2013 Mid-Year Album Roundup: Rock

Wed Jul 31 2013

Let's hear it for electric guitars!  Here's another round of overdue album reviews, including ones by Earl Greyhound, Eight Bells, The Men, My Gold Mask, Shouting Matches, Spectrals, Team Spirit, Temple, Their/They're/There, Tripwires and Turf War.

Earl Greyhound, Besides Seasides EP

Not sure what's keeping this Brooklyn trio from putting out more music, but they've got a pretty cool sound and their songs are pretty catchy, great vocal harmonies and some solid classic-rock riffs with a slightly proggy edge and a populist lyrical ethos that ought to be perfect for...um, success?  But somehow this four-song EP is all they could come up with since their 2010 full-length, the pretty-damn-good Suspicious Package.  Maybe the whole blues-rock thing makes you an outcast in Brooklyn?  These new tunes are as promising as ever, but I guess in the light of the current climate of eclecticism-über-alles you pretty much have to tour constantly to build a fanbase if you're gonna just play rock and roll, so I can't see this band surviving with its current strategy and style.  Pretty good EP, though.

Eight Bells, The Captain's Daughter EP

Here we have another mildly intriguing EP of somewhat proggy rock, only this one's mostly instrumental and not poppy, leaning instead towards the infallible Mogwai influence.  You don't get the slow burns or the massive swells, but there's shoe-gazing aplenty and metal textures and quite a few worthwhile guitar riffs that will probably keep your interest and would surely make for a pretty sizzling opening-band live show.  Unfortunately, there's this drummer (Chris Van Huffel) who has definitely NOT mastered the double bass, making for more than a few awkward rhythmic moments (he is the glaring weak link).  Then there's Melynda Jackson's shaky gothic vocals, which are actually quite effective, but when she busts into a forceful growl on "Fate And Technology" the band doesn't have the chops or balls to bring it home.  The best moments are the noisy atmospherics of the title track (except it's way too long) and the echo-chamber guitar themes of "Yellowed Wallpaper", the only good ideas that are properly executed.  Overall, this is a sloppy post-rock band trying to be metal occasionally, but a lot of eventually-great bands got their starts in very similar fashion.

The Men, New Moon

Being absurdly prolific (by modern standards) seems to have finally caught up with The Men.  New Moon is a pretty significant departure from their straight-up punky garage with a twist of twang, and maybe a few more months of working on these tunes would've yielded something more fully-realized.  But the first track, the insubstantial Wilco-esque "Open The Door", is unfortunately a harbinger of the many half-baked ideas masquerading as complete songs on this album.  This band has always been thrilling for its unrefined wallop, but this effort to diversify demanded more care than The Men's ambition evidently allows.  "Without A Face", "The Brass" and "Electric" come closest to recapturing the ramshackle glory of the past, but this type of material was already perfected on Open Your Heart last year; at some point it's gotta be time to move on.  The studio banter conveniently "left in" between tracks only serves as a reminder of how tossed-off the whole album is, in a less-than-flattering sense.  The blatant Neil Young worship of "I Saw Her Face" and the cutthroat psych-rock assault of album closer "Supermoon" are the two instances where you might go 'aaaahhh, YEAH' as you get a taste of what to hope for as this band moves forward; then again, they're not exactly revelatory.  The timid vocal harmonies of "Half Angel Half Light" and "The Seeds" sound like an approximation of early Who records, and while they're pretty pointless here, they do remind me that The Who also had some awkward growing pains (not to mention Townshend's often atrocious lyrics--can somebody back me up here??) in between their mod-punk growl and eventual rock-opera supremacy.  For their next record, The Men are gonna have to either head back to the garage for real and risk treading water, or actually TRY.

