Now Hear This: Bombadil, Bitch Magnet and more!
NOW HEAR THIS
Bombadil — All That The Rain Promises (Ramseur)
Two years ago, it seemed that Durham’s Bombadil would be gone forever. Following Tarpits and Canyonlands, the band’s solid sophomore LP, the quartet was deprived of a tour or even a proper release party due to a debilitating nerve injury in the hands of bassist Daniel Michalak. For a time, the condition took away his ability to drive, type and, ultimately, play music. The others went their separate ways. Guitarist Bryan Rahija moved to Washington, D.C. Drummer James Phillips left for Portland.
Now, with Michalak’s condition under control, the band returns with its third full-length. All That the Rain Promises is the work of a band that almost fell apart. It’s a reality that permeates the record. Lessened is the irrepressible whimsy that had previously defined these well-meaning indie-folk minstrels. These are still somewhat silly songs with off-kilter, often antiquated rhythms and harmonies that are made more beautiful by their oddity. But they’re delivered with maturity and restraint, their words tainted by crushing doubt.
Opener “I Will Wait” is a bare, piano-driven spiritual, a prayer to Jesus that openly questions whether the deity is even listening. Singing in a strained and cracking voice over stately, clanging chords, pianist Stuart Robinson cries out, “Oh my Lord of Love, where are you hiding far above? Why don’t you come down and show me what I ask you of?” He piles up complaints and evidence that Jesus is ignoring his pleas, before calmly repeating that he will wait for him to “swing below and take (him) away.”
It’s beautiful and stirring, a shocking departure from the cluttered sound the band has favored in the past. None of the other songs are as stripped -back, but they all move with a downtrodden but defiant air. “Laundromat” begins as a simple contemplation of the time we waste washing our clothes. Riding a militant drum beat and raggedly strummed electric guitar, Rahija declares that the next time he’s at the Laundromat, he’s going to ask out the girl he sees there. It doesn’t stay so simple. Next, he’s promising that he will call his dad and apologize for a wrong that’s never revealed. Suddenly, the Laundromat has become both a representation of his shortcomings and an opportunity to overcome them. “I’ve been waiting week after week and after,” the band repeats in unison, building his confession into a roar. It’s less catharsis than condemnation.
Bombadil still hides behind conceits, but on All That the Rain Promises there’s almost always a wrenching emotional hook behind them. Paired with an approach that cleans up the clutter of previous outings, the band arrives at an organic and unique style of modern folk that utilizes oddball sounds and patterns that accentuate, rather than hide, the fragile feelings within.
“A Question” is the worst song here, a marginally successful attempt to build from simple, ukulele-powered twee into lush art-pop over a three-minute span. It piles on keys, electric and acoustic guitar and synthesizer by the end, and it would be an interminable mess save for the raw emotion at the song’s core. “Do you like me?” Robinson begs, pushing his voice to the breaking point, filling a stereotype with such genuine angst that it still manages an impact.
Somewhere in the last two years, Bombadil learned that emotionally resonant songs are worth far more than unusual instrumentation and silly stories. That’s more than worth the hiatus. —Jordan Lawrence
Bitch Magnet — Bitch Magnet: Deluxe Reissues (Temporary Residence, Ltd.)
Bitch Magnet’s music is dated, but this is only to say that it is entirely current. For rock fans, 2011 has been a year spent remembering things that happened two decades ago. The husks of grunge have been dredged up and set as taxidermic mantlepieces to remind us of the good old flannel-clad days. Already this year, we’ve been welcomed to a marathon of classic-alternative reruns from the likes of Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Superchunk, Dinosaur Jr and Archers of Loaf, which we may now enjoy in syndication on sick days.
These reissues assume, with varying degrees of validity, that these were albums deserving of a second examination, overlooked in their time and/or ripe for a new audience. That’s a reasonable assumption, though. The 90s thing is in right now. This is an age in which bands including (but hardly limited to) The Jesus Lizard, Dinosaur Jr, Superchunk and Archers of Loaf have all returned to stages, and so to record stores after protracted periods of relative dormancy, and in which the well-heeled holders of the Nirvana estate see fit to line their pockets by pretending an album everyone’s heard gets somehow better with the addition of superfluous alternate-take detritus and an inflated price-tag. And this is to say nothing of the rising young bands — Yuck, EMA, Cymbals Eat Guitars, et. al. — who’ve used the sounds of their childhood as a template for the sounds of their adulthood.
