Let it be, or whatever.

Concept: Conor Oberst uses his new label for an all-“star” shindig.

Sound: Not folk, so sorry. There is a wide range of Americana, which is honestly better unless you have a damn good lyricist/songwriter. Every member of the band could use some time to brainstorm and recover; My Morning Jacket hasn’t gained much from their obscenely self-deprecating funk rock exploits, and Bright Eyes has simply never been much more than a pile of soggy melodramas in a bean bag chair. This album was the right move for them by all counts. The album is a flattering gallery, moving from ambient soul to rock conventions to dusty spaghetti western crawls to bombastic country, and so on and so forth. With its opening and closing songs as two of the very strongest, the album feels complete in spite of some deep dead spots.

Lyrics: Business is good. My Morning Jacket have occasionally allowed themselves some adept songwriting, and tracks like Baby Boomer and The Sandman, The Brakeman, and Me invite multiple listens. Oberst’s lack of lyrical talent is not an issue. It seems working with new people has tempered his taste for moot morbidity, and he keeps it short and sweet.

Quick And Dirty: Of all the inter-group collaborative releases we’ve had this year, this one delivers best. (♦♦♦½)

Can you hear me now?

Concept: Rock band plays rock music.

Sound: The guitarist and bassist are pretty frantic, with nice effects to match their playing style. As with most bands starting out, the problem is the vocalist. The frontlady is looking to mimic Gwen Stefani, but she does not have the pipes at all, and is always falling flat and just not giving a very convincing ‘punk’ vibe. There is a huge, awkward contrast between what she’s doing and what the rest of the band is trying to accomplish. Every transition is poorly executed. They could all stand to be a little tighter, too. There is much better album waiting to develop when the male vocalist steps forward and produces childlike lyricism with bluegrass snaps and bizarre ambience, as on Kenneth, or when the band simply resorts to jamming.

Lyrics: Society=bad.

Quick And Dirty: Fit to make major labels, open for Green Day, and go down in flames. Lose the vocalist and we’ll talk. (♦♦½)

Artist: Environmental Protection Agency
Album: Drinking Water. Know What’s In It For You
Released: Self-released, 2004

Is this a glass which I see before me, the portal towards my mouth? Come, let me drink thee.

I never realized the Environment Protection Agency was in the business of making music, but in the course of KJNB’s massive overhaul of our CD collection, I came across this one-of-a-kind release. When I saw it, I knew I had to listen to it!

The first two tracks start off the release in a fascinating deconstruction of our need for regularity. Both songs use the same lyrics and music, but different voice actors (you could even say the lyrics are more spoken word than sung). But while the female voice on Report Card(1) is pleased with the quality of her water, Report Card (2) is a different story. You can hear the woman’s voice strain as she tries to inject pleasantness at the thought that her water quality is great, but the very regularity of her life is wearing her down. I never realized the EPA would put out such a damning indictment of American Suburbia.

“Water Sayings” questions whether we can truly know anything about the world around us, even something so seemingly basic as our water supply. And “For Granted” admonishes us for taking anything for granted, instead advocating a radical skepticism of all received knowledge unless deductively proven. I would never have guessed the EPA would assault the philosophical groundings of science so harshly. It’s opened my eyes.

As for music, the cheerful organ line and jazzy bass seem to contradict the harsh insights of th ads themselves. But if we look at the music as providing an analogy of modern-day American culture much makes sense. The music is really trying to cover over the knowledge the EPA wants to hand over to you, but can’t quite – reflecting how American pop culture does its best to ignore or cover up unwanted images or events. But the EPA knows what’s up. They know that truth always destroys the walls placed around it.

All in all, the EPA has blown my mind with the artistic achievement inherent in this short album – less than 4 minutes all together! That’s shorter than many songs! If only more artists took their cues from the EPA, and combined brevity with true genius. But maybe that’s asking too much. You can download all the tracks here: http://permanent.access.gpo.gov/lps21800/www.epa.gov/safewater/psa.html

The EPA(Office of Ground Water & Drinking Water) was:
Cynthia Dougherty – Director
Gregory Carroll – Chief of Technical Support Center
James Taft – Chief of Targeting & Analysis Branch

Star Rise

Concept: Canadian composer Michael Brook remixes the work of the Qawwali superstar.

Sound: Sometimes it’s too much techno, not enough Khan. They still use him as an excuse to drag their remixing out for several minutes at a time. Occasionally he’ll leak through with a total face-melter, and you forget about the suffering the preceding techno has inflicted upon you.

Lyrics: Punjabi. It’s probably totally awesome Sufi exultations that would blow my mind if I even guessed at their content.

Quick And Dirty: Really uneven, but I could be persuaded that the beats were a good idea if somebody cranked this in the middle of a dance party, and from there we go sublime. R.I.P., dude. (♦♦♦½)

Oh God WHYYYYYYYYY...

Concept: Why the hellll would you ever name your band this? Okay, now that that’s out of my system, it’s about being a regular joe with visions of grandeur.

Sound: Pop rock. Did I miss something? There are some very catchy riffs and vocal harmonies. I think that’s it.

Lyrics: With each track so mercifully short (1-3 minutes,) there’s no time to be irritated by the lyricism. A lot of it is actually pretty cute, from the understated adolescent anxiety to the way the frontman occasionally rushes to fit the line into the end of the chord progression after stalling dramatically for the last few bars (sometimes/I begin to think that we’d lost you/don’tyouknowthatyouusedtomakeme maaaaad). The second to last track is an exceptional so-bad-it’s-good masterpiece.

Quick And Dirty: Damn it, I like it. I have no idea how this happened. (♦♦♦½)

Awwww yeah, burst that stick!

Concept: Steve shows off the potential of the ‘Chapman Stick,’ better known as the freaking Warr guitar.

