Against Me!: White Crosses


RIYL: Fugazi, The Weakerthans, Anti-Flag, Needless Exclamation Points!

Against Me! was accused of selling out by many of their “fans” when word came out that they were leaving indie label Fat Wreck Chords for major label Sire. It was a stupid claim (more on that later), one that was deflated even more by the fact that New Wave, the band’s major label debut, was by far their best release to date. It was a blistering burst of band’s trademark semi-acoustic punk rock that some even claimed would be “The Next Big Thing.” And while that never came to pass, it was a damned good record that sold pretty well, which is probably the most a rock band can hope for nowadays.

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Now there’s White Crosses. Old-school fans hoping for a return of the raw, acoustic punk of the band’s early work are going to be bummed. Newer fans hoping for another pack of well-written, tightly produced pop-friendly (but not pop-punk) rock songs to accompany the band’s 2007 masterpiece will be even more disappointed. White Crosses takes everything that was great about New Wave and pushes it too far. Against Me! really does sound too polished and too “mainstream” this time around. Any edge they had left on New Wave is way past long gone now. That in itself isn’t horrible, but even if these songs were stripped down to singer/guitarist Tom Gabel and an acoustic guitar, they still wouldn’t be very good. No hooks, no catchy melodies, and with rare exception there aren’t even any lyrics, always the band’s strong point, that stick around in your head moments after the first listen. What makes the band’s sudden descent into mediocrity even more frustrating is that the album starts out great. First with the killer title track and then with “I Was a Teenage Anarchist,” a perfect dis track against those who accused them of selling out in the past. Sadly, with White Crosses, those same fans don’t need to accuse Against Me! of selling out anymore, they can just (accurately) accuse them of being boring. And that’s even worse.

A quick afterward on what selling out actually is: Crafting a polished and tightly produced record isn’t selling out. Many times what people consider to be “raw” is really just bad production and amateur recording equipment; contrary to popular belief, most artists don’t want their albums to sound like shit. Signing to a major label isn’t selling out, either. The only difference between Sire Records and Fat Wreck Chords is that Sire is better at what they do. Given the chance, Fat Wreck would love to be rolling in dough just as much as the big guys. So what is selling out? How about releasing two versions of your album, a standard edition with a scant 10 tracks, and a “limited” edition that costs a few bucks more with four additional tracks. And then making that version a “deluxe” edition on iTunes by adding in an acoustic version of one of the tracks that’s “exclusive” (but not really, it’s on the single) to iTunes. There’s nothing that says Against Me! has to be against making money, but considering they’re built on a foundation of left-wing, anti-capitalist viewpoints, they should really know better than to pull crass crap like that. Next thing you know they’ll be doing horrible reunion concerts at corporate festivals, pretending like they still hate that machine they’re raging against. (Sire 2010)

Against Me! MySpace Page

  

Coheed & Cambria: Year of the Black Rainbow


RIYL: Rush, Dream Theater, Queensrÿche

There have been plenty of concept albums, but Coheed And Cambria may be the world’s first concept band. All of the group’s releases to date have been installments in one epic story, a sci-fi space opera dubbed The Armory Wars. And if that wasn’t confusing enough, their debut album was actually the second part of the saga; the three albums that proceeded it told the third and fourth parts (the fourth part was in itself a two-parter). Now we finally get the first chapter with Year of the Black Rainbow.

Here’s a quick recap for the uninitiated: There’s a federation of planets called Heaven’s Fence, which are held together by an energy force called the Keywork. This system is ruled by the evil Wilhelm Ryan and the only person that can stop him is Claudio Kilgannon, the son of Coheed and Cambria Kilgannon (who also happens to share the name of the band’s lead singer Claudio Sanchez). His journey is one filled with violence, heartache and loss as he struggles to accept his fate as the messiah known as The Crowning. Oh, and at one point in the narrative focus shifts to “The Writer” who created all these characters. He’s tormented by an evil bicycle. (There is a comic book that makes all of this a little clearer…but not by much).

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So in case your couldn’t already tell, this is prog rock. But it’s really good prog rock, and while Coheed’s lyrics aren’t exactly user-friendly, their music sure as hell is. Just like the band’s four other albums, Year of the Black Rainbow, effortlessly combines prog conventions (complex drumming, and the aforementioned lyrical insanity) with catchy pop hooks and heavy metal thunder ripped straight from ’80s power metal. And while it works well as a single work (or as one part of an even larger work), tracks like “The Broken,” “Far” and the excellent single “Here We Are Juggernaut” all stand strong as individual pieces, which is something that even a lot of the best prog rock albums can’t pull off.

