Poetry ‘n Lotion performs Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo! concert preview

The members of Tampa band Poetry ’n Lotion aren’t shy at all about waving a flag for their teenage influences. Although the quartet’s main gig is dishing up thick, instrumental music that’s as indebted to modern jazz as it is to art-rock and international sounds, PNL has also garnered something of a reputation for its tribute sets where the band plays one of their favorite classic albums front to back. They’ve done Black Sabbath’s Paranoid, the soundtrack to The Rocky Horror Picture Show and they rang in 2012 with a New Year’s New Wave celebration in Tampa that ran through Devo’s Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo! album. Of course, the notion of hearing the second-best Devo album transmuted into instrumental, jazz-flecked weirdness is just the sort of thing that helps get people in the door, and when the band follows up the closing notes of “Shrivel Up” with a set of PNL originals, you’ll realize the true genius of their approach.

First appeared May 17, 2012 in Orlando Weekly.

Yuna: Yuna CD review

(2 out of 5 stars)

In a 2009 Q&A with Malaysian website Voize, singer-songwriter Yuna described her sound as “a cross between Coldplay and Mary Poppins.” This was apparently said with neither guile nor guilt, and, to be sure, it’s not an inaccurate assessment. The thing is, it’s impossible to imagine a world in which such an amalgamation is a good thing.

Since 2006, Yuna has been making pop music in Malaysia, attracting plenty of fans, including the US-based management team that signed her, landed her a record deal via Fader, and is now attempting to translate that into success stateside. Now, Malaysian pop stars — or, really, any Asian pop stars, for that matter — haven’t had a successful track record here, but that’s often been ascribed to language barriers or stylistic incompatibilities (and, no, the fact that K-Pop is a thing doesn’t negate any of this). Yuna, however, makes music that is not only sung in English, but also manages to embody the most anodyne and accessible aspects of Western adult contemporary pop.

With a lilting, childlike voice that resembles that of the Sundays’ Harriet Wheeler–but with less strength or personality–and a preference for simplistic musical arrangements that are pleasant in a shopping-at-the-Gap kind of way, Yuna attempts to evoke a gentle, adult-indie sensibility, but she wound up creating a wisp of an album that’s ultimately insubstantial.

A more forceful singer could have effectively balanced the muted swing-and-sway of “See You Go” or the jazzy, ukelele-backed swoon of “Bad Day” with a delivery that imparted some emotional strength on these somnambulant arrangements. Contrarily, when given a beefier, more complex backing–such as on the Massive Attack-quoting slow-burn of “Lullabies”–Yuna’s whisper of a voice doesn’t even help paint a sonic picture.

While her backstory may certainly be compelling, Yuna’s music is not. It’s far from awful, but it’s equally far from interesting, muddling about in that dull netherworld of music that sounds good while you’re waiting for your coffee, but is forgotten as soon as you walk out of the cafe.

Essential Tracks: “Lullabies”

First appeared May 9, 2012 at Consequence of Sound.

Silversun Pickups: Neck of the Woods CD review

(8.5 out of 10)

It’s 2012. Let’s not go down the road of determining whether or not Silversun Pickups sounds like or doesn’t sound like Smashing Pumpkins (they do, and it’s okay). Let’s instead talk about why Neck of the Woods is the best mainstream rock album of the year.

Granted, there’s not a whole lot of real competition out there in the category, given the sheer dominance that reductive butt-rock has in the genre. But, with Neck of the Woods, Silversun Pickups not only reminds listeners of what a particular band in the ‘90s sounded like, but also how refreshing rock ’n’ roll sounded at the time. Today, with “cooler” bands gravitating toward either the raw/abrasive or the bland/sleepy poles of rock’s axis, there’s very little action in the vast middle, where power and accessibility can combine with smarts and style (but often don’t, resulting in, well, butt-rock). Silversun Pickups has been digging around in that chasm for six years now, and while the band’s debut was too clearly beholden to the Pumpkins and the second album was too ambitious in its attempts to escape them, Neck of the Woods finds the band taking a much more natural approach.

