhere new.
Score !!!!!!!!!! (7/10) | FREE DOWNLOAD
Archipelago – Have Here
(2010 Quote Unquote)
Admittedly, I’m not often one to go for the super-mellow croons, acoustic strums, echoing chimes, and humming tones of modern folk-inspired pop—think of your Sam Beams, Andy Cabics, Devendra Banharts, Grizzly Bears, Fleet Foxes, and what all—mainly because there’s only so much dreamy, sentimental singer-song-writing I can take before I begin to nod off. Not from boredom or lack of interest, mind you; it’s just way too damned soothing, and (in my opinion) best heard when kicking back at the end of a long day with a cup of tea and while nestled in a comfortable chair. For the most part, Archipelago’s softly-sung airs carefully pluck and bow the same romantic heartstrings as local folk-ish favourites like Small Sur, Wax & Wane, and Beach House, with singer-songwriter Peter Naddeo cozying up to interconnected themes of romance, longing, dissolution, heartache, road trips, and home life. Overt commonality and stylistic familiarity notwithstanding, there is a nice compositional range to be found in Have Here, with instrumental opener “Snowrise Sunmelt” and sweetheart ballad “Tell Me” lapsing into the somnambulant “Porch Chimes” and upbeat electric six of “Char”, not to mention the head-bobbing choral hook of “Light in the Road” and the heartfelt homebody-ness of title track “Have Here”—tip top, that lot. Even though Archipelago’s Have Here tends to leave me a bit drowsy on the whole, it’s still kept me company during more than a few quiet nights, and rather pleasantly at that.
Score: !!!!!!!!!! (6/10) | “FREE” DOWNLOAD (donations appreciated!)
The Astounding – In My Mind I Can See Everything EP
In the interests of full-disclosure and narrative context, let it be known that, upon review of The Astounding’s roster, I discovered that better than half of this Bronx-based rock quintet graduated from my alma mater, and but a few scant years after I did so myself. Which was kind of an odd thing to find out—even odder since, after wracking my brain for trace memories of having encountered these gents as undergrads, the only thing I can recall is that guitarists John O’Neill and Sal Mastrocala may or may not have had a large collection of Threadless t-shirts, played together in an on-campus band, and shared a liking for Bear vs. Shark. Granted, the latter might be a bit misleading if true (don’t ask me why I suspect a BvS connection to begin with), since their current project with guitarist/vocalist Areeb Ahmad, bassist Steve Rinaldo, and drummer Walter Shock eschews howl-along post-hardcore in favour of a melodic and oft-melodramatic brand of reverb-drenched and harmony-happy guitar rock. Y’know, the kind that came up strong in the wake of the “emo”-tinged NJ/LI explosion of the late nineties and early naughties. Meaning: Hopeless romantic confessional-narratives overtop large guitar swells aided by backing vocal harmonies, crashing brass, and rumbling four-string shots. All told, it’s a big sound that The Astounding handle well and with far more polish than one would ordinarily expect from a fledgling band’s self-released EP. In particular, the likes of “Seed and Sow” and “Meditation Gang” show that The Astounding can wield meaty hooks and craft vocal riffs that would likely make their predecessors proud. Again, as with others on this list, The Astounding’s In My Mind I Can See Everything can come across as an echo of yesteryear, but it’s more likely a sign that yesteryear has yet to lose its appeal. No harm in that.
Score: !!!!!!!!!! (6/10) | FREE DOWNLOAD
Captain Ahab – The Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts
(2010 Cock Rock Disco)
Gaze, if you would, at the cover image of Captain Ahab’s The Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts. Don’t just steal a glance. Let your eyes linger. Drink it all in. What stands out? Anything in particular? Okay, now take note of the above-mentioned imprint responsible for the release of this live album. Notice something of pattern? A bit phallic-centric and crotch-tastically ridiculous, no? But, then again, that would appear to be the point. Comprised of button-pushing/knob-tweaking singer-composer Jonathan Snipes and dancing supporter Jim Merson, LA-based “ravesploitation” duo Captain Ahab is an absurdist, tongue-in-cheek party aimed directly at your pants. Rather, it’s a party that feels perhaps a bit too confined by those pants, hence Snipes’s and Merson’s frequent lack thereof. Cobbling their music together from chop-shop song samples, sonic noisenikery, and intentionally offensive lyrics that wallow satirically in man’s-man machismo and casual misogyny—even as the sweat-drenched stage-meets-floor show repeatedly veers off into questionable burlesque and crowd-invading homoeroticism—Snipes and Merson are, by all means, equal opportunity offenders who aim to push everyone, straight or queer, well outside of their respective comfort zones. Yet there’s something about the frenzied chaos and nonchalant debauchery of Captain Ahab’s hyper-danceable music and its subversively mixed messages that comes across as charming, even cathartic. Really, just dig the anthem to overcompensation that is “I Don’t Have a Dick”, the bizarrely sweet break-up ballad “Was Love”, the head-banging insanity of “Death to False Techno”, and the party-hearty nihilism of show-ending participatory jam “Feel Anymore”. Even when divorced from the dance floor and presented to the masses in The Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts, Snipes and Merson’s musical antics are shocking in a way that makes you want to laugh at yourself for being offended in the first place. It’s ridiculous, but sublimely so—no small accomplishment for a pair of electro provocateurs.