None of this ’90s nostalgia might seem not to matter for a band which had run its course by the end of 1990, but as far as the Sound Of The Era is concerned, Bitch Magnet — who formed at Oberlin College in Ohio and promptly relocated to North Carolina — might be the most quintessential specimen. Frequently cited as influential to the post-rock and noise-rock contingents of the 90s, bands like Slint and Shellac (whose frontman Steve Albini recorded Bitch Magnet’s debut, Star Booty), Bitch Magnet’s aggressive post-hardcore is complex and ambitious, but never at the expense of being, well, good. Superchunk leader, Merge Records impresario and Bitch Magnet fan Mac McCaughan has said, more clearly than most could posit, “Bitch Magnet created this amazing equilibrium between heaviness/prettiness and density/space. These juxtapositions were explored by a ton of bands at the time, but Bitch Magnet wrote songs.”
This was apparent as early as 1988’s Star Booty EP, in which songs like the Hüsker Dü punk blitz of “C Word” works in tandem with the midtempo Burma-ballad “Sea of Pearls.” By 1989’s Umber, the band had gotten more confident and less restrained, tying Shellac-worthy clang and squall to choruses that wouldn’t sound out of place in an Archers of Loaf set on songs like “Motor” and “Big Pining.” The 1990 swan-song Ben Hur is only a refinement of ideas already laid forth by its predecessors. The knotted guitar riffs in “Spite Y Malice” are clearly of the same mind as the driving scuzz of Umber’s “Navajo Ace;” the askew bassline opening “Valmead” a follower of the guitars opening Star Booty’s “Knucklehead.” Bitch Magnet never hits a rut, but with its entire recorded output — only the three albums and a few singles — released in only three years, Bitch Magnet was a band with a clear and consistent vision.
Packaged together, Bitch Magnet’s slim catalog makes for a thankfully lean box-set. Standout single tracks “Sadie” and “White Piece of Bread” are added as a postscript to Ben Hur, while alternate versions of six songs appear (mostly to fill out Star Booty’s short duration) as unnecessary but not unwelcome bonuses. Still the completist tendencies of these sorts of memorials are thankfully spared. Nothing here is a clunker, but the band’s horrendous take on The Misfits’ “Where Eagles Dare,” originally released as the B-side of a bonus 7-inch included with the Ben Hur LP, is quietly omitted, left to float around the aether-net.
What’s left is an essential document of a short-lived and vital band that fully embodied the loud, adventurous routes rock was taking in the years leading up to The Year Punk Broke. —Bryan Reed
The Body & Braveyoung — Nothing Passes (At A Loss)
Sometimes it’s good when things turn out pretty much as you’d expect. Case in point: this full-length collaboration between Greensboro’s lush, melancholic Braveyoung and brutish but nuanced Providence, R.I. metal duo The Body. For the first three engrossing songs on this four-track release, they funnel The Body’s sinewy sludge through Braveyoung’s patient, atmospheric filter, layering in strings and faraway voices to create a dark and absorbing expanse. The last song takes a turn. They layer burly distortion onto a stark acoustic cover of Exuma’s bleakly beautiful “The Vision,” balancing doom and salvation into a surprising but perfectly suited conclusion. (JL)
The Catch Fire — Rumormill (No More Fake Labels)
Singers/songwriters Mike Mitschele and Jon Lindsay lead this Charlotte quartet’s dive into the power pop gene pool. The two take turns delivering compatible tunes recalling Big Star, GBV and especially mid-era Teenage Fanclub: Driving percussion and bass thrum, one guitar for barre-chord fuzz and one clarion-clear for melody, swirly synth fills, and lyrics devoted to girls or girls-are-gone regrets. Mitschele gets the lion’s share of mic time, and carries more heft than Lindsay’s ethereal vocals (most noticeable when they trade verses on “Short Fuse”). But they fit together seamlessly — consider the cross-thatched harmonies on “Younger Every Summer” — the highlight of highlights here. (JS)
Des Ark — WXDU V.3 (Paramnesia)
Apparently WXDU has contracted Aimée Argote to come in every couple of years and make as many people as possible weep like babies. The third in a series spanning back to 2006 (and a reissue of a live-gig CD-R), this in-studio set of stripped-to-the-emotional-core songs features nine new tracks that make others’ “intimate” sessions seem like stadium extravaganzas. Alone with her acoustic, Argote finger-picks beautiful tones for rhythmic accompaniment and melody, and sings in a voice that conveys pain, anger, humor and joy with such unfiltered directness the words could be plucking the strings themselves. Stunning. (JS)