By infusing some space-rock elements and moving away from an all-dynamics-all-the-time bombast, the atmospherics here are more subtle, but also much more effective. There’s a warmer, less clinical sound to the album’s most straightforward and rocking tracks (“Mean Spirits”) as well as on its more nuanced numbers (the album-closing mini-epic “Out of Breath”); even when Silversun threads synth-pop textures into “The Pit,” the result still manages to have a human heart beating at its core. Of course, there are some predictable forays into shoegaze-y sounds (“Bloody Mary [Nerve Endings]”) and blunt-force Pumpkins homages (the main riff and chorus in “Gun-Shy Sunshine”), but, if you’re truly being honest, it’s impossible to deny that not only has Silversun Pickups definitely arrived at their own sound, but that they’re one of very few bands around who is finding new ground to break in a genre that most have given up for dead. And that’s not just commendable, it’s damned near heroic.

First appeared May 8, 2012 in Paste.

Reptar: Body Faucet CD review

(3 out of 5)

Pity the poor band that develops a reputation as an impressive live act. All that word-of-mouth praise that results in your next show in town always being a big deal; that should be a good thing, right? Well, sure–unless the time comes for you to finally deliver your debut album, and what emerges from the studio bears little resemblance to the vibrant, communal enthusiasm your fans have been experiencing at your shows.

Such is the case with Body Faucet, the first full-length album from Athens, GA’s Reptar. Over the past couple of years, the quartet has been delivering energetic and welcoming concert experiences that have been low on subtlety and high on percussive, pogo-ready power-pop. Those shows dish up mildly interesting musical strains that make their way to the surface–the deceptively complex, South African-inspired rhythms, the treated synths–but the signature marks of Reptar live are the glistening melodies and dead-simple chant-along choruses that manage to bring even the most hesitant crowd together.

Unfortunately, a buoyant concert experience is difficult to translate to record, and whileBody Faucet should be a warm and joyous album, it’s rather dry and airless instead. Yes, Reptar still sounds like the combination of post-”Oxford Comma” poly-rhythms and ’80s synth-pop you never thought you needed to hear, but producer Ben Allen (Washed Out, Animal Collective) is unable to generate any organic electricity from those elements.

The album is most successful when Reptar gets the most direct: Cuts like the forceful Atari-funk of “Sweet Sippin’ Soda” and the dynamic New Wave rush of “New House” areBody Faucet‘s simplest numbers, but they’re also the most powerful. Even the lolling groove of “Isoprene Bath” manages to work, as Reptar cuts its rhythmic complexities with a driving and insistent chorus; sadly, its effectiveness is tempered by the track that follows it, “Orfice Origami, a hand-clap rocker that’s perfect for the stage, but sounds like rudderless mush here.

And that’s indicative of the main failing of most of the rest of Body Faucet: The band’s live energy has been muffled, while their nuances have been tamped down to the point of being inconsequential. By splitting the difference, they’ve created a work that’s neither fish nor fowl. It’s definitely enjoyable, but it’s also inconsequential.

Essential Tracks: “Sweet Sippin’ Soda” and “New House”

First appeared May 1, 2012 in Consequence of Sound.

Van Halen reunion tour show preview

 

If you were anywhere near the Internet in early February, you likely couldn’t miss the hue and cry of a certain cohort of Dudes of a Certain Age crowing about how amazingly incredibly awesomely surprisingly kickass the new Van Halen album was. Comments like “picked up where they left off” and “it’s so great to hear these guys playing together again” and “reunion albums are never this great” were definitely in the mix, and, most amazingly, they were issued without the many caveats and qualifiers that typically accompany such declarations.

As one of those Dudes of a Certain Age, I confess that I was certainly a vocal contributor to said hue and cry, as I was completely flabbergasted at the strength of the album as a whole, at how well the mid-’70s demos were converted into brand-new rockers, and, of course, at the fact that I was sitting here – a grown-ass man with generally respectable (and occasionally respected) taste in music – in 2012, giddy with joy over a new Van Halen album.

I also confess that I haven’t listened to A Different Kind of Truth since the week after its release. In fact, when it came time to buckle down and write a preview of the band’s reunion tour stop at the Amway Center, all I wanted to do wasnot listen to Truth, and instead luxuriate in the eternal excellence of Fair Warning or side two of 1984. This is not a comment on the quality of A Different Kind of Truth – the album is the best ever put out by a reconstituted legacy act 30 years after their prime.