Score: !!!!!!!!!! (5/10) | FREE DOWNLOAD
Cold Electrics – Y’Know, For Charity
(2010 Quote Unquote)
Self-comparisons to a “drunken Faraquet” aside, Sean Eldon Qualls’ mad-science-experiment-turned-DIY-musical-project Cold Electrics is, genre-wise, a little hard to pigeon-hole. Sure, like Devin Ocampo & co., Qualls makes interesting use of stutter-stepping math-rock progressions, further aiding and abetting his spastic riffage with alternatingly bluesy, lilting, and tortured vocals. Think of classically complex post-hardcore-influenced avant-rock canoodling in the DC vein. Now stop thinking of that, because it’s a gross oversimplification of what Cold Electrics brings to the musical table. Rather than simply ape established math-rock and post-whatever tropes, Qualls regularly goes off the rails with the addition of sampled narrative interludes and overloaded instrumental arrangements constructed from a standard-issue trio of guitar, bass, and drums, plus ukulele, dulcimer, melodica, organ, muff-affected clav, and (sure, why the hell not?) blips and beeps from a Nintendo Entertainment System. Given the abundance of sonic materials at hand, the end result—that is, Cold Electrics’ self-recorded, -engineered, and -produced debut album, Y’Know, for Charity—is understandably all over the place. And yet it’s wholly listenable despite itself. Queue up “Erection 2008 / Diamagnetics” and “Blood-Sucking Eldon Make You Feel WORSE” for prime examples of how Qualls manages to exploit and subvert your auditory expectations with equal parts catchy hooks, blazing riffs, sharp rhythmic turns, and overtly personal lyrics. Sloppy, disconnected, and contradictory in ways that can only be wholly intentional, Cold Electrics’ Y’Know, For Charity toes that fine line between abrasive and entrancing while doing its damnedest to melt your face clean off. Funny thing, it kinda succeeds.
Score: !!!!!!!!!! (6/10) | “FREE” DOWNLOAD (donations appreciated!)
Fulton Lights – 3 Songs EP
Otherwise (relatively un)known for his ambient and folksy musings with Maestro Echoplex and John Guilt, Baltimore scion Andrew Spencer Goldman has, for the past five years or so, been recording and performing under the name Fulton Lights. Aided by a supporting cast of familiar faces—World/Inferno Friendship Society’s Peter Hess, Aloha’s TJ Lipple, and Title Tracks’ John Davis, to name but a few—Goldman’s current musical endeavour trades in the subtle touches and sombre ruminations of his previous projects for the far more direct (if no less textured) route of bluesy pop-rock. There’s far less Damien Rice than Neil Young in Goldman’s echoing croons and cries, his fuzzy strums blending with sharp synth shots, tubby bass notes, stick-and-ride percussion, and a late-entering horn section in open road anthem “Staring Out the Window”. Riding shotgun, “Fates and Faun” ups the grit and grumbled vox for a head-bobbing number built on hazy six-string riffage and a weighty chorus that’s guaranteed to perk up your ears. Dozing off in back, “Future Tense” continues Goldman’s pattern of pairing noise-affected guitar and space-y coos, his positive vibrations strumming, thrumming, and flowing out to warm your heart and ignite your soul. “You’ve got to teach it, not like you teach it in grade school. You’ve got to teach them how to be hungry,” Goldman stutter-stepping-ly states, “and I’ve got one great big voracious appetite.” It’s a sunny yet strident message, one that speaks of possibilities and potential and yearning, and it mates well with the bright notes that trail off at the end of the 3 Songs EP. Moreover, it underscores how this Fulton Lights offering is merely an appetizer, and that bigger and better things are sure to come. So keep your ears open, and stay hungry.
