Strange Boys
And Girls Club
In the Red

It would be easy to write the Strange Boys off as another group of kids with guitars imitating garage classics for In the Red. They’ve got the youthful vigor, scraggly look and vintage sound down to perfection, and in this day it must have been easy what with instant access to the Bo Diddley discography and Nuggets comps at their fingertips gratis via internet downloads. Forming a good rock band must be so easy for kids today.

Well, dig deep into the Strange Boys’ And Girls Club and you’ll soon notice these lads are not ordinary, but not all that strange either. Maybe it was a whole lot of downloading, but I doubt it, as it appears these four from Austin have whole-heartedly soaked up a load of genuine vibes from the grooves of r&r classics, from honkeytonk through American garage, British R&B to early punk. Their sound is safe, almost polite, sure, especially compared to the oddities currently peppering In the Red’s roster. They are the kids who can impress old men at the House of Blues one night and a group of teenage girls in a basement the next. All that’s left to win over is the discerning vinyl collector of the 21st Century looking for the next new thing. And though I doubt that Ryan Sambol’s nasally drawl is weird enough to catch groups en masse off guard, the songs are good enough to make this record matter.

I just wish a little less was left to the imagination. These 16 tracks are about as bare-boned as you can get, and while they all sound really terrific, there’s nothing all that inspired about the playing and not enough twists in the writing, now that I think about it. There is a healthy dose of fine moments: “For Lack of a Better Face” is a chorus-less slow burner that keeps the band’s strengths hot and in front; and “No Way for a Slave to Behave” is a beautiful mid-record doo-wop piece, a song sweet enough not to need a twist. Elsewhere they mix country and hillbilly elements, which does set them apart from the pack a bit.

So while it’s great that the Strange Boys are not Black Lips clones, it wouldn’t kill ’em to pack in a few surprises, a splash of danger. What I’m hoping is that the Strange Boys are the Lips in reverse, arriving complete and polished, only to fray and unravel with each subsequent statement. It is a good debut from a band that should be given the supplies necessary to sew together a freak flag and the time needed to let it fly.
Doug Elliott

MP3: “Heard You Wanna Beat Me Up”

Lotus Plaza
The Floodlight Collective

The swift rise from SXSW blurb-worthy dudes to indie rock alpha group is hardly a rare circumstance in this heyday of blog-hype factory-farming. We’ve seen it over and over again. Oftentimes this dynamic is so powerful that it’s difficult to delineate between the collective ideal of a band and the band’s true intrinsic talent.

Enter Deerhunter, a band who seemed like it was name-dropped more times than its records were actually being listened to. For a second there, albeit a brief one, it appeared to be a textbook case of the aforementioned “brave new tastemaker” system at work. But with last year’s masterful Microcastle, not to mention enigmatic frontman Bradford Cox’s acclaimed solo work (Atlas Sound), any lingering cynicism regarding these Georgia boys could, for the most part, be put to rest.

Why all of the pomp and circumstance then? Well, as fate would have it, Lockett Pundt of these kid-tested, critic-approved heroes, under the moniker of Lotus Plaza, has released an album every bit as worthy of hype as his figurative “home team.”

The debut is a nearly impeccable series of shoegaze tunes delivered without the heavy hand of crunchy guitar crescendo. Pundt delivers almost the entirety of the lyrics in layered echoic whisper, which is nothing new to the beloved genre. What makes it all so special, though, are the endless layers of winding guitars, percussion, pianos and god-knows-what-else that haven’t been tracked any louder. Anyone with a fondness for bands like Hood or epic45 will quickly find comfort in Pundt’s work. This is not to say that the pace and tone don’t change or pick up once in a while, but only within the kind of somnolescence that the album achieves so perfectly.

To put Pundt back into context of Deerhunter would seem like a bit of an insult, if this album didn’t serve as will and testament to the fact that without him, the band would be incomplete. From the moment you listen to opening track “Redoakway” and almost instantaneously hear Microcastle’s “Agoraphobia” to the point at which you may feel you’ve been floating above your own head for 45 minutes, it is clear that there is immense talent in this creative stratosphere—whether the blogosphere thought so first or not.
Phil Goldberg

Fist of God
Dim Mak

While Justice gets much of the credit for bringing rock-tinged electro to the masses, some of that love should be shoved towards the DJ/production team known as MSTRKRFT. For years, Jesse F. Keeler, formerly of Death From Above 1979, and Alex Puodziukas have twisted the most unlikely tunes—for example, Wolfmother’s “Woman”—into filthy dancefloor stompers. Yet somehow they’ve managed to stay slightly under the radar. Even the release of their debut album, The Looks, in 2006 didn’t quite make them cover darlings. Perhaps part of the problem was that while it was a solid album, it lacked some of the visceral smack of their best remix work.

Well, it seems that the years spent touring has changed how MSTRKRFT approach their production style. Witness the tough as nails Fist Of God and its grab-bag of hip-hop and R&B guests. I mean, who’d imagine that crooner John Legend would even be on MSTRKRFT’s scope? But it makes a weird kind of sense, as the duo’s best work has always resulted from having a stylistic contrast to work against. Thus smooth vocals and rough beats are the perfect formula. “It Ain’t Love,” with Lil Mo, is an updated take on ’80s freestyle just as suited to headphones as screaming out of a bass bin. N.O.R.E. probably has his best song in years, the caffeinated “Bounce.” If you somehow manage to avoid either bouncing along or at the very least chanting along to “All I do is party! Ah aha ah ah!” maybe this isn’t for you. The biggest shocker of the record, though, is Legend’s appearance on “Heartbreaker.” MSTRKRFT slows down the tempo and deliver an introspective backing for the crooner’s tale of love gone wrong. Considering their past work, you wouldn’t think sensitive was part of the plan.

