Quasi: American Gong
I really should’ve known this was gonna happen. Quasi’s last album, 2006’s When The Going Gets Dark, only had one really good song too: the ever-ratcheting miasmal instrumental “Presto Change-O”, but it was SO good, and the rest of the album was pretty good, and maybe nothing good had come out in a while the week American Gong was released, so I jumped the gun and bought it. Even disregarding the embarrassing “Rockabilly Party”, which blatantly steals the riff from Neil Young’s “Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere” (nothing rockabilly about it) and the stupid 42 seconds of a dog (or dog impersonator?) howling, it’s a bad album full of bad lyrics and fooled-you caustic singing. Except for the awesome mini-epic “Bye Bye Blackbird”, which succeeds largely thanks to Janet Weiss and her incredible drumming and sweet vocal harmonies, but also features a mesmerizing juxtaposition of lush and raucous energies, fuzzy dynamic builds and overall intriguing guitar work by Sam Coomes. It’s golden-age Jane’s Addiction-caliber histrionics like you don’t really hear in the modern climate. Coomes’ lyrics are still a bit silly, but they’re a just an occasional conveyance amidst six and a half minutes of awesomeness.
After the breakout ubiquity of 2008’s Oracular Spectacular, Ben Goldwasser and Andrew VanWyngarden’s inside joke of a band was suddenly forced to become a real band, with its two leaders living it up and giggling about nobody getting the joke. Now with a full band at their disposal, they’ve put out their sophomore effort, with critics falling over themselves calling it too “dark” or “challenging” for the populace. Clearly, the glitter twins have pulled off another ruse with nobody the wiser. The only thing challenging about this hodgepodge of stylistic whims is suffering through twelve minutes of “Siberian Breaks” trying to convince yourself there’s anything clever or musically worthwhile about it. But “Brian Eno”, now there’s a song you can get down to whether they’re being sincere or smartasses. Entertaining lyrics you can read however you like, infectious, Devoluted post-punk beat that’s deranged enough to stay fresh every time you hear it. A classic single surrounded by a couple songs (“It’s Working”, “Song For Dan Treacy”) that sound like crappy diversions from the same sketch, and a bunch of frivolous, Flaming Lips-style inconsequential fluff.
The Strange Boys: Be Brave
Don’t let this stop you from seeing The Strange Boys live, because they put on a great show. Just don’t be fooled into thinking that energy translates in the studio. Without the kinetic weirdness of their stage presence, a crusty-amp ambience in a dingy bar, maybe a couple beers, these guys come off as bunch of tipsy amateurs with none of the palpable togetherness of their live show. Ryan Sambol’s voice loses its scrappy magnetism when stripped bare on record, and the band’s shuffling country/blues achieves about as much cohesion as a mid-70s drunk-junkie Stones show. The ramshackle production is surely intentional, but in order to be effective, they’d need shitgaze levels of lo-fi to wash out the sloppy playing. But the brilliance of the title track is something that can’t be dimmed by any measure of incompetence. There are several other tunes here that really burst aflame when they play ‘em live (including the awesomely-titled “Laugh At Sex, Not Her”), but “Be Brave” is the only one I’m interested in listening to at home.
The Knife: Tomorrow, In A Year
Ah, the vanity project. Karin Dreijer Andersson (a.k.a. Fever Ray) won all kinds of fully-justified accolades for her incredible solo debut last year (not to mention, the greatest award acceptance speech ever). This year, she’s released a barely-penetrable opera thingy in conjunction with her brother Olaf Dreijer (the other half of The Knife) and a handful of other musicians, most of whom have no Wikipedia entry. My beef is a bit more with the business side, really: it’s not a Knife album at all. It just bears the brand name. Mezzo-soprano Kristina Wahlin Momme figures heavily into the scheme, while Andersson does not. I’m not even saying I’m equipped to properly assess this avant/classical/electronic mashup; I’m just saying that the only recognizably Knifey song on the double album, “Colouring Of Pigeons”, is also the only really good SONG.
Earl Greyhound: Suspicious Package
It’s always good to open the album with a powerhouse track, but when it’s the only standout, that’s a major bummer. No points for separating “The Eyes Of Cassandra” into two tracks, and while the title conjures up pretentious fantasy-novel imagery, it’s a juggernaut of jiggly indie prog grand enough to be the opening number of a musical tragedy. Melodrama suits the intertwined vocals of Matt Whyte and Kamara Thomas, which makes the rest of the album puzzling (read: boring), because all that portent gets swallowed up by relatively generic blues rock. If you’re going to be a blues rock band, fine; just don’t get us all jazzed up with something truly unique and then revert to your natural state.
Bone Thugs-N-Harmony: Uni5: The World’s Enemy
What really sucks is that Bone made a really good album in 2007 (Strength & Loyalty) without its most unique talent, erstwhile founding member Bizzy Bone, and now that he’s back, along with fresh-outta-jail Flesh-N-Bone, the cohesive vision just isn’t there. The first track, a seven-minute-plus treatise called “The Rebirth”, could’ve made a really good four-minute song, but it ultimately wears you down with repetition of the chorus and tiresome bravado that reality doesn’t back up. “Universe”, however, is a brilliant slice of Bizzy-led psychedelic brotherly love, with all members’ voices wrapping around each other like silk, the smoothest shit they’ve come up with since the 90s. Otherwise, the “skits” sprinkled throughout are egregiously stupid, and the last half of the album is unrepentant cheese--the same trap every Bone album has fallen into since 2000’s BTNHResurrection, but at least there’s a glimmer of hope.
Dr. Dog: Shame, Shame
I wouldn’t say there’s a bad song on this album, and this band puts on a really good live show, so I almost feel bad putting this on the list. Still, after several listens to this album, I realized I just wanted to skip to the title track at the very end, because it blows away everything else. Sure, part of it is that the first two verses are taken verbatim from my own past as if I’d written them myself, but there’s enough soul in this song to give any hopeless romantic a grudging smidgeon of hope. The rest of the record is cleverly arranged and convincingly delivered, but it’s a vast plateau chilling far below the peak at the end.