Knocked Down 7 Times Got Up 8--Joe Records (PO Box 3806, Austin, TX 78764-3806)
Jean Caffeine's Knocked Down 7 Times Got Up 8 came with a press kit that tells a story so steeped in scene-cred as to almost stretch the point of believability: beginning as a teenage punk rocker in San Francisco at the height of the creativity of the California punk explosion (it was so long ago that it wasn't ludicrous to use the words "creativity", "California", and "punk" in the same sentence), Jean moved to New York in time to get in on scene queen Ann (Bongwater) Magnuson's machinations, drumming in an all-female ensemble (the kind that couldn't play) called Pulsallama, then moving to Austin and getting her solo career going just in time for a fragment of one of her songs to make it into Richard Linklater's film Slacker--plus she's a a public school art teacher! If I hadn't recently picked up the reprint of the classic SF punkzine Search & Destroy and seen a photo of the young Jean inside that confirms this twisting tale, I don't know if I'd know what to believe. Either way, the musical contents of Knocked Down 7 Times Got Up 8 and not her hip points are what define her, and there she brings us an accomplished blend of the kind of country tunes rock bands used to play and the indie-female ethos of Patti Smith, Liz Phair, and Marianne Faithfull (the album is dedicated to 'chicks who rock'). The result isn't too surprising--four-chord songwriterly alternative country-rock that would sound right at home on any well-programmed 'adult'-oriented radio station, if such a thing existed--but Jean Caffeine blows away a lot of people getting a lot more press doing basically the same thing, starting with Ani DiFranco and working her way through Sheryl Crow, Fiona Apple, and Alanis Morrissette while she's at it. Like Victoria Williams without the annoying voice, like Syd Straw without the, uh, annoying voice, and approaching the level of Patti Smith without all the baggage, Jean Caffeine provides a meatier course of fare for those tired of the lightweights.
Car Bomb Driver
7" (Fat Porn Productions)
Sigh…once again, kids, if you're gonna run your 7" at 33rpm print the speed on the label! Anyway…
Four-piece Damned/Ramones punk rock from Florida. They lay it on the line and admit what so many other punk rock bands think with "I Just Wanna Be A Ramone": "I don't wanna be a Beatle, I Don't wanna be a Stone/I just wanna wanna be a Ramone/Johnny, Joey, Dee Dee and the other one/They're so cool I wanna be one". Plus "Road To Ruin on the stereo/We support the local punk rock shows" in "The Shit" (as in "We're…"). When they're not digging the Ramones they (or at least singer/songwriter Dave Reeder) spend their time fantasizing about hookers ("$20 Date") on their way down to the local porn shop ("25 Cents"). These guys need to hook up with the Sloppy Seconds--I bet they'd be the best of friends if Car Bomb Driver are into Kiss too. The cover is a silhouette of a guitar crossing a rifle, and inside they even tell you the make and model of the guitar and rifle for accuracy. I think "I Wanna Be A Ramone" would have been funnier to the tune of "You Should Never Have Opened That Door" or "Sheena Is A Punk Rocker". Overall the 7" is nothing special but appropriately kickin'. –Aaron J. Poehler
Cease/Clairmel - split 7" (A.D.D. Records)
Cease only manages to get one song on their split 7" with Clairmel at 33 rpm; that ought to tell you something about how torturously convoluted it is. Screechy, growly vocals on top of music that hovers somewhere between hardcore and metal, like Slint if they had indulged their shameful secret metal leanings more. Angst on top of angst. Both bands are from Florida, death-metal country, so Cease has probably absorbed their fair share of influence from local Satan-merchant shows. Clairmel eschews the metal and thus manages to get two songs on their side, titled "Kings of Tampa"--in fact, they blend a chunk of pop (and even undistorted guitar[!]) into their brisk punk formula, which makes one wonder who decided these bands were appropriate to appear on the same record together. Other than geographic location, they don't share much in common, and few people are going to enjoy both sides--actually, I imagine people who like the Clairmel side are only going to play the Cease side once, and vice-versa. Not the most harmonious combination, to say the least, but both bands do okay within their chosen limitations. -Aaron J. Poehler
Manu Chao’s Clandestino was one of those totally unique, knock-you-out-of-your-seat albums that just blew me away—I’d never heard anything like it before, nor have I since—so I was very curious to see what he’d do for the followup: where would develop the one-of-a-kind sound he established on his first solo album? Well, I have to admit to some disappointment with …Proxima Estacion…Esperanza as a followup—the sound actually hasn’t developed much at all, because in a few cases it’s exactly the same music! That’s right, a few tracks from Clandestino have had new lyrics and vocals slapped on them, and the result is, well, still pretty good, honestly, but it’s still a letdown to me. Essentially rather than a totally new album I see this as Clandestino Vol. 2, which is still cool with me but not what I was hoping for at all.
