If Prisonshake were to finally release their threatened double-album within this young century, would it make a noise? Realizing the validity of such a quandary, Robert Griffin rages and rants into oblivion throughout Dirty Moons, the self-described “underground rock Chinese Democracy,” without an ounce of regret or a sip of expectation. It’s likely he drank those up sometime during the 12 years it took to finish this widescreen saga. From Cleveland to St. Louis, perhaps through Hell and back, these are the sordid tales of busted love and broken bottles. At least that theory could explain the disparate extremes—often within the same song—that form the sprawling album.
Quite honestly, the sonic shifts are a bit maddening to sit through in their entirity, which is why Dirty Moons is designed with four “entry points” or unique sides to ease you in. But as a full-length monster, it’s still cohesive despite stumbling between polar opposites. There’s the collective genius accumulated in the friendship of Griffin and singer Douglas Enkler and the indulgent mess left in that wake. Take “Year of the Donk,” for example, splicing reels of multiple sessions (containing even a new rendition of 1997’s fabled “Left-Over Monkey” in the middle) into one discombobulated track of blues-punk and tattoo-knuckled bar rock. The moodiness becomes almost surreal when Griffin begins suturing answering machine messages and hazy piano interludes to once ditched scraps of improvised art-skronk, then sharply blasting through hi-fi, would-be indie anthems. There’s a timeless quality in the unrefined clarity of songs like “Crush Me” and “You’re Obviously the One” and their autobiographies of life in the trenches. It’s bound to sound a bit like the Guided By Voices that Scat drug through the door, the no-frills post-rock Prisonshake helped spawn to a degree (just with more lead in the lake water), and the boogie guitar heroes that brought them up.
The long-time listener and first-time caller get equal treatment with Dirty Moons as there’s no escaping the record’s deafening paradigm of inspired indifference. Griffin knows this is his masterpiece, but is constantly reminding us he’s well aware of his fate. Most telling is the self-deprecation of “Cut-Out Bin,” where over the album’s rawest riff he proclaims, “Some say rock and roll has died and at times like this I wish they were right.” It may reek of something you heard from the guy sitting next to you at the bar, but that guy never followed it up with a story like this.
Kevin J. Elliott
MP3: “Crush Me”
“I don’t think I ever wanna wake-up again,” Robbie Smith screams at the outset of “Giant Mantis vs Turtle Nip,” the first song on the band’s second full-length. It’s unclear if that’s because he’s dreaming these songs or if it’s because he’s just finished living through it all, but either way the record is a worthwhile excursion.
Lyrically, there’s definitely some pathos at work here. When Smith isn’t singing about getting wasted or the effects thereof (“We’re stuck inside the boxes we create”), he’s complaining about the people he has to do it with (“mermaids with AIDS dressed like maids”) or straining through the morning after (“woke up with whiskey farts”). Of course, you’ve got to work pretty hard to hear the words over the noise.
The band’s ruckus veers from simple hardcore at times to heavy heavy bass-led riffs to out and out mathcore; sometimes they just get their rocks off by making amazing noise. The rhythm section of “Roo” Fritter on bass and Chris Fritter on drums holds the hot mess together through it all, driving the frenzied tempos and providing solid ground when Smith and Dan Rankin’s guitars get wanderlust and thrash for the outer-bounds.
The first half-minute of “Eagle Mewnadria” seems to simulate a breathing machine or perhaps a diseased heart. The song that follows spends a couple minutes in deconstructed surf rock before Robbie watches “the wall talk for hours” and the track drones to its close. “Supernova Ninja Surfers” is as piercing and viscous as its title promises and contains the most clearly heard lyric on the record: “What the fuck were you thinking?!?!”
And if you can keep up all the way to the end, HHLL will continue to shock you, engaging in bit of new wave harmony on “Rotten Church/Mall/Parking Lot” and throwing in a disco beat for good measure at the 13-minute mark of the gloriously named “Please, That Bitch Will Outlive Us All.” The group puts their back into every end of their sound spectrum, so whether you like it heavy or low, you should come for the verbiage and stay for the din.
The ‘90s just can’t stay away. It seems like every band that broke up after its time in the sun has reunited. Add to that number the Toadies. After dissolving in 2001, the Texas band is back with No Deliverance.
