Rated O

There’s a common belief among Oneida fans that they own more Oneida albums than they realistically need. But when attempting to weed out what isn’t necessary, it’s often tough to choose a record with which to part. That truth can be applied to their latest masterpiece of sorts, the sprawling triple record Rated O (the middle-section of their Thank Your Parents trilogy). For every stunning 12-minute hash-metal groove, there’s a journey that becomes a grating, laborious waste of 12 minutes right around the corner. But in keeping with the Oneida ideology, in listening, if you have the patience required for Rated O’s runtime, not a scrap could be cut, not a beat or effect replaced.

What makes the group even more frustrating is trying to follow along with their labyrinthine compost. Last year’s Pre-Teen Weaponry, if taken in retrospect and now in context, was the prologue leading up to Rated O, and fortunately Oneida takes little time in getting into the thick of things with “Brown Out in Lagos.” As the title suggests, the song explodes into a monolithic Afro-dubby blast as only a trio (now rounded out with additional members) of art-trash wallflowers from Brooklyn know how, as maximalists. That’s soon followed by “10:30 at the Oasis,” perhaps the perfect encapsulation of how Oneida has operated in their veteran span, be it mixing circuit coitus a la Tangerine Dream with motorik guitar trailwinds surfing down the autobahn, filtering 21st century drug rock through 8-bit gamelan, or fluidly twiddling knobs in each direction possible for a heightened sense of disorientation. If there could only be one song in their repertoire, this would be it.

But with everything that informs Oneida, Rated O routinely hits brick walls of boredom and indulgence. Unfolding the origami of this trilogy even farther reveals yet another trilogy. This being one whole record composed of three parts, it’s certainly not all rager. The first piece abruptly ends with “Human Factor,” which sounds like engines idling over 10 minutes of useless bickering, all the while waiting to find a peculiar space-ace groove, but never quite landing. Depending on one’s mood, the best of Oneida comes with their forays into short (by their standards) chunks of wicked chug ’n’ choogling. Rated O’s centerpiece is composed of “The River,” “I Will Haunt You,” “The Life You Preferred,” and the most unhinged of the bunch, “Ghost in the Room,” which cements them as the Blue Oyster Cult’s doppelganger by way of Can.

By the time “O” provides its epic Eastern come-down, complete with sitar and melted distortion, the record has already been so dizzying and exhausting, it’s a wonder they continued onto the 20-plus minute closer, “Folk Wisdom.” What would be a hypnotic charmer on any other record of theirs is here a cap of wonky improvisation, and at best, a suitable end to what is often one of Oneida’s most bizarre rides. It’s disheartening then that while this (and The Wedding, most definitely) may be the only Oneida album one could ever need, it may be too much of an overachievement to give the casual listener any type of reward. For the diehards picking through the wreckage and trying to make sense of it all, it ranks among their best but constantly begs the question of whether they’ve done this before, just more abridged.
Kevin J. Elliott

MP3: “I Will Haunt You”


At the close of the ’00s, as we suffer through the final throes of a perfunctory revival in ’80s fashion and music (the two-decade nostalgia rule once again holding strong), and as Auto-Tune continues its untrammeled reign over pop and R&B airwaves, the last thing the world needs is a band that sounds like a cross between A-Ha and T-Pain. But Discovery is much more than a couple dudes in Wayfarers singing like robots, and rarely have gaudy synths and vocal effects been put to better use than on the duo’s debut album, LP. Here, Wes Miles (lead singer of Ra Ra Riot) and Rostam Batmanglij (multi-instrumentalist of Vampire Weekend) hijack the glorious Day-Glo tackiness of your favorite (and least favorite) ’80s bands to craft an irresistible summer chill-out album that goes down smooth with Mad Dog margaritas, kiddie pools, and SPF 15.

