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Sunday, October 14, 2018

VPN-Small Wire (1998)

Sleeve design by Tonya Hudson & Austin Hughes; Photography by Austin Hughes
Literally ones (perhaps even twos) of people have been asking me what's up with the blog. I've been back in school, so have had very little time for posting. Figured I'd better give the people what they want though.

I have been meaning to alert the masses to this band for a while.
As far as I can tell, VPN (or "Very Pleasant Neighbor") released just two albums-this being the first.
This is one of those groups that seemed to emerge from the ether fully formed: no timidity, no areas requiring growth, no derivitiveness, no's all toned and honed.
The writing reminds me a bit of "She Said She Said" era John Lennon--taking all sorts of melodic risks-veering off at unexpected angles before resolving into something surprisingly lean and accessible (See tracks like "Patty Hearst", "Skywriting", and "Submarine").
Eleanor (Has Four Arms)--which includes lyrics like:
"Eleanor, you've traded your two legs;
Eleanor, your two legs for two arms"
and "She Has A Leak" showcase the band's knack for dark surrealist/ psychedelic scene-setting. There's always something...a looming threat...just below the surface, and it will keep you on the edge of your seat. A big ol' toothy barracuda smile coming up to snip-snip your toe-tips. Well played, VPN- very well played.

Link to the album on Spotify:

Band photo by Elain Ahn


Saturday, August 25, 2018

The Liar's Club-Drop Dead. (1994)

(Photographs by Steve McElrath; Design by Ben Thompson with Jayson Jarmon)
With songs referencing Fred Astaire, Holly Golightly, and Elvis (almost added "Twin Peaks" to the list, but actually that was pretty current at the time...and has indeed become very current again), The Liar's Club always seemed a bit before their time (even the name appears to have come from a 60's/70's game show). That's not necessarily a bad thing for a pop/ rock group of their ilk, but it is always a looming presence. Fortunately The Liar's Club don't spend much time pining over some "golden era gone by"; they spend their reverential energy on crafting pop hooks with the same care and attention to detail as their forefathers (Lennon, McCartney, Emmit Rhodes, Ray and Dave Davies...) and adding that distinctly 90's "tang". Unfortunately, as the Wikipedia article points out, these guys were from the Seattle area (Tacoma to be exact), and everybody knows what the Seattle zeitgeist was in the early 90's (and yes, it was frickin' awesome!)...and it wasn't this (frickin' awesome in a different way). Sometimes this "band against the world" ethos surfaces in subtle ways-perhaps most pointedly on the wonderful "Whatever..." which appears to poke fun at the hip "affected cynicism" of the time ("Whatever I say, whatever I do,  "whatever" is all I ever get from you..."). It skips along on the legs of a melody that would have sounded as good now as in 1967...or, for that matter, probably as good as it would have sounded at the time the first Ichthyostega pulled itself from the primeval seas and drew its first gasping breaths- easing itself forward on it's newly evolved forelimbs under the hot Devonian sun."Fred Astaire", "Triage", and "The Redundant Romantic Fool" are other can't miss moments.
There's also a sort of running joke underpinning the album's marketing-I pulled this from the Discogs page:
"The concept behind Drop Dead was simply: a band so desperate for commercial success - they faked their own deaths hoping to pique consumer interest.

The catalogue number (614) was taken from the Dewey Decimal classification for "Forensic medicine; incidence of injuries, wounds, disease; public preventive medicine"

And, as you can see, this joke carries through into the album's packaging and artwork. I particularly like the legal notice on the back of the jewel case: 

"WARNING: A curse be upon ye who would defile our memory or disturb our bones. 
Unauthorized duplication of this recording will be met with swift retribution from beyond the grave"

I should add that the group would not release another album until 2013, so those who had initially laughed at the whole "death joke" were probably getting a bit concerned.

Unfortunately this is the only (out of 4) Liar's Club album NOT on iTunes. I can't find much on Youtube either- but here's what I have unearthed:
"Triage" live on The Spud Goodman Show: 

"Cinnamon Smiles":

I cheated and got my copy online, but if you ever come across it at a used record shop I recommend-no, PLEAD- you pick it up. And of course, check out the albums that ARE available on iTunes (although this is their finest in my opinion).

(Art/Design credits same as above)

(Charlatan Record Cartel-CRC 614)

Thursday, August 23, 2018

Alice Donut-Pure Acid Park (1995)

(Label: Alternative Tentacles)

Alice Donut are one of the most unique and prolific bands I have posted about so far. Their 1988 debut "Donut Comes Alive" showcased their penchant for writing vitriolic, sometimes funny, sometimes disturbing, sometimes disturbingly funny tales of middle American angst and malaise...and they never looked back. Musically, they are adventurous and near impossible to pin down: elements of New York hardcore and post-hardcore, punk, pop, psychedelia, fringe folk/ country...Jello Biafra once referred to them as "the missing link between R.E.M. and the Butthole Surfers". Maybe that's as apt a description as any...I don't know...
With their "no punches pulled", acerbic, and aggressive approach (not to mention Tomas Antona's unmistakeable "love-it-or-hate-it" vocal howl), the Donut were never going to be chart-hogs...but they were always destined for cult stardom. I watched the Alice Donut documentary "Freaks In Love" a while ago and was happy to see that they have had a profound and lasting (and well-deserved!) impact on American alt-rock. 
Anyways, where does one start with Alice Donut? I started at the beginning with "Donut Comes Alive" (1988), but many fans would direct you to "Mule" (1990) as the correct point of entry. Here's the excellent "Roaches in the Sink" off of "Mule":

I have decided to start here, with "Pure Acid Park", a controversial Donut album if ever there was one. For those who liked Donut at their weirdest, this album was a bit of a step backwards. The production is a bit cleaner, the melodies are a bit more accessible, and the vulgarity is toned down just a tad. I actually think this is an excellent record-one of their BEST, in fact. To me, it represents a natural step in the Donut's evolution: a perfect balance between their pop songcraft and jagged experimentalism; there is a newfound clarity and directness...and if you were to suggest to someone unfamiliar with the group's previous work that this album was in any way "mainstream" you would be no, it's not a sellout! Don't even suggest that! It's still unmistakably Donut, but with a bit of restraint, nuance, subtlety...Just listen!
Here's a great track called "Insane":
And another great one called "Lost In Place":

I particularly like how both tracks "build". That takes maturity and experience to properly engineer/devise (although if you listened to "Roaches in the Sink" you'd know that they always had a bit of a knack for it).