My Gold Mask, Leave Me Midnight

Sometimes straightforward rock just isn't enough.  My Gold Mask obviously considers itself a vehicle for singer Gretta Rochelle, who obviously considers herself a sultry siren (just look at the album cover), but if she had the kind of star power she thinks she has, it would be enough to carry a bunch of no-qualifier rock, and it ain't.  When she's going for the deep, sexy effect ("In Our Babylon", "Without"), she sounds like Shirley Manson trying to emote; her higher register is more interesting and believable, somewhat on the order of Karen O but not quite as expressive.  But she's not a bad singer at all, just not charismatic enough to turn the lackluster tunes and leaden overall style into, um, gold.  There are a couple gems: the stompy anthem "I, Animal", where less instrumental bluster is definitely more, and the dancey psych-rock bombshell "Burn Like The Sun", which contains by far the most sparkling hook of the record.  It's not a totally dull album, but the memorable melodies are few and the memorable riffs...wait, were there any riffs?

Shouting Matches, Grownass Man

As some of you might know, I'm a terrible Wisconsinite and I don't like Bon Iver very much, except for that one amazing song on the first album where he doesn't sing in falsetto the whole time.  So it makes me happy the more I listen to Grownass Man and realize Justin Vernon is actually a pretty damn good singer and doesn't write exclusively nonsensical pretentious lyrics.  Check that--I didn't need proof, I already knew, because of that one song; I'm just happy he realizes it I guess.  I don't have high hopes about his patently ineffectual falsetto exercises on this album ("Gallup NM" and "I Need A Change", both otherwise great My Morning Jacket-esque tunes) shining a light on how bad his falsetto HAS BEEN THE WHOLE TIME for the critics who doggedly defend it, but dude.  These tunes are all run-of-the-mill first-world blues rock, but they're heartfelt, dirty and played by pros.  I'm just hoping he brought this realism to the table on the forthcoming Volcano Choir record, because that could be one of the best bands on Earth if Vernon would stop pussyfooting around with his trademark bullshit.  This album isn't Great, nor is anyone convinced that Vernon is actually a gritty, down-and-out bluesman, but unlike Kanye, he sells it.  And this act is so much more believable than his ostensible more "personal" projects so far; yeah, it smacks of early Lenny Kravitz, but personally I have always loved Let Love Rule; go ahead and take that as you will.  

, Sob Story

Sometimes I listen to an album and try to guess how the band could possibly have gotten a record contract.  With Spectrals, I can think of two reasons: a friend or relative works for the label (always the number one possibility), or the A&R guy (or gal) in England thought the world was positively desperate for a pathetic next-generation Elvis Costello impersonator.  Seriously, Louis Jones's vocals on the title track and "Blue Whatever" are the most annoying thing I've heard this year besides that Mozart's Sister EP.  At least that bunch was only being half-serious; with Spectrals, you get to the final track, "In A Bad Way", and you think, 'seriously, they listened to that and said "IT'S PERFECT"????'  Sure, the psych/garage thing is hip right now, but there's not nearly enough reverb on Sob Story to drown out Jones's pitiful singing, and there's not enough reverb in the world to make these tepid-ass songs sound fresh.  I'll admit "Heartbeat Behind" is kinda catchy, and I can glean some emotion behind "Friend Zone" (HAHAHA! I hope somebody who caught the short-lived "nice guys of okcupid" tumblr can laugh with me on this one), but this garage band has pretty much no soul (nor energy) and basically one tolerable song, and a buttload of apathy for such mopey music.  "Give me something to cry about", begs Jones in "Something To Cry About"; I'm sure he can find someone to help him out with that.

Team Spirit
, Team Spirit EP

You know how some music snobs like to claim that early Beatles material is nothing but pop fluff?  Those people would probably label this Team Spirit EP as the modern equivalent of Meet The Beatles or something.  Y'know, for its time, that record was pretty punk-y, musically, and although Team Spirit lacks the indelible hooks and harmonic perfection, it's basically punk-pop of the sugariest kind, inoffensive and catchy and cute and exuberant, all basically about girls as far as I can tell, full of clanging guitars and...well, it's very American, so that sinks the comparison a little.  And of course, as only a dolt writes off early Beatles, only that same dolt would think Team Spirit writes songs anywhere near that good.  But still, if you think of a band in terms of evolution, Team Spirit is starting off pretty strong with this solid little record, even though it's guaranteed not to inspire a mania of any sort.  Will I keep it in the rotation?  Probably not; there's too much more interesting music in my collection, but at least the last two tracks ("Teenage Love" and "Phenomenon") are gonna be as memorable as you let them become with repeated listens.