-Aaron J. Poehler
Once In A Blue Universe--Higher Octave Music
Craig Chaquico is probably best known as guitarist for Jefferson Starship/Starship, including the band's years of peak pop success with hits like "We Built The City". Once In A Blue Universe is Chaquico's fourth solo album, an instrumental sweep of acoustic guitar textures heavily swathed in digital reverb laid against synthesized percussion, with bass and keyboard lines by co-producer Ozzie Ahlers with the occasional sax break by one of several guest musicians. While the music on Once In A Blue Universe is obviously new-age influenced, Chaquico has too much of a rock background to let his guitar lines fade into so much aural wallpaper: his aggressive picking style rings out clearly despite all the added reverb, and the rhythm of many tracks clips along a bit faster and more energetically than most of these 'mellow-out' discs. The CD also finds Chaquico branching out into interpreting other artists' material, including a version of the Simply Red hit "Holding Back The Years" as well as the Dave Mason classic rock cut "Feelin' Alright", and Chaquico even included track-by-track commentary so the avid listener can read up on what the pieces signify to Chaquico. In sum, Once In A Blue Universe is pleasant-sounding, well-crafted background music with well-oiled chops and little to offend the ear in the mood for an acoustic lite-rock workout.
Arpeggio Motorcade--Cruz Records
Chemical People used to be part of the generation of So. California punk-pop bands that came after the generation of Red Cross/Redd Kross and before the generation of Offspring; now that there are two million So. Cal punk-pop bands that all sound alike, Chemical People have moved on to a smoother, more adult melodic rock format--not as far mainstream as Sting or Dire Straits, say, but a lot of Arpeggio Motorcade could easily have been by the Goo Goo Dolls, the Smithereens, the Gin Blossoms, or the Lemonheads. Former drummer Dave Nazworthy has made the transition to vocals/guitars ably (at least as ably as Dave Grohl) and performs confidently if not very uniquely. I must admit I'm a little surprised to find something so uncomfortably close to corporate rock issued on an SST subsidiary label when SST's proclaimed motto has always been 'corporate rock sucks'. Arpeggio Motorcade doesn't suck; in fact, it's quite well-crafted and fits exactly within the genre it's aiming for. It's just that there are already a bunch of other bands that sound like this, but if you're into those bands you should definitely check out this album if only for the classic cover shots of Nazworthy's mom in vintage fashion modeling shots from the 60's.
