Saturday, February 26, 2011

Album Review: Christmas Island - Blackout Summer

Christmas Island: Blackout Summer
[In the Red 2009] 


The members of Christmas Island appear to be well into their 20s, but the hallmarks of their debut peg them more in the middle teenage years: messy outbursts, undirected angst, general "why me" confusion over girls and life, and pessimism to boot. Once you've grown through the pubescent years, you probably have less sympathy for the melodrama and self-pity that teens rub in peoples' faces. In music, particularly brands like punk and indie rock that often pedal in teen angst, it takes a lot to make this material compelling and make you care, and the lo-fi garage pop of Blackout Summer misses that mark.

The band's aesthetic does include certain influences that would be lost on the typical teen garage punk band, including Beach Boys-inflected melodies and guitar work that hints at surf rock. The songs of Blackout Summer seem to reach for surf pop hooks and an underlying sense of innocence, but any pop approachability is kept at bay by the bleak lo-fi recording quality that buries the guitar and drums in heavy muck. Whether it's by drums of impending doom ("Pre-Apocalyptic") or horror movie organ ("Egypt"), Christmas Island takes a number of slanted pop tunes and weighs them down with stark production and off-kilter instrumentation.

The effect is less off-putting, though no less unsettling, on the tracks more imitative of straight punk rock, like the cymbal-crashing "I Don't Care" and the start-and-stop of "Anxiety Attack". Besides lo-fi production that purposefully lends Blackout Summer a gristly demeanor, tying the tracks together are the vocals of frontman Brian Island. Delivered with complete articulation and a nasally impersonation of a nerdy teen punk, Island's vocals are simple, blunt, and eventually tiring. While the band's lo-fi aesthetic sounds in part like fellow San Diegan Wavves, Island's vocals are mostly distinguishable above the guitar and drums, creating a less claustrophobic atmosphere than Nathan Williams' relentless fuzz. How much Island's voice, and the band's general sound, is aimed at mimicking (sympathizing with?) garage-playing kids is not clear, but whatever the aim, the album loses traction fast for its lack of maturity.

Island's one-dimensional vocals already denote a simplistic worldview, but the lyrics further stress a grating lack of intelligence. It's easy to point the finger here at "Dinosaurs", which stomps along with lines like "Dinosaurs, I can't believe you ever existed" and "Stegosaurus…Tyrannosaurus REX!" Elsewhere, as on "My Baby", simplicity doesn’t amount to any sort of charm: "My baby, I love you, more than the stars above you. My baby, please hold me, if you don’t I'll die slowly."

For all the aesthetic choices that, at parts of the album, feel like self-sabotage, there are moments where Island's ramshackle moan and instrumentation confused between surf pop and downer punk make for interesting ditties, even if they are just that. The feverish guitar licks of "I Don't Care", the rare (at least musical) uplift of "It's True", and the accessible melody of "Bed Island" are replayable tracks, even if they still subscribe to an aesthetic that gets old fast.

Christmas Island can go ahead and muddy up their pop songs with lo-fi production, gloomy instrumental effects and punk inflections, but ultimately, the band must face up to the question of why anybody should care. And it's hard to invest much into Blackout Summer when it so often hints that it's almost brain-dead.

"Blackout Summer":


Saturday, February 19, 2011

Album Review: Ambulance LTD - LP

Ambulance LTD: LP
[TVT 2004]


"Guitar solos are so back!" raved Rolling Stone magazine in May, 2004. Those solos would be courtesy of Ambulance LTD, an indie rock outfit from Harlem with a sound varying from dreamy pop to loud, dense shoegazing. It was back in 2004 that the band released this confident, mature rocker, officially titled "LP." But neither Rolling Stone's nod nor the praise of numerous other music critics has given the band much notoriety or public recognition since it was released. Furthermore the state of the band since has been turbulent and unfortunately dissolving: 3 of the 4 original members left to form The Red Romance citing "interpersonal dramas", leaving lone member Kevin Congleton on his own until 2008 when he acquired 3 new bandmates. But it was also in 2008 that their record label TVT filed for bankruptcy and then tried to sell their artists' back catalog, prompting Congleton and labelmates The Polyphonic Spree to sue.