It can be a little ridiculous and over the top at times, and Claudio’s distinctive Geddy Lee-esque voice will no doubt annoy some listeners to death. But if you like your rock as subtle as a punch in a face by a gorilla, then you’ll enjoy the bombastic insanity of Year of the Black Rainbow, and every other Coheed And Cambria album for that matter.

WARNING: Although all five parts of The Armory Wars records are great, listening to them back to back in narrative order will make you go insane. (Columbia 2010)


Coheed and Cambria MySpace Page

  

Allison Moorer: Crows


RIYL: Emmylou Harris, Linda Rondstadt, Tift Merritt

Weaving her way through the series of hard-luck stories that illuminate Crows – her much-anticipated follow-up to last year’s critically acclaimed Mockingbird – Allison Moorer cries foul on any number of subjects, among them broken hearts, leaving lovers and all manner of ills in general. Apparently life for Mrs. Steve Earle is no bed of roses, and with song titles like “Just Another Fool,” “The Broken Girl,” “Should I Be Concerned,” “When You Wake Up Feeling Bad” and “Sorrow (Don’t Come Around),” it’s clear she has numerous thoughts that need venting.

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Then again, Moorer’s music rarely dwells on optimism. Over the course of her eight albums, Moorer’s reflected a worrisome perspective, belabored by ongoing remorse, disappointment and despair, as well as an ache and a yearning that often keeps her focus somewhat removed. Crows essentially offers more of the same, from the troubled rumblings of “Abalone Sky” and the plaintive repose of “Easy in the Summertime” to the acrimonious dismissal of “Sorrow (Don’t Come Around)” and the scorching break-up ballad “Still This Side of Gone.” The mournful sentiments create an air of unrelenting sadness, yet one that still allows the beautiful melodies to shine through. Suffice it to say, those who were smitten by Mockingbird will find Crows a similar bird of a feather. (Ryko 2010)

Allison Moorer MySpace page

  

The Watson Twins: Talking to You, Talking to Me


RIYL: Jenny Lewis, Cocteau Twins, Patty Larkin

After nearly a decade attempting to make their name among L.A.’s alternative elite, the Watson Twins scored their big breakthrough when they were chosen by Rilo Kiley’s Jenny Lewis to share the billing on her first solo outing, Rabbit Fur Coat, in 2006. Since then, they’ve been able to carry the marquee rights on their own, earning themselves a deal with the venerable Vanguard label, which released last year’s major label debut, Fire Songs and subsequently, an even better sophomore set.

Despite their down-home Appalachian upbringing, the sisters lean less on heartland sentiments and more on urban rock sensibilities, a modernist approach that places the emphasis on propulsive rhythms and eclectic arrangements to bolster their dreamy harmonies. In the course of these dozen tracks, the Watsons’ vary their vocals between the languid and the assertive, with melodies that veer from ethereal hymns to those that sound positively chipper by comparison. So while songs like “Forever Me,” “Snow Canyons” and “Give Me a Chance” tend to cast the album in a meditative haze, the pronounced stomp of “Savin’ You” and “U-N-Me” bolster the bottom line and add the emphasis that’s needed. (Vanguard 2010)

The Watson Twins MySpace page

  

21st Century Breakdown: James B. Eldred’s Top 10 Albums of the Decade

Oy, this decade was a mess. The ’90s were easy. Rock had grunge, hip-hop had gangsta rap and a genre-defining electronic album seemed to come out every week thanks to artists like Aphex Twin, the Prodigy and the Orb (just to name a few). There was no Zeitgeist-turning moment in music this decade, no Next Big Thing. Instead, we saw mainstream rock dissolve into a post-grunge funk from which it might never recover, while pop music infiltrated rap music in insulting and embarrassing ways (thanks, Auto-Tune). Meanwhile, both the punk rock kids and hippies discovered electronic music, giving Pitchfork whole new genres of music to build up and tear down.

We’re more fragmented then ever – case in point: of all the albums selected by the writers who’ve contributed to our End of Decade series, only one album has been selected twice – which means that there’s something out there for anyone, but nothing for everyone. It sucks if you like the idea of a rock band being bigger than Jesus, especially if you don’t want that band to be U2. But if you like the idea that at any given moment there’s probably an album being released that will appeal to just you a few thousand other people, then this is a great time to be alive. However, that also means the chances of finding something truly “original” are next to nil. We’re getting to a point where it feels like everything has been done, and everyone is just paying homage, making pastiche or ripping off something that came before.

That being said, there were still a few original albums to make their way to my ears this decade, and almost all of them ended up being my favorites. So while you say this is my “best of” list for the decade, you could also call it my “most original” list as well.

