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Album Review: Man Man – “On Oni Pond”

Man Man - "On Oni Pond"
Man Man – “On Oni Pond”

It seems that there are only a few ways that a band with any hope for longevity can sustain itself. On the one hand each album can be a stylistic world apart from all previous work (Liars, of Montreal), or the artist can continue to grow and shape their sound as a bit by bit process (Dan Deacon, Marnie Stern, Sonic Youth). After listening to Man Man’s latest, “On Oni Pond,” I think that it is safe to say that they are firmly in the 2nd camp.

Those two paths, by the way, don’t carry any judgments with them. Both have their merits. The main benefit of taking the latter route is that the band’s style is developed along with expectations of what the music should be, there isn’t so much of an element of surprise. This can be a very good thing, especially in the case of a band that started out by sounding so strange, like Man Man.

Their first album had both the Frank Zappa and Tom Waits dials turned up pretty high. Over the years those edges seem to have worn themselves down a bit. Honus Honus’ voice has smoothed significantly, though he can still call upon a little bit of the grittiness present on 2004’s “The Man in a Blue Turban With a Face.”

That gritty weirdness has been pushed back far enough that some charming hooks are allowed to shine. A song like “Head On,” with it’s soft staccato keys and sustained string parts, combined with the chorus that implores us to “Hold onto your heart/hold it high above the waters/never let nobody drag it under/even when the whole world’s bitter/never let nobody take it over.” A lyric like that is damn near uplifting, something that would have never happened on some of the earlier releases, yet it doesn’t sound like that much of a stretch on this album.

So many of the tracks on “On Oni Pond” sound ready for a bit of a wider audience. Though the overall sound sacrifices little, except maybe higher production quality, the weirdness is still there, you just might have to listen for it a bit more. Well, sometimes you don’t have to listen that closely; the opening lyric of the album states “It’s the way that your kiss condemns me/it makes me feel like I’m in Guantanamo.” The song continues to slyly mention waterboarding and other unpleasantries like being thrown under a bus or grinding teeth to dust. And the reason that “Pink Wonton” works so well as the album opener is that it serves as a point of reference.

The thumping synth groove of “Loot my Body” is funky in a way that maybe of Montreal’s “False Priest” is funky. Another good thing about introducing yourself as a band that is perhaps a little bit off-kilter is that you can pretty much get away with experimenting a little bit more. If you are collecting all of these sounds and styles, why not let them all out once in a while?

Overall I think that “On Oni Pond” shows a band that I never thought would grow up, grow up. It’s really for the best, because if you start with a certain schtick and then stick with it for the sake of sticking with it it tends to grow tired pretty quickly. I like when bands seem to take a step back and listen to themselves, learning where the music wants to take them. It’s that natural process of evolution that can be exciting. This is an album worth checking out if you have been a fan of Man Man, but especially if you haven’t been to this point. I think “On Oni Pond” can serve as a good starting point for those unfamiliar with their music.

“On Oni Pond” is currently available as a download on iTunes, or on CD or 2xLP from Anti- records (as are some Tom Waits’ records, by the way). They are also currently on an extensive tour across the US.

Web//iTunes//Purchase//Twitter (Man Man)//Twitter (Honus Honus)//

Album Review: Merzbow – “Takahe Collage” Part 3

Merzbow - "Takahe Collage"
Merzbow – “Takahe Collage”

Grand Owl Habitat

This third and final installment of posts about Merzbow’s “Takahe Collage” focuses on the closing track, the mere 12 minute “Grand Owl Habitat.”

Probably the least active and cluttered of the album, “Grand Owl Habitat” takes a clearly sectionalized approach that even may vaguely (in some ways) resemble ABA form. Or, if it can’t quite be thought of as ABA form (and really it can’t, but hear me out) there is at the very least elements that appear and disappear at intervals making it sound as if the spaces without the pitched, more focused sounds form a point of recurring repose against spaces that contain those sounds and therefore stand as a contrast.

