Now Hear This: Spider Bags, Temperance League, Mountain Goats, Floating Action, more!
Spider Bags - Shake My Head (Odessa); Temperance League - Temperance League (Like, WOW!)
In 2012, you might be tempted to say that rock & roll isn’t enough, that to play your blues with the bombast and ebullience of your predecessors is adequate only to get you a regular weekday gig in the ignored corner of a terrible dive bar without the self-awareness to actually call itself Hell, and nothing more. It’s been decades since Zeppelin or The Ramones, The Faces or Nirvana last set their familiar hooks, an intercalary span that alternately includes the rise of hip-hop and heavy metal, industrial explorations and electronic music. It’s not that rock & roll is dead or some other such reductive poppycock; it’s that, by now, we’ve all seen that the far-flung form’s thrills can be replicated (and occasionally, arguably, bested) by folks behind laptops or in front of a DJ. Sure, it was Internet baiting at its most blatant when Spin called Skrillex the 100th best guitarist of all time earlier this year, but have you seen how fans respond to the former hardcore musician’s shows? It’s nothing short of musical mania.
But what rock & roll does have is a variegated history, strains and layers that allow the smartest of those still in this particular alliterate thrall to mix and match ideas and enthusiasms into something that, even at this late post-millennial date, sounds fresh. Both Chapel Hill’s Spider Bags and Charlotte’s Temperance League do just that, twisting together often separate wires of rock & roll into unlikely wholes. On their third album, the brisk and incredibly fun Shake My Head, Spider Bags allow surf-rock boogie and country-sadness bedlam to bleed through a primitive garage roar, adding finesse, subtlety and valence where some peers have taken — and will continue to take — the more facile path.
With about a half-dozen guitars twisting and clawing over a simple rhythmic build, “Shawn Cripps Boogie” falls somewhere between post-rock and Krautrock, fun-neled through the wired brains of kids having a party in the basement. “Shape I Was In” ends with a shout-out-loud coda that exudes the spirit of an old soul session, one person’s solitary troubles turned into a reason to rejoice together. This isn’t rock & roll reborn or reinvented or recast for the kids getting off to EDM, but it is a recharge and a reminder that the energy of a great rock band — and Shake My Head finally confirms Spider Bags’ place as one of them — defines irrepressibility.
The self-titled debut LP from the Temperance League, meanwhile, doesn’t strike with the same surehandedness, perhaps to be expected from a semi-legendary live band who’ve never made a full-length. A two-guitar quintet fronted by a livewire romantic named Bruce Hazel, the League sometimes sounds too timid on tape to sell its mix of Springsteen-sized hope, punk-rock misery and Summer of Love wistfulness. But the attempts, even when missed, offer the same polyglot promise on which Spider Bags capitalize. Hazel and his men seem studied in the ways of several rock & roll eras, an unruly erudition that allows them to fill these 12 songs with surprises and suggestions. (This record, after all, was recorded by Mitch Easter, a producer who’s actually part of a few key rock & roll narratives.)
“Unwelcome Change,” for instance, rings out like The Byrds, but its restlessness suggests the firebrands that came much later — a suspicion confirmed by primal blasts like “Don’t Give Up” and the Westerberg-sized turmoil of the broken-hearted “I Don’t Wanna.” This band, then, makes familiar stops on a path that seems to be very much their own, a casual confirmation that rock & roll is far from finished exploring, even when guided by acts who might appear to be nothing more than prototypical. —Grayson Currin
The Mountain Goats - Transcendental Youth (Merge)
In 2005, Willie Nelson made the reggae album, Countryman. Admittedly adventurous, it’s also no understatement to note it’s not what Nelson does best. By the same token, Mountain Goat auteur John Darnielle’s flirtation with horn arrangements on his latest may be the natural culmination of the dispatching of his earlier boombox recording ethos for 2002’s 4AD debut Tallahassee. But it’s not his best work.
The initial impetus for all the boombox hiss was to amplify the focus on words and keenly crafted stories. Darnielle’s tender cinema verité doesn’t translate easily to the big screen. The implied narrative distance is typically bridged in mainstream arrangements with broad-stroke romanticism — think Lou Reed’s “Romeo & Juliet” or Sprinsgteen’s “Jungleland.” That’s simply not how Darnielle works. His closely observed snapshots ring with stark, Raymond Carver-esque truths like the observation that “some things you do just to see how bad they’ll make you feel.” That song, “Cry For Judas,” with its ode to those “who don’t slow down at all, and there’s nobody there to catch us when we fall,” is worthy of Springsteen, but the horns feel too frilly for such a straightforward sentiment. Here, there are no hulls of burnt-out Chevrolets, discarded graduation gowns or any other suitably cinematic signifiers. Instead, it offers the biting rejoinder, “mistreat your altar boys long enough and this I what you get.”
