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Recent Releases Round-up: Lorde, Haim, Emiliana Torrini, Hookworms, Joanna Gruesome, Mazzy Star

October 9, 2013

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More recent release reviews at THIS PAGE.

Joanna Gruesome Hookworms

Venom P. Stinger: 1986-1991

It’s sort of a truth that every time I listen to some vicious Aussie swamp rock by the likes of Birthday Party, Scientists or, thanks to this new double disc compilation, Venom P. Stinger, it sure makes followers like Slug Guts and Bird Blobs sound a bit silly and anemic. Not that those bands are terrible. Or silly or anemic in the least. They’re relatively amazing as far as contemporary rock’n’roll goes. But, damn, Venom P. Stinger really tore it the fuck up in the years between 1986 and 1991 — enough so that there’s nothing left for the new generation to improve upon. Which is no fault of the new generation.

And that said, for all my bitchin’ about new generation bands (across all genres) not being able to “write ’em like they used to,” the guys in Venom P. Stinger honestly didn’t produce much better. Much less a tune you can whistle, there isn’t even an attention-getter like “Release The Bats” on here (The Birthday Party’s flagship song isn’t exactly a whistleable tune in itself) . So, then, where’s my beef? Why do I keep going back to bands like The Fall, Scratch Acid or even Venom P. over the new breed?

I think there’s an “authenticity” to these songs I don’t hear on a Slug Guts’ [substitute young indie buzz band of choice’s] record. Invariably these days young bands feel a bit like indie fashionistas trying to ride some long-discarded coattails, where Birthday Party and The Fall still feel like they were trying to be as unfashionable as possible and burn all the coattails to ash.

Which, of course, is a bit of rock’n’roll mythology as manufactured to a set of blueprints as the songs on a Savages or Wild Nothing record.

But what was it that bands like Birthday Party and The Fall did that younger bands don’t do anymore? Setting aside some undeniable, once-in-a-lifetime charisma in the characters of Nick Cave and Mark E. Smith, well nothing, really. Like a lot of young bands working today, Birthday Party and their contemporaries took rock’n’roll and exploded it into its component parts and, instead of putting it back together again, they left the pieces scattered across the junkyard. The difference is, no one had done that before and, most importantly, no one had showed them how to do it. The volume had been turned up a notch every year or so for the genre’s first few decades, but rock’n’roll hadn’t been chopped up with a rusty hatchet and buried in the Pet Semetary to come back wrong.

For a young band to achieve what Birthday Party did, they’d have to take a meat grinder to Birthday Party. The problem is a chopped and scrambled Birthday Party doesn’t change the recipe much. Ground beef is a whole lot different from a steak, but re-grinding ground beef doesn’t alter it much further.

When we live in a time where everything in rock’n’roll has conceivably been done—every fusion of sub-genres; from deconstructed anarchy to precise and reverent homage; loud, soft, harsh, pristine, dreamy, noise, harmony—there’s no longer a frontier without a road-map. For a band like Stinger P. Venom, the road-map ended at the crossroads of The Stooges and Gene Vincent so when they ventured into that uncharted outback, there’s an audible sense of pioneer spirit. You can hear the creative excitement behind (what are now) some fairly standard noise-rock songs whereas today’s bands are beholden to the musical GPS of the 20th century.

After we pass the chorus on Beatles Road, we’re going to come to a bridge crossing Nirvana river, then take a left at Bo Diddley Boulevard and the merge right onto the Sonic Youth Expressway.

Anyway, the point I’m getting to here is I’ve been wondering lately if all of what I’ve said above, and my experience listening to younger bands digging in these old crates, has in fact been a product of hearing the original punk and post-punk bands when I was at a more impressionable age. I’ve been suspicious that I was merely imprinted by those records and thus feel an emotional connection to them I never will again. The theory that a Michelin Chef will never beat Mom’s cooking.

But this compilation was the first time I’d actually heard Venom P. Stinger, and I feel there’s an objective “truth” to these songs that’s undeniable and missing for a lot of today’s bands (to be fair missing from a LOT of bands from any era). These sessions aren’t perfect, they’re not in the same league as Scientists or Birthday Party, but they’re playing on the same field.

And if younger bands aren’t, it’s just because the field doesn’t exist anymore.

4.5 Original swamp rockers out of 5 Grung-a-billy wrecking crews

Joanna Gruesome: Weird Sister

The band Joanna Gruesome are the latest in a slew of ’90s revivalists on the Slumberland label. Even more so than Pains of Being Pure at Heart or Veronica Falls before them, they nail the sound like a hammer. So much so they sound EXACTLY LIKE Velocity Girl. I’ve made similar statements about Wax Idols or Savages sounding “exactly like” Siouxsie and The Banshees, but in this case I’m really quite justified. There’s no way in a blind test I could tell the bands apart. And I listened the hell out of Velocity Girl‘s Simpatico back in the day. So, zero points for originality. But top-marks for writing 10 flawless, perfectly sweet, punky, boy-girl indie-pop songs. Velocity Girl never managed to produce and album without a better than 1:2 killer-to-filler ratio so, in a way, this improves upon the template as a good revival band should.