CHOCOLATE KISS: “set yourself on fire” : CD
I propose that henceforth, any band that scream-sings in that tuneless-and-proud-of-it manner (such as, say, Chocolate Kiss) shall be barred from referring to themselves as ‘pop’ or being referred to as pop (such as in the moodswing records quote describing this disc as “the breakthrough album for these purveyors of pop”). I mean, come on, when has that style ever been pop? Get a clue. If these guys really think they make pop music someone should hand them a copy of the top 40—and not necessarily even the current top 40, ANY top 40 ever. This kind of music would more correctly be referred to as ‘college rock’, and as ‘college rock’ goes, it ain’t bad. It ain’t great either. But it most definitely ain’t ‘pop’. Also, I don’t know that the world was crying out for a college-rock version of Supertramp’s “The Logical Song”. I know I wasn’t, and hearing the slavishly imitative and utterly inconsequential version on “set yourself on fire” certainly didn’t win me over, though it does do me the service of incontrovertibly cementing my venture at these guys’ correct classification in stone. That is to, say nothing proves you’re a fucking college-rock band more than doing a shitty cover of “The Logical Song” by Supertramp and actually sticking on your album for no other reason than you know stoned college-radio DJs will play it at least once. -Aaron J. Poehler (Moodswing)
Tres Flores--Sympathy For The Record Industry
The Chubbies are a better-than-expected three-piece all-girl (actually these women look to be in their late twenties/early thirties) band from Ontario playing pop music that echoes the slick commercial hit parade of the early 80's, namechecking Prince and Madonna within and clearly recalling the glory days of the Go-Go's, the biggest (or at least most successful) of the 'girl groups'. Tres Flores' music quite isn't so derivative as to make me want to reach for the Oasis/Beatles "they're selling you the exact same thing" button, but then again they're not exactly reinventing the wheel here, either. Fans of the coy and cutesy thing will eat it up; though it strikes me a bit posey and affected, the tunes are hummable, the band has clearly taken the time to learn to play their instruments passably, and there's a lot more harmony than screeching on the vocal end (though the bit of screeching that is here was enough to send my hand reflexively searching for the remote). A couple of the more rock-oriented numbers (like "Blasted") sound a bit forced, as if the band feels obligated to try and fight the 'girls-can't-rock' mentality five years after the fact; the Chubbies' obvious strength is the harmony-laden radio-ready pop angle apparent on tracks like "The Vegas Song (I'm Still Here)". Now that the all-female band is no longer a novelty (though it's still rare enough to pigeonhole any such band) or perceived as any kind of "movement" it should be clear that individual bands rise or fall on their own music rather than their gender, and when the Chubbies' music manages to hit on all cylinders at once it's at the head of the pack. The rest of the time it's a good try.
After Everything Now This CD
Often the bands you discover on your own are among the ones that stay closest to your heart; the Church is one of those bands for me. I don’t mean I saw them playing in some tiny garret years before they had a record out or anything—I first heard them when I saw their video for “Under The Milky Way” on MTV—but I was the first person I knew who ever had a Church record, and for years I was the only person I knew who had one. So ever though they wouldn’t make it into my top ten favorite bands if I was feeling bored enough with life to compile such an asinine list, there’s a special place for them in my heart. Though they’ve never really matched up to Starfish in my estimation, they’ve put out a bunch of great songs over the years and it’s nice to see they’re still around, with only a couple of changes in the drum slot since I first heard them. New guy Tim Powles (new to me, anyway) holds his own on the drums, Steve Kilbey still has a way with a cryptic psychedelic lyric, and the twin guitars still swell like keyboards, strings, and—yes—even like guitars. Not a reunion, not a throwback to their earlier work, not a retread, not an unplugged replugged live acoustic reworking, just a good solid enjoyable Church album whose melodies have been bouncing around in my head since first listen. A good antidote to lightweight, disposable, ephemeral music. (Thirsty Ear) – Aaron J. Poehler
1--March Records/Emperor Norton Records (121 Varick St., 12th Floor, New York, NY 10013)/Endearing Records (PO Box 69009, Winnipeg, MB R39 2G9 Canada)
Ciao Bella is comprised of Mario Hernandez (presumably not the Brain Capers cartoonist Mario Hernandez who occasionally popped up in his brothers' comic book Love & Rockets, but I guess it's possible) and Jamie McCormick, who painstakingly assembled this backwards-looking Beatlesque pop pastiche on home-recording equipment over the course of the years 1992 through 1997 in Alameda and Oakland, California, between day jobs and other activities. Their debut album is a well-crafted and cunningly arranged piece of work, belying its low-budget recording gear through careful planning, but the contents sometimes come across as contrived and derivative, often slavishly so. It's clear Ciao Bella is a pair of pop fans, and consequently the music on 1 can be so sweet it practically rots your teeth, but it's a good example of the fact that basement music need not be inferior to major-label funded music despite vast inequalities regarding access to the means of recording and production, as the songs come across beautifully and what few recording and engineering glitches there are serves as badges of authenticity, whereas the errors that appear on big-budget projects tend to be mistakes of overproduction, overembellishment, and self-indulgence, none of which are characteristics that would improve the songs on 1 a whit. It's a good beginning--now let's see if the followup takes less than half a decade to record, as well as hopefully improving upon the songwriting material. Otherwise I suppose we'll have to check in with Ciao Bella in 2003.