Just as with the previous tracks there is introductory material here as the underlying beat is generated. The first section of the song, that which lacks the presence of pitch material for the most part, continues for the first minute. Following that is the entrance of some of the erratic pitch material and sound envelope manipulations.

The main thing, as far as this song is concerned, is that each time the more focused, pitched sounds enter they do so with an increased intensity with each recurrence. Meanwhile the sections of the song that alternate with these increasingly active sounds remain fixed. The stasis is fixed in sound and in tempo. No alterations whatsoever are made to the initial underlying beat that is generated at the beginning of the track.

From 2:06 to about 2:18 there is a drastic shift in texture that marks a new section, where everything is stripped away, save for the underlying structure. We have seen this many times before in the previous tracks, where there is a frequent stripping away and subsequent re-building of material to create motion through the song from beginning to end. There are even some interesting rhythmic moments in “Grand Owl Habitat” that can be heard when a lot of that material is stripped away. For example, at about the 6:40 mark there is a sort of polyrhythmic effect going on with two of the layers just before a screeching sound of a free-jazz saxophone bleat begins to dominate the texture. That sound, as it happens, will remain throughout the remainder of the track.

What I think may be most notable, other than the drastic ebbs in texture through this track, is the way that Merzbow manages to bring the piece to a close. As a composer it is absolutely crucial for one to know their compositional language inside and out, for that is how you learn to phrase your material and, more importantly, how to begin and end a piece. Essentially, when the material that you are using is created via a hierarchy that doesn’t included strictly pitched material, how does one go about cadencing, or closing the piece?

The way that Merzbow answers that question here appears at the 10:52 mark where suddenly that underlying rhythm is taken away. In an instant only the focused, more or less pitched material is left and seems to float above the surface. But without that underlying structure it is only a matter of time before they are not able to sustain themselves anymore and about a minute later they begin to fade out. This, in my opinion, makes for a truly satisfying end to not only this track, but to the entire album.

Introducing: A Happy Death

(This post originally appeared on Tympanogram.com on November 16, 2011)

A Happy Death 7" EP
A Happy Death 7" EP

It’s really great to be a music blogger. I get the chance to listen to a ridiculous amount of music that I would normally not have any clue existed. Sometimes it’s better that way, I mean there’s a lot of crap to sort though, but it’s definitely worth it to find the good stuff. Sometimes, though, the good stuff shows up in my mailbox unsolicited (bands: take note!). I mean my actual, real life, physical mailbox. Portland outfit A Happy Death emailed me and insisted upon sending me their 7″ EP. I’d be stupid to pass up free vinyl. I’m grateful for their generosity and even more grateful that I don’t have to write false praise.

The 4-track self-titled EP is an energetic, reverb soaked garage rock trip. Similar in style to, maybe, The Black Keys in their overdriven guitar sound based squarely in the tradition of blues and surf rock. More direct and tighter than the White Stripes, but in that same realm. Sometimes Ryan Lella’s vocals reminded me a bit of Jack White, but the band seems to be influenced more by older acts like Black Sabbath and The Kinks than anything else.

The garage aesthetic is front and center on “Nazi Zombies” with a dirty riff and vocals echo a bit in the back of the mix. Similar in this vein is “Surf Rock Band,” a track that stomps right on through to the end with a harmonized double guitar solo, each panned hard to either side, that is good and noisy. “Ghost House” picks up the pace a little bit, closing the EP on a strong track. My personal favorite is “Mr. Rutter,” a laid back, minor key ballad with a doo-wop swing and well placed vocal harmonies about a down on his luck transvestite factory worker. The tone of this track isn’t far removed from the rest but the clearer vocals push it a bit more towards the sound of MGMT and their “Congratulations” album that found them exploring the sounds of the early psych rock era mixed with a bit of Motown production. A Happy Death play off of those same vibes of psychedelia that are a little rougher around the edges.