Miles and Batmanglij lay all their cards on the table within the album’s first few seconds as fat string cheese keyboards, smooth R. Kelly vocals and tinny processed drums make a surprisingly irony-free entrance on the phenomenal “Orange Shirt.” And while they never really top the success of that first song, it’s not for lack of trying. “I Wanna Be Your Boyfriend” is classic femme-bot trash featuring a heavily processed vocal hook from Dirty Projectors siren Angel Deradoorian (she’s the one who sings “Two Doves” on Bitte Orca). Elsewhere, “So Insane” alternates between stuttering Max Tundra-esque free-form pop verses and massive bass-driven slow jam choruses, while “Can You Discover” proves that the reports of Auto-Tune’s death have been greatly exaggerated (sorry, Jay-Z).

LP is more than a bit top-heavy (though how many great ’80s albums weren’t?), which is less the result of diminishing song quality and more due to the fatigue that sets in when the band quickly exhausts their somewhat limited musical palette of handclaps and syrupy synths. At the same time, however, that simplicity in scope allows the band to focus on solid songwriting instead of getting lost in self-indulgent studio trickery. Never resorting to mere imitation, Discovery borrows elements from both ’80s Top 40 and contemporary R&B without pretension or condescension. And although they fail to elevate these ostensibly disposable bits of pop detritus to the realm of the feverish art like Basement Jaxx and Daft Punk did earlier this decade, that’s okay. Discovery is content to waft blithely in the background of summer barbeques and keg parties, providing a sanguine soundtrack for nostalgia junkies and neophytes alike.
David Holmes

MP3: “Orange Shirt”

Cass McCombs

Traditional song structures are by definition nothing new. Not that they’re boring—they’re handy in being able to predict the direction of a song, as they allow the listener to focus more upon the lyrics. Cass McCombs, much like Neil Young or Leonard Cohen, uses these traditional structures to highlight his vocal melodies as well as the lyrics. Plenty of these songs sound autobiographical, but that’s kind of a boring speculation to make, especially since McCombs prefers a Pynchon-esque, interview-eschewing public image. Nowadays—post-Pynchon, post-Salinger, post-Zeppelin even—this attitude towards media coverage could be seen as traditional. Just as traditional song structures permit the audience to focus on the music, cold-shouldering interviews pretty much forces McCombs’ records to speak for him. This is why an artist makes art, to use that art to start a conversation or to draw relationships. How fun would it be to imagine McCombs as the carry-over title character of “Lionkiller Got Married” (from his last LP, Dropping the Writ)? It comes off as a narrator repeating what he’d heard about this lionkiller: “I heard he’s trying to write himself out of a hole he had dug. I heard his new mantra is: “The more I kill, the more I love.’” The narrator empathizes with the lionkiller and says to one the gossipers, “See you next Tuesday, but in the English way.” (Get it?) If this isn’t McCombs speaking to his detractors or even (gasp) music reviewers attempting to read his lyrics autobiographically, I don’t know what is.

Regardless of whether or not Cass is using his art to explain himself (god forbid), Catacombs is much better work than the previous releases. The production is roomy and extremely reverbed, but not in an amateurish attempt to cover biffs or blemishes in the performance or the songwriting. The stripped-down drums and quiet piano both work as a pedestal for the vocals and sparse guitar to sit upon. If you ever heard “Poser In My Bedroom” by PEZ, or more recently the She & Him record, you’ll be pleased with the warm, sunny production of Catacombs. This record might gather dust over the summer, but once school starts and the leaves start falling, I’m sure it will be the soundtrack for plenty of lonely, cloistered English majors looking for another recluse with which to identify.
Michael P. O’Shaughnessy

Upper Air
Dead Oceans

The Bowerbirds’ 2007 album exceeded all expectations. It was a sparse recording of ramshackle dirges and exhalations, notable for its pairing of accordion and acoustic guitars and for moments of surprising darkness and light. Phil Moore’s tremblant vocals laid bare the heart of the clever verses, as the band occasionally joined in for downbeat sing-alongs about unicorns and such. A flood of critical acclaim followed (Pitchfork gave it an 8.4), and the band gained a small but mighty cult following among the hipsters-in-sandals set. John Darnielle, of the Mountain Goats, called them his “favorite band in forever.”

