Since 1999, the Concretes have added tasty indie guitar to the Swedish pop scene. It’s a scene where effortless pop records appear at an alarming rate. It’s like everyone in Sweden can crank out effervescent pop the way frat dudes can pound Natural Light. The band, which over the years has expanded to an eight-piece, has managed a consistent stream of releases, with three albums, an EP, a B-sides and rarities comp, a collection of early EPs and a grab bag of singles. But since 2007, they’ve been uncharacteristically silent. Finally, that silence has been broken with the release of WYWH.
WYWH is the second record to feature Lisa Milberg on lead vocals. After the departure of founding member Victoria Bergsman, Milberg came from behind her drum set to front the band. (Insert Genesis reference here.) The advance word on the record was that the Concretes were heading in a new disco direction. That’s turned out not to be the case for the most part. There is much less guitar, but to call this “disco” would be a stretch. It would take a very committed dancer to bust a move to much of this record.
The Concretes filter their disco aspirations through a lo-fi prism. It’s like they studied Folk Implosion’s “Natural One” very carefully, particularly on “Crack In The Paint.” So while there is some cowbell and an insistent bass thump on a number of songs, it’s generally so mild-mannered that it’s almost like they’re apologizing for the disturbance. So when the band finally cuts loose on “All Day,” it’s the equivalent of kids rushing the halls on the last day of school. That giddy energy resurfaces on “Knck Knck” and almost pushes the song to anthem levels.
The Concretes have managed the rare trick of recasting their sound, but still staying true to what they’d done in the past. WYWH is a record that will work for longtime fans and won’t be too much of a hard transition for new fans that want to look back. Best of all, it’s another victory for the seemingly unstoppable Swedish pop machine.
Dorian S. Ham
MP3: “Good Evening”
Awkward-lovers indie pop is a dime a sweater-vest these days. Smiths impressions have become Belle & Sebastian plagiarisms, and every bookish, knee-crossed group of comp-lit majors have been shoving the same fragile sounds down the throats of the indie-listening population for the better half of a decade. The 1900s fight that monstrosity on Return of the Century by being the asshole: “Well I’m not so sorry that I took you along. You only saw me naked once” sings a cold-blooded Caroline Donovan on “Tuscon.” She’s not a runover lover; she’s running someone else over, and “making up stories about where she’s been.”
This is still your fluffed, fragile indie-pop record, but there’s more perspective here than that from faceless exes and unrequited objects. The 1900s allow for much more than simple problems with obvious solutions. The tales of Return of the Century are egoist, manipulative, and near unlikable, but the honesty shines through. Life is too complicated for trite idealist simplicities that more closely mirror Hollywood romance than the everyman romanticist plight they should be representing. The 1900s are ugly, obsessive and thoroughly, refreshingly mortal.
Bear Hands is a band borne of spite, whose music translates easily into a sound post-punk offering. Their debut LP, Burning Bush Supper Club, is the culmination of several years of touring, an EP, and a year-long recording process. Sure, it’s been a bit of a bumpy road for the foursome, including interband bickering and mental illness (according to the band’s booking website), but if this album is any indication, they seem to have taken it in stride. Though Supper Club doesn’t exactly push any post-punk boundaries, it is a laudable, truly listenable offering in a scene chockfull of bands that often sound interchangeable.
Burning Bush Supper Club offers varying takes on the post-punk aesthetic, mastering not only frenetic fast tracks but serene slow cuts as well. The constant in everything is lead vocalist Dylan Rau’s strict adherence to the voice-distortion as singer’s bestfriend adage. By the end of the album, though, the resulting act is a bit played out, rendering many songs indistinguishable. The catchier songs reside safely and smartly toward the beginning of the album, opening with the fierce staccato keyboards and punchy drums of “Crime Pays” before continuing with “Belongings,” a quintessential synth-pop meets electro-rock narrative that leans heavily on nostalgia. Other songs, however, shun the narrative gimmick in favor of fundamentally abstract concepts. Some of the lyrics may linger in the eye-roll category (“I eat cats for their nine lives,” “You got them long nails. I’m dreaming of your goddamn long nails”), but the precision and catchiness of the music renders such infractions defensible. Playing on the band’s strength of turning song plateaus into swelling peaks, “Julien Donkey Boy” has a clamorous build-up and subsequent spacey decrescendo worthy of its Harmony Korine–directed namesake.
Supper Club is relatively innocuous, recalling at times a watered-down Arcade Fire, a Johnny Marr–driven Modest Mouse, or any other pseudo post-punk, indie-rock, electro-pop (insert any mouthful of genre-descriptive adjectives here) band out there today. However, one thing that Bear Hands does have going for them, aside from shrewd songwriting, is that considering this is their first full-length album, they’re already well on their way to mastering a sound that others have worked at for years.
Instrumental post-rock has a tricky balancing act to maintain. It needs to be interesting enough to justify the lack of vocals, but not so full of gimmicks that it sounds like fast-forwarding through a Joe Satriani record. As with most things, some bands strike that balance better than others. Athens, Georgia band Maserati is in that number. After storming through the decade with a steady stream of releases, the band came to a sudden halt with the unexpected death of drummer Jerry Fuchs. But out of tragedy came the roots of the band’s latest record, Pyramid of the Sun. Fuchs had completed recording his parts and the band formed the record around those tracks.