4.875 It’s 1993 and I’m in my parents basements out of 5 I’ve heard this before but I don’t care because I can listen to this on repeat for, like, forevers

Haim: Days Are Gone

This album, and Haim themselves, represent for me just how weird a time it is for pop music. For starters, the obviously intentional shitty photography on the cover and inside the booklet is bizarre. It’s clearly meant to mimic snaps posted on hipster blogs. Fair enough. Hipsterism is as mainstream as it ever was. After all, hippies like The Beatles, post-punkers like The Cure, new wavers like Frankie Goes To Hollywood and whatever Madonna was when she burst on the scene were all basically hipsters of their day. It’s just weird to see a glossy pop band making their album look intentionally crappy. For what? Some kinda street (blog) cred?

Don’t be fooled, this Sony/Columbia release is in no way “indie”. At least it’s not “independent” because it’s very much “indie” in the same way Candlebox and Stone Temple Pilots were “alternative.” Alternative to what? Alternative to not selling an ass ton of records, I guess. Similarly Haim are independent of not being “poised to dominate” as the sticker on the cover says.

Incidentally, the sticker also says, “The new sound of young America.” By which they must mean the 30-year-old sound of young America because it sounds a lot like the kind of sound young America was into when Cyndi Lauper and Grandma Madge debuted. That kind of Prince meets Michael Jackson at Wham‘s house to rework some Bananarama songs sound. I mean, the sticker is completely correct in calling it “an infectious sound”—I’m just amused by how much it sounds EXACTLY LIKE (there, predictably, I said it) dance-pop records I hated in 1987 and how much I’m loving it today. But also they don’t actually “write ’em like they used to” do they? They aren’t songwriters of the caliber as, say, Hall and Oates or The Cars—Again, predictably, I said it. EDIT: I was listening to this on the subway ride home yesterday and it occurred to me only “Falling” and “Forever” are any good at all. And her voice is pretty unspectacular and indistinguishable. Score adjusted accordingly.

3 Indie blogs killed the irony star out of 5 Video Hits: The Next Generation superstars

Lorde: Pure Heroine

I recently had a drunken argument discussion at a party with a guy about the pop music industry. I said something about how Adele was only successful because she was the safer, softer version of Amy Winehouse (who was kinda the younger, thinner, whiter version of Sharon Jones).

Every time there’s a break-out artist/sound, the carbon copies start coming out of the woodwork. It’ll work for the first carbon copy out of the gate, but not the next 30,000. My theory was that without the tabloid media juggernaut that was Winehouse, Adele’s soulful R&B pop wouldn’t have gotten the PR push she did—she might have been signed, but the machine wouldn’t have worked her record like it did.

With Winehouse the industry saw a new niche to start populating and it was either going to be Duffy or Adele who’d win the lottery. A smidgen more quality, Adele won and Duffy ended up in the carbon copy recycling bin.

Much like Adele is the Amy Winehouse that even your grandma can get behind, Lorde is the safer, softer Lana Del Rey. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. Like Winehouse before her, Del Rey can be a bit much, taking her tragically damaged Lolita shtick a step too far on occasion.

Similar to Adele, Lorde goes down like vanilla ice cream. I didn’t catch any lyrics about genitalia tasting like soda pop (and thank god, she’s just a child!) but I did notice “Teams” contains a hook so Del Rey there’s got to be lawyers an office somewhere salivating over their volumes of copyright law. The following track “Glory and Gore” could be the bit of evidence that wins the case.

Anyway, Lorde gets a pass and Pure Heroine is a damn fine, if not terribly original, listen. The next copycat probably won’t be so lucky.

4 Wintertime sadnesses out of 5 Born to live instead of dyings

Emiliana Torrini: Tookah

Ever since Swedish miserablist Stina Nordenstam stopped making records, I’ve been supping the Emiliana Torrini methadone. Torrini is hardly a carbon-copy of Nordenstam, but the Icelandic fragility of her voice is close enough to keep the withdrawal shakes at bay. She is, emotionally, a much safer alternative as well.

Nordenstam plumbed the depths of human misery with a rare acuity that would invariably leave you devastated (if you dared listen closely  or read along with the lyrics sheet). Torrini has always made melancholy music from a much more aloof and accessible standpoint. She merely hints at sadness as she weaves a pretty aural tapestry with acoustic guitar and/or electronic beats and her own elfin voice. And, though at times similar in approach, she’s never as willfully dramatic and artsy as fellow countrywoman Björk—barring perhaps tracks like “When Fever Breaks“, Tookah‘s abstract art-rock of a closer, but those moments are rare exceptions for her.