The Uneventful Vacation--Thick Records (916 N. Damen, Chicago, IL 60622)
Conor Oberst seems to be a fairly precocious young man: at 17, the high school senior has his own college-rock band (putting him at least two or three years ahead of his time) Commander Venus, his own record label (Saddle Creek, which released Comm. Venus' debut album Do You Feel At Home?) and a tour under his belt. Comm. Venus (their preferred abbreviation, for whatever reason) music isn't yet anything to get too excited about, falling directly into paths well-trodden by other groups (most notably Superchunk, Pavement, and Archers of Loaf) and Conor's vocals tend to wander pretty far off pitch, but underneath all that, there's something there: a songwriting spark that right now is leading him all over the map with Fugazi-style stop-start rhythms and tunes that are likely to head off in any given direction at any time, but given some tempering could develop into quite something. It's interesting to note that from a fairly limited stylistic palette and range of influences Conor has very nearly synthesized a unique distinctive voice of his own; you can hear hints of it in between the parts that echo Superchunk's Mac McCaughan so strongly, and it's much more interesting to me than Mac McCaughan. I'll be looking to check back with Conor in a few years to see how he's progressed--count on it--even if I'm not completely won over by Commander Venus' current music. Hopefully he'll have gotten over his obsession with the Superchunk style by then, and evolved towards a more original sound.
Concrete - Equation of the Blue Horse (Knot Music (POB 501, South Haven, MI 49090-0501)
Tedious, amateurish electronica. There's one idea going on throughout the whole thing: a monotonous, irritating drum machine pattern way up front, surrounded by swirling special effects. You couldn't even dance to this, nor sit and listen at home without getting bored, so the music serves no discernible purpose other than to get the guys in Concrete off. I'm sure the perpetrators think they're very experimental and avant-garde, but people have been doing this sort of thing for as long as there have been synthesizers and people with money to spend on recording. It's just that, well, usually they do it better--this is more like an imitation of electronic music than the real thing, like you gave a couple of kids a synthesizer and a few Aphex Twin, Orb, and Eno records and said, "See what you can come up with." Most of this sounds like something other people would put as filler in between actual songs, or at least memorable tracks, but Equation of the Blue Horse never works up to anything--the most that even happens is the drum machine stops for awhile, which is a blessed relief. –Aaron J. Poehler
Big Beat From Badsville--Epitaph
The Cramps have been kicking out prime raw punk rock for longer than anybody else out there now that the Ramones have packed it in, and now their music comes to the label that's capitalized the most off of the newer brands of punk purveyed by the likes of Offspring and Rancid, bands that likely grew up with Cramps records like Songs The Lord Taught Us or Bad Music For Bad People in their collections. Big Beat From Badsville maintains the same lineup that cut Flamejob (their most recent album) for the Medicine label in 1995 and the music falls right in the familiar Cramps groove: jackhammer rockabilly beats, precision guitar licks from Poison Ivy and the always-over-the-top vocal stylings of Lux Interior. The biggest change is the absence of any classic rockabilly chestnuts on Big Beat: in the past, up to half of any given Cramps album would be filled with anything from "Route 66" to "Goo Goo Muck" or "Rockin' Bones". This time around, it's purely Lux/Ivy originals and 100% Cramp stomp from start to finish. To be honest, this album hasn't really hit me the way prime Cramps records seem to; there aren't any instantly catchy songs like "Mean Machine" and "Let's Get Fucked Up" off of Flamejob, and by the end the songs start to sound somewhat samey. But just because it's not the best Cramps album doesn't mean it's not a good album, because the Cramps still crush 99% of bands out there today, especially 'punk rock' bands.