Maserati could be forgiven if Pyramid of the Sun turned out to be a somber record. Instead, they’ve turned in some of their most concise and focused recordings ever. Out of the eight songs only three break the six-minute mark. There’s no mucking around with the arrangements, and every part fits snug like the pieces of an analog watch. And they still have enough flashes of humor to engage in some winking wordplay with song titles such as “We’ve Got the System to Fight the System” and the diptych “They’ll Suffer No More From Thirst” and “They’ll Suffer No More from Hunger.”
Pyramid of the Sun is such a seamless blend of electronics and live instruments that it kinds of sneaks up. There are strikingly beautiful moments such as the closing tribute to Fuchs, “Bye M’Friend, Goodbye.” There’s so much going right for the record that it’s almost maddening how indifferent the results are. It’s well-played and has both force and enough subtlety to reward repeated listenings. Maserati generally knows when to get out the way and keep the proceedings moving. But for some reason the record lacks an impact. Too many moments play like the score for RoboCop 3. It’s background music that engages in that moment, but once it’s over, ehh. It’s like an excellent meal that’s not very filling. So while Maserati have delivered a good record and fine tribute to their late comrade, they’ve also created an interestingly boring album.
Dorian S. Ham
MP3: “We Got the System to Fight the System”
After a five-year hiatus, the Shipping News, a virtual who’s who of post-rock lineage fronted by Jeff Mueller (Rodan, June of 44) has returned with a nine-song hatchling that sits somewhere between an EP and a collection of outtakes. The band sounds as if there was no break in continuity, and the album showcases its immense tightness by way of the release’s live recordings. The Shipping News reliably deliver grinding baselines, angular riffage, and overtly cerebral lyrical musings throughout the new seven songs and treat the listener to two familiar old tracks, “Axons and Dendrites” and “(Morays or) Demon.”
Unfortunately, the well executed delivery and projection of the songs do little to spark any real engagement in this self-righteous exercise. Nothing against these guys, their awesome lineage, or their stellar releases of years passed, but One Less Heartless to Fear should have stayed what it seems like it was supposed to be: rehearsal for an as yet unfinished and album.
Elliott Smith, you Tupac of indie rock, are you really dead? Is this new collection a mysterious Machiavellian move from the father of emo to cash in on a big back catalogue? Okay, those are unfair questions. Elliott Smith’s death is still a touchy subject, considering it was never cleared up if he actually did himself in or if he was struck twice in the chest in an act of foul play. But as far as this mortal plane is concerned, he’s not the puppetmaster of Kill Rock Stars’ reissue department. His unreleased catalogue is nowhere near the size of Pac’s (as we saw from the unfortunately half-baked posthumously released From a Basement on a Hill), and since none of this is new material, us jaded completists need not worry about an undiscovered track appearing here.
Do we really need an Elliott Smith best of compilation? Honestly, the answer is no, because An Introduction to Elliott Smith is not aimed at us completist nerds that need every outtake and live cut available. It is, if you couldn’t figure it out from the title, aimed at those kids that only know Smith as the guy in the silver suit who played the song from Good Will Hunting at the Oscars once, or more likely have never heard him at all. This introduction works like a mixtape from Kill Rock Stars to your tween little sister, trying to turn her on to something other than Justin Bieber and Kanye. Instead of appealing to the kids that dress in black in the midday sun or the cutters who just need to feel something real, KRS brilliantly wants to show the reality TV–damaged generation that they can use music for more than just a ringtone. Maybe they’ll even listen to a whole album.
While it’s sort of moot to talk about the actual music, the tracklisting is the key to the genius of this release. Leading off with “Ballad of Big Nothing,” from Either/Or, was a wise move, as it’s one of the most accessible mid-tempo pop rockers on the original album and still encompasses the overall spirit of Smith’s tenderly nihilistic lyrical themes, a la “You can do what you want to whenever you want to though it doesn’t mean a thing.” KRS wisely sidestepped the ultra-darkness of Smith’s self-titled second solo album until the fourth track, and even then used one of the brighter songs, “The Biggest Lie,” in order to shine a light into his most devastatingly affecting material. In fact, that second album, the one with a guy committing suicide on the cover, is only represented twice, the other track being “Needle in the Hay.” A cynic might say it is probably included because KRS reasons that many casual fans will recognize it from The Royal Tenenbaums soundtrack and pick the CD up, but it really is a clear picture of Elliott Smith (the album) and should be included on any Elliott Smith compilation. Overall, this seems like a genuine attempt to turn kids on to Smith’s music rather than a deceiving, overpriced repackaging. While fans of the original albums might be a bit confused by the sequencing, expecting the drunken promise of “Between the Bars” after “Big Nothing,” and wincing a bit when it starts after “Alameda,” An Introduction to Elliott Smith might just be some secretly depressed jock’s ticket out of autotune hell and into a rewarding catalogue of sincere emotion.
Michael P. O’Shaughnessy
MP3: “Between the Bars”