Category Archives: Rock

Lee Ranaldo: Between the Times and the Tides

Lee Ranaldo: Between the Time and the Tides
(Matador) 2012

I thought this review over on the ever-debatable Pitchfork was lazy and a little unfair. Sure, Between the Times and the Tides is a conventional album filled with fairly conventional songs, but was it ever promoted as anything else? There’s an interesting story within David Browne’s ode to Sonic Youth, Goodbye 20th Century, which details a schism between Ranaldo and the Moore/Gordon Union during the recording of Goo. Ranaldo, going through a divorce at the time, had written a song that meant a great deal to him and which he wanted on the album, but the afore-mentioned Union refused to include anything so obviously confessional and conventional. What I’m saying is, Ranaldo has always had it in him to write the type of songs found on Between the Times and the Tides, he just never had the outlet. The guy was part of a hippy folk act before Sonic Youth for crying out loud.

Personally I’m really digging this record. I love the fact that he’s stepped completely left of Sonic Youth’s ironic noise-rock experiments* (let’s face it, Thurston Moore’s Demolished Thoughts from last year was basically an unplugged Sonic Youth set with Cellos…….and confessional lyrics). I say good-on Ranaldo for flying his own flag.

And he flies that flag well. He does a better REM than REM does, while some sections come across like later period Husker Du. There’s slide guitar, country twang, retro guitar jams, xylophones, organs, funky basslines, chorus hooks and even an acoustic moment or two. Ranaldo sounds like he’s having the time of his life, doing his own thing and making all his own decisions. Whatever Pitchfork says, I don’t hear any awkward transitions within these songs and I think the simplistic lyrics are perfectly suited to the music behind them. Lee Ranaldo’s contributions to Sonic Youth’s albums have always ended up as my favourite of the band’s songs; Between the Times and the Tides just might end up as my favourite of their solo albums too.

*disclaimer: Sonic Youth are the one band that I have listened to and admired consistently throughout my life.

Yamantaka//Sonic Titan: YT//ST

Yamantaka//Sonic Titan: YT//ST
Psychic Handshake (2011)

Understandably, most people would run a mile if I said “check out these Canadian girls with Japanese heritage, who’ve made a ‘rock opera’ inspired by Otaku culture, Buddhism and prog rock.”

Avoiding is what any sane person would do, but that’s their loss. YT//ST is a bucket load of fun, and Yamantaka//Sonic Titan sound wayyyyy better than Boris have since Pink.

Wipe any trace of The Mars Volta from your mind and replace it with some concept driven rock made in a dirty garage. Throw in some Krautrock rhythm and repetition and you’re on Yamantaka//Sonic Titan’s radar. From the Iron Butterfly/Deep Puple- esque opening track through to the scuzzy jam A Star over Pureland there’s a shambolic thread running though these tracks, which gives the album an experimental edge. When they break out into extended ‘jams’ these girls aren’t showing off their chops, they’re exploring the possibilities of noise. The cutesy vocals make YT//ST even odder still. The jazzed-up organ solo that rises from the fuzz of Crystal Fortress over a Sea of Trees absolutely kicks ass.

If there’s a key influence it’s that of Boris, whom the girls have referenced in interviews. This sounds like a much more focused rendition of Boris’ mediocre Smile album; a mix of shoddy ballads, blown out fuzz and driving drums. YT//ST‘s tracks are bridged together with odd soundscapes, like any good rock opera, but thankfully the girls forgo the stereotypical 100-minute opus for a tight 31 minutes that’s over all too quickly.

Go on. Treat yourself.

New Release: KEN Mode – Venerable

KEN Mode: Venerable
Profound Lore (2011)

I havent been this blown away by a metal record since Pig Destroyer’s Phantom Limb back in 2007. So thank god that Brandon Stousy’s ‘Haunting the Chapel’ column over at Stereogum put me onto KEN Mode. Stousy used to write Pitchfork’s ‘Show no Mercy’ column back when that site actually covered an interesting range of music……

Anyway, KEN Mode are a trio from Winnipeg, Canada making a sludgy, hardcore infused guitar racket that tips its hat to various facets of metal without succumbing to the genre’s hysterics and cock posturing. They merge the extreme punk of Slayer’s Reign in Blood and the groove oriented chug of The Melvins’ heaviest moments with the frothy twang of DIY acts like Big Black and Fugazi. KEN Mode surge from deep riffage to high end guitar jangle in the blink of an eye, everything hooked on a dirty, distorted bass that’s so detuned you can hear its strings slapping about. Vocalist Jesse Matthewson has a diverse voice that thankfully avoids any of the metal norms –  a distorted growl on Book of Muscle; a flippant yelp on Wicked Pike; a Henry Rollins circa Black Flag on Ugliest Happy you’ve Ever Seen.

