Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Tim Kasher - The Game of Monogamy

★★★★★ Tracks:
Cold Love

Tim Kasher is partially, if not mostly, responsible for one of my favorite all time albums in Cursive’s Domestica. I’ve followed his career over the span of Cursive’s near twenty years, his side project with The Good Life, and now his solo work, and I’ll continue to do so hoping he catches lightning in a bottle again someday. However over the past few records Kasher’s obsession with his deficiencies in his love life and the monotony of monogamy have grown stale, and things are no different here on his first solo record, The Game of Monogamy. Most of what’s included is too heavy on sappy dissatisfaction and too light on hooks. Songs like “A Grown Man,” “Strays” and “There Must Be Something I’ve Lost” revolve around the growing boredom Kasher experiences in his relationship(s) to very minimal instrumentation. Kasher’s voice and delivery have always been interesting, but they aren’t suited for such sparse backgrounds, and with nominal distractions from his contrived sincerity we've been force fed for the better part of a decade, these songs have me pressing skip every time.

The uptempo tracks are an improvement. And when Tim steps aside and lets the guitars and brass section carry songs forward, as on “I’m Afraid I’m Gonna Die Here” and “Bad, Bad Dreams,” the tragedy in Kasher’s words and the upbeat nature of the music contrast effectively. The best example of this is “Cold Love,” the album’s single and video featuring Molly Parker of Deadwood fame. “Cold Love” is one of the louder tracks and it's obvious this is where Kasher is most comfortable; when he's mixing solid rock hooks with his signature cynical lyricism (“Maybe we got tired of the same old dessert / We grew up in a world of thirty-one flavors / Maybe we're just tired of this vanilla existence”), glimpses of how promising the album might have been had it stayed away from the heavy-hearted ballads are apparent.

(This is a great video)

Friday, March 25, 2011

Time Spent Driving

Yea, um … this is embarrassing. Lyrics like “And if I know one thing / No matter how hard I sing / You just won’t hear me / Because right now you couldn’t be much more near me” or, “If I die tonight / Will your memories of me / Just fade” or, “It’s alright if you got me wrong / There’s no way I’m giving up / Maybe it’s right / Or maybe it’s wrong and you just don’t see it” were passable at twenty years old, but at thirty, they’re just laughable. These days anytime a Time Spent Driving track comes up on shuffle healthy doses of cringes and facepalms ensue. While I’ll always have a soft spot for pop-punk and post-hardcore, I can’t get past how ashamed I feel that I ever connected with Jon Cattivera’s somber lyrics and crooning vocals. If I could sit down and share a beer with myself ten years ago, this is what I'd tell him: “Grow the fuck up, grow a pair, and quit being such a self-loathing douche. Oh, and ask that cool Amira girl out already.” But once the emo enters your heart it can never fully leave you. And so, I will continue to allow “Rain on Sundays” and “Thin Like Paper” the rare shuffle appearance, and continue to allow myself to feel like a sensitive little girl each time one of them plays.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Titus Andronicus - The Monitor

What do you get when you mix the sound and spirit of punk rock, the voice of Conor Oberst, and a fascination with the U.S. Civil War? Titus Andronicus’s new record of course. The group’s sprawling, hour long, semi-concept album, The Monitor, dropped about a year ago to rave reviews, and sounded intriguing enough to download. On first play I'm introduced with a speech by Abraham Lincoln, which promptly leads in to a fast-paced punk anthem where Patrick Stickles quiveringly sings of his love/hate relationship with New Jersey. It was promising and exciting initially, but after its first verse as Sickles plays a pedestrian guitar solo for the better part of a minute, the charm begins to dissipate -- and by the time this simple little track plateaus the seven minute mark I’ve completely lost interest. The second song, “Titus Andronicus Forever,” is much shorter but no less musically derivative with its simple C, F, G power chord variation, as the band sings in anthem, "the enemy is everywhere!" After multiple listens I haven't found much of anything to latch on to. Every song follows in similar formation; distorted I IV V or I vi IV V chord progressions (sometimes capoed for tonal variation) that stay long past their welcome (the last song, “The Battle of Hampton Roads” clocks in at a whopping fourteen minutes). Stickles focuses mostly on his down and out ways -- nights filled with shitty beer and shittier pubs. The songs are jumbled up with random civil war quotes, references and recordings, apparently giving the band its distinct originality.

The way in which one would most likely enjoy Titus Andronicus is by commiserating with the lovable loser of a character Stickles is. He has a unique voice, and his lyrics are filled with great literary detail on personal failures and triumphs and relationship struggles. But how many lovable losers populate the musical landscape already with similar stories? Stickles and Co.’s influences are obvious and dear to me, but I can go back and listen to those influences (The Replacements, Hold Steady) for my fix of punk inspired rock’n’roll by the drunk and the lonely. I bet Titus Andronicus puts on a great live show, their energy and confidence is apparent and there are some solid hooks on The Monitor, but the civil war concept isn’t enough to save the album from its bloated run time and simple song structures.

(The video version of “A More Perfect Union” is chopped in half length-wise, which makes the song twice as good as far as I’m concerned.)

