Halloween Grab Bag
Do you remember what it was like to empty your trick-or-treat bag on the kitchen table after a couple hours begging in the neighborhood? Can you recall the mix of elation and disappointment you felt as you scanned the candies for your favorites, not knowing what you’d received (either because you were too polite to look or the eyeholes were too small)?
Well, I do, and I miss that feeling. So this month I’ve applied that experience to writing short reviews of a whole bunch of local releases that have landed on my desk and desktop over the past few months.
Let’s start with Endless Jags, an indie-rock supergroup fronted by singer-guitarists Oscar Romero (Gully, Brenda) and Tyler Jackson (Foam Castles). For this beery project they’re joined by a third guitarist, Derek Glerhan, bassist Justin Brady, Gully drummer Jonas Eule and Foam Castles drummer D.J. Moore, who plays Farfisa on these recordings. Their eponymous debut EP sounds more like Gully’s wistful slop-rock than Foam Castles’ more surreal garage style, but others can argue about whose chocolate got into whose peanut butter another time. Either way, this shit is great. The crunchy “Sound_Drivers” ranks among Gully’s best riff-rockers and among the best songs I’ve heard all year. Opener “Seen Men” perfectly combines both bands’ strengths, and Jackson and Romero switch vocals on the kick-ass “B.A. Pariah,” where psych meets punk around the three-and-a-half-minute mark. Do not trade this nugget for anything.
Johnny Cremains is another local supergroup, this one made up of musicians from the heavier side of town. At the core is keyboardist Erik Winter of The Horror and singer-guitarist Sean Libby, who joined The Horror not long before that band’s demise. Mind-blowing guitarist Doug Porter (Covered in Bees, Confusatron, The Watchers) is also on board, as is drummer Michael Anderson (perhaps best known as part of Loverless). Their debut album, Leave It To Believers, is a strange and complicated candy, a musical gobstopper you have to spend time with to fully appreciate. It’s dark and dense, thick with the stately and scary dirge-like melodies Winter concocted in the previous band. The Horror’s musical schizophrenia is mostly missing here (Porter’s playing is more textural than pyrotechnic on Believers), as is that band’s sense of humor, both due to the fact Ricky Boy Floyd is not menacing the mic, but connoisseurs of metal’s rarer alloys will appreciate this nearly hour-long evil carnival ride. [Click to hear: “A_Losers_Worst_Grave“]
I had high hopes for The Reverie Machine’s new record, Not By Blood. The music here has a distinctly West African flavor, those chiming loops of guitar notes. It also recalls the slowcore the sorely missed Seekonk used to play (not surprising, since former Seekonker Todd Hutchisen produced this album with the band). But The Reverie Machine will stand or fall before your ears depending whether you can stomach the singing of guitarist and looper Meghan Yates. Yates sounds like an American Bjork, with that dramatic enunciation and oddly clipped warble. When I heard her sing “spice, spice and everything nice” on the first song, “Spice,” my gag reflex kicked in and I felt an urge to spit it out of the drive. A glance at the title of the next track, “Truman Capote and the Heavy Weight of Clouds, Small Town U.S.A.,” and it was like, Here we go — pretentious poetry on top of affected vocals. After 45 minutes of this, I was downright queasy. But I must say a second listen does wonders for this album. Seriously, Yates is fantastic. It takes balls to belt it out like this, and anatomy be damned, Yates’ are solid brass. She’s sings every syllable of these poem-songs with gusto and control, demonstrating the versatility of a great jazz singer. I still hate the “spice” line, but the other lyrics are actually quite well written. Do yourself a big favor and listen to this album today. If you can get past the affectation, you’ll never look back. [Click to hear: “Little_Things“]
Kurt Baker can’t go wrong. The former Leftovers frontman has perfected the old-school pop-punk formula the kids at Newbury Comics eat up by the handful. He’s got the early Elvis Costello voice and he’s not afraid to sing the chorus way too many fuckin’ times. The title of this album is false advertising: Baker does not have a Brand New Beat. But it’s like gummi anything — bears, worms, sharks, guitars. If you like the texture and artificial fruit flavors, it doesn’t matter. You’ll eat this up, too. [Click to hear: “Everybody_Knows“]
Meanwhile, the rest of The Leftovers have reformed as Borderlines. Their debut EP, Magical Paths to Fortune and Power, will also satisfy Leftovers fans, and there are a lot of ’em. As noted in Borderlines’ bio, their former band played, like, 500 shows in a dozen foreign lands. But whereas Baker taps ’50s, ’60s and ’70s rock and pop for his tunes, Borderlines is firmly stuck in the ’90s. Their strain of pop-punk is louder, faster and more aggro than Baker’s, but, disappointingly, not as diverse. The six songs here all sound pretty much alike, and pretty much like everything else on modern rock radio. It’s some of the most energetic music you’ll ever yawn to.