Wikipedia describes them as everything from sludge metal to post-hardcore to noise rock, and while Wikipedia isn’t the most reliable of sources there’s certainly some truth in that combination (whatever post-hardcore is). Venerable is a deathrace through backwoods swamps where hillbillies play banjos on dusty porches. It’s a shit load of fun and demonstrates that there’s plenty of life, intelligence and experimentation left in heavy guitar music yet.

New release: Wolf Parade – Expo 86

Wolf Parade: Expo 86
Sub Pop (2010)

After a shaky start I’ve tried, for the most part to keep Evol Kween: The Musical focused on music’s fringes. The trouble is, at the moment my state of mind is far more attuned to the melodrama of rock n’ roll. The theatrics, earnestness and volts of electrified guitars. Vocals. Lyrics.

Bubbling up out of this is the latest Wolf Parade record, Expo 86. These guys are never gonna’ break big, they’re too awkward and ragged around the edges but I guarantee that in ten years time a new generation of indie rock kids will be banging on about how influential Wolf Parade’s lazy guitar licks, playful keyboards and live-in-the-room drums have been on their sound. Fuck Arcade Fire’s bombast and fuck Of Montreal’s pretentiousness. When it comes to Canada, Wolf Parade is where it’s at.

These are pop songs dressed up in Pavement’s slacker aesthetic and the beautiful beginning of Grunge’s 1970’s Rock Eisteddfod. Ziggy Stardust is wigging out on stage and dare I say that Fleetwood Mac is dipping their toes in there too. I may have just described Smashing pumpkins (minus the Pavement reference) but that’s absolutely not what this is about. The lack of bass stops Expo 86 from bloated rock revivalism, and the dippy keyboards steer well clear of ironic 80s references. Angst is replaced with Springsteen’s knack for singing tales of towns that don’t change, dirty graduation gowns and kids singing along with the radio in their bedrooms.

Wolf Parade keep things quirky enough to sound fresh but comforting; for every uneasy melodic interplay between keys and guitar, there’s a familiar chord progression to soothe your nerves. It’s apparent they don’t believe that rock is dead, dying, ironic or hip and listening to Expo 86 I have to agree.

Digging: Magic Dirt

Magic Dirt: Signs of Satanic Youth
Au-Go-Go Records (1993)

Magic Dirt_satanicSadly, on August 21st Dean Turner, the quiet-achieving bassist and part founder of  Australian rock legends Magic Dirt, succumbed to cancer. He was only 37.

Not to focus on the local music industry’s loss, let’s praise a band that shaped an exciting era in Australian music. In particular, Melbourne’s scuzzy indie rock scene of the 90’s, when this gem of an EP hit the iconic shelves of Au-Go-Go records.

In a shroud of beer and bong smoke, Magic Dirt burst forth from Melbourne’s far outer suburbs, wrapped in Blast First/Geffen era Sonic Youth and Dinosaur Jr fuzz. Amplifiers were shredded, guitar strings were broken, and every 15 year old that saw Magic Dirt on stage during this period lost their shit inside dingy clubs during sweaty all-ages gigs.

Grunge had well and truly exploded in ’93, and while Magic Dirt maintained the second-hand, unwashed appearance that was all the rage at the time, they steered away from Metal infused Punk and trawled through cobwebbed corners of sonic deconstruction and pop hooks instead.

At the time of this EP’s release, Magic Dirt derived inspiration from Sonic Youth and other fragmented guitar bands of the time. Track three, Touch that Space owes a lot to the Youth’s Silver Rocket, the way its fuzzed out hook crashes into exploding amps and then winds itself back into a killer crescendo. Meanwhile, the haunting Supertear is lyrically reminiscent of Kim Gordon’s prose on female anxieties.

However, Magic Dirt were always more rooted in Blues and early rock n’ roll than Sonic Youth have ever been. They were unafraid to throw a wah-wah solo into the scree, and as a front woman Adalita channelled Suzi Quattro against Kim Gordan’s praying mantis allure. And where Sonic Youth has always been a guitar band, Dean Turner’s warm, slinky bass playing is an integral element of the Magic Dirt sound, which anchored the band in 70’s inspired stoner rock.

At a time in Australian music when indie bands were dropping EPs and singles left, right and centre, Signs of Satanic Youth rose above the racket. It was moody, slightly un-hinged, melodic, rocking and noisy. And in case you missed the point, it ended with a 36-minute drone of reverse-played guitars to remind you that this wasn’t your average rock band.

Over their next few releases, Magic Dirt polished their noise into a shiny fibreglass wall of guitars. The major label records they released during the last decade secured them a mainstream audience at the expense of the creativity and mayhem found in their earlier work. However, 2008 saw Magic Dirt release the highly experimental Roky’s Room (featuring members of Grey Daturas), Beast and Girl all of which harked back to earlier times, when their pop was decayed, sludgy and bad for your teeth. There was excitement around the band again.

As such, it’s sad that we mightn’t get to see what they were capable of in this next phase of their career. If this is your inspiration to pick up some Magic Dirt albums, dig way back to Signs of Satanic Youth for a glimpse into Australia’s 1990s underground, and to understand why more than 16 years on this band weren’t slowing down.