But it doesn’t matter. Van Halen in 2012 simply can’t be anything more than a band and a sound that trades completely on nostalgia, evoking the decadent possibilities of the era in which they did matter. The hedonism, debauchery and Jack-from-the-bottle days of the late-’70s and early-’80s have come and gone, and even though Eddie, Alex and Diamond Dave are gelling fantastically, and even though they’ve made an album that eclipses everything Van Halen has done post-1984, it just doesn’t matter. They may as well have released a crap album – or no album at all – and just gone on tour. It’s great that they didn’t, and diehard Van Halen fans have every reason to be pleased with how good A Different Kind of Truth is. But pretending that it’s anything other than a respectable reminder of how powerful the band – and hard rock in general – was in the group’s early days is a fool’s errand.

And, in exactly the same way that Truth acted as that reminder, so too will the reunion shows. There will be moments of ecstatic rock & roll happiness, but the fact remains that as a culture, we’re well into the post-Van Halen era. They served up a solid reminder of past glories, but that’s really all they can do anymore.

First appeared April 12, 2012 in Orlando Weekly.

Floor concert preview

Around this time last year, we giddily announced that South Florida metal legends Floor were reuniting to play a few shows and pimp a comprehensive box set of all the material the band had ever recorded. The fleeting and temporary nature of the reunion – “But for us, this is it,” guitarist Steve Brooks told us – made it all the more awesome. Of course, we naïvely believed him, and now, here we are telling you that Floor is playing a gig at Will’s Pub. Still, this is a capital-B Big Deal. While the band that Floor evolved into (Torche) has seen substantial success among alt-metal fans, the relentless, gut-punching intensity of the original band’s material is something else altogether. And hey, if you don’t see ’em now …

First appeared Feb. 25, 2012 in Orlando Weekly.

Bitch Magnet: Bitch Magnet reissue review

College rock just ain’t what it used to be. For one, nobody calls it college rock anymore. But in a more literal way, doing time in the dorms (or at least living within signal range of a college radio station) is no longer mandatory to expand your musical horizons. However, before the Internet made everything available to everyone at anytime, college towns were the only places outside of large urban areas where independent music could flourish.

Chapel Hill, North Carolina, is a mid-sized town that’s home to the University of North Carolina. It’s also home to one of America’s most celebrated underground music scenes. Sonic Youth wrote a song called “Chapel Hill.” Merge Records lives there. Superchunk and Archers of Loaf were born there. And, in 1989, Bitch Magnet, a band that formed in another vibrant college-town scene in Oberlin, Ohio, moved there.

Bitch Magnet could not have come from anywhere but a college town in the ’80s. The weird and unique way that the band merged hardcore velocity and volume with complex dynamics and melodies was a textbook (ahem) result of the clash of brains and brawn that occurs when smart punk kids find themselves surrounded by fellow smart punks who are suddenly immersed in a new world of arts, philosophy and bigger record collections.

The band’s 1988 EP debut, Star Booty, was recorded in Oberlin, and it’s all sinew and mumbly rage. However, when the band recorded their first full-length, Umber, in 1989, they were not only ensconced in the blossoming Chapel Hill scene, but they also had found a way to meld the forcefulness of their live performances with the increasing density of their song structures. The album would become a foundational article for the emerging math-rock subgenre (along with the output of Slint and Bastro, two bands with whom Bitch Magnet’s history is intertwined), but it rocks far harder than any other album that’s been slotted into that classification.

By the time Bitch Magnet recorded their final album, Ben Hur, with Steve Albini in 1990, its sound had become both darker and weirder than it had been on either of the previous two albums, and if Umber was a foundation for math-rock, Ben Hur was a star-chart for the genre’s possibilities. Alas, the band was not long for the world; Bitch Magnet would break up later that year, with leader Sooyoung Park going on to form Seam (with Mac McCaughan of Superchunk) and guitarist Jon Fine playing in several other bands (including Don Caballero) before eventually becoming a media critic of some renown (he has written for for Businessweek).

Three albums in three years and multiple tours playing in front of a tiny but intensely devoted following – that’s the stuff that indie-rock legends are made of. Although Bitch Magnet achieved little widespread recognition while the band was active, the years have been incredibly kind to their musical legacy. The roadmap the band laid out onUmber and Ben Hur has been followed by scores of other, more successful acts, almost all of whom are effusive in their name-checking praise.

This week, Temporary Residence Ltd. will release a long-overdue reissue of all of the band’s recorded work in a tidy and spartan three-CD package, and the group is playing a handful of reunion shows. In all likelihood, the band will meet with considerably more attention this time around. Maybe your local college radio station will even give them a spin this time.

First appeared November 17, 20122 in Orlando Weekly.