Sunday, August 19, 2018

Raging Slab-Sing Monkey Sing (1996)

(Photos and cover concept by Elyse Steinman)
I was compelled to write this post by the scathing one-star(!!!) review on Allmusic. The reviewer seemed to think that this album was merely a "contract fulfiller"- a total throwaway. What personal crimes Raging Slab had committed against this reviewer and their family I do not know...but it perplexes me. Yes, it sounds like a different band here than the one that released the Southern-tinged "Dynamite Monster Boogie Concert" in 1993...but I actually like this incarnation better. Any gloss/ arena enamel that existed on the '93 album has been stripped away, leaving a lurching, jagged and truculent beast in it's wake (actually I think that's it on the cover-what a coincidence!).
Tracks like "Nobodies" and "She Like Ta" have a Led Zeppelin swagger that many have attempted to capture, but few have pinned down.
She Like Ta:

Or perhaps you'd care to take in the raw, straight-ahead power of "Lay Down":

I sincerely hope that this post can help right a wrong-- and perhaps assuage what guilt has no doubt been eating away at the Allmusic reviewer for writing that mean piece oh so many years ago. Perhaps the telltale heartbeat emanating from beneath their floorboards will finally cease, and they can avert the accompanying descent into madness.
Everyone else: please re-assess this album. It's good.

(Credits same as for cover; on American Recordings/ Warner Music)

Friday, August 3, 2018

Poundcake-Aloha Via Satellite (1996)

(Art direction and design by Lauren Herman; Photography by Spencer Lloyd)
Boston power-pop group "The Cavedogs" split in 1992 after two (now cult classic) LP's. Fortunately, like the mythical hydra, when the Cavedogs' head was severed, three even more ferocious heads sprouted to take it's place:
-Brian Stevens released "Prettier Than You" in 1996 as a solo artist
-Todd Spahr formed "The Gravy" (check out 1997's "Hangman's Pop")
-Mark Rivers formed "Poundcake" with vocalist/ guitarist Clayton P. Scoble, and bassist/ vocalist Josh D. Lattanzi.

I will also note, before going any further, that one remaining thread connecting these three projects was Q Division Records. Q Division is worth noting for their formidable roster-just a ton of great artists! Here are a few others to check out: The Gravel Pit, Stepladder, Jennifer Trynin, Jules Verdone, The Fly Seville, and Aimee Mann.

So, Poundcake...
The power pop hooks inherited from the Cavedogs are still on full display, but they are honed to a scalpel-sharp edge, and they are a bit rougher-hewn too.
I generally like my power pop with some jaggedness. Sure, you still need a bit of cuteness- a bit of Beatles-esque whimsy, a bit of Byrds-esque jangle-but there needs to be some spikiness too! Imagine a big pot-bellied hog. It's cute, it's pet-able, if it's at a fair it's probably in a pen with some straw and grass so people can take photos and scratch it behind the ears...BUT when you get a handful of it, you feel the bristles covering it's porcine folds-not an unpleasant sensation, but a reminder that there's more there than meets the eye...and it holds you there, eager to uncover more of it's mystery-taking in the suppleness, the malleability, but the ugliness and jaggedness too- reveling in it! So that's Poundcake-got it?

Of the three "Cavedogs" offshoots, Poundcake is the heaviest. There's as much Cobain (at his most melodic) as McCartney here. There's a sense of liberation on this record too; a sense that Rivers had always wanted to really let loose, but perhaps "The Cavedogs" were not the vehicle for that-they had an established aesthetic that their audience counted on day in and day out. Maybe it's his writing partnership with Scoble (who already had an impressive resumé at this point-including credits with Aimee Mann, Guster, and Jennifer Trynin) that pushed things in this new direction? I would be curious to know what the writing dynamic was like...but regardless, it works.
They even get a bit political here, with a sardonic commentary on then NRA president Marion P. Hammer ("Marion P. Hammer Day"). "The Midas Brush" offers some nice variety at the 2/3 mark, slowing things down and getting a bit rootsy- my favourite lyric: "...there's no one knows the greats I've aped; cause a million monkeys with a million brushes still would only eat the paint" (a play on the famous "monkeys and typewriters" allegory). 

Oh, and I should mention, Mark Rivers would later go on to play the drummer in the fictional band "Mouse Rat" (fronted by Andy Dwyer- played by Chris Pratt) on the sitcom "Parks and Rec". Pretty cool career! 
Clayton Scoble would go on to form the excellent "Francine", and release two LP's with that group (maybe the subject of a future review).
Josh Lattanzi would go on to perform with a variety of other artists, including Q Division's "Senor Happy" and Ben Kweller. He also appears to have some Sound Engineer credits (including one with the aforementioned "Gravel Pit"). These are some talented dudes.

Nothing on Youtube...but fortunately the album appears to be available on Spotify, as well as for download on iTunes. Here's a Spotify link:

(Art credits same as for cover; Label: Q Division Records)