The debut EP by Paige Turner is some extremely hard candy. The Portland foursome grind out fearsome hardcore. Dan Rich screams and growls just beyond the point of comprehension. He and guitarist Adam Earley (of I, Barbarian infamy) churn out classic metal riffs and let loose a few sharp solos. The first two tracks, “Swingline” and “Beauty in the Eyes,” are over almost before you know you’ve been assaulted. On the last track, “Finding the Romantic Side in Familiar Things,” the guys slow things down and stretch out beyond the four minute mark, but the romantic side never appears. Put this EP on immediately after you get dumped. It won’t make you feel better, but at least you’ll know somebody’s angrier than you are. [Click to hear: “New_Machine“]
This fall’s full-length from Whip Hands is the sonic equivalent of getting a razor blade in an apple on Halloween — and they don’t even try to hide it. The first song, “Heavy_On_The_Juice,” begins with a countdown, “One, two, fuck you!” and then they’re off, bashing through a messy punk put-down so profane I hesitate to quote lyrics for fear we’ll get kicked out of Shaw’s. This, my young punk friends, is the real deal. The four dudes in the band — guitarist Thom Cote, snarler-guitarist Sterling Black, screamer-bassist Dan Flynn and drummer Chris “Hacksaw” Hunter — don’t give a shit, and it shows, but they put more thought than you might think into these tracks. The music’s more complicated and less predictable than the commercial fare bands like Borderlines traffic in. But it’s also safe to say Whip Hands will not be making teens pogo in Poland at the Mudfest. This self-titled album was recorded at 131 Washington Ave., a property we profiled in That’s My Dump! not long ago. Whip Hands is grungy and raw and obnoxious. The guys get indulgent on a few cuts, like the torpid “Mansion” and the overlong closer, “Johnny Smith,” but chalk that up to the folly of youth. Songs like “Contusions of Grandeur,” “Old Gold” and the aforementioned “Juice” keep the spirit of the underground alive.
Mystic Folk Opera is gonna need more than a confusing name to break out of the prison of mediocrity. An acoustic duo that’s grown into a quintet, MFO is a blues-rock band striving to stretch the edges of their well-worn genre. On their latest release, A Book Of Painted Sighs, they thicken the harmonies and guitars, and even get a bit proggy, but it’s not enough to overcome the tired tropes on display in songs like “I Am The Rain” and “Suddenly Listen.” This middle-of-the-road approach doesn’t rock enough for rock, and lacks the fire and funk of good blues. Frankly, there’s still too much folk. Maybe more opera would help. Or more mysticism. I’d trade this one for a mini Snickers in a heartbeat. [Click to hear: “Tail_Lights“]
George Skala and The Great Americans are content within the cozy confines of their genre, Americana. Their eponymous seven-track release is an easy-going exercise in roots country and honky tonk. The playing’s tight and Skala’s got a workable voice. Your toe will tap. You might even be cajoled into a two-step if your partner’s persistent. Then you’ll pay the tab, tip generously, and drive the pickup home, well under the legal limit for speed and blood-alcohol. I could be persuaded to part with this one for a few dozen Pixy Stix. [Click to hear: “In_The_Middle“]
Blue Window is the duo of Alex Wall and Gary Tucci. The pair play and sing everything on Sideways, an EP of outsized ambition, modestly realized. It’s a trippy little record, just five songs, nothing over five minutes. The songs are rooted in blue-collar bar rock but prone to bouts of pop and flights of psychedelic fancy. Dig the synth horns on “Dry_Port,” or the way the King Missile-ish “Miss Spelling” falls into a black hole halfway through. Wall sounds vaguely like low-register Axl Rose. I found that Sideways improved appreciably after I trick-or-treated at Crash Barry’s place, but now all my candy’s gone.
— Chris Busby