Temple, The Conscience Of The King

Admittedly, you take your album title from Hamlet and you've already got me biased somewhat in your favor.  Luckily the album doesn't suck so I don't have to be bitter and call Temple "pretentious" for using it.  Like its slightly more mainstream sister group U.S. Male, Temple is firmly rooted in the 90s, indebted to proto-emo like Samiam and Sunny Day Real Estate, except with some more hardcorish tendencies.  The vocal parts don't display a miraculous gift for melody, but they do carry the range of emotion required by the genre as well as the bitterness, regret and hopeless romanticism of the post-adolescent urban-poet lyrics.  Feedback, jangles and beefy riffs are strung together for maximum intensity, and the band's got a great sense for subtlety (in relative terms) as well as knowing when to pull out all the stops.  It's an engaging listen that'll remind you of your depressing college days if you're not still in 'em and might even make you pine for 'em if your life's excitement drained away along with the drama.

, Their/They're/There EP

More pop-punk, this time on the old-school emo tip, a little bit mathy but its most enduring traits are the endearing sad-sack lyrics ("My selfish self-deprecation/It tucks me in and knocks me out" ("Apocalypse (Not Right)"), come on, you gotta smile) and solid vocal harmonies.  Musically the band is competent, not notably imaginative or unique, but the record is impeccably put together and the sound is clean and crisp like blind faith in a life of artistic tragedy.  The Death Cab For Cutie influence is strong, very apparent in "Their/They're/Therapy", "572 Cuthbert Blvd" and "End And End", and of course it's no stretch to assume that Mike Kinsella (of Cap'n Jazz quasi-fame) holds Dismemberment Plan's Travis Morrison in high esteem as well.  The record is a bit adolescent compared with its more famous antecedents, but it's a damn good start on the road to captivating the retro-minded youth of today, but it does seem a bit odd that this veteran of the scene is still making music straight out of a nineteen-year-old's psyche.

Tripwires, Spacehopper

It gives me no end of pleasure to say this: Spacehopper sounds heavily indebted to Elusive Parallelograms.  It's upbeat, infectious indie rock that touches on shoegaze and psych rock textures with plenty of other weird effects, but Tripwires prefer to lay off and chill with some clean guitar sometimes ("Feedback Loop", "Love Me Sinister") and rarely throw the self-destruct lever on the distortion for just a bit ("Plastecene"), making for a much less dynamic collection of songs.  They don't have EP's proggy tendencies, either, tending to stick with a single time signature through a song, and the lack of variation throughout the album does get a bit monotonous; once you hit the My Bloody Valentine-worshipping "Paint" and the slothish "Under A Gelatine" you'd give anything for a guitar solo or an upbeat punk rock riff, but no dice; there's nothing else even slightly upbeat until the second-to-last track (and one of the album's highlights), "Tinfoil Skin", and the last track is pitifully titled "Slo Mo", so, yeah.  In the end it's the melodies as well as the dynamic that's lacking; Rhys Edwards has a good singing voice but his vocals follow the languid riffs too closely to evoke much excitement most of the time, and even when he breaks free it's with a palpable sense of apathy, no excitement at all.  If the goal was to create an opiated, hazy record, why the occasional blips of energy?  Tripwires are static electricity in dire need of a jolt.

Turf War, The Great Escape EP

This EP by Turf War brings to mind a sort of a jangly, lo-fi .38 Special: hooky and simple and bluntly anthemic.  There's a bit of populist punk attitude on tracks like "Born To Run Free" and "Pay My Dues" (the shout-along choruses certainly aid the effort) but the whole thing is a little too safe and bland despite the genuine exuberance of the songs and singer John Robinson.  It's three-chord rock music in search of a prefix or adjective, catchy but not that catchy, earnest but not rebellious, with no discernible cause.  At maximum volume this still wouldn't piss off anyone's parents, until maybe the very end of the last song ("Still Around", the best track on the record).  By that point there needed to be a lot more interesting stuff that already happened to make me want to crank it.

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