Lush, dramatic and dark, George Lewis Jr’s new record as Twin Shadow, Confess, is immediately engaging. The songs throb with the shady intentions of his desperate personas. Of course, those characters might all be him, but it’s foreboding to imagine one person brooding that much. Lewis Jr. is strikingly direct about the drama he’s undergoing, like a man resigned to walk the plank. Case in point is this lyric from the pointedly titled “I Don’t Care”: “Before the night is through I’ll say three words; I’ll probably mean the first two and regret the third. I don’t care.” The album is full of chilling one-liners like that one.
Luckily, the cold-hearted lyrical attitude is consistently at odds with the propulsive energy of the music, upping the emotional tension. Lewis Jr. seems to have made it his mission to capture the fervor of his live performances on this record. Though the album eases in with the comparatively optimistic “Golden Light,” the following track, “You Call Me On,” is a banger, even though it does sound a lot like Corey Hart or Glenn Frey. Yes, those references are specifically dated to 1983 and 1985. Lewis Jr. cherry-picks some of the signature sounds of the early, image-conscious MTV era and vigorously scrapes off the varnish. The result is a sound that’s shockingly loyal to its sources, but has the roguish urgency of modern times. The best example, “Be Mine Tonight,” is a fully developed ’80s pop ballad that would be a perfect fit for the Brat Pack if not for the raw sexuality in the drums, which seem to be mimicking the beat from “Push It.” That’s par for the course on Confess. You just can’t keep these bad men down. As much as Lewis Jr’s narrators pout and pose and try to stare down their vulnerability, every moment throbs with undeniable fire.
MP3: “Five Seconds”
With Howlin’ Gang, their sophomore album released last year, Australia’s Slug Guts earned ample comparisons to Aussie luminaries The Birthday Party, and not without good reason. The darkened clamor they created certainly seemed inline with that lineage, and even if the band themselves couldn’t admit it, digging up such sonic gunk was a necessary rite of passage.
Leading off with “Scum” in a similar vein, the band’s new record, Playin’ in Time with the Deadbeat seems to be heading down that same craggily road at first. But as becomes quickly apparent on each subsequent track, this scrappy bunch has expanded its vernacular. Songs like “Old Black Sweats” and “Suckin’ Down,” which follow “Scum,” kick at the corpses of Jeffery Lee Pierce and Lux Interior to dislodge fragments of bluesy shit and the pus of rock’s underbelly. One can even hear a little bit of Lords of the New Church in the Slug Guts on a song like the title track, while the band also takes on PiL’s “Order of Death,” its chorus turned into a seething underlying mantra of “this is what you want, this is what you get.”
But more than any influence, Playin’ bristles with the synaptic electricity that comes from tapping into a vortex of intangibles. The album speaks the same language of what’s come before, but with an entirely novel dialect. With songs like “Stranglin’ You Too” exhibiting exacting tones and arrangements, one is equally surprised by the album’s cogency. As such, the record strikes every nerve, and it’s hard not to keep coming back for another hit.
Imagine a planet in some distant galaxy with a similar biochemical make-up to our own, a mirror Earth if you will. Now imagine the evolutionary tract this planet has taken. Suppose the resulting animal hierarchy produced an intelligent species equivalent to humans; the complexities of natural selection and the slight physiological variations this mirror Earth would contain would most likely render this creature humanoid at best. Now imagine these very humanoids on this distant Earth-like planet discovering and playing punk. If you’re having some trouble conjuring a sound, Raw Sewage Roq from Timmy’s Organism is a good a place to start.
Whether playing with his band Human Eye or performing under the name Timmy’s Organism (or Timmy Zorganism as it occasionally appears), Detroit’s Timmy Vulgar has been spitting out mutant strains of punk for more than a decade now. His latest release, and second full-length under the Timmy’s Organism moniker, is a typical splatterfest of mangled classic-punk riffs and lo-fi sci-fi sonics. Vulgar’s alien punk stew isn’t without precedent and there are clear nods here to Chrome and subtler ones to, say, the Twinkeyz or Hawkwind, but this game of influence-spotting has always been one of the more enjoyable elements of Vulgar’s approach to songwriting. He doesn’t appear to be afraid of paying tribute to the artists that have inspired him. His Beefheartian vocal take on “Monster Walk” is as honest an homage as possible; “Unhook My Leash” makes fairly obvious references to the Stooges; and “Bouncing Boobies” is like a vintage bit of Dead Boys depravity. But these reference points are merely the foundational building blocks of Vulgar’s twisted punk astrophysics. For one thing, the man can access some seriously damaged guitar sounds, which wrap even the most benign rockers in a layer of glowing cosmic effluvia.