Score: !!!!!!!!!! (7/10) | FREE STREAM
Laura Stevenson and the Cans – A Record
(2008 Quote Unquote, 2010 Asian Man)
Imagine if you will, that, by some bizarre collision of musicosmic proportions, the lilting vocals and deft arpeggiations of Joanna Newsom were slammed headlong into the spastic fuzz and overloaded lo-fi rambunctiousness of Neutral Milk Hotel. Neatly plucked strings and airy, doubled croons running up against an improvised orchestral mélange of emphatic acoustic strums, horns, drawn strings, organ, accordion, glockenspiel, and rattling percussion: a combination that is damn-near guaranteed to set your bespectacled, cardigan’d, and tousle-haired listeners a-swoon. Now lend an ear or two to Laura Stevenson and the Cans’ 2008 debut album, A Record—which was expanded and physically (re-)released by Mike Park’s Asian Man Records earlier this year—and just try to tell me that the above-mentioned hypothetical musical merger hasn’t already happened, and with spectacular results. Dig the shift from twee vocals and finger-picked guitar to drone-and-burbling horns, arching strings, and assertive intonations in “Baby Bones”, then the quick banjo-aided shift to the delicately string-supported “The Pretty One”, followed hard upon by the raucously head-bobbing lo-fi antics of quick-and-dirty ditty “Landslide Song/The Dig”. Ranging in turn from deceptively simple to simply fantastic, there’s a hauntingly beautiful quality to A Record, a lightness which alternatingly flickers and blazes in the paired-back likes of “Nervous Rex”, the sound-affected organ rocker “Source and the Sound”, and the sweetly self-sacrificial litany of indignities endured in “A Shine to It”. Seriously. Go listen, and hear exactly why Laura Stevenson and the Cans’ A Record has underappreciated late-blooming hit written all over it.
Score: !!!!!!!!!! (9/10) | “FREE” DOWNLOAD (donations appreciated!)
The Limousines – Get Sharp
(2010 Orchard City Books and Noise)
A Colbert-ish Tip o’ the hat to my wily friend Mike for bringing this delightful nugget of SF Bay-area electro-pop to my attention, followed perhaps by a stern wag of the finger at myself for enjoying it as much as I do. As I’ve mentioned in the past, my listening relationship with so-called “synthetic” music is a tenuous one wrought with no small amount of self-loathing. While I’ve vowed again and again that effects-bedazzled keys and prerecorded studio samples will never take the place of live instrumentation in my heart, over the past year or two, I’ve found myself constantly cheating on my lifelong love of rock’n’roll power trios and convoluted six-string riffs, stepping out into the pit and onto the dance floor to the pulsing beats of drum machines and the tittering tunes of MacBook- and Korg-created melodies. I’m not altogether proud of these genre-crossing dalliances, and yet, after hearing The Limousines’ Get Sharp—which features such ear-grabbing tracks as “Internet Killed the Video Star” and the Architecture in Helsinki-esque horn-backed word-compounder “Flaskaboozedancingshoes”—I’m finding fewer and fewer reasons to be ashamed. Sure, it helps that Eric Victorino and Giovanni Giusti utilize live percussion in their on-album mix and when playing out, but, more than the mere addition of a full-on kit, it’s the realization that, prefabricated or no, processed or no, it’s just good music. Full-to-bursting with positive energy and duly aided by a healthy dose of self-awareness, The Limousines’ Get Sharp revels in its synthetic sonic frenzy with reckless abandon and readily-apparent joy. So don’t be too surprised if you find yourself doing the same.
Score: !!!!!!!!!! (7/10) | FREE STREAM
The Wild – Set Ourselves Free
(2010 Quote Unquote, Asian Man)
Folk-punk is one of those mixed genres that, aesthetically-speaking, makes far more sense in practice than on paper. It’s a paradox arising from the notion that folk music is this sort of soft-spoken collection of acoustic sing-along-songs and campfire spirituals, and thereby an odd companion to punk’s spastic electric blasts, heavy-handed percussion, and steady diet of wheat-pasted agitprop culled from ‘zinester manifestos. But that’s a surface-level judgment based on stereotypes, one which obviously fails to consider that both folk and punk are steeped in traditions of grassroots activism, social advocacy, and class consciousness, and that each regularly serves up personal and crowd-participatory anthems of the disenfranchised. Really, the only difference is one of presentation—of acoustic versus electric guitars, softly singing versus rudely shouting—and even that dividing line is loosely drawn and easily blurred. Atlanta’s The Wild, for one, blend their emphatic but eminently approachable mix of crooner duet vox and jangling six-string strums with the rumble and rattle of bass and drums, plus banjo, harmonica, and scattered hits of strings and synth. It’s a sound that skews folk on record, but plays out in basement venues with all the shout-along energy and mosh-friendly angst of a punk band. As first evidenced in title track “Set Ourselves Free”, The Wild employ a sort of sonic bipolar disorder, alternating between two very different sides of a single musical coin, frequently flipping from languid to rambunctious and back again. They revel in the neon lights of the city yet seek solace in leafy groves and starry skies, crying out all the while for peace, understanding, community, friendship, freedom without fear, comfort without complacency, and a world better than the one they’ve known. It’s idealistic to a fault, but undeniably heartfelt—a common thread between the folkies and the punkers if ever there was one.
Score: !!!!!!!!!! (7/10) | “FREE” DOWNLOAD (donations appreciated!)
Features (November 5th, 2010)
Tags: beatbots, features, in the rotation, free downloads, cheap girls, penpal, archipelago, the astounding, captain ahab, cold electrics, fulton lights, laura stevenson and the cans, the limousines, the wild