That album, Hymns for a Dark Horse, was one of the creative peaks of 2007. And so it’s truly surprising that the Bowerbirds apparently decided to just re-record it, this time calling the record Upper Air. Familiar songs with new titles, like “Northern Lights,” “House of Diamonds” and “Silver Clouds” are just as good but no better than their counterparts. Fans of the first LP will no doubt enjoy the second one only slightly less than the first, since the only discernible difference between the two is the artwork on the front, which is not as good this time.
Matt Slaybaugh

MP3: “Northern Lights”

We Were Promised Jetpacks
These Four Walls

It seems that every region will at some point have its time in the sun. But until Grand Forks, North Dakota can get its act together, it seems like Scotland is holding the title of the “next wherever.” Hoping to ride the current mini-wave of Scottish love, which includes labelmates Frightened Rabbit and the Twilight Sad, are the men of We Were Promised Jetpacks. Following on a couple of preview singles, the band has landed on our shores with their debut album These Four Walls.

In these days of epic jams, genre splicing and the current bend towards post–post rock, with an emphasis on Wilson-esque harmonies, it’s almost a shock to hear WWPJ’s relatively straightforward brand of indie rock. Sonically These Four Walls is a blend of the dense guitar production style of the ?90s and a less spastic Artic Monkeys. Add to that the propulsive snap in the instrumental interplay and you have a sound that seems far more mature then the band’s young age.

There’s a poppy undertone to These Four Walls, but it doesn’t manifest itself in easily digestible sing-a-long hooks. The refrains are more often than not tight bursts of declarations. You may not run around singing “We’re fast approaching midnight!” (“Moving Clocks Run Slow”), but you’ll be hard pressed to stop doing the rock & roll head bob while listening. The one clear exception is “Quiet Little Voices,” but the gang chorus and shouts of “Whoa aho ho!” serve as a welcome release from the sonic attack.

Another surprise is that even when WWPJ slows down the tempo or take a song in a different direction, they don’t get lost while trying to branch out. The instrumental “A House Half Built,” while not essential, works as a good transition into the muted “This Is My House, This Is My Home” and shows the potential of another sonic direction. And when These Four Walls finally has its epic moment with the eight-minute long “Keeping Warm,” it neatly sidesteps any cliches. The song has a focused build-up, a strong lyrical song structure, and most importantly, doesn’t feel as if eight minutes have passed.

While it’s pretty wise to take “next big wherever” hype with a grain of salt, We Were Promised Jetpacks gives another good reason to keep an eye on Scotland.
Dorian S. Ham

The Builders and the Butchers
Salvation Is a Deep Dark Well

Say what you will about Satan, he makes for a good song topic. The Builders and the Butchers have milked good ol’ Lucifer dry for Salvation Is a Deep Dark Well, giving him many appearances in the storytelling spilled out amongst the Southern-accented songwriting on their sophomore album. But this is a band from Portland, mind you, a city not known for its Southern gothic, so the B&Bs aren’t interested in fitting anyone’s stereotype. Instead, with a reverential take on ’50s-style western Americana, Salvation Is a Deep Dark Well is just asking for 40 minutes of your time to dance and sing along to the catchy choruses.

Perhaps it’s when Satan rears his head that the band is at its best, as on the attention-grabbing “Devil Town.” Here, the driving beat is suited to toe-tapping, as well as more involved dancing. The guitar plays fast and hard, keeping the pace brisk, and the song exciting. Slower and cleaner is “Down In This Hole,” where lyrics like “You’ll never get a dime and then there’s murder in the air, The cops all know who did it, but they don’t even care. They’ll never lift a finger, they’ll never spend a dime. They’ve locked up 20 strangers who they’ve fingered for the crime,” are sung pessimistically over a pounding piano. Like much of the album, the cut is depressing in a fun way. Elsewhere, each song keeps you moving and often singing loudly, even while Salvation Is a Deep Dark Well puts a mischievous grin on your face. Or perhaps that’s just the devil.
Matthew Plotnik