issue 25 :: January 2015

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Rock Reviews

Baby Robots, The Black Angels, The Carrots, Carpet Floor, Ember Schrag, Santiago Latorre, Shellac, Period, Sungod, Suzanne Vega, Joan Jett, Life Without Buildings, The Proper Ornaments, A Tomato A Day
Baby RobotsThe Dream Beaver EP (Catland Rekids) CD

With its title and cover, you might think The Dream Beaver was an Austin pothead joke record. But instead you will find six competent guitar-driven rock songs based around Bobby Baker’s pleasantly neutral singing voice. Baker has been playing guitar with ST 37 and Rubble, and this version of the Robots, an ever-changing collection of Baker’s friends and associates, fits in with the catholic vibe of Austin’s underappreciated rock faithful. Interesting keyboards and synthesizers play a big role here, especially in the middle section of “Portions.” At times I am reminded of the better parts of Pavement when listening to this record. My only complaint is that only six short songs grace this record. The Baby Robots have at least two other records out, each one different and distinctive.
The Black AngelsClear Lake Forest (Blue Horizon) CD

MMPP comes out so rarely that some important things, especially here in Austin, have not been covered at all. The rise of the psychedelic rock band The Black Angels and their yearly Psych Fest has been one of the casualties of my lethargic writing schedule. Clear Lake Forest, a seven song EP, strays from their previous dense, drone-heavy dirges for a pronounced 1960’s garage rock vibe. A few years ago, they backed Roky Erickson for a concert, released as the Night of the Vampire DVD, and I am guessing that that experience may have inspired them to write some music of the era of Roky’s heyday. Bright guitars, lots of vibrato, and a beautifully recorded drum sound that is a far cry from the overly-crisp, mic-on-every-drum sound common today. I bet all the instruments they play are vintage 1966 equipment. While not pop in any sense, the songs are more melodic and less the psych jams on their earlier records. I miss the old sound, but this is nice, too.
The CarrotsNew Romance (Elefant Records) CD

When this started playing on my iPod, I was sure it was some old Motown tracks downloaded from a Soul/R&B blog. It took me a few songs to figure out it was recent music and not from 1965. This is achieved by a stripped down piano/bass/drums band that perfectly backs three singers that take turns with lead and backup vocals, with some call and response bits that obviously come from Motown girl groups. It’s very pleasant, songs about love and fighting for love until we get to the last song, the creepy “Baby’s Unborn,” about wanting a baby because everyone else has one. When Jennifer and I first gave the lyrics a close listen, we both looked at the other in amazement, “What the fuck?!” There’s certainly nothing wrong with wanting to have children, but this song seems to spring from the mind of a psychopath. Is the singer (the character in the song) pregnant? Is she faking it? It’s a very weird song, very unlike the poppy breeze of the other songs.
Carpet FloorHovering Pillows (Forehead Eye) CD

* You might remember Garry Davis from his short-lived yet excellently wordy paper zine Arcane Candy, which is now a blog. He also publishes tiny booklets of art projects and plays guitar and other instruments in this noise rock project with drummer Matt Crane with guest musicians on each album. On this record we are treated to mainly extended instrumental guitar jams maybe reminiscent of Sonic Youth demo jams. Rune Freeman provides bass guitar throughout and Seth Kasselman plays secondary guitar on three tracks. I like their approach. Many lesser musicians hide behind numerous cheap effects. Here we hear people playing guitar, glorious distortion and little else to diminish the riffs, epic chords and slow-burn jams.
Ember SchragThe Sewing Room (Single Girl Married Girl) CD

Schrag sings beautifully dour country songs, backed by her acoustic guitar and changing cast of mostly acoustic instrument players, viola, piano, other guitars and mandolin. Her voice is sweetly plaintive and I am reminded of Scout Niblet if she ever went into a folk direction. Philip Gayle (!) and Amy Denio (!!) contribute acoustic guitar and clarinet respectively on a few songs. The lyrics booklet (there is a deluxe book version of this record, but I just have the digipack release) contains trippy, spiky line drawings by Jay Schleidt that remind me of Mexican folk art. “I drove to Houston alone,” she sings on one song, “I thought you knew how I felt about you.” I don’t like this record any more due to Ember once photographing a butterfly in our front garden a few years ago; but she is the kind of person who will do that.
Santiago LatorreEclíptica (Accretions) CD

