Thursday, March 24, 2011

98 The Hard Way: EPs, Days 22-23

Hurl: We Are Quiet In This Room (My Pal God)
Any band can take some songs and throw them together on a CD. Any band can realize that those songs play better in a certain order. Very few bands go to the trouble of making the songs work together in such a way that they must be played in the order they've been laid out. Even fewer bands seem to compose songs with the express intent of them leading into each other in organic, meaningful ways. For this fact alone, Hurl win me over. They've gone to the trouble of making the loping, minimal "This Numbness" build into the frantic, angular "Test the Waters" in such a way that the two tracks are both inexorably connected and each their own entity. They've done this for pretty much the length of this EP, even including their cover of Nice Strong Arm's "Amnesia" in the tapestry, and they've made it sound effortless all the while.

This EP is a definite grower. At first I was just moderately respectful of both the band's chops and the sense of unity the EP had, but every subsequent listen has pulled out new things to be awed by. All this before it became more than obvious that the songs themselves were all great examples of extremely mathy indie rock, like what would happen if Minus the Bear's DNA was mixed with Don Caballero's. The two guitarists expertly wind around each other without stepping on toes, bassist Matt Jencik - sometime Don Cab member, and it shows - ably handles the more melodic playing over the guitars' scenery and while the drummer isn't a virtuoso he navigates and directs the changes with a nice, deft touch. I still wouldn't call this a sterling example of the form, but it's certainly one that keeps me coming back. [8.4/10]

The Azusa Plane: Cheltenham (Ochre)
If Cheltenham is anything like it is portrayed by Cheltenham, I don't think I'd put it on my travel itinerary whenever I get around to visiting England. This EP sounds like failure. It reeks of a dead industrial plant that used to provide jobs but has shut down and begat an unemployed massive. In the background, you can almost hear a child's spirit breaking as he realizes that he's stuck here forever. That's the level of detail that The Azusa Plane imbue this piece with. The beauty of it is that that detail is spawned from as few elements as possible; two heavily treated guitars occupy either channel and play very few notes, each is stuck against a stark drone. It's almost like the more minimalist-leaning pieces of Steven R. Smith's catalog, but played for depressing effect moreso than anything Smith's done, or Jackie-O Motherfucker if they were stripped down to just the guitar figures. Essentially, it's droney space rock with a heavy negative streak that rewards a close listen just as well as it fills the role of background music. That's as much as you can ask for with this type of thing, really. [8.2/10]

90 Day Men: 1975-1997-1978 (Temporary Residence)

I struggle with what to rate this one, honeslty. On it's own terms it's definitely upper-middle tier post-hardcore imbued math rock - think the intersection of Unwound and U.S. Maple - with fantastic bass playing and hints towards bigger, brighter things based on the ease with which it uses atmosphere. In the scope of what 90 Day Men would become shortly hereafter, once they brought on keyboardist Andy Lansangan and moved into much less abrasive waters, it's significantly lacking and utterly juvenile. So how to proceed? Do I rip into it for not being anything like the band that, quite frankly, I don't think they knew they could become, or do I set aside the future greatness and offer it praise for being what it is?

If the rating wasn't a big enough clue, I lean towards the latter quite decidedly in this case; regardless of how it fails to measure up to the twin triumphs of To Everybody and Panda Park, this doesn't even seem to be the work of the same band. This is a group of young, angry guys who worship at the altar of Steve Albini ("Streamlines and Breadwinners" couldn't sound more like Shellac if it tried) but have a nascent sense of songcraft that occasionally rubs against their more abrasive instincts ("My Trip to Venus" is incredibly catchy, especially that little guitar break in the chorus, for all its dissonance.)  They probably spent a bit of time digging through the Gravity Records back catalog ("Sweater Queen" calls to mind Clikitat Ikatowi until it builds up to that half-speed breakdown) but might have eyes towards Chicago-bred post rock even before they know how to harness that sound ("Sink Potemkin" and especially "Hey, Citronella!" seem to have appropriated an epic streak or two from that lot, even as they thrive on uncomfortable levels of abrasion.) It's a very young sounding release, but at the same time it's incredibly practiced and polished. It's of two minds, but never sounds like an identity crisis. It doesn't hint towards the melodic beauty that they'd unleash a few years later, but it works its own kind of magic within its own confines. [8.1/10]

Download link and image courtesy of Last Train to Cool.