RockinNReelinInAucklandNewZealand, Smell Of Female, A Date With Elvis, Stay Sick!, Look Mom No Head!, Big Beat From Badsville
Plastic Surgery Disasters/In God We Trust Inc., Frankenchrist, Bedtime For Democracy, Give Me Convenience Or Give Me Death, Mutiny On the Bay (Dead Kennedys Live! From the San Francisco Bay Area)
It’s funny the coincidences that pop up it the record biz sometimes; here we have two of the U.S.’s seminal, unarguably preeminent punk bands’ catalogs being given the remaster-and-reissue treatment right about the same time. The Dead Kennedys were probably the most important U.S. punk band (depending on whether you’re the type to count the Stooges and the Ramones as ‘punk bands’ or ‘punk ROCK bands’ , of course), spawning DK-logos on everything one could draw a logo on as an essential badge of punk recognition; the Cramps, nearly as influential, bridging the gulf between raw 50’s rockabilly & psychedelia and new-when-they-started punk rock as everything from the Beatles to the Pistols never happened.
The difference here is less obvious than the uninformed might suspect, though: the Cramps’ catalog (well, much of it, anyway) is being reissued on their own, Cramps-controlled label Vengeance Records, through Mordam distribution. The Dead Kennedys’ albums (well, much of it, anyway), after an over-20-year history of being issued by DK vocalist Jello Biafra’s record label Alternative Tentacles & distributed by Mordam, are being reissued on Manifesto Records under the direction of the other three DKs, who have greivances over the way the band’s music has been handled. Purely as a listener there’s probably no reason for you to give a fuck either way; point blank, all these discs, both the Cramps’ and the DKs’, sound better than I’ve ever heard them sound. The Cramps’ albums tend to have a few bonus tracks tacked on, which sweetens the pot, and while the DKs’ discs don’t have bonus cuts they were really in dire need of remastering—for years it seemed that Jello’s antipathy towards CDs was borne out by Alternative Tentacles issuing thin-sounding, trebly discs, and frankly I haven’t heard this music sound this good since then. Plus, the DK’s first-ever official live album, Mutiny On The Bay, is a complete treat—I’d honestly given up on ever hearing any new Dead Kennedys music (the Cramps promise a new album to be issued through Vengeance sometime soon).
Honestly, though, I have to admit that some of the issues behind the DKs catalog reissue kind of bother me...I don’t know, on one hand it’s just internal band politics, and to think that any band doesn’t have them is to be utterly naive. On the other, it was always part of the whole DKs ‘thing’ to me that they issued their discs themselves, on their own record company—that really meant something to me. Now that’s gone, and to not see that Alternative Tentacles logo on these records throws me off every time I look at them. I don’t know, if you didn’t grow up with this stuff it probably wouldn’t ever enter your mind, and I don’t presume to know enough about the situation to say “Jello’s in the right” or “the other guys are in the right”. It’s just sort of bothersome, that’s all.