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Tokyo Police Club - Champ

★★★★★ Tracks:
Favourite Colour
Wait Up (Boots of Danger)

Extending the length of their songs was nearly all it took for Tokyo Police Club to make their evolving sound work. On the previous album the first track, “Centennial,” is one minute and fifty-four seconds long, so short in the context of all the ideas crammed in to it you can never familiarize yourself with its melody before it ends; an issue with most of Elephant Shell. Here on Champ we get a similar introductory track in approach (intros that build in volume and tone before culminating into guitar/synth driven pop-punk anthems), but clocking in at three minutes and fifty-five seconds the song has enough time for an introduction plus a fully fleshed out composition, full of solid hooks and a chorus. Songs like “End of a Spark” and “Wait Up” are perfect examples of the new refined Tokyo Police Club, which adapt a more straightforward verse/chorus/verse structure -- the key difference being the added length allows for the instrumental highlights to breathe and flow more organically. “Breakneck Speed” and “Hands Reversed” are impressive slower tempo songs, adding more versatility to the group's arsenal. And while Champ still has a few songs clocking in under three minutes, they are simpler and more contagious, with “Bambi” (at 2:44) being the highlight of the entire album.

The juvenile lyricism is still a bit of an obstacle but Monks has harnessed his nasally delivery, removing the most grating quality to the songs on Elephant Shell. Tokyo Police Club continue to move further away from the garage and punk rock I preferred off of their first two EPs, but Champ sees the band improving and growing more confident in their sound. By doing so they’ve turned me from an outright skeptic, to optimistically awaiting their next release.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Tokyo Police Club - Elephant Shell

★★★★★ Tracks:
Your English is Good

I suppose Tokyo Police Club couldn’t continue writing science fiction songs indefinitely, it would have eventually gotten silly -- everyone knows the Matrix sequels sucked after all. And if signing to the same label as Cursive and Bright Eyes was indicative of their intentions, they would move further away from their garage rock leanings on the first two EPs and adopt a more straight up emo sound. But the gameplan for Elephant Shell takes a lot of the excitement out of TPC’s music. Although on their earlier recordings the late 70's punk/new wave sound didn't scream complete originality, they had a fresh take on the genre and approached their influences with precision. The group still sounds cohesive, but the refreshing qualities are missing. This form of post-hardcore and power-pop was exhausted less than a decade ago, and there's nothing here on Elephant Shell to shake up the formula. There are plenty of lamentably sentimental (read: emo) lyrics, often focusing on the loss of childhood and the accounting of immature love:

“Meet me where your mother lies
We'll dig graves on both her sides
And lay ourselves in side”

“Dead lovers salivate
Broken hearts tessellate"

"I've put down my middle name
In the back of her book
And signed it just in case
Our walk was over love”

Combined with the decision to take the distortion out of the vocals, Dave Monks’ nasally delivery can be unbearable during some versus.

I can often ignore subpar lyricism as long as the instrumentation can pick up the slack, but for an album built more on melodicism and songwriting than its predecessors, Elephant Shell is surprisingly lacking in hooks. Tracks like “Juno” and “Listen to the Math” are monotonous even with their less than three minute run times. Then on the opposite end of the spectrum songs “Centennial,” “Sixties Remake,” and “Nursery Academy” make it obvious they were trying to fit too many ideas in to two minute windows, sacrificing efficient song structure in the process. If they wanted to forego more of the same basic verse/chorus/verse arrangements, I would have liked to hear more instrumental interludes and breakdowns, which are all but absent on Elephant Shell.

All that being said there are a few bright moments here. “In a Cave” is one of the catchier tracks, with keyboardist Graham Wright’s high pitched melody and guitarist Josh Hook’s distorted tremolo picking blending gorgeously during the song’s closing verse and outro. “The Harrowing Adventures of...” features TPC at their lightest, and the slow building arrangement shows their potential as skilled songwriters. But Elephant Shell’s highlight is “Your English is Good,” where the band lets go of their over-earnestness and sentimentality to re-embrace their punk influences -- it’s the song that sounds the least calculated of the bunch, and in turn the most fun.

("Your English is Good" is a bit of an outlier so I'll post "In a Cave," which matches the overall tone of the album more.)

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Tokyo Police Club - A Lesson in Crime

★★★★★ Tracks:
Nature of the Experiment
Citizens of Tomorrow
Shoulders & Arms

A kid lets out a breath of cool, red, Martian air as he remembers something his mother told him:

"This is not how we planned it
But we've gotten ahead of ourselves
Computers rule the planet
And the moon and mars as well
We lost the fight"

The boy now lives in a world where robots rule the world (and the moon and Mars), the people are microchipped slaves who build spaceships as they talk about the days when life was simpler. This is the premise to Tokyo Police Club’s terrific science fiction fantasy, “Citizens of Tomorrow.” The music matches the subject matter with the precision of a band that’s been doing it for years; synthy organs mimic the sounds of computer drones and empty dial tones, spastic guitars and a distorted bass line give the apex a nervous energy to match the hopelessness of humanity’s situation. It’s all done with a a sense of dark wit as well, as singer Dave Monks mournfully sings in the closing verse:

“I have a microchip
Implanted in my heart
So if I try to escape
The robots will blow me apart
And my limbs will go flying
And land before the ones that I love
Who would wail and would weep
But the robots would keep them at bay
While I shut my eyes
For the very last time
Citizens of tomorrow be forewarned”

The rest of the songs included on Tokyo Police Club's first ever release, A Lesson in Crime, are similar in style to that of “Citizens of Tomorrow;” dance-punk revivalism smoothly blended with more fascinations towards human destruction (“Shoulders & Arms,” “Le Ferrassie”), or lyrics of love (“Nature of the Experiment,” “Be Good”), or both (“Cheer It On”). The agitation associated with growing up, growing wary of big brother, and the confusing feelings associated with love are expertly captured here in a blazing sixteen minutes on their first EP. This young group received massive hype after just a few concerts, showcases, and the release of A Lesson in Crime. Could they repeat the incredible promise they showed here with their first proper full length? It's up next.