All this is such a shame, because LP is indeed a very satisfying rocker that has the potential for mass appeal, even years after it was released.
Opener "Yoga Means Union" immediately shows the old Ambulance LTD flexing its guitar might as this instrumental rocker leads to an exciting climax. The use of distortion and the removal of drums at the climax add to the incredible ambiance and attitude of the song, which immediately is candidate for the best song on the album.

Enter Michael Di Liberto, the confident yet simultaneously restrained lead vocalist and guitarist of 2004's Ambulance LTD. His vocal debut on the album's second track "Primitive (The Way I Treat You)" is full of promise, but the song's high attitude and swagger suffer also come with a bit of cockiness and annoyance that is not smart for an early track in the album. The band quickly recovers, however, humbling themselves with an acoustic guitar, keyboard, and a muffled drum beat and electrical guitar on the more pleasing "Anecdote," which was featured in the background of a recent Nokia commercial. While pleasant sounding, it is ironic that this has basically led to the band's only 30 seconds of mainstream fame, as it can easily be interpreted as a depiction of heroin use.

Coming off that foot-tapper is the best song on the album, "Heavy Lifting." Half of the song is recorded as a lo-fi, almost Sebadoh-esque dream song that is undeniably cool in its delivery. Then, quite unexpectedly, an unshielded electric guitar leads the way into a drawn out falling action for the song that, wordlessly, closes out the first half's dreamy landscape in a totally different mood.

"Ophelia" and "Stay Where You Are" follow Ambulance LTD's standard, engaging formula of combining a quite standard, melodic rock guitar riff with a vocal presentation covered in a light cloud of distortion to create a calming, psychedelic environment, that simultaneously...well, rocks. "Sugar Pill" similarly combines both elements, but added is a constant "beeping" beat and loud, fast drumming that create a sense of panic and urgency that is also present in "Stay Tuned". It is especially not on the next track "Michigan," whose slow buildup and forgettable melodies make it the low point of the album. Next with that aforementioned song, "Stay Tuned" has a rather intense opening mood that is combined with mysterious lyrics as well as a lighter, more pop sounding chorus that is thoroughly satisfying.

On "Swim," Ambulance LTD combines both dreamy instrumentation and vocals to create a very mellow whose melody rises over the chorus like a wave. The tempo changes a little over halfway through the next tune "Young Urban" when the mellow song rises to a climax followed by the loudest minute in the half on the album. This final minute and a half is the clearest example of shoegazing on the album as the song builds in intensity with loud drumming and a heavily distorted vocal and guitar riff.

The album's concluding piece is where the band's Velvet Underground connection lies. The band performs a solid cover Lou Reed's "The Ocean" from his self-titled debut solo album from 1972. Furthermore, in 2007, Congleton was working with John Cale to develop new material for what would have been a new Ambulance LTD album, but in keeping with a trend, neither a new LP nor any Congleton/Cale collaborations have surfaced.

So what is Ambulance LTD today? Your guess is as good as mine. With no new music in five years (after 2006's New English EP), it's perhaps easiest to say they're down for the count. The cruel intervention of the music gods have made sure a promising band in Ambulance LTD was cut down just as it was blossoming. But to dwell too much on the band's perhaps fatal growing pains is to miss what we should be thankful for: LP. The reason we think about where they are now is because in 2004 Ambulance LTD released a confident, melodic, fully accomplished shoegaze-rock album that still holds its own today. Through the reshuffling, lawsuits, "interpersonal dramas", and bad management, to the four guys behind LP: be proud.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Video: "The Tracks of My Tears" by Smokey Robinson and the Miracles

Another soul kick. This one is courtesy of Smokey Robinson and the Miracles. On a whim of somewhat recognizing the album cover, I bought their 1965 landmark album Going to a Go-Go at the DC Record Fair. Since then I've been enthralled with this record, particularly their classic "The Tracks of My Tears". I'm not the karaoke-inclined man, but if I was to find myself on stage in front of a microphone and eager audience, I might just have to (lovingly) butcher this song out of euphoric admiration.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

The Dismemberment Plan

OK, so I've been away from Let's Rock the Beach for almost a month now. What have I not chronicled in that time? Hmm...well, one of the best/most important/most memorable concerts of my life.

