Chad VanGaalen
Soft Airplane
Sub Pop

Aping Neil Young as a way to attract serious dark beer drinking girls with disposable income has long been the cornerstone of the alt-country genre. While some artists, like My Morning Jacket, Wilco and Ryan Adams, managed near approximations of Young’s general style, most of them were never able to capture the actual vibe. Arguably this vibe was what lent Young’s music such a timeless nature. Had it been more polished it would have sounded manufactured; if it had been less professional, it would have come across pedestrian. Right here in the press release it implicates Chad VanGaalen for “recalling Neil Young,” rather than aping Neil Young. More like he slept through his alarm clock set to the local classic rock station and wrote a song a few days later trying to recall a melody from Live At Massey Hall or On the Beach he absorbed subconsciously. Soft Airplane is not an alt-country throwback with banjo and pedal steel guitar. This album is the clean-shaven kin of Weed Forestin’-era Sebadoh on a date to the Elephant Six hideout with a dolled up copy of Portastatic’s Slow Note From a Sinking Ship.

The production is meaty: Moog auto-trigger wiggles flit in and out of verses; the drums and bass are deep and deft even when electronic; the vocals are double-tracked (at least) in nearly wrong harmonies that provide a populist sing-a-long quality. VanGaalen’s voice can sell lyrics about a “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle mask, sunk in to the rocks, plastic face half-buried” over a Casio beat and make it perfectly clear that that mask needs a song written about it. Handmade instruments and found sounds seem to appear like spectral accompaniment sporadically throughout the more stripped-down songs. The alone-in-a-bedroom nature is exposed in the clickity-click-ping percussion on “Cries of the Dead,” where the slap-snare sound on a few songs may just be a fat plastic spatula on a kitchen counter, and a passing train panned to each speaker jarringly ends the study of the ambiguity of death in “Rabid Bits of Time.” His voice indeed recalls Neil Young, as VanGaalen has the admirable Canadian ability to shed all self-consciousness, to push through the wall of cool into a realm of confident self-expression devoid of ingratiation. Soft Airplane is just polished enough to shimmer through the grime and just murky enough to convey the rawness of sincerity.
Michael P. O’Shaughnessy

End Titles... Stories for Films
Surrender All

In the liner notes to End Titles. . . Stories for Film, James Lavelle (one-half of UNKLE along with Pablo Clements) specifies that this record is not the duo’s new album. Rather, the first release since 2007’s War Stories is a collection of their works from audio-visual compilations, including 10 tracks from Odyssey in Rome, a documentary about director Abel Ferrara (of Bad Lieutenant fame). Beginning with “End Titles” and ending with a piano instrumental, aptly titled “Piano Echoes” (both from the film), there also are snippets from the soundtrack (“Kaned and Abel,” “Synthetic Water,” “Romeo Void”). “Open Up Your Eyes” features Ferrara providing a Dylan-esque deep rasp of vocals, accompanied only by the guitar. Josh Homme of Queens of the Stone Age provides the vocals for “Chemical,” the instrumental version of which can be found in several film trailers and soundtracks. The harmony that dissolves into the melodic cacophony of guitars brings to mind Radiohead, as well as a past 1998 UNKLE collaboration, “Rabbit in Your Headlights” with Thom Yorke.

There are also some new tracks, and Lavelle writes, “As work on this progressed, it felt more and more like a soundtrack for another, imaginary film—this one of our own making.” While it’s not an UNKLE record in one sense (as this album allows the duo to more freely explore and delve into new sounds and mediums) it also remains true to their electronic-with-soul sound. If it were a soundtrack to UNKLE’s own film, it would be a darkly sophisticated urban exploration, rather than a lighthearted countryside romp. Appropriately, “Nocturnal,” is an example of the tone: a bass-heavy, soaring and otherworldly epic that glides into a contemporary symphony, complete with cellos and the almost Gregorian-like chants. UNKLE has always mastered textured and complex instrumentation to create cutting-edge music that doesn’t lose its emotion in the process.
Josie Rubio

On the Eve of Absolute Get Down
Mighty Loud

Concept records are a dicey pursuit. While unifying a record around a common theme or storyline is a proud rock tradition, ala Tommy or The Wall, it can quickly slide into the arena of self-indulgence. So beware of the band that makes its debut album a concept album. With than in mind, welcome Player/Kommander’s On the Eve of Absolute Get Down.