A Happy Death has their sound down. From the guitar work to the reverb soaked vocals to the organ that perpetually toils away in the background adding to the atmosphere. This EP is the real deal and suggested listening for fans of garage and psych rock.


Catch up with A Happy Death on Twitter, Facebook, Bandcamp and Youtube

Buy the vinyl! Here.

Album review: Colourmusic – "My ______ is Pink"

Go ahead: admit the first thing that popped into your head when you read the title. Yeah, that’s what I thought, sicko. Well that’s not how this reviewer read it at all. I read it as “My blank is Pink” because I am classy and sophisticated and a terrific liar.

Perhaps the provocative title, or non-provocative title as the case may be, serves as the point of entry for the album. Upon reading the title the listener is probably lead to expect something confrontational, something that challenges and pushes the envelope a bit. This album certainly does all of those things to a certain degree. An apt comparison in sound and approach can be drawn from Sleigh Bells to Colourmusic, though stating it that simply is selling Colourmusic quite short.

Sleigh Bells stormed onto the scene with a recognizable “meters in the red” and completely overblown, overdriven sound that, to me, tries a little too hard to get noticed and can be filed away as “gimmicky”. Colourmusic tones it down a bit while still maintaining a powerful and edgy sound that is more organic, yet still charged up. It comes off sounding a lot more realistic and believable. The band doesn’t have an overbearing synthetic sound. Live drums pound behind shredding, layered buzzsaw guitars.

Those guitars are more likely to churn out riffs that sound like they were ripped straight out of the Black Sabbath playbook, while the vocals tend to sound a bit more ethereal and akin to Animal Collective. Take for example the vocals in the chorus of “We Shall Wish (Use Your Adult Voice)”. There are moments there that conjure the same sound-world from which Animal Collective operates with lush multi-layering and plenty of breathy reverb. Colourmusic’s songs go beyond exploring one particular sound. The songs have instrumental appeal in addition to those explorations, meaning that they sound like a band playing instruments, rather than creating music that relies heavily upon the manipulation of other sounds. Instead, Colourmusic seems to be interested in having the listener focus on the layers of sound that one instrument or even one note can produce.

Colourmusic - My___-is-Pink
Colourmusic - "My___ is Pink"

The opening of “You For Leaving” states simply the staccato attack of one chord on a piano that is sustained, allowing the listener to hear all of the overtones intermingling and growing into a mass of sound right before the song opens up to a full chorus and pipe organ. It’s an approach that is akin to the work of spectral analysts that compose music where every idea for a composition is literally derived from information that is found in one small fragment of a sound. Colourmusic is adept at extrapolating ideas from sounds but their scientific attention to detail doesn’t diminish their ability to write a dancey, fun song like “Dolphins & Unicorns”.

That song, like “The Little Death (In Five Parts)”, moves between opposing textures starting with a danceable rhythm and moving to more ambient territory. The beginning of “The Little Death (In Five Parts)” though is more like a false start that anticipates a pummeling, raunchy guitar line that is thick and densely distorted, covering plenty of rhythmic ground before the vocals actually begin in a cloud of arrhythmic echoes. The track continues to spend 6 minutes tearing through material that moves from driving guitar work, into a slow dirge  of fuzzed out metal before decaying into spacious minimalist territory.

Serving as a counter to all the abrasive guitars are the passionate vocals that appear on tracks like “Feels Good to Wear” and “We Shall Wish” where a sense of longing and pain can be gleaned. The usual ambient effects of the voice in the latter track are placed on the instruments temporarily which is a welcome flipping of the texture. The instrumental breaks cast that song into an arena rock light where the track just opens up , pushing and pulling against the wall of sound that is barely contained by the band.

The band is agile enough to handle jumping between styles and textures even within the same song. They can move from loud and powerful to quiet, spacious and delicate and make it make sense. The construction of their songs is tight enough and logicalto the point where these changes don’t seem jarring.