1. Fucked Up: Chemistry of Common Life
Canadian indie rock seemed to be the scene of the ’00s, and while it gave us some good music, most of it bored me. It was just so damn pleasant. And Fucked Up is a lot of things, but pleasant isn’t one of them. In fact, almost everything about them, from their R-rated name to the abrasive vocals of their lead singer (who goes by the name Pink Eyes) almost dares you not to like them. I sure as hell didn’t at first; it seemed like they were trying too hard to be “outrageous.” But when they give you a song as brilliant as “Son the Father” with its goosebump-inducing riff and the best lyric of the decade (“It’s hard enough being born in the first place / Who would ever wanna be born again?”), it’s impossible not to take notice. This is hardcore punk’s Dark Side of the Moon and will probably be just as influential in the years to come.

2. Arcade Fire: Funeral
Okay, so not all of the indie-rock from Canada bored me. I didn’t want to like Arcade Fire, I didn’t want to fall for their melancholy lyrics and haunting melodies, and I didn’t want to be put under enchantment by the haunting closing track “In The Backseat.” It just kind of happened that way. Damn Canadians and their near-perfect records.

3. Hell: Teufelswerk
An as-yet-unheard masterpiece, although there is some hope still since it only came out this year. Teufelswerk picks up where The Orb’s Adventures into the Underworld left off, taking the listener on a journey across two discs that include ambient, house, electro and just about everything else in between. Not made entirely for the dance floor, it’s the kind of electronic album that should have mainstream appeal, even with its 13-minute tracks and bizarre guest appearance roster of Bryan Ferry and Diddy. If you consider yourself a fan of electronic music and you don’t have this album, you’re doing it wrong.

4. At the Drive-In: Relationship of Command
It came out in 2000, and nearly 10 years later there’s still nothing that sounds remotely like it. It’s usually pegged as an emo record, (the first time I heard the word “emo” was in regards to this record) but modern emo has little in common with this masterpiece of tempo changes, passionate vocals and adrenaline-fueled insanity. Too bad the band couldn’t survive much past the album’s release, and the two offshoots they formed after the break-up, the Mars Volta and Sparta, have come close to even matching this record in the years that have followed. Of course, almost no one else has, either.

5. Marnie Stern: This Is It And I Am It…
“This chick is kinda nuts,” said my editor when he pitched this CD to me. I’m naturally attracted to insane women, so that’s partially why I took a shine to Stern so quickly, but it mostly had to do with the fact that I’ve heard nothing like her before. She’s some heavenly combination of Van Halen and Sleater-Kinney, taking guitar virtuosity and mixing it with riot grrl passion to create an entirely one-of-a-kind sound in the process. She’s her own beast, creating her own genre which should just be called “holy shit music,” because that’s all I can think to myself when I hear her.

6. Deltron 3030: Deltron 3030
Indie hip-hop may be easy to find now, but in 2000 there was no scene for that, at least there wasn’t in my consciousness. I still don’t remember how I found this record, which is a crazy concept album about an intergalactic rap battle in the year 3030, but I remember being pleasantly surprised when a year later everyone involved on it (Del Tha Funkee Homosapien, DJ Kid Koala, Dan the Automator and Damon Albarn) went on to form Gorillaz. But this album is still better than anything those animated monkeys put out. It isn’t only the best hip-hop album of the decade, but the most original as well.

7. Mastodon: Leviathan
Prog-rock and heavy metal, two great tastes that taste great together, especially when used to create a concept album based on “Moby Dick.” Mastodon’s early albums showed promise, but this seafaring epic really sealed the deal and heralded their arrival as “the” metal band in 2004. It was also the first album to show me that popular metal was finally getting past that nu-metal BS that nearly ruined the genre at the turn of the millennium. There needs to be more metal based on classic American novels. I’m waiting for a metal interpretation of “The Age of Innocence.”

8. Yeah Yeah Yeahs: It’s Blitz!
The biggest 180 of the decade. Sounding nothing like their previous records, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs didn’t go dance-punk for their third LP, they went full-on dance – like a rocking version of Kylie Minogue. You’re not going to hear a better dance track this year than “Zero,” unless you count all the other up-tempo numbers on this flawless record.

9. Yeah Yeah Yeahs: Fever to Tell
Oh yeah, and their first album wasn’t half bad, either.

10. The Strokes: Is This It?
The poster band and the poster album for the for the poster genre (post-punk revival) that was supposed to become the Next Big Thing. And while that didn’t really happen, we still got some really good records out of it, this one still being the best. And even if you didn’t like it, you have to admit that it probably got a bunch of kids listening to the Stooges for the first time. And the UK version (see photo) had the best album cover of the decade as well.

  

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