Tender Trap
Dansette Dansette

As anyone who’s ever had a proclivity for hijinks can tell you, having fun is too often been associated with a lack of maturity. “Why don’t you grow up?” is the kind of “insult” too often lobbed at those with a little joie de vivre. In a similar fashion, the same question could be asked of Amelia Fletcher and Rob Pursey, as the two have been going for teenage kicks since their days together in Talulah Gosh, as well as subsequent bands Heavenly and Marine Research. The pair has continuously looked backed to the juvenilia of the ’50 and ’60s for inspiration, creating reverb-drenched variations on the simple melodies and ideas expressed in the youth anthems of those times.

Such motifs have been held onto for the pair’s new band, Tender Trap, and its third album, Dansette Dansette. With guitarist Elizabeth Morris and drummer Katrina Dixon rounding out the line-up, Fletcher’s found complimentary voices for her girl-group paeans. Such inspiration is most apparent on first single “Do You Want a Boyfriend?” The song’s Q&A format echoes groups like the Ronettes and the Angels, while lyrics about the Jesus and Mary Chain show that Fletcher’s heart is in the right place. One might think it was about time for Fletcher and Pursey to drop their musical infatuations and mature, but why bother when records this good seem to come so naturally?
Stephen Slaybaugh

To Rococo Rot

To Rococo Rot have been together for more than 15 years. They’re German and can be counted among the founding fathers of post-rock. They released a CD that was inspired by the 50th anniversary of the Helvetica typeface. The band name is a palindrome. But beyond the bullet points, To Rococo Rot have consistently woven acoustic and electronic sounds to create something uniquely their own. Now six years after their last proper album, they’ve returned with Speculation.

Speculation was recorded at the studio of Krautrock legends Faust. That resulted in a guest appearance by Jochen Irmler on his homemade organ on the closer, “Friday.” Looking at all the data present you’d think that it’s a pretty safe bet to figure out how this is all going to go. The equation of Germans plus post-rock equals pretty predictable story. Clearly someone forgot to give To Rococo Rot the script. Breaking away from their own conventions, they recorded Speculation live in the studio, adding a welcome sense of imperfection into their tightly scripted arrangements. And as with the other records in their catalog, they deftly blend up-tempo, near dance-inducing electronic tunes with their analogue experimentation.

The ongoing problem with far too many instrumental post-rock bands is that they lack both a focus and any sense of personality. To Rococo Rot don’t have that problem. There’s a dry sense of humor that permeates the record; for example, “No Way To Prepare” features a 30-second electrowave freakout that’s so out of place with the rest of the record you can kind of see the band smirking. And for a record that’s 10 cuts deep and recorded live, there’s not even an ounce of pointless jamming. Even with “Friday” extending to more than 10 minutes, the whole album is barely 45 minutes long. The songs have a momentum and movement that is too often lacking in many of their contemporaries. One of the biggest complements is that Speculation flies by so fast it’s almost a shock when it’s over. After being bludgeoned with too many go nowhere bands it’s refreshing to hear a band that appreciates some economy. To Rococo Rot shows that there’s still fresh material to mine from the old story.
Dorian S. Ham

MP3: “Horses”

Dead Luke
American Haircut
Florida’s Dying

After starting off as a singles-only enterprise, the venerable Florida’s Dying label has recently begun focusing its efforts on full-length records, highlighted by last year’s Electric Bunnies debut LP. It’s latest is American Haircut, the debut album from Dead Luke, whose nom de plume traces back to the Wisconsin native’s stint in underground cult favorites the Dead Hookers.

To date, Dead Luke has been most frequently associated with the synth-heavy, electronic strain of underground psychedelia, deriving in part from both a handful of 7-inch releases and his collaborations with fellow Wisconsinite Zola Jesus. American Haircut, however, showcases an artist who can’t necessarily be pigeonholed. The album opens with “Trapped in Lust,” which lacks those trademark synths and instead relies upon an acoustic guitar and chanted vocals for its droned psych sound. “Dreaming Pt. 3” picks up on this groove, but mixes in the synths, giving the song a sort of futuristic Indian vibe. Other tracks, like “God Bless the Midwest, God Roast the East Coast,” which true to its title, sounds like a Midwestern lo-fi pillaging of the Modern Lovers, approach the border of the more familiar rock sound by incorporating traditional percussion and electric guitars. There’s even an ace cover of the ’60s hit “Lil’ Red Riding Hood” that might fool more inattentive listeners into thinking that they’re hearing Sam the Sham and the Pharaohs despite the presence of synths and a dirty lead guitar track during the song’s coda.

American Haircut’s disparate elements flow together nicely throughout the album, and even when things seem like they might be beginning to meander (for instance, the electronic intro to “Acid Forest”), Dead Luke finds his way back to some previously uncovered and intriguing cosmic space. And by the time the album finds its way to its finale, the instrumental “The Best Drug I’ve Ever Done,” it’s almost as if he’s invoked some kind of trance that’s inducing you to flip the record back over and listen again.
Ron Wadlinger

Ed Harcourt
Piano Wolf

It’s a source of mystification that a songwriter and performer like Ed Harcourt remains practically unknown in the States while similar artists like Rufus Wainwright and Ben Folds achieve chart success with crib notes from Harcourt’s catalog. Most tragically, the lack of commercial gains really seemed to have gotten to him when he released the seriously underwhelming The Beautiful Lie four years ago. Ed then shrugged his shoulders and put out a greatest hits collection. Clearly, he wasn’t sure what else to do with himself.