* Santiago Latorre’s quiet, morose music sits somewhere between songs, soundtracks and bedroom electronica. Saxophone, accordion, piano are nestled by percussion loops and sparse orchestration. A few times he sings, sadly. In the rain. The use of horns and synthesizers remind me of Jim O’Rourke’s pop arranging, a beautiful simplicity enhancing the songs, instead of covering up. The pieces are a weird. melancholy mix, very strange yet comforting.
ShellacDude Incredible (Touch and Go) CD

It’s been too long since Shellac’s last perfect take on a stripped-down buzzsaw punk. I love the buzzy metallic edge of the bass guitar, the respective rhythms, the way the guitar can erupt into a squealing vortex. Everything you liked on their previous records, you’ll find here. There are still plenty of surprises, a group spoken poem like you’d find on an old Robyn Hitchcock LP (??!), the slow gloom fuzz dramatics of “Gary,” a gothic dirge of loss friendship and despair.
Period2 (Public Eyesore) CD

* Period, a duo of guitarist Charlie Looker and drummer Mike Pride, plays an extreme and abstract form of heavy metal music with guest vocalists and saxophonists. The drumming’s intense barrage propels the music rather than just anchoring it. Chuck Bettis’ tortured screamings come from some sort of metal sub-genre. On the three tracks where the saxophones make an appearance, all alongside the vocals, add squeals, smacking sounds and outbursts that accompany the vocals. There are places where the music slows down, loosing its propulsive forward momentum, hanging in the air. This is a weird record. Pride’s artwork perfectly represents the smashed together attitude of the music.
SungodCrash Galactic (Ethereal Mother Tapes) CD

I don’t know who Brenden Balentine and Mike Sharp are, they could live around these parts or maybe the label is, but I was intrigued by the instrument list of these two multi-instrumentalists and what kind of space rock could be lurking within the DVD case at Trailer Space Records. I expected all tracks to be fuzz-drenched guitar jams like the sixth track “Days of Amnesia,” but much more time is devoted to Popol Vuh-ish analog synth trippy soundscapes, some with murky voices and other atmospheric effects. It’s an unusual, mysterious journey. “Shimmering Light (Pure Religion)” is pure early Tangerine Dream synthesizer pulses with (acoustic) piano chords crashing on top. The title track explores noisier vibes, the noise knob on the Moog turned up, I’m guessing. This is a late night keeper.
Suzanne VegaTales From the Realm of the Queen of Pentacles (Amanuensis Productions) CD

After reinterpreting most of her song catalog in 4 self-published and stripped-down Close-Up releases, singer/songwriter Suzanne Vega spins another collection of songs based around her even, plain singing style and acoustic guitar. Produced by her current electric guitarist accompanist, Gerry Leonard, the songs mainly eschew the glossy, major-label sheen that marred many of her earlier works, slathering them in undersea digital synthesizers. Here guitars ring out, percussion and drums seem appropriate. The arrangements are denser than the Close-Up reworkings, her song writing still interesting, playful at times. She continues to project an aura of smartness, concern, trying to find threads to make sense of modern life. Leonard’s shimmering guitar playing fits perfectly around Vega’s familiar finger-picked forms. The last two times I saw them play together, I saw Leonard build up on the spot the backing track to the DNA remix of “Tom’s Diner” using his guitar and a looper. I’m usually never impressed by people using loopers, usually it comes across as hack, or worse, but this was masterful. And that is the feeling that runs through this record and her work as a whole: masterful pop music.Vega always seems to want to try something new on each album, tempered with echoes of familiar parts from her earlier records. Here we have gospel-like backing singers on the end of the song “Stoic” and unusual Middle Eastern-like textures on “Don’t Uncork What You Can’t Contain,” but always remains a polished sense of artistic perfection.