Rounding out the end of the album is the track “Whitby Harbour”, which is simply the sound of waves lapping up on the shore. Perhaps this serves as a point of respite from a fairly intense album, or perhaps this is moving more in the direction of finding the music within sounds. A bit of spectral analysis of nature.

This album, “My ____ is Pink”, is nearly unclassifiable. It sounds loud and psychedelic in spots, but direct and danceable in most others. Somewhere between  electronic and rock with songs that have intricately crafted dynamic shapes and tight, well thought out structures.

It’s due out May 10th in the U.S. and you can order it here: http://colourmusic.spinshop.com/

[audio:http://quartertonality.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/04/14_Track_14.mp3|titles=Colourmusic – “Yes!”] [audio:http://quartertonality.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/04/12_Track_12.mp3|titles=Colourmusic – “Mono”] [audio:http://quartertonality.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/04/05_Track_05.mp3|titles=Colourmusic – “You For Leaving”]

Album review: Queens of the Stone Age – "Queens of the Stone Age" (re-issue)

Re-issues are a touchy subject to some. Who decides whether or not an album is deserving of a 2nd look? Does an album have to be a runaway hit and become hard to find in order for it to be deemed re-issue worthy or is it more that later success in a band’s career may assist earlier recordings in being resurrected from obscurity? In the case of Queens of the Stone Age it is more so the latter than the former.

Josh Homme, the lead singer, guitarist and mastermind behind Queens of the Stone Age seems to be popping up all over the place. He seems to be the journeyman of heavy music involving himself in as many projects as he can including The Eagles of Death Metal and Them Crooked Vultures with fellow omnipresent rocker Dave Grohl – a friend and former Queens of the Stone Age drummer appearing on their 2002 release “Songs for the Deaf”. To many this is where QOTSA started to be a band to watch. The song “No One Knows” was an oft played bona fide college radio hit that introduced their hard driving sound to the masses. That album, though, is much more polished and “radio-friendly” than their first, self-titled release. The self-titled release features the stripped down sound that later efforts blossomed into.

Each song on this first effort espouses a simple formula that drills one riff into the ground with little to no variation at all. Homme is a prolific riff-writer; it seems as though he can go on for days at a time churning out short little ideas one after the other. Think of krautrock mixed with metal. There are super crunchy guitars that present highly repetitive motifs that surge ahead like a freight train. Most of the songs on this first release really are one idea, one riff, pounded to death like a jackhammer into the ground. The riffs that comprise the songs are, more often than not, short little snippets, some only a measure long. It seems that the band is transfixed by them, and as a listener I can only just turn it up all the way and bob my head in time, equally transfixed. At times the idea that is the foundation of a song will be moved up and down the guitar, but the accent and rhythm remain unchanged. It’s as if they are trying to shake the idea loose but are unable, or unwilling to completely let go.

Queens of the Stone Age
Queens of the Stone Age "Queens of the Stone Age"

The guitar tone is pure and clear with a perfectly buzzy heavy sound while the solos tear through with laser like precision. The band, as a unit, locks into a mode where they feel like an unstoppable machine or like a tank bearing down on you slowly and there is no way to stop them. The lead lines are matched in their clean, laser like precision by Homme’s voice that is unmistakeable; cutting right across everything. The vocals sit somewhere between a monotonous drone and a sweetly sung melody that help to balance out the hard driving effect of the rest of the band. The whole package works so well and has a unique sort of balance to it.

With re-issues it is almost expected that there are at least one or two bonus tracks that were previously unreleased. Such is the case here and we are given the tracks “These Aren’t the Droids You’re Looking For” which is nearly a complete throwaway and “The Bronze”, which starts out sounding like Van Halen’s “Little Guitars” before opening up into a full on rocker. Final bonus track “Spiders and Vinegaroons” is a bit too lengthy and wandering, clocking in at over 6 minutes which is far more than this band is capable of holding our attention for. The track does lead nicely into the equally trippy and incoherent “I Was a Teenage Hand Model”, which takes us completely out of the zone of heavy riffage and more so into the realm of a hangover followin a night of hard partying.