Lucky for us, though, he ended up in the beautiful state of Washington to record Lustre with producer Ryan Hadlock, best known for his work with Black Heart Procession and Blonde Redhead. Harcourt must have been inspired by the natural wonders of the surroundings and/or the company because the resulting album is full of purpose and verve. He seems reinvigorated from the first moment—patient, deliberate, somehow much more confident. He’s clearly approached this record both thoughtfully and forcefully.

The 11 tracks are mapped out with the rise and fall of great drama, from the slow crescendo of the title track to the bawdy climax of “Haywired” and the sparkling pop of “Do As I Say Not As I Do” to the dark growl he finds on the sharp-witted “Heart Like a Wolf.” Each track is augmented with a slightly different palette and mellotrons and girl-group back-ups. Even violins make well timed appearances. Harcourt has never been a better pop chameleon than here, and while past comparisons have linked him to singers like Leonard Cohen and Elliott Smith, his vocal variations will get you thinking about Paul Westerberg and Freddie Mercury. As with the instrumentation, Harcourt and Hadlock seem to have spent considerable time thinking not just about the songwriting, but also about the best form to suit the content. Strangers (2004) was a great record and, I thought, the most perfect album Harcourt would ever produce. I may have been wrong. It’s hard to imagine him topping this.
Matt Slaybaugh

Stone Temple Pilots
Stone Temple Pilots

For years, the critical line on Stone Temple Pilots was that they represented the rock-bottom for grunge rock. Sinewy frontman Scott Weiland borrowed the angst and unpolished vocals of Cobain and Vedder, but also incorporated elements of arena rock and glam-metal, arguably the two most vapid, corporatized sub-genres of rock & roll. For some, it’s no small stretch to say that STP was the missing link between respectable acts like Nirvana and unspeakably bad butt-rockers like Nickelback and Puddle of Mudd, who sure sounded angst-ridden but were really just pretending to be sad and sensitive so they could fuck your girlfriend. I might’ve agreed with this assessment at the time, except that I was too young (or not cool enough) to sense the cultural significance of Nirvana and their shaggy, flannelly brethren. (It wouldn’t be until years later when I heard the raw power of In Utero that I finally “got” Nirvana.) When removed from the context of the grunge rock revolution, Stone Temple Pilots were just another larger-than-life rock band in the tradition of Zeppelin and AC/DC, and I’m not ashamed to say they meant way more to me for the bulk of my childhood than Nirvana ever has.

Of course, the year is 2010 and even Pearl Jam, the patron saints of ’90s alternative, are having trouble making the needle of public opinion move past a disinterested shrug. So what hope do the notoriously reviled boys of STP have? Well, for a couple songs at least, they strike an appeal to their diehard fan base (e.g. 30-year-old Midwestern accountants and me). Weiland is firmly within his comfort zone on opener “Between the Lines” as he sneers, “You always were my favorite drug, even when we used to take drugs” over big dumb DeLeo riffs. Coming from a guy who takes drug abuse as seriously as Weiland does, this is quite the tribute. Next, “Take a Load Off” captures the distorted heartsick jangle of old STP classics like “Interstate Love Song” and “Lady Picture Show.” But things quickly take a turn for the worse with the swinging shit-stomper, “Huckleberry Crumble,” which sounds like some kind of veiled metaphor for cunnilingus, and “Hickory Dichotomy,” which sounds like a cross between early Brian Eno and Big n’ Rich (knowing Weiland’s influences, this was probably intentional).

For most of the album, it sounds like guitarist Dean DeLeo spent an afternoon listening to old STP records and then recorded the first 20 riffs that he happened to play. In fact, a lack of effort and ingenuity by all involved exposes this record for what it is: a contractual obligation. In 2008, Atlantic Records sued Stone Temple Pilots for reneging on a promise to deliver a sixth studio album, and so nobody should be surprised by the quality of these songs, which is low even by aging rock dinosaur standards. I hope that on some glorious day in the future, either STP will get the good sense to stop making records or I’ll get the good sense to stop buying them.
David Holmes

Topp Stemning på Lokal Bar

I know I’m becoming an old fuddy-duddy. I mean, I can tell by the size of my gut and my lack of patience for bullshit bands with names with more than six words. But that doesn’t mean I’m completely out of it (though that’s been the case at times). And that doesn’t begin to explain why the hell I couldn’t place “Fot I Hose,” the leadoff single taken from the first disk of the Casiokids’ debut and which pervades the second disk in remixed forms even more. I wracked my addled brain: surely, I’d heard it before amongst the piles of bullshit that pervaded my Macmail inbox. It must have been some reworked mp3 from some quickly forgotten of-the-moment band right?

No, it was simply one of the tracks from the one game, FIFA 10, that I enjoy playing on my PS3. See, I’m not so out of it after all. This was the soundtrack to putting balls into the back of a confab net, my one small step into the utterly geeky world of video games. And I dig it. (Note to self: remember to suss out more tracks by that FIFA band reminiscent of 84 Nash.) Anyway, the simple thubbing, synthetic bassline is just the tip of this post-millennial Icelandic iceberg. Rather, the tubthumpers have constructed a record of 21st century pop hues that puts fellow Scandinavians like Peter, Bjorn and John and the Shout Out Louds to shame. The Casiokids are shinier and brighter, full of wholesome, computer-spun catchiness. Nevermind the source—as it all seems dropped by extraterrestrial intervention—Topp Stemning på Lokal Bar divines its own constructs that are equal parts synthetic and soul. Sung in the band’s native tongues, you never know what’s being said, but it sounds like the secrets of the universe, or at least instructions on how to unlock the wonders of the virtual world.
Stephen Slaybaugh

MP3: “Fot I Hose”