Saturday, July 17, 2010

Video: "Written in Reverse" by Spoon

With so much indie built on sensitive, introspective foundations, Spoon sticks out as indie's popular kid. Besides being excellent artists, their music drips cool confidence and a commanding presence on record. This live recording of "Written in Reverse", which is not far off from the Transference version, is textbook Spoon: bluesy groove, musically tight, swagger to spare.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Album Review: Augustana - All the Stars and Boulevards

Augustana: All the Stars and Boulevards
[Epic 2005]


Coming away from Augustana’s 2005 debut album All the Stars and Boulevards, what first came to my mind was “I’ve heard this all before.” Sure, there are numerous songs that are really quite melodic and pleasing, but there is nothing groundbreaking on this mainstream pop rock release. Taking pages from bigger-named modern rockers like Dashboard Confessional, Goo Goo Dolls, and even a little from Matchbox Twenty, Augustana offers no big surprises, except for perhaps their biggest hit to date “Boston,” which is the album’s high point. Playing by the book, however, does mean emotional undertones and catchy choruses abound to satisfy an audience probably consisting mostly of teenage girls.

At the forefront of this soft rock barrage is lead singer, guitarist, and pianist Dan Layus, who actually holds his own as a strong vocalist, even if he does simply sound like a more contemplative John Rzeznik (Goo Goo Dolls). But unlike the Goo Goo Dolls, Augustana’s formula of a usually optimistic melody carrying pensive and often woebegone lyrics result in songs that are rather forgettable in the long run. Given this formula, it is best to describe the instrumental quality of the album as meeting the standards for anthemic teenage soft rock and doesn’t stand out as being particularly interesting or innovative. The job is done by Layus, Jared Palomar on bass, keyboards and backup vocals, Christ Sachtleben on guitar and mandolin, Justin South on drums, and John Vincent on keyboards and vocals.

Right off the bat, album opener “Mayfield” sums up much of the basic sound of Augustana. The chorus truly soars and is enhanced by vocal harmonization with the melody. Underneath the polished covering, however, are unclear and shallow lyrics. Basically, it sounds like something you would hear during a first kiss scene from some network teen drama. In much the same way, “Stars and Boulevards” uses relatively quiet verses to accent a dramatic chorus, only this time some more lyrical quality is present: “One last / Phone call from you / It wouldn’t hurt much / Just like to hear your voice / And pretend to touch / Any inch of you that hasn’t said it all or read it all / I sung my life away.”

Just before this is “Boston,” which is the band’s main hit, and deservedly so. The song is strongly driven by an excellent piano melody played by Layus that quietly leads up to a powerful, lengthy chorus that appeals to the desire for change and escape. Of note here is that it seems as if this hit single is the root cause of calling Augustana a “piano rock” band. While the piano does appear on numerous tracks, its impact on the song pales in comparison to its effect in “Boston.” Judging by the song’s music video featuring the band playing on a beach covered with old pianos, the band wants this as an image for themselves, perhaps enhancing their music’s emotional, sentimental underpinnings.

The album continues at a monotonous pace until slowing down for the decent “Sunday’s Best” which features a pleasant acoustic guitar. The album’s closer “Coffee and Cigarettes” is even more pleasantly led by gentle guitar picking and a serene complemented by some of the most dreamy lyrics and vocals on the album, making it one of the few songs that break from the common formula. Although doubtful, hopefully the band can make their last track’s innovative sound reverberate over the entirety of their next album.

In terms of substance and innovation, Augustana proves their depth only sporadically throughout the album. Rather, the band seems to be following a soft rock formula aiming for the emotional, melodramatic teenage audience, but at the same time staying away from the musical tendencies that would characterize Augustana as a flat-out emo band, which they are not. With the formula accordingly come the catchy hooks that make the genre popular and instantly likable to many. With that in mind, Augustana, for better or worse, are traveling a well-trodden path.


Friday, July 2, 2010

Album Review: Q and Not U - No Kill No Beep Beep

Q and Not U: No Kill No Beep Beep
[Dischord 2000]


The conventional understanding of punk, in particular that harsh brand that loyally draws lineage from the violent mosh pits of the hardcore ‘80s, tells you that punk is all politics. And if you consider D.C. punk? Well break out the megaphones, the White House is a few blocks away! But while the proud history of punk rock in the nation’s capital has surely seen plenty of anti-machine and “*** Bush” bands, some of the most important bands of the scene have eschewed the soapbox and instead got more personal and analytical; the targets of firebombs are not world leaders but societies, perceptions, ourselves. They are bands that not only leave us more impassioned, but also smarter.

Add Q and Not U to the list of such groups. Their 2000 post-hardcore debut No Kill No Beep Beep is as slanted and code-talking as its title. The album enlightens, but certainly in a lyrically avant-garde way with cryptic one-liners and fragmented imagery. Deciphering listeners require dictionaries (“No cognoscenti / can stab critique in the back for making me cognizant”) and imaginations (“Tired of waking up with a new haircut every morning / so it’s no scissors in bed”). Much of the lyrics seem to vent the frustrations of the young and urban, albeit in abstracts.

However the interpretations go, you will at least find the band’s signs and symbols are more often than not ripped to shreds by jagged riffs, beeping guitars and furious drumming. Lead singer Chris Richards spits composed, clear vocals while leaving strangled cries to Harris Klahr, whose shaky pronunciations and unstable aesthetic nicely balances out Richards. It is more credit to Richards, however, for keeping No Kill No Beep Beep consistently melodic. As machine-like guitar beeps scream for attention on “And the Washington Monument (Blinks) Goodnight”, Richards’ composed singing retains clarity and weight. “Fever Sleeves” is perhaps the most melodic track here, however, as the guitars offer less resistance to the tuneful rise and fall of the action. On many other tracks as well, Q and Not U remain tuneful, even catchy, but they never lose their rough edges.

A cursory but reasonable description of No Kill No Beep Beep would be that it definitely sounds a good deal like fellow Washingtonians Fugazi. The band has clearly memorized End Hits and it’s dabbing of the punk rock brush into quiet, brooding compositions is not lost here: “Kiss Distinctly American” and closer “Sleeping the Terror Code” both explore quiet, pensive territory (and both are great songs, by the way). Furthermore, it is a D.C. punk band after all, so it’s not surprising that Q and Not U are on the legendary Dischord records and have Ian MacKaye’s fingerprints all over it, having produced the album. Richards even pays homage to Fugazi with a rewording of a line from “Do You Like Me” off of Red Medicine, something astute fans will register.

The album also abounds with dance-punk influences that suggest the influence of the Dismemberment Plan, another D.C. band. While never reaching the Plan’s level of silly insanity or Emergency & I’s pop-accessibility, Q and Not U share their herky-jerky flirtations with danceable music and offer flashes of light-hearted play (See: “Hooray for Humans” about a minute in).

But unless you’re a strict, no-fun purist, the fact that Q and Not U rubs shoulders with its influences does nothing to minimize the band’s own creative directions and punk energy. Q and Not U is not posturing, they are simply a product of their environment that has taken their influences and made a new animal with so much force and brains that they don’t need blow horns and lame sloganeering to make waves. Their unique fusion of styles is more than the sum of its parts on No Kill No Beep Beep. Their debut, smart and furious, firmly builds upon D.C.’s true punk tradition.