Fist of God is pretty great, but strangely the instrumentals are the weakest elements on the record. They work as DJ tools, but aren’t as strong as the vocal tracks. And why have Ghostface Killah on a track only to have him ad-lib? It was a wasted opportunity. Still, this should be the record that gets MSTRKFT their props.
Dorian S. Ham

Bonnie “Prince” Billy
Drag City/Palace

Beware is Will Oldham’s seventh album under the name Bonnie “Prince” Billy, and it continues the return to a traditional sound taken on 2008’s Lie Down In The Light. It’s a mournful country sound, though, more like the great Bonnie “debut,” I See A Darkness. Both records have incredibly sad moments, but while on Darkness such melancholy was achieved through sparse arrangements, Beware does so with much fuller production. It’s still deceptively simple, with instruments quietly easing into the mix then fading out as others enter. Violin, pedal steel, banjo, piano, organ, flute, sax, and mandolin all accompany Oldham’s spare guitar and warbling voice at one time or another, while back-up vocals from Josh Abrams (Town and Country), Jennifer Hutt, Emmett Kelly (the Cairo Gang), Michael Zerang and Jon Langford (the Mekons, Waco Brothers) add emphasis to the right spots.

Album opener “Beware Your Only Friend” sets the tone of the album with love leading to obsession. “You Can’t Hurt Me Now” conjures a lonely night at the saddest honkeytonk in the south, lap steel and violin essential to the wallowing atmosphere. The first half of the album climaxes with the humorous and somewhat poignant ”You Don’t Love Me,” an upbeat song that declares “You don’t love me and that’s all right, ’cause you cling to me all through the night” after noting that “sometimes you like the smell of me or the way my stomach jiggles.” Our protagonist knows that his love has settled for him, and he’s okay with that. From there it’s back to the tear-jerking, and the album suffers a little at this point from its sequencing, with four straight cuts of slow sadness. It picks back up with “I Am Goodbye” and closes strong with the upbeat “Afraid Ain’t Me”.

Will Oldham is a remarkably consistent songwriter, but that doesn’t mean he’s made the same album as before. In fact, Beware is one of his best in years, perhaps more essential than many that have come before it.
Tom Butler

Red Fang
Red Fang
Sargent House

Hailing from Portland, Oregon, Red Fang occupies an interesting place in the rock spectrum. Comprised of veterans from a long list of now-defunct groups, Red Fang’s music effortlessly straddles the stoner rock, hard rock and metal genres, generating a sound that feels completely familiar, but not too overdone. After releasing a couple of EPs, the two-year-old quartet has now seemingly found a comfort zone with its self-titled debut album.

Overall, Red Fang serves as a fitting snapshot of the band, faithfully capturing its full and aggressive live sound while highlighting its strengths as a unit. The guitar riffs are strong throughout, memorable but never too flashy, and the group’s careful use of melody and multiple vocalists keeps everything sounding fresh for the duration. Already familiar to those who previously boarded the Red Fang bus, “Prehistoric Dog” is perhaps the band’s most spectacular moment, calling the listener to attention with its handful of raw, bobbing riffs. Songs like “Shark” and “Witness” stand as solid all-out assaults. “Good to Die” incorporates more straightforward rock and punk elements, with alternating gruff and smooth vocals, before launching into a fairly lengthy guitar workout.

But it’s not all just maximum force. The ominous, tense introduction to the slow-cooking “Humans Remain Human Remains” stretches out over the course of a few minutes, building into a rumbling groove underneath a haunting vocal. It’s songs like this and “Whales and Leeches” that help to round out the rough edges of the album, shaping Red Fang into an intriguing debut record.
Ron Wadlinger

Casiotone for the Painfully Alone
Advance Base Battery Life

Even in these days of the internet providing access to almost everything with a click, there are still rarities out there. For a prolific band and its hardcore fans, the 7-inch market still provides an outlet for things that didn’t make the cut or a way to release songs that just can’t wait. If the more casual or turntable-less fan is lucky, those tracks will appear in digital or CD form. It’s for those fans that Casiotone for the Painfully Alone has compiled the songs that make up Advance Base Battery Life.

Also known as Owen Ashworth, Casiotone for the Painfully Alone has pulled together 15 tracks spanning from 2004 to 2007, and as to be expected, it’s a bit all over the place, from original songs and covers that put a few more coins in the pockets of Missy Elliott, Bruce Springsteen and Paul Simon. As such, it’s a good overview of what makes Ashworth tick. His main claim to fame is that the majority of his records are based around cheap battery-powered Casio keyboards and four-track recorders. While it could have been a “hit the presets and go” type of situation, the ideas are fairly developed considering the limitations. Ashworth’s rudimentary keyboard skills are fairly endearing as he still gets the most out of his instruments. And despite the gimmick and the lo-fi presentation, there are a number of solid pop gems lurking on Advance. Highlights include the sweet story of unrequited love, “Leslie Gore on the T.A.M.I. Show (version),” and its guest vocal by Jenny Herbinson, and the subdued but quietly aching “It’s A Crime”.

Ashworth goes off the rails a bit with his approach to the cover songs. While Elliott’s “Hot Boyz” gets a hilariously awkward, if sincere, duet take with Dear Nora’s Katy Davidson, the Springsteen covers—“Born In The USA” and “Streets of Philadelphia—show where ambition out strips ability.
Dorian S. Ham

MP3: “Old Panda Days”