Clinic: Cement Mixer (Aladdin's Cave of Golf)
If you look at them in the abstract, each of the first three Clinic singles follows a similar pattern; the A-side is usually a fairly energetic rocker while the two B-sides are some combination of a moody instrumental, an even more energetic punk approximation and a slow, atmospheric ballad. In the case of "Cement Mixer" the punkier number is eschewed leaving a pair of moody number on the B-side, but the title track is probably the hardest rocking of the A-sides from this period. "Cement Mixer" almost sounds like a reprise of the previous single's "D.P.," except it feels much more relentless. Everything from the driving guitar line to the vocal delivery seems to push the track onward at a relatively breakneck pace while still maintaining the hookiness that all three A-sides had in spades. It's nowhere near the perfection of "Monkey on Your Back, but it's easy to see why it's the one that led to their breakthrough.

The B-sides aren't as much of a letdown this time out, probably owing to the whole not having to live up to "Monkey on Your Back" thing. "Kimberly" especially seems like the blueprint for most of Clinic's better ballads from here on out - unsettling as fuck, but with a weirdly sweet undercurrent. "Voot" fills the instrumental requirement, and while it doesn't quite match "Evil Bill" in that department it's a nice enough way to end the single. [8.5/10]

Clinic: Monkey on Your Back (Aladdin's Cave of Golf)
Why is it that the way that Ade Blackburn snarls the word 'nervous' during the first verse makes it sound so damned unnerving? Is it the scuzzy, VU-ish organ backdrop? The delivery, with that first syllable extended to the perfect point to induce spine tingles? Is it just that the whole song is so weirdly engrossing yet unbearably tense that every word carries menace not exactly inherent to it? Whatever it is, every time he says it, my back feels like it's been bombarded with tiny shards of ice. That's what one word does in this song.

So yeah, without extending myself into further hyperbole, "Monkey on Your Back" is absolutely perfect. It's perfect in the macro, it's perfect down to the tiniest details, like that bass swoop that kicks in during the second verse then becomes part of the main riff for the third, or the weird 'frame missing' vibe that the instruments dropping out before the third verse lends to the song. It's not the first time the Clinic showed just how good they could be - "Porno" was equally noteworthy if not as perfect - but it's the first time they hit the nail right on the head without any reservations. It's their mission statement, really: take Spectorian grandeur, add Velvet Underground abrasion, let the atmosphere do the rest. Really, even if the rest of this single was utter gash there's no way that I could hand it less than 4 stars.

Luckily though, both of the B-sides deliver even if it's on a much lesser scale than the A-side. "Evil Bill" in particular re-affirms the band's ease with mood and atmosphere as it takes about half the running time of most post-rock tracks to develop a similarly deep reserve of mood and tension. "D.T." is much more slight than either of its bookends, but in terms of displaying the band's versatility it does a decent job of showing how well they take to noisier material while still retaining their core Spectorian vibe. Neither lives up to the standard that "Monkey" sets, but both are integral parts of the band's canon nonetheless. [9.1/10]

Download link courtesy of Amor Louco. Contains the full self-titled compillation with all three of Clinic's early singles.

Tintoretto: The Sound of Someone You Love Who Is Leaving...And It Doesn't Really Matter (Highwater)
Ever wished that someone would take the Shotmaker / Max Colby split and combine the two sides into one EP? If so, your wish is Tintoretto's command. They've taken Shotmaker's aggression and drive and married it to Max Colby's tight, intricate playing and math-rock inclinations, essentially giving you the best of both worlds in one fairly excellent package. It's far from being at their influence's quality level for the whole 21 minutes, but there are moments, particularly on the raging, intense "Rifle Merit Badge" and at various points during the two longer numbers, that suggest that had they kept going long enough they might have gotten there eventually. What's here is good enough to keep around though, definitely an overlooked entry in the later day emocore scene. [8.0/10]

Dowload link courtesy of Wisconsin Sickness.