Overall, Tookah is perhaps her most coffee-shop friendly and “adult-alternative” release to date. There’s a smoothness to much of it reminiscent of Goldfrapp‘s more acoustic releases, yet Torrini’s album is still emotionally engaging where the Goldfrapp’s tend to sound contrived and tailored for mass-market consumption in a laboratory instead of a studio.

There’s a nice variety of styles and sounds here too. “Speed of Dark” returns a little to the electronic-pop territory of 1999’s Love In Time of Science, with some mid-period New Order textures. Other songs hearken back to her indie-folk masterpiece from 2005, Fisherman’s Woman, though none of the songs are as strong as that set, or are simply much more subtle in their strengths (“Caterpillar” comes pretty darn close).

Lillith fare for the now.

4 Mature, artsy night-ins out of 5 Self-assured Scandinavian chanteuses

Hookworms: Pearl Mystic

I picked this up with trepidation having only heard the 30-second samples available on Amazon or Allmusic or somewhere. The trepidation came from the fact none of the songs really get going until well past the 30-second mark. Yet I was confident the album would be a fuzzy, droning, swirling haze of driving krautrock psychedelia—and it is.

It sits somewhere in the delta between White Noise Sound, Psychic Ills and Follakzoid where Spacemen 3 and Hawkwind references are bountiful and astral journeys are the air your breathe. Not entirely a stoner throwback, there’s just enough of a contemporary modern rock feel to add freshness (but no so much you’d ever think it’s something horrible like Coldplay with a wah-wah pedal).

4.375 Astral journeys into the land of Martian go-go dancers out of 5 Space rock hypnagogic states

Gushing Cloud: Beat Wings In Vain

The artwork, name of the band and title of the album would lead you to believe Beat Wings In Vain is a wholly psychedelic rock affair. Perhaps something in the krauty vein of Eternal Tapestry or the semi-acoustic drone of Barn Owl. Perhaps even a Comets of Fire or Assembled Head In Sunburst Sound fuzz rock band.

And it isn’t not those things, exactly. But it’s a lot more computer-assisted post-rock in the realm of latter-period Tortoise and Labradford or some of the jazzier stuff on Constellation. At times it even sounds pretty close to being a ’90s IDM electronica record, a sample-heavy one that veers towards ’70s spliffy jazz-funk and exotica. So it is quite psychedelic, but in the way Bitches Brew era Miles Davis and everyone on the Ninja Tune label were psychedelic.

It’s got a very urban feel, even in its folkiest moments (“folky” the way Peter Gabriel is “folky”), which is counter to everything the name, title and artwork suggests—i.e., shamanistic desert rock or at the very least that kind of Burning Man/Coachella electro thing the kids have been making lately.

All that said, it’s really very good. The liner notes imply it was cobbled together over the past six years by Cory Bengtsen (and friends) and that shows in the quality, while nothing feels over-worked. It’s a groovy, drifting, exotically textured and very cinematic journey.

4 Post-rock journeys into sound out of 5 Sampledelic live studio creations

Mazzy Star: Seasons of Your Day

Reunion/comeback albums are nine-times-out-of-ten a dodgy idea. My Bloody Valentine surprisingly defied the most guarded expectations with MBV and if Bauhaus‘s Go Away White or Medicine‘s To The Happy Few were only slight stumbles, the recent Pixies EP held true to the popular wisdom that such releases are, at best, a legacy smearing cash grab.

So between MBV and Pixies, rumours of hiatus-breaking releases by Jesus and Mary Chain, Stone Roses and Mazzy Star have my wishes erring on the side of overly-cautious, but not entirely skeptical. Of these three remaining veterans, ’90s acoustic-gaze / dream-country bliss-inducers Mazzy Star are first out the gate.

Pixies recently making me more cautious than MBV made me hopeful, I didn’t pre-order this release as I’d planned. Instead, I listened to the full-album stream on Line of Best Fit.

I have to say Mazzy Star managed to recreate the mood and tone of their classic records pretty accurately, with all the sleepy i’s dotted and psych-country t’s crossed. There’s truly not an embarrassing note on the whole disc.

But Hope Sandoval and David Roback seem to have also entirely forgotten to write actual songs. Their three ’90s albums, though they might be gauzy to the point of non-existence and obscured by a dense, smokey haze, are packed with solid tunes. There’s not a single hook or memorable refrain on Seasons of Your Day. In fact, I’m not sure it isn’t the same nondescript ditty repeated over and over again with slight variations in tempo and instrumentation.

The album is by no means legacy destroying, but neither is it essential listening or a required purchase for any but the most devoted fans. Seasons of Your Day would actually make perfectly nice, ignorable, background music for a coffee shop. Maybe that means I simply need to spend more time with it to discover an underlying magic, but Seasons didn’t offer me any incentive to put in the effort.

2.5 Quaalude cowpokes out of 5 Our best days are behind us

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