Elvis Depressedly — disgraceland, goner, save the planet kill yourself (self-released)
If Elvis Depressedly sounds like a band you’ve heard before, that’s because it mostly is. The three free digital EPs released under that name are the work of Mat Cothran, who self-records similarly fuzzed-out pop as Coma Cinema. These songs rely on many of the techniques that define Coma Cinema — buzzing synths, skittering rhythms, suicidal tendencies — but Cothran spreads out here, allowing tones to fill up space. “Crazier With You” swirls together chopped-up chimes and simple finger picking as Cothran moans, “I don’t want to get better/ Just crazier with you.” Why would he want to be sane when his crazy sounds so good? (JL)
Milton Hall — Numb World (Space Idea)
Columbia’s Milton Hall already makes collage artwork and short films, but is still determined to add this, his musical debut, to the list, as if the world needed another bedroom popsmith. But Hall makes a good case for himself with this 15-track cassette release. Hooky cuts like “Feel Tha Fire” deliver all the ragtag jauntiness and smirk-worthy whimsy of The Beets’ best songs, while the fidelity-fried instrumental riff-experiment “Electric Fairy Tale” wouldn’t feel out of place next to some of Sebadoh’s meanders. Perfectly imperfect and invitingly insular, Numb World’s meeting of easygoing melody and pillowy fuzz makes few demands, but more than reciprocates your attention. (BR)
Houston Brothers — Empty Spaces (Electric Mountain)
For a decade, brothers Justin and Matt Faircloth have crafted wistfully textured vignettes that sound like seasons in the Carolinas should sound, and done it without the usual twangy signifiers. The secret (note the LP title) is carving enough room — in both arrangement and tempo — for each instrument to interact and state its case. Produced by Scott Solter, these 10 tracks have the golden hue of autumn: fading-Polaroid nostalgia colored by Matt’s tasteful guitar fills, earth-tone keys and the brothers’ blood-harmonies. “I’m used to giving love, but now I’m giving all the space in between,” Justin sings, capturing what the band does so well sonically, too. (JS)
Moenda — Moenda (Kinnikinnik)
Moenda’s self-titled follow-up to the Sophie’s Palace cassette and split 7-inch with harsh-jazz shapeshifters Great Architect finds the Charlotte trio (memorialized here as a quartet) at its fiercest and most focused. The guitar on “Hi-o Hi-o Ipsini-o” might attack like a prison stabbing, but the churning funk beat underneath and Baltimore-art-space electronic counterpoints make the track feel as vibrant, kinetic, and obsessively detailed as the ultraviolent “Superjail” cartoon. It’s not a bad representative for the collection, which suggests the vicious, mechanized grooves of Black Dice or Fuck Buttons, as much as the noise-jazz excursions of Zs. (BR)
Pan — Post Rock Is Not Dead (self-released)
I don’t know who declared post-rock deceased, but they certainly weren’t listening to Pan. The first act of the Columbia trio’s debut EP features bombastic riff-slinging of the first order. Tangling, effected guitars soar upward in an attempt to create Explosions in the Sky. The second half is more interesting, incorporating production tricks that make this release more than a simple document of a stadium-ready rock band. Ironically, it’s “Arenas” that showcases the band’s cerebral side. Technicolor solos a la Fang Island are filtered through a barrage of loops. It’s 95 seconds of absorbing chaos. Dead? With Pan, post-rock is thriving. (JL)
Pyramids/Horseback — A Throne Without A King (Hydra Head)
Dark, static-burned drones and abrasive concrète accoutrements provide the bulk of this collaborative four-part title suite. For Horseback fans, it carries in the vein of Forbidden Planet’s horror film-score ambiance and the dark, dense drone-metal of the Locrian collaboration New Dominions. For Pyramids fans, 2009’s collaboration with Nadja predicts this collection’s ominous, fluid drones and its use of vocals. So even when part two peels back the undulating grime to introduce ethereal melodic singing it’s beautiful, but not unprecedented. We don’t hear the earth shattering, but we do hear two well-matched acts producing a remarkable and welcome entry to both catalogs.(BR)
