Saturday, February 23, 2013

Depressed Mode

Remember that joke? People- mostly late eighties dudes who were a bit jocks but dated Alterna-chicks, like me, called "Depeche Mode" that.
Well, I bring it up because it's suitable for the two new CDs I've got- How To Destroy Angels' "Welcome Oblivion" and Black Rebel Motorcycle Club's "Specter at the Feast" . Both are downbeat little affairs, with layered loops and kinda "post Rock" vibes. I'll spare you any possible suspense and say that if you have to choose between the two, I'll suggest BRMC , hands down. But, I do own both. So I hate neither one.
How To Destroy Angels can be differentiated from Nine Inch Nails by two main factors: Mariqueen's vocals and more sparse, open arrangements. These are both improvements. I could go a lifetime without hearing Trent Reznor's strangulated Kermit the Frog voice. I understand using claustrophobia as a device in a song, but over the course of  5 out of 8 records, it becomes simply bad songwriting. By reducing the instrumentation, there's less compression on the individual sounds, so I don't feel like I'm listening to the aural equivalent of the trash compactor of the Death Star ( muddy, crushing, junked and it stinks). Now, I didn't hate NIN, but I thought of them as a bit of a put-on. No one feels the oppressed, and oppressive and shifts that many units. So, they always struck me as the "gothic" night at the local disco- dress up in fetish wear and dance to the beat of an auto factory so's people can take pictures of you being "wild". HDA, on the other hand sound experimental and adventurous- in a David Bowie meets Brian Eno in the 1970's Berlin kind of way. Pop music keeps on showing up in the glitchy electronic soundscapes. Still, it's very quiet, or it's very glitchy, and it ends up ultimately being like bad trip hop for me- I'm sure fascinating things are going on in there, but I am not fascinated enough to listen that closely. But, on better tracks, like "Ice Age" there's enough warmth and humanity that I stop and listen, and nod my head. But most of the tracks are so amelodic and glitchy that, well, my CD, as is sometimes the case with promo CDs, is damaged, on the 3rd track " and the sky began to scream" and I didn't notice until the 2nd repeat play. Still, that digital imperfection that they carefully sculpt is the one thing keeping tracks like "how long" from sounding completely like MOR. So, there is a function.( Edited to Add: OK, so I've now verified that I've got a defective CD, here. However, I've listened to a stream of the entire thing, and most of my comments still stand. I would only change that it's not quite as glitchy as I'm emphasizing here, but electronic "noise" and digital imperfections are still a major songwriting tool, here, and I would add that the latter third does go right in between latter day NIN and Trent Reznor's soundtrack work- meaning that the intention might very well be to have a kind of gloomy ambient music. Instead of another green world, perhaps an alternative black planet, hehehe. The pessimist Buddhist lyrical stance would seem to bear that out, jokes aside. ) Ultimately, unlike NIN, it's ear pleasing music that risks a lot, and that really should be rewarded. Maybe I'll buy it when it comes out, in the hopes that my copy is just defective.
BRMC, on the other hand I'll buy because my copy will have worn out. I really dig this Album. It starts slow, with a psychedelic folky run on the first four tracks. It isn't until "Hate the Taste" starts to roar that the rocker in you will come alive. But, yes from there, they alternate between lush ballads like the Verve used to do and raw hardheaded rockers like The Jesus and Mary Chain, with a mescaline psychosis. These guys suffered a bit- contract disputes, band members flaking out, family deaths, and everything else. They have earned the more subdued side. But, when subdued, there is still enough grit that I think of atmospheric bands like Calexico and Pelican, as opposed to I dunno, The Decembrists. It's more like what it would be if George Harrison joined the Who- the gentleness is a foil to the thuggery.  They're downbeat, but not beaten into submission. The swagger, snarl and menace of "Hate the Taste", "Teenage Disease", or "Funny Games" carries through, so that when you get to the final, gentle keyboard coda at the end of "Lose Yourself" it's an earned release. In other words, while Black Rebel Motorcycle Club might still have the tough sound of their Marlon Brando inspired name- much like Brando's Johnny Strabler they have suffered more than they cause suffering, and for that, they are compelling. Damn, I want a 1961 Triumph Bonneville T120, some vintage Lee dungarees and a vinyl copy of this record- it would all fit, trust me. Here's their myth, but hope you like the reality.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Triggerfinger and beyond