Sound: This really is an awesome instrument that needs more use. What you have is more or less a bass running straight into a guitar, with big ol’ pickups so that everything can be finger-tapped: the closest you get to an upright piano short of the keytar, and honestly this thing has a much more organic sound. It’s only two guys on the album, but it certainly doesn’t sound like it. Hahn can cover atmosphere, rhythm, and melody all at once, and while the new-age effects are a little outdated the instrument’s slap tone is just wonderful. The compositions are plenty entertaining in their own right. Hahn isn’t all about technical achievement. He’s picking up this instrument so that he can add more musical structure than conventional strings could allow. If this wasn’t enough, he plays a little trumpet simultaneously with his stickwork.

Lyrics: Eh.

Quick And Dirty: This is still a cool instrument, and here you get to bask in its glory without the distracting lyrical theatrics of Yes and King Crimson, or the impish metrical pranks of Behold…The Arctopus. The pieces themselves make for a full demonstration of its potential as the key to a one-man jam band. Burst that stick! (♦♦♦♦½)

Look what my camera can do! Dude, quit touching it, this cost $60.

Concept: The second to last album for the 90’s indie rockers.

Sound: The guitarists are pretty worthless, as are the vocalists, but the bassist and drummer have taken off the white gloves and are beating the ever-loving hooey out of this recording. As a band they sound like they’ve lost the ambition to be anything besides Talking Heads rip-offs. Scratch the majority of potential audiences.

Lyrics: Just bad. Blunt, tactless, and trite. They’re trying to be political, but they achieve the same threadbare points as any hackjob punk group using three times as many words.

Quick And Dirty: Should you play in the rhythm section of a local band, this might give you a fresh take on the same old same old. Otherwise, there’s just no point to this album. (♦♦♦)

IKEA PR

Concept: The son of jazz saxophonist Anthony Braxton seeks to create ‘new classical music’.

Sound: Braxton’s diagnosis is more or less accurate. A lot of the time the math-rock influence shows its classical roots, and the orchestral instrumentation swimming in the strange electronic effects further tempts the comparison. Some tracks, most notably J. City, are closer to 90’s ‘alternative,’ sounding remarkably like a chopped and screwed version of The Verve Pipe. The two biggest issues this album faces are balancing the ingenuity of its passages with their repetition and the glut of quirky noises. This could be summed up as ‘too much of a good thing,’ such as when you eat too many candy canes and everything else tastes like peppermint for the rest of the day. Sometimes it’s hard to hear the flute melody over the firecracker solo.

Lyrics: Largely disguised by distortion, but what can be discerned seems confused and unassuming, a more approachable and earthly take on They Might Be Giants‘ grab-bag lyrical content. (With all my heart, I have no idea/the whole room/ exploding into laughter/…/Calm down/she don’t even know you, you, you.)

Quick And Dirty: A storm of influences which dries clear, but the songs as individual pieces could use more elaboration, although that might be asking too much of an exhaustive composer. (♦♦♦♦)

Artist: Zack Kouns
Album: I Lift My Hands Against the Gods
Released: Self-released, 2009

That looks painful

Huh. Where to begin. Should I begin with what Mr. Kouns lists on his Myspace as some of his band members – “sensing man’s terrible seperation from himself,” “thin purplish scar,” “piers as empty as arms”? Or maybe his influences? “The dissolution of the self that music encourages,” “The meaning of Cabenza De Vaca’s voyage of conquest,” “astrolabes (even if they’re eyes seeing something terrible and celestial in the heart),” and “Myths and man’s attempt to embody something eternal, constant and beyond himself”?

How about the album – supposedly what I’m reviewing here, and an “examination of the first five hundred years of modern history beginning with Christ in the garden of Gethsemane and concluding with the Roman empire succumbing to the barbarian hordes.” Yeah, not so much. It’s more of an examination of how pretentious a man can drive his work to be.

The music is barely there, it’s more of a background to the spoken word lyrics. Saxophones and accordions moan weakly in songs such as “Negresses” and “Thalia”, and in “Gaping Jaws of Wild Beasts” guitar and bass lazily play along. Frankly, all the music feels superfluous. Imagine the jazz band version of noodling, and that’s what most of this album sounds like. Just a couple of guys who got some instruments, and can play a note or two, and then they play those notes. Again. And Again. And Again.

As for lyrics, there is nothing exciting here. “Triange Circle Square” sounds like he’s reading off some Pythagorean text, which is kind of unique, but he sounds terribly bored while doing it.

Just… don’t go near this. Please. It’s bad. Yes, it’s free, but it takes time to listen to it, time you could spend listening to some of the good music that’s been reviewed on this site lately. Zack Kouns’ work is a pretentious pile of crap. Usually I would link the album, but I’m not even going to do that. Go listen to Rodrigo Y Gabriela or something. I need to go clean my ears.

The perfect paperweight for that special someone.

Concept: French postrockers show everybody how it’s done.

Sound: Alright, it’s not really postrock, nor is it ambient, nor shoegaze. You can certainly see all the elements of these in their music, though. Violins can get a bad rap outside of classical music, but here they’ve taken the foreground as harsh, dry, swarming devils. The drummer is deliberately ever so slightly out of sync, which adds to the tension of the tracks. The most notable influence might actually be chant, with a few choral arrangements, alternative percussion (telephone bells, cans, chimes), and synthesized overtones stepping in to circulate even more dissonance through the album. The result is a meticulous, sinister coiling of alternative rock’s instrumental underdogs into the form of a convulsing hand stretched mechanically towards the listener.

Lyrics: Scattered dialogues in French, and English records of psychological studies.

Quick And Dirty: The quiet, twisted voice in the back of your head. Use sparingly. (♦♦♦♦)