Reigning Sound — Abdication…for Your Love (Scion A/V)
Best free release of 2011 — by a mile. With this eight-song mini-LP, former-Oblivian Greg Cartwright and his Reigning Sound clean up their down ‘n’ dirty garage sound with sparkling production that takes advantage of Scion A/V’s corporate patronage. “Lyin’ Girl” and “Watching My Baby” pair swaggering rock muscle with heartbroken narratives. “Eve” is a pillow-soft ballad powered by whirring organ and Cartwright’s ragged whisper. Best of all is “Not Far Away,” a twinkling break-up tune with a perfect chorus: “We could be who we want to be if we weren’t who we are,” Cartwright sings, surrounded by silky female back-up. It’s nearly classic and entirely free. (JL)
Roomdance — Glassworks (Space Idea)
Roomdance’s Glassworks isn’t a particularly inviting collection of songs. Sole member Charles Knight drowns his voice in mumbled melody and buries it beneath foggy synths and minimal drums. But Knight has mastered his insular aesthetic, at times suggestive of Xiu Xiu’s pop extremities, at others the murky R&B of How To Dress Well or The Weeknd. On “I See Them Dancing,” Knight lets his voice rise into a rare moment of clarity, singing “I don’t care/ anymore.” His voice resolute but wavering amidst a woozy pop-gaze backdrop, Knight turns resignation into a mantra, and bleary melody into an alluring mystery. (BR)
Sea Wolf Mutiny — The Last Season (self-released)
People will always need larger-than-life pop songs. Giant hooks, stately piano thrills and spacey riffs provide catharsis that rote lives and mind-numbing day jobs just can’t give. Their potential for universal meanings and direct communication makes them an essential musical staple. The only problem is that for every stellar U2 jam, you get a flat, emotionless Coldplay stinker. Enter Columbia’s Sea Wolf Mutiny, a brash and big piano-pop band that renders heart-string-pulling choruses with a deftness the Keanes of the world only dream about. This eight-song debut sports dense melodies, emotionally rich lyrics and magnificent washes of distortion. Catharsis, indeed. (JL)
Sunshone Still — TheWaytheWorldDies (Potato Eater)
Chris Smith’s last record was a tribute to the life and death of Kit Carson based on Hampton Sides’ marvelous biography; this one is based on the life and death of Smith’s own brother, who committed suicide in 2010. It’s harrowing, heartbreaking fare, but rendered beautifully in many of the same fitting dusky noir and Appalachian shades, with Rodney Lanier’s pedal steel and Jason Hausman’s orchestral arrangements providing essential moving parts to the whole. Smith’s remembrances flicker past like Super 8 home movies, and several songs erupt in transcendent conflagrations to underscore the loss and confusion left in suicide’s wake. It’s a compassionate testament that strives for an understanding that may not exist, but in the yearning for it we are privileged to be allowed in to listen, and to empathize. (JS)
Wesley Wolfe — Cynics Need Love Too (Odessa)
With Carrboro’s Wesley Wolfe, it’s hard not to focus on songwriting. His driving pop-rock pairs explosive melody with words that nail down neurotic bitterness without becoming disagreeable. The songs are great, but so is the sound — an element for which Wolfe is equally responsible. The self-producer switches up his palate on Cynics, leaving behind the warm, booming sound that defined last year’s Storage for a more insular approach that garnishes stark strums with brittle electronics to reflect the searing self-doubt at the core of the songs. It still moves at an appealingly quick pace, but it achieves a fascinating new impact. (JL)
Young And In The Way — V. Eternal Depression (Antithetic)
Young And In The Way is a band torn between opposing instincts. But on this, the band’s fifth outing, the quartet deftly balances the smoldering atmosphere of tectonic doom and windswept black metal with sudden lunges of feral, frantic crust-punk and grindcore. “Times Are Cold,” a straightforward blast of grimy metallic hardcore, is almost uncharacteristic, surrounded by tracks that pair blitzkrieg attacks with tense breaks of pins-and-needles guitar work. Still, it’s “The Gathering,” the album’s 11-and-a-half-minute death-march closer which — by introducing horns, martial rhythms and the crests and valleys of instrumental post-rock to a piece paced like an orchestral work — truly betrays this band’s boundless ambition. (BR)