EP Collection Volumes 1 & 2--Dedicated Records
Cranes is a sibling act from Portsmouth UK: brother Jim Shaw constructs melodically simple gothic music beds, influenced primarily by the Cocteau Twins and early Cure (with a soupçon of Swans); sister Alison Shaw sings over them in a thin, heavily reverbed cooing voice. Recording since 1989, Cranes share the Cocteaus' predilection for issuing innumerable singles and EPs, each containing non-LP material (of course)--hence, this prosaically titled 2-CD anthology. EP Collection 1 & 2, which gathers 28 tracks (26 listed plus two unlisted tracks at the end of disc two) from thirteen different releases of various formats, about half of which is non-LP material, likely making it a must purchase for any Cranes devotees and an effective overview of the Cranes' recorded output from 1987-1997. Over that time Jim Shaw's musical settings grow assuredly in complexity and become much more enticing; unfortunately sister Alison's vocalizing stays on exactly the same level of amateurish off-key warbling. As the mostly chronologically-arranged material progresses, Jim's striking arrangements leapfrog past Alison's limited skills--for the later material on vol. 2 I found myself trying to ignore the vocals so I could hear the music, especially once the 1997 tracks (extracted from the Population Four EP) kicked in and a skilled human drummer is added to the mix (not to mention the addition of a few American rock influences and the dropping of a few of the goth pretensions): here Cranes actually sound like a capable live band, albeit one with a hopeless lead singer). Here's to hoping Jim Shaw continues along in the direction indicated by the Population Four tracks and finds a more appropriate vehicle for his music, and gives Alison a job opening the mail or something.
Mauler! A Collection Of Oddities--Au-go-go (GPO Box 542D, Melbourne, Vic. 3001 Australia)
Cub is a three-piece Canadian "cuddlecore" band, the kind of 'girl' band that poses in jokey shots in their bras for the album cover and superimposes Japanimation-style caricatures of the band members on top of them. That in and of itself will probably tell all but the most inquisitive consumer whether or not Cub is for them, since it seems like all these bands have (or at least aim for) the "sunny harmonies and & sing-along refrains" that "blend the 60's girl-group tradition with three-chord punk songwriting" promised in the presskit accompanying this CD. Mauler is an Australian-only compilation of tracks from 7" singles and compilations, including covers of the Stones' "She's A Rainbow", the Hollies' "You Know He Did", and Joan Jett's "Runaway", and beefed up with track-by-track annotation by the band with lots of candid photos and reminiscences. Fans of this sort of thing will eat it up; the rest of us may want to try before buying, especially at those import prices, but for better and for worse Cub sounds exactly like I expected: retro-60's punk-influenced, more-or-less competently played pop-rock. Not bad for what it is at all but too precisely within its genre to stick out as particularly unique or necessary.
Fabulous Drop--Cuneiform Records (PO Box 8427, Silver Spring, MD 20907-8427)
Curlew is a New York-based 'alternative jazz' quintet led by saxophonist George Cartwright, who formed the band way back in 1979. Fabulous Drop , the seventh Curlew album and their first offering since 1995's Paradise, is characterized by the twin-guitar attack of Davey Williams and Chris Cochrane swirling and screeching around Cartwright's lines while the rhythm section slinks along underneath; its nine pieces offer an improvisational energy wedded to a muscular ensemble able to put the material across with conviction. The packaging of the album contains liner notes with the dubious claim that the album's tracks were mastered in reverse order, punctuated by punny but unfunny fried-egg cartoons. An example: a fried egg with a propeller-beanie over the yolk in captioned "Some fried eggs never grow up"--and that's one of the funnier ones. Obviously the group doesn't take that aspect of things completely seriously, but their playing is another thing altogether, belying the frivolous aspects of the booklet packaging. Curlew creates an impressive noise together, reinvigorating the stale jazz scene with a joyous blast. Highly recommended for modern jazzbos.
CUT: Will You Die 4 Me?: CD
An Italian band, playing rock & roll, both male and female vocals singing in not-too-accented English—they’ve got the spirit, derived from such touchstones as the MC5 and X (the obvious comparison). This is the kind of album that makes you say “Damn, I bet they’d put on a great show” on the first listen, and hey, let’s face it, I know plenty of guys who’d pay the admission fee to see the band just to get an up-close-and-personal view of singer Elena Skoko, a photo of whose (clothed) crotch is prominently featured on the cover of Will You Die 4 Me. “Sugar Babe”, which was probably my favorite cut from the album is available as a free mp3 download at http://www.gammapop.com/listen.htm. If you’re into it you should definitely consider the great foldout CD insert as incentive to pick up the whole CD. And, uh, the other tunes too.
-Aaron J. Poehler (Gamma Pop)