There are a few bands that are hard for me to pin down. Most of the time, I've got a pretty good idea what the band wants to accomplish within two or three listens. Sometimes, I know the band well enough that I can figure things out as I hear a new song. Then, there are bands like Triggerfinger. I have been aware of them since about 2008. I finally ordered a copy of their last studio LP "All this Dancin' Around" after seeing the triumphant set they did at Lowlands this past summer. When I heard it was a remaster, I figured they were trying to polish a not strong set of songs. So I didn't worry when it took a month to get to me. I gave the CD a cursory listen, and filed it away. But I remembered that set I saw. So, I listened a few more times this past week. What I can say is that, while I can't pin down who they are as a band, nor what they're trying to do, I can say that they have some strengths that are compelling. First, as should be obvious from following the links above- they put on a hell of a show. Second, Singer/guitarist Ruben Block has a great voice that is mostly like Josh Homme's but with a wailing, killer  howl of a falsetto that he deploys like a cruise missile and plays guitar  with a both a command of his instrument and an underlying joy of noise, in a way that I cannot resist. Third,  drummer Mario Goossens, while a strong drummer, really knows how to produce a record ( he worked the same for Black Box Revelation, and Hooverphonic)- and with this record, he got to do it at Sound City (I've simply gotta see that doc) . Seriously, the record sounds absolutely crackling!  Fourth, Paul Van Bruystegem is a secret weapon of a Bass player. He functions like both an augment to the drums, and as a second guitar player- no mean feat, that. It reminds me of Mike Watt, and you'll hear no higher compliment from me.
However- there's some basic confusions going on. I cannot figure out if they're doing an exercise is blues rock formalism a la The Black Keys and White Stripes, or a psychedelic desert rock grunge revival a la QOTSA and Red Fang. There are definite elements of both, and usually not at the same time. One track is a flat out grunge boogie, and another track a Blues rock scorcher- and they do either one with enough conviction that I'd believe either one is their true calling.  They do covers like some kind of bar band. But they also do originals as their mainstay, like bohemians. They dress like errant members of Grinderman, and yet, with a kind of ironic hipsterdom that reminds me of Cake, circa "Fashion Nugget" .  All this is nearly impossible for me to reconcile, unless I consider them hacks- just blown about by whatever marketing tells them- but that doesn't fit, either. These guys have put in their time- Ruben was in a psychobilly band, Mario a grunge band and the sound would fit between those two influences. Also, if they wanted to sell out, I would think that a more pop direction would get them farther. So, I'm not buying that.
There is a precedent - Thin White Rope.  Now I'm not saying that Triggerfinger sound like Thin White Rope, or that they have the same talent one of my favorite bands of all time, but I am saying that mix of reverence for golden era blues and roots music mixed with a heavy metal love of sheer volume and brash rock theatrics. They, too,  would passionately record covers but then put out truly convincing originals. They, too flirted with irony on their image without becoming parody. The resulting sound they had would also fit neatly halfway between Psychobilly and grunge. Also, let's not forget that aforementioned "golden age"- what made many of the artists of that time forebears of bands we love now was their ability to walk between worlds. If Ike Turner hadn't mixed blues and country, there's no rock n roll. If Les Paul hadn't decided to mix studio wizardry with virtuoso musicianship, modern music doesn't happen. If people hadn't decided to sing more than one melody line, there's no harmony. You can take this as far back as you'd like- the point is the same- Art is about confusing our expectations. It's about both commerce and piety at the same time, and about joy and pain, and everything else. I know that's pretty heady stuff. Triggerfinger just play Rocknroll, so don't make it more than that because that's enough to make it more than worth your while, whenever you come across it, and however it forms.
On the other hand, such concerns are important to me- whether art innovates, renovates or replicates matters to what and how it communicates. Something that's just replicating says that there is nothing more to be said and is therefore closed. When a bar band does their level best to play the hits of the day, exactly as the original artists did, they are erasing themselves, and stating that the here and now matters less than the fantasy of what could have been. Such is why I loathe "tribute" bands. They are saying- right now sucks, and wasn't it cooler, or wouldn't it be cooler if we were watching AC/DC? Further, it's even making the object of their Tribute a closed off proposition - their songs are preserved in amber, like million year old mosquitoes, no longer able to breathe, or live in any real sense. When a musical Artist innovates, they are also saying that something  no longer works, but they are trying to fix that. They are asking us to let go of our fantasies and see what might be next. I vastly prefer that, but the best choice for me is when Art renovates- when they say this is great, but let's customize it, let's make it function better for our purposes, now. That, to me, is at the heart of what I think Culture should be. So, while it's not truly important if Triggerfinger hews to that line, it's important that I point us in that direction.