This first release shows us where Queens of the Stone Age began, as an idea, as an exercise in heavy riffs and minimalist motorik repetition. It is good to see these ideas taking shape and developing into something more fully formed on later releases and even finding their way onto the radio. Josh Homme’s non-stop work ethic has become turned him into a one man revolution in hard rock.

Album review: The Two Koreas – "Science Island"

Sometimes a straight forward rock album is exactly what the doctor ordered. Noisy, sloppy, balls to the wall rock has the power to erase any traces of trend-mongering buzzbands that exist only to grab a quick piece of the action. The Two Koreas don’t seem to be interested in any of the current trends and instead are slicing right through the middle of it all with pure rock verve. Literate lyrics shouted atop a noisy, energetic garage rock band.

Every song is forthright in its earnestness, and pushes forward with such aggression that the honesty and effort shines right through. The singing is delivered in a speech-like, declamatory style that slips in and out of the beat similar to Eddie Argos of Art Brut’s style, but with the rock attitude of Sammy James Jr. from The Mooney Suzuki.  The lyrics are all shouted, and yearn to be shouted along to. It sounds as though they are writing anthem after anthem. Continuing with the comparisons I could say that they are like a noisier, more garage rock oriented Tokyo Police Club that is rough around the edges, or like Surfer Blood in their fondness of catchy hooks. I can even hear strains of Wire’s post-punk throughout. The point being: The Two Koreas aren’t trying to re-invent the wheel, and that’s fine because this is rock music done well with all the energy and catchiness one could ever possibly desire.

The Two Koreas - "Science Island"

There is nothing hidden in these songs, it’s all out there in the open. The band is able to continually build up the energy, sustaining the tension for as long as possible until reaching a near breaking point. The entire album is chock full of jangling, noisy guitars and ill fitting melodies with shaky vocals. I don’t mean that in a negative light at all. The guitar matches the vocals in its ability to slip far behind the beat, giving a general feeling of looseness throughout. Much of “Science Island” is sinister in its sound.The echoey vocals make it sound like a one man gang vocal. It is dark and serious; defiant with the sound of an angry mob riotously marching through the streets, growing in numbers as they do.
The band is at their strongest on the tracks “Haunted Beach” and “Karl Johans Gate” where the music steadily builds, unchanging except for increasing dynamics with verses and choruses blending into each other over top. “Diamond Geezer” is a standout track with a lead line that cuts through the bass and drum backbeat, sounding similar in tone to East Bay Ray of The Dead Kennedys. The track also matches the sort of sinister, yet upbeat sound that was characteristic of so many Dead Kennedys tunes.

The lyrics are plentiful and fast paced. It’s nearly impossible to catch them all as they come flying at you. The lyrics seem to do one of two things: either speak down to someone or provide the listener with some sort of fortune cookie type advice. Take for example, the song “Withering Heights”, which is a great example of their ability to start with high energy yet continuously build past it. It sports the lyric,“You take the wrong advice, you pay the highest price.” That has got to be one of the best lines on the album, shouted through the dissipating reverb of the guitars after they abruptly stop only briefly enough for this to be spoken. After that the energy picks up exactly where it left off. “Disco Slave Song” is another noisy one chord romp with a shout-along hook and organ solo in the breakdown.

The Two Koreas’ “Science Island” is a welcome return of jangly, loud garage rock. Sometimes music that is formed from the simplest, most honest of ideas is the best music.

Album review: Deerhoof – "Deerhoof vs. Evil"

Deerhoof, the ultra-quirky indie math rock/pop/irony heavy band is back with an album cheekily titled “Deerhoof Vs. Evil”.

To me Deerhoof is a band that I am constantly curious about. They seem to be combining things that one wouldn’t necessarily think go together. To me they are a study in opposites. Their singer – a tiny Japanese woman with a super-cute (almost too cute) high pitched vocal style – is backed by an at times very heavy hitting team of guitars and drums that explore disjunct math rock meter shifts. The lyrics are often quite simple and repeated over and over again, take for example their infamous song “Panda Panda Panda” where the lyrics are mostly just the song’s title. “Deerhoof Vs. Evil” has Deerhoof sticking to these principles and adding some depth to their music.