Toadies are best known for the ‘94 single “Possum Kingdom.” While never mainstream darlings like their contemporaries, the album Rubberneck did go platinum and the song has had a consistent presence on alternative radio ever since. But after a seven-year break between their debut and the release of the cliched “difficult second album,” the band went their separate ways.
Given the lukewarm reception to 2001’s Hell Below/Stars Above, it’s surprising that the Toadies would give it another go. The risk with most reunions is that the new stuff won’t be up to snuff, or that the band is as misguided as Michael Jordan’s time playing baseball. Surprisingly, from the opening seconds of No Deliverance all fears are laid to rest. The jagged guitar riffs signal that yes, the Toadies are back and in a ‘90s state of mind. While it could run the risk of sounding dated, instead it highlights that the band knows its strengths. Why radically reinvent the wheel?
No Deliverance is a weird time capsule of an album. It plays like the follow-up record to Rubberneck—if the past 14 years and Hell Below/Stars Above didn’t happen. The only difference (and it isn’t really that noticeable) is that bass player and founding member Lisa Umbarger has been replaced by Hagfish’s Doni Blair. But the things that made the Toadies sound—the oddly tense vocals of Vaden Todd Lewis and Clark Vogeler’s guitar work—are in ample supply. It’s also odd to think that these same elements that made the Toadies radio-friendly in the ‘90s, make them stick out in the more slick ‘00s.
Over the course of a tight 38-minute runtime, every ghost of Rubberneck shows up to say hello. Lewis goes from emotionally flat to unhinged yelling in a blink, while noisy guitars swirl around in contrast. No Deliverance has everything longtime fans would want, and for new fans, it’s a snapshot of what all the fuss was about. One would hope that all reunions would go as well as the Toadies.
Dorian S. Ham
Eyeing the title to Joe Thibodeau’s sophomore album, one could expect that he’s taken to lathering on the preciousness in a fashion similar to the handful of neo-folkies who have blossomed in 2008 (Fleet Foxes, Bon Iver, the Dodos). Well he does and doesn’t: at one moment his honey-coated voice is accompanied only by “minstrel” banjo on “Fences Around Field” (quite precious), the next, as on the simmering epic “Peninsula,” he’s emanating from an extraterrestrial patch of Appalachia where electric guitars have just recently been introduced to the front porch (quite transcendent). Much like the other bands mentioned, Thibodeau has created a soul-bearing niche unique to his songwriting and from which he can explore his journeyman craft, all without succumbing to the fey cliches of acoustic imposters.
Nothing Is Precious Enough for Us is at once a deft mix of maudlin traditionals and modernity. On the surface it’s hard to distinguish songs like “Block My Eye” or “Obadiah in Oblivion” as anything but simple agrarian pop, meadow-meal sing-a-longs or campfire lullabies. It’s when zooming in on Thibodeau’s attention to detail that the true spirit of the record is exposed. The intricacies of his fingerpicking alone are labyrinthine, as the rambling melody of “Jitterakadie” is met with a breezy spate of bluegrass. Elsewhere pedal steels and coronets float around Thibodeau’s skillful, yet lilting, guitar play, weaving meticulous odes to country, lounge jazz and chamber pop by never feeling obligated to give any one of those tropes full view. The results are yet another folksinger forcing the listener to dig deep. Uprooting Nothing Is Precious provides a quixotic tapestry underneath that’s hard not to get wrapped up in.
Kevin J. Elliott
MP3: “Bruno’s Torso”
One thing everyone should know: pedal steel does not a country record make. It doesn’t matter how acoustic your album is, or if you recorded it in Austin or how many licks you lift from Uncle Tupelo, you’re still not gonna remind anyone of the Band if you write and sing like moe. The result in the case of Brothers and Sisters’ Fortunately is an incredibly inauthentic and mediocre identity crisis of a record.
The opening riffs of “You’re Gone” might take you back to some Allman-esque groove of yesteryear, but once Will Courtney starts singing, you realize it’s more like Guster. “Make a Man’s Body Hurt” might as well be a Poison power ballad. And when the Courtneys (Will and his sibling Lily) combine their nasally voices in harmony on “The Air Is Getting Thicker,” it’s a far, far cry from the Mamas and the Papas.
The most convincing performance on the record is “The Wind,” a gentle, atmospheric piece about abandonment that could easily be mistaken for a Death Cab for Cutie outtake. It works because it gives in to it’s pedigree and doesn’t waste time screaming “I love Flying Burritos” like the rest of the album.
MP3: “You’re Gone”