Clikatat Ikatowi: River of Souls (Gravity)
I don't know what exactly it is about this particular release that catches my fancy while the rest of Clikitat's discography never did much for me. At any rate, this release basically stations Clikitat Ikatowi as the Public Image Ltd. of the San Diego hardcore scene. The guitars are icy and distant, the bass is warm and almost dubby, the drumming is amazing - Mario Rubalcaba can be a beast when the mood strikes him - and most importantly, the songs are intricate without being too proud of that fact. Take closer "Pleiadian Dance" for example; it winds through about a half dozen themes, all in different times and tempos, but it doesn't call attention to that fact the way a lot of math-rock inclined bands do, it just feels like that's the way the song should logically go. At the same time though, it almost feels like they're holding back to some degree. "The Appliance" feels incomplete, like they had another 4 minutes of material that went with what was presented but just decided to cut it off. Likewise, there are a few tracks that hint towards a much heavier jazz influence than they ever manage to show, like the shuffling rhythm of "Ramble on Candywrappers" or the drumming on any given track - like I said, Rubalcaba's among the best drummers I've heard in this type of band. That restraint stops this short of being a necessity unfortunately. It's a big step up for the band - just as they dissolved, natch - but it feels like it could have gone even farther and been even better. [7.9/10]

Download link and image courtesy of Shiny Grey Monotone.

Three Mile Pilot: Three Mile Pilot (Gravity)
 While the rest of Three Mile Pilot's output post-Another Desert seemed much geared towards where the various members were heading afterwards, this EP finds them looking decidedly backwards. I'm not just talking about the elegaic cover of Brian Eno's "By This River," though that is a highlight here, but the material here feels very much like it was meant to come in between Chief Assassin and Another Desert. "Worry" especially feels like a transitional piece, working both the unsettling, cold aggression of the former and the art-pop of the latter simultaneously to glorious, if slightly muddled effect. "Wahn" has it's toes even further back in to Assassin territory, almost dropping the piano that became so integral to the band's sound towards the end of its run. Really, this functions more as the last gasp of Three Mile Pilot before the main members started to lay out their post-break up course, and while it's not as consistent a farewell as I might have hoped for - it's probably their least unified release overall - it still manages enough quality material to keep from breaking the streak of 4-star level greatness that the band ran with through their whole first run.

Oh, and "On a Ship to Bangladesh" is the least 3MP thing they've ever done, and it's also awesome in all its cheesiness. Not a highlight so much as an interesting side-trek that merits note. [8.2/10]

Jaga Jazzist: Magazine (Smalltown Supersound)
 Given how much they'd refine, expand and improve upon the ideas that show up here, it's easy to write off Magazine as the embryonic stages of what would become one of, if not the, most interesting and forward thinking jazz ensembles of modern times. Really, you'd be half right to ignore this and go straight to A Livingroom Hush - the electronics that would become their trademark isn't fully integrated into their sound, the music is nowhere near as dynamic and multifaceted and they throw in a random, incredibly forgettable slice of singer-songwriter piffle in the form of "seems to Me" that sticks out like a sore thumb. But at the same time, this gives context to the greatness that came only a couple of years later. You can look at this less as a piece of the puzzle than as a rough draft. I can easily picture the core members looking at this after it was completed and parsing out exactly where they got it right - "Serafin i Junglen," most of "Swedish Take Away" - and what just didn't work - "Seems to Me," the overly repetitive first couple of tracks - before starting up on their next album. In that light it makes sense, but as it is it's a flawed first step for one of the most reliably forward looking group of the last decade and a bit. [7.6/10]

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