New release: Sonic Youth

Sonic Youth: The Eternal
Matador (2009)

The Eternal

The last decade has been a little up and down for Sonic Youth, who are possibly one of my all time favourite bands. Murray Street and Sonic Nurse sounded like a group on auto pilot, while the free-form guitar noise on their self released SYR series of recordings has been far more daring. In fact, I’d say that until they released the stripped back and punkish Rather Ripped in 2006, Sonic Youth seemed to be channeling far more energy into the SYR series than their mainstream albums. Perhaps this had something to do with their fading ties to the Geffen record label, because The Eternal has been released on the quasi-indie Matador and they now sound refreshed, energised and unshackled.

It’s difficult to write about a Sonic Youth album without referencing any other of their 16 standard releases, which isn’t going to help anyone who might not have heard Sonic Youth before. But let me say this, if you’ve never heard a Sonic Youth record The Eternal is probably a great place to start because it encapsulates a number of stages in their career.

Sonic Youth albums have always carried their own individual identities, but The Eternal is a chameleon that conjures up qualities inherent to a number of their records. We get Dirty’s skewed take on grunge; the guitar based wig outs of Daydream Nation; the dreamy pop of Goo; the urgency of Sister; the noodling improv found on A Thousand Leaves, and the succinct energy of Rather Ripped.

Spanning such a scope, The Eternal is a dizzying rush of power pop bent into amorphous forms where guitars shift effortlessly from muted chug to tightly coiled shrieks. The addition of Mark Ibold (ex Pavement) on bass provides a bouncy and sophisticated low-end that differs in sound from the rest of Sonic Youth’s catalogue. As usual, vocal duties are shared around the band which inspires a number of moods and styles; Lee Ranaldo takes inspiration from 70’s rock on Walkin’ Blue and What we Know, while Thurston Moore pumps out garage punk numbers like Thunderclap for Bobby Pyn and No Way.

But it’s Kim Gordon’s tracks the truly standout here. On Malibu Gas Station she explores celebrity excess via lyrics like “A tough cross to bear, oops no underwear”.  It opens with a wandering arpeggio and then leaps into gear like a convertible racing into the sunset, leaving a trail of blonde hair and spliffs.

Kim also stars on The Eternal’s moody closer Massage The History, which rests on an acoustic riff straight out of Thurston Moore’s Trees Outside the Academy solo record. She coos and croons along in a husky whisper that could easily curl toes, while sparsity builds into a sensuous wash of chiming guitars. It’s a dreamy number and the perfect ending to a consistently rocking album.

I’m playing The Eternal a lot right now, I think it’s fucking great. Other reviews are suggesting that it’s good but not their best. Personally, The Eternal is nudging its way into my list of favourite Sonic Youth albums. And that’s a fucking big call.

New Release: Franz Ferdinand

Franz Ferdinand: Tonight
Domino (2009)

Disappointment. That’s how I feel about this album.

I know that the band, and plenty of fans too apparently, felt that their last record You Could Have it so much Better was rushed and impeded by record label pressure. Franz were expected to pump out a new set before the hype around their debut died down, and some say this was a downer. I couldn’t disagree more. In fact, I think You Could Have it so much Better was catchier and stronger than even their self titled release.

The boys in Franz have banged on in every recent interview about how happy they are with the songs on Tonight, and how creative and inspired they felt during its three year conception. Sorry guys, but it only takes one listen to realise how laboured and lifeless this record is.

What I loved about Franz Ferdinand’s last two records was the mania and ramshackle nature of their sound. They were exciting because at any moment their schtick might fly off the rails and explode into a beautiful blaze of surf-guitars and ooh-ahhhs. Plus, you could dance to it.

For their third offering, Franz Ferdinand have polished the life out of their sound and slowed everything down to a dreary mid-tempo plod. The drums have been given an electronic makeover, the guitars jangle when they should zing. And worst of all, everything’s been doused in computerised blips and bleeps.

The band have also said this is their experimental record. Forgive me, but experimental doesn’t mean using keyboard sounds lifted directly from Phil Collins, and putting delay effects on your vocals. Case in point is Live Alone with its Blondie bassline and chiming keys that strive for Heart of Glass but end up smelling like ass. Kapronos’ banal paint-by-numbers lyrics don’t help matters either – “I wanna’ live alone. Because the greatest love is always ruined by the bickering, the argument of living. I wanna’ live alone.”

The low light comes on the reworked first single Lucid Dreams, which starts as a jangly pop-rock song and ends 8 minutes later as a Chemical Brothers styled big beat stomp. What were they thinking?

Every band releases a dud at some point in their career; it’s human to fail sometimes. I think the problem here is that Franz Ferdinand really seem to believe in what they’ve done on Tonight. Where as they used to take the piss, they’re no longer in on the joke. The best bands come out of these periods by channeling their mistakes into a future that’s fresh and exciting. Here’s hoping that Franz Ferdinand are merely shedding some skin.