The usual noisy and angular guitars are playing a noticeably smaller role, traded instead for acoustics, there is a reliance on quieter aspects of songwriting notably in “No One Asked to Dance” and “I Did Crimes for You”. “No One Asked to Dance” displays a Spanish influenced guitar style that we haven’t heard from Deerhoof before, and is followed, funnily enough, by a song called “Let’s Dance the Jet” which sounds more like something that might be heard on their “Milk Man” album, which to me, is an album that showcases their typical sound. Usually math rock isn’t this sweet and at times this album can be really beautiful. Some songs open up into some really gorgeous, dreamy melodies. There are still a lot of places that pack quite a powerful punch.

Take for example the track “Behold A Marvel in the Darkness” where the lyric that is repeated is “What is this thing called love?”. That line is underpinned by a gentle guitar line, a few bass guitar plucks and sparse drums. It is soon followed by an explosion into a joyous and celebratory sound with a full wall of guitars, drums and cymbals shattering the silence like an atomic bomb. This band can go back and forth from contemplative and sparse to exuberant and loud instantly. They can turn on a dime. The fact that the music is commenting on the lyric is also something that shows a growth in their songwriting.
Sticking with the theme of opposites there is the fact that Deerhoof is adept at creating pop songs that are extremely dense and quite complicated but still fit inside a pop song idiom. The layered, polyrhythmic arrangements that are part of their sound point to drummer/founder Greg Saunier as a major part of the writing process. The complexity is pulled off in such a way that it never seems to belt one over the head. I hardly even noticed the first few times that I listened to the album until I really started to try to pull apart the songs as I listened. That is saying something, considering that it is one of the first things that I will usually listen for when I hear an album, especially coming from a band like this where I have come to expect it.

Deerhoof - "Deerhoof Vs. Evil"

Pop sensibilities are on display in the standout track “Super Duper Rescue Heads!”. First though, that title. The title of the song alone can give someone who has never heard the band before a pretty good idea of what they are all about. It’s that outward quirkiness that helps to make Deerhoof so accessible. Despite the sense of humor, the music is written and played with a confidence and seriousness, though it’s never too much. They don’t take themselves all that seriously, but there is nothing goofy about them. It’s a fine balance and they manage to keep it always in check.

“Secret Mobilization” starts off sounding like a Stereolab track before drifting into artier territory with the guitar wandering across neighboring harmonies while the drums and bass remain rock steady. The lyrics are repetitive, as usual for this album, which makes me think of another interesting contradictory juxtaposition within the music: it is like complex minimalism with shifting layers that repeat cyclically. The ending of this song explodes as the lead guitar shreds and squeals out a brief lick. The song “Hey I Can” opens percussion heavy with mallet instruments densely layered before schizophrenically jumping into somewhat more clear territory for the verse, and again to the chorus with a drastic shift in tempo that is pulled off so smoothly that it almost passes undetected.

Even the title of the album, “Deerhoof Vs. Evil” is a contradiction. Deerhoof is not the first thing that springs to mind when one thinks about fighting anything, especially something as looming and dangerous as, well, evil itself. They may write songs about superheroes and fighting crime but they are usually remembered for songs about, as mentioned before, pandas or seeing a dog on the sidewalk. Whatever it is that they are doing, all of the elements seem to work well together. Each time that I listen to this album I am only disappointed by the fact that it is over so quickly. The music is so well constructed that the apparent incongruities and maze of contradictions don’t hinder but instead become a part of Deerhoof’s charm and style. It’s why nobody can help but love Deerhoof.

[audio:http://quartertonality.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/02/06-Deerhoof-Super-Duper-Rescue-Heads.mp3|titles=Super Duper Rescue Heads!]