According to the band, On the Eve of Absolute Get Down is about “a protagonist with serious anxiety disorder and various chemical dependencies (who) embarks on a one-night rollercoaster ride.” In addition the record is divided into four “phases”: “Hooligans, Debutantes & Spiritual Bandwidth,” “The Eagle,” “Sharing The Gift of Knowing When To Let Go” and “Like Glammed-Out, Majorly.” For an established band all of the extra flotsam and jetsam would be enough to raise an eyebrow. For a new band it could be a fatal misstep.

But like the cliche goes, “Don’t judge a book by its cover.” Even though the album seems like a far too clever creative writing student masterminded it, Player/Kommander have avoided the heavy-handed approach that would seem to go hand-in-hand with the concept. The result is a pretty solid and straightforward collection of glam rock influenced songs. And while clearly lots of thought went into the structure and sequencing of the record, the average listener can enjoy the music without the back-story.

On the Eve of Absolute Get Down works best when Player/Kommander combines the glam with a touch of R&B soul man vocals. “You’ve Had Your Fun” is a great example of that style, with blue-eyed soul falsetto and a slight late-era Red Hot Chili Peppers feel. And what’s arguably the best song on the record, “White-Out Of The Mind,” is an almost a rock-tinged Hall & Oates song.

On the Eve of Absolute Get Down goes wonky when Player/Kommander decides to bring in questionable musical ideas. “Way Faux El Diablo” has a boogie rock gang vocal breakdown and a distorted harmonica solo in the coda that will bring up memories of Bruce Willis’ Return of Bruno period. “Physical” seems like a shouty attempt to make an “anthem.” Instead it feels like your dad attempting to ape “what those young kids are doing.” To be fair the experimentation works in “Damaged Good,” a song where distorted harpsichord, an organ riff and drum machine take the forefront. But those moments are hit and miss. Overall On the Eve Of Absolute Get Down is slightly uneven, but ultimately a good record that doesn’t need all of the extra stuff to get the job done.
Dorian S. Ham

Duchess Says
Anthologie Des 3 Perchoirs
Alien 8

How to describe Duchess Says? They call it “moog rock,” but for me at least, that conjures up entirely the wrong idea. If you really wanna simplify things, call it the Kills with keyboards. That’s reductive for sure, but it’s meant as complement.

Vocalist Annie-C certainly seems to have something to prove. This review could easily be an exercise in finding ten different words for “screaming.” How about yell, bellow, wail and howl? She does all that and more. I’ll bet the recording booth was covered in spit, sweat and blood.

“Black Flag” is touted as their live tour-de-force, but if you’re sampling them on iTunes or something, start with their cover of Six Finger Satellite’s Rabies, which features both Annie-C’s guttural declarations in full force as well as the band unrepentantly getting their synthesized groove on. If you like that, it’s a sure bet you’ll dig the Duchess.

“I’ve Got the Flu” takes a minute to get going, but it’s worth the wait. The synths eventually take over, melding moody ozone over a choppy beat before Annie screams her lungs out. They’ve got some range too; “Melon” splits the melody between Annie-C and the guitar leads as the keyboards just hold down the bass. For a slightly punkier take, check out “CH.O.B.” one minute of fury with an unaccompanied shriek thrown in for good measure. And when the opening moments of “Les Residents” takes over, you’ll think you’ve stumbled into a lost, late-night drunken Styx session.

Never let it be said that Duchess Says delivers subtlety or nuance, but if you want to throw your body around the room for awhile and scare your parents a little bit (but not too much) this is for you.
Matt Slaybaugh

Waves on Waves
Waves on Waves

This is Waves on Waves’ first release under that moniker (their first was under the name Thornton) and it comes on like the love-child of George Michael and the lesser songs in the musical Rent. Then again, with the band’s supposed art rock leanings, their theatre degrees and the your-guess-is-as-good-as-mine sexual vibe, I should reference Spring Awakening.

But the songs are too light-weight for art rock. They’re the kind of thing you write in high school, with lots of hiccupped “oh-oh-ohs” all over the place. Each song is based on a really simple chord pattern and barely swerves from that path, making just enough room for a guitar solo.

It’s not that the tracks hold no appeal. The album is front-loaded with their best work, “Your Operator” and “Modern Man,” both of which make their mark with large interval jumps in the downright catchy choruses.

Unfortunately, the quality really drops off after that. It’s all smoke and mirrors, like the ridiculously fake live video on their website. If you’re so inclined, you might occasionally get drawn into the more atmospheric stuff, like “Say Goodnight” or “U Moved Me In2 The Future,” but you’ll probably spend most of your time looking at the awesome photos on the CD sleeve.
Matt Slaybaugh