Gerry Leonard & Suzanne Vega, 2014
Gerry Leonard & Suzanne Vega, March 2014, Austin, Texas
Joan JettUnvarnished (Blackheart Records) CD

Like Suzanne Vega, I’ve been listening to Joan Jett since high school, and have seen her live numerous times. Unlike Vega, I must admit I’ve not bought any of Jett’s records for sometime, not 100% liking what new songs I’ve managed to hear, like “Activity Grrl” or “AC/DC.” But after reading an amusing unauthorized biography of her, I decided to buy her latest record with the latest incarnation of her backing band, the Blackhearts. Her first three records—Bad Reputation, I Love Rock ’n’ Roll, Album—remain among the apex of hard rock records for me, I still love listening to those. This, her twelfth or so record with the Blackhearts, manages to make a decent-sounding big rock record that covers most of the things you’d want in a Joan Jett record, sing-along choruses, loud guitar chords with a guitar sound not out of place on a 1970s/’80s AOR record, hand-claps, and, most importantly maybe, a glimpse into Jett’s lovable persona which has grown from a rock’n’roll party rebel into a concerned individual involved with animal and queer rights (she has some great testimonials to benefit PETA). Here we have songs dealing with the death of her parents (“Hard to Grow Up”) and supporting the firefighters at the World Trade Center disaster (“Every Needs A Hero”). Jett has always tried to project a simple and powerful message of work and struggle and being one’s self. “Bad As We Can Be” sounds like a Ramones song, but nearly every song here has been co-written by Jett and her band mates, including long-time producer Kenny Laguna. It was good to catch up an old musical friend. A while after I bought the record, we were treated with a free outdoor concert by Jett and her friends at one of the many music festivals that plague Austin, Texas. It was very fun, about half new material and half classic hits and one obscure Runaways song (“Drive Me Wild.”). If you’ve never been to a Joan Jett concert, she really wants everybody to sing along during certain songs.

Joan Jett, 2014
Joan Jett and Kenny Laguna, November 2014, Austin, Texas
Life Without BuildingsAny Other City (Tugboat Records) CD

Led by visual and performance artist Sue Tompkins, the Scottish Life Without Buildings kick out upbeat indie pop songs that, mainly due to Tompkins’ on-the-verge-of-being-squeaky vocals, reminds me the band Altered Images without annoying synth stylings. Chris Evans’ guitar is crisp and propulsive throughout. This record was originally released in 2000, but has gotten a nice LP reissue in 2014, and without which I would have probably forever missed this great record. Your enjoyment of this record will depend on how much you enjoy the singing. Absolutely Kosher Records released a live CD from the band in 2007, which I am trying to track down.
The Proper OrnamentsWooden Head (Slumberland Records) CD

Low-key indie pop from the UK that recalls bands like Ride and… it really makes me think of early Ride before ugly fall into Britpop wasteland, melodic and melancholic. Gangly guitars, male vocal harmonies, stripped down arrangements. It’s on Slumberland, so it’s among the best of this sort of pleasant music suitable for playing while chopping vegetables for dinner. If this an updated version of Ride, as Life Without Buildings is (was) Altered Images reincarnate, this lacks the catchy hit songs as Life Without Buildings similarly writes good but not great songs. I enjoy them, but I can’t sing you one after. It’s nice when playing though.
A Tomato A DayThe Moon is Green (Public Eyesore) CD

* Seven short country-tinged folk-rock that strongly remind me of the best of early, acoustic REM, and also parts of Television Personalities and the Flaming Lips. I assume singer Brian Poloncic plays the guitar and drums, with lush backing from cello, synthesizer (very subtle!) and bass guitar. The singing is moody and dour. I like the songs and arrangements better each time I listen to this. I think many people are trying to make this kind of music sound this emotive and perfect, and few are living up to it.
Reviews and live photos by Josh Ronsen.
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