Interestingly enough, for all the monster-movie/sci-fi imagery flying around Raw Sewage Roq, there are some pretty ordinary concerns here, with the aforementioned “Bouncing Boobies” being a clear case in point. There are references to John Travolta and Clint Eastwood, drinking whiskey, and being “Poor and Bored.” In fact, on Raw Sewage Roq, Vulgar seems to have pulled back a bit from the moldy basement futurism of past albums in favor of a more straightforward, high-octane rock record. Of course, this is Timmy Vulgar we’re talking about here, and whether his music is inspired by the possibilities of life on another planet or merely the other-planetary nature of modern day Detroit, nothing he does is ever truly down-to-earth.
While Soul Asylum formed in the early ’80s, there’s something about the band that screams quintessential ’90s. Maybe it’s the fact that lead singer Dave Pirner dated Winona Ryder, or perhaps it’s because they played one of Bill Clinton’s inauguration balls. But the much more likely reason is that the band’s biggest album, Grave Dancer’s Union, hit just as alternative was becoming mainstream, and selling three million copies of an album in ’92 will do a lot to cement one’s ties to the decade. They released two more albums, but neither came close to Grave Dancer’s world-dominating presence. In 2004, bassist Karl Mueller was diagnosed with cancer, but the band was able to record one more album, The Silver Lining, before he died. Now, after a hiatus, the band is back with its 10th studio album, Delayed Reaction.
Delayed Reaction finds Pirner joined by founding member and guitarist Dan Murphy, ex-Replacements and current Guns N’ Roses bassist Tommy Stinson, and longtime Prince and Paul Westerberg drummer Michael Bland. As a result, the album is Minneapolis to the bone and thus feels like a classic Soul Asylum album. It may not be as punky as earlier fans may like, but the band hits a wide variety of styles, as on “Cruel Intentions,” where they deliver an uncharacteristic but impeccably delivered jazzy R&B croon. But what really puts the record in a distinctly Soul Asylum place is the balance between really polished and crafted songs and arrangements and Pirner not being afraid to sometimes get way ragged vocally. It gives the record an honest, lived-in feel. One of the most important things to note is that while this is the first album without Mueller, there’s not a pallor hanging over the record. Instead, his bandmates honor him by celebrating everything that made Soul Asylum great. While Delayed Reaction may not reach the heights of Soul Asylum’s heyday, it shows that in 1992, three million fans weren’t wrong.
Dorian S. Ham
Since any 13-year-old can walk into a crowded wasteland of poorly constructed fabrics and buy a two-dollar set of cross earrings, three-finger ring, and tank top with inverted cross, it’s exceedingly clear that the once-feared goth subculture has long ago gone commercial. Thankfully, though, there are still bands keeping the dark aesthetic alive, not so much in de riguer fashion, but via music. Staring Problem, natives of the Carbondale, Illinois area, is a trio that possess genuine musical sensibility, if not expert ability.
The threesome, who recently released a three-song, self-titled 7-inch on Chicago-based BLVD, must be commended for their earnest composition skills, which they combine with an endearingly hesitant playing style. The vocals, provided by guitarist Lauren Owen, are brilliantly monotone and morose, but beyond the indifference (namely the occasional yelps and nasal pitch), there lies a smattering of fierceness on par with that of Kathleen Hanna. So while it’s not Bikini Kill, Staring Problem is its own, mopier, cynical, less-antagonistic beast.
Their 7-inch consists of three too-short songs, “Seed,” “Faced,” and “OCD,” all of which avoid the fate of fading into the reverb-washed shoegaze haze. Full of punchy drums and breezy post-rock guitar riffs, “Faced,” the highlight of the bunch, is catchy and will make the corners of your mouth turn upwards ever-so-slightly. Echo and the Bunnymen would be proud. While Staring Problem possesses an admittedly shaky grasp of their respective instruments, their innate songwriting ability and musical intuition make for an intimate listening experience. They’ll get better at their respective instruments in time, but they’ve got the proverbial building blocks for a great future. They can write songs, now they just need the confidence to play them, which will hopefully be sooner than later.