It was just another Monday at my work last September. Time for my lunch break, so I minimize the spreadsheets and surf over to Pitchfork. And what should appear on my screen, but news that rocked my world, news that I would never have expected, news that almost got me doing cartwheels down the office corridors:

"The Dismemberment Plan Reunite"

I was beside myself. I called my buddy with the ecstatic news and later that week we had our tickets (with hardly a minute to spare: the Plan's initial two shows in our hometown Washington, D.C. were sold out within 10 minutes). Now I just had to wait til January...

In college several years earlier, I had began my fervent love affair with this quirky, keyboard-smearing rock(?) band from Northern Virginia, when I heard "Gyroscope". It was two and a half minutes of tight, smart, absolutely electrifying rock with a catchiness that you couldn't shake off. Soon I was listening to Emergency & I religiously for its unique sound that was also so irresistibly melodic and fun. But it was once I started to really dig into what this Travis guy was sing-talking about that I realized Emergency & I was my absolute favorite album. 

Travis Morrison's plainly worded observations on the insanities of everyday life sounded like musings that had crossed my mind countless times. The sudden realization of social isolation in "Life of Possibilities", the spelling-it-out anthem of "What Do You Want Me to Say?", the frustrations of relationships nixed in a transient urban life ("The City"). In a nutshell, it was everything that living through my 20s has been and continues to be. And it wasn't just Emergency & I; the Plan's more composed final album Change and previous records The Dismemberment Plan is Terrified and ! all spoke to the anxieties of growing up, facing the uncertainties of the post-college world, and hoping you don't wake up one day and, as Travis puts it, "don't know how you picked the wrong life".

But what ultimately makes this band so incredibly special and important for me is that the music faces these challenges, absorbs the pain and confusion, and decides to press forward, at times bravely so (I mean, what else are you going to do?). They're not always confident, but neither are we. We all have our doubts in times of depression, but the Plan knows that if we stick with this whole "life" thing, we'll eventually pull ourselves out of the doldrums, and not simply live again, but thrive. It's the unceasing humanity of the Dismemberment Plan that makes them so special.

The Dismemberment Plan

...So January 22, 2011 arrived, and here I was at the 9:30 club seeing a concert I never thought I'd be able to see. The show was incredible, as expected, and as the band returned to the stage for the encore, I could sense what was coming next. One of the Plan's best concert traditions occurs when they play "The Ice of Boston", a track from Is Terrified that is one of the band's best and most hilarious tunes. It is customary for dozens of audience members to jump on stage to dance around and sing along to Travis's bizarre Bostonian New Year's story. When I heard the song's distinctively sharp guitar pluck, it was time to push to the front. And sure enough, I was living a dream: I was among the onstage mass of the 9:30 club belting out the words to "Ice of Boston" with the Dismemberment Plan. ("All fine mom...HOW'S WASHINGTON!!"). 

Emergency & I came out in 1999, and the Plan's last original music followed just two years later. But as I navigate the glorious highs and deflating lows of my 20s, their music becomes all the more relevant and resonating each day. And for speaking to my life in a way that perhaps no other band has, I'd like to say:

Thank you, Dismemberment Plan.

"and sometimes that music drifts through my car
on a spring night when anything is possible
and I close my eyes and I nod my head and I wonder how you been
and I count to a hundred and ten
because you'll always be my hero
even if I never see you again."

The Dismemberment Plan

Photos from Pitchfork and mehan (1) and (2) on Flickr.