Since Tallahassee, Darnielle has intermittently teamed with others for arrangements. On Transcendental Youth, the work of Fight the Big Bull leader Matthew E. White is too brash, straining for movie-score bravado when the songs’ characters are best suited to back alleys, basements and other low-light environs.
A sizable contingent of simpler tracks is more successful. The sympathetically rendered homeless man’s paranoia on “Counterfeit Florida Plates,” and the bounding, piano-propelled redemption of “The Diaz Brothers” are two solid examples. But best of all are the two folk-inflected tracks with the “Spent Gladiator” moniker. The latter is a devastating, metaphor-rich sketch of a man fighting for survival. Its dark, vaguely despairing air recalls Tom Waits as Darnielle explains, “Like the clock that ticks in Dresden, when the whole town’s been destroyed/Like the nagging flash of insight, you’re always hoping to avoid.”
Darnielle works best where subtleties speak loudest. These are the secrets of furtive, nervy sorts, sneaking out the back. The overstuffed horn arrangements overshadow the craft and tone of the telling. While only featured on a portion of the album, their ham-fisted feel disrupts its continuity. No one begrudges Darnielle’s trying on a lusher sound. It’s just that some beauty is best experienced without a lot of makeup. –Chris Parker
Floating Action - Fake Blood (Harvest/Removador)
If it were possible to make one’s home within the confines of a record’s grooves, you could do worse than making a mortgage payment on Fake Blood, the latest from Black Mountain rhythm-and-mood auteur Seth Kauffman. Seemingly aware of the opiate air of the 12 tunes on his first release for Jim James’ Removador label, Kauffman opens with the appropriately titled “Ensnarement,” a short instrumental of strings and percussion, the audio equivalent of a breathing exercise: out and in, out and in, and now prepare to stay forever.
To that end, the subsequent “Alpine Shadow” is a four-minute spell of invitation and acceptance: its fuzzy guitars offer a warming welcome; its concurrently pattering rhythms chisel an understated but insistent tempo; and its gently stretched harmonies all combine to take the edge off like a late-night tumbler or toke. Half an hour later, when Kauffman eases into the country dub of closer “Working Man,” that feeling of preternatural welcome and ease still presides. From now on, when you consider great “vibe records,” Fake Blood should help set the baseline.
But these tunes are not merely bleary-eyed stylistic smears. Rather, Kaufmann is the sort of musical polymath who can tie the Manuel-and-Robertson maneuvers of “Harshness of the Blow” into a rhythm more breezy than any The Band ever attempted. And for a guy whose sense of fuzzy production extends like a badge of honor and isolation, some of these tracks speak, as one might say, to what the kids dig. “Matador,” for instance, moves in surges of bass and slashes of guitar, with restless vocal lines cutting past one another and through sheets of simple electronics; it’s like a missing Menomena demo. With Kauffman’s falsetto in sweet, sad and perfect form, “Been Broken” re-realizes The Flaming Lips sans the studio push of Dave Fridmann.
Given Fake Blood’s wry self-deprecation and hints of tragicomic despair, that sound and its itinerant symbolism — rescuing pop, in its various guises, from the major-money laboratories, for the would-be legends hiding out in mountainous climes — is kind of the point. —Grayson Currin
The Evil Tenors – Peach Fuzz (Pox World Empire/Potluck)
Nathan White doesn’t hide his Pixies love, and the whipsaw guitars and fault-line tempo shifts here recall the Boston pioneers without succumbing to idol worship. This 20-minute, six-track ride also features members of North Elementary and Tennis & the Mennonites, and the quintet gives opener “Your Love Is Instrumental” the graceful deliberation of Bossanova’s “Havalina,” swirling organ cosseting guitar melodies that teeter between calming and sinister. The surf-rock riffs on “My Love Goes Uh-Oh” and “Peach Fuzz/You’re Not a Sharp Knife” echo Surfer Rosa, but get speckled with mid-90s lo-fi fuzz. But Joey Santiago might’ve dropped by for the quick-footed pop of “Living With Ghosts,” as on-the-brink feedback alters melody and stalks tempo in a way that still yields enjoyable, if no longer seminal, results. –JS
The Flute Flies – Yes Means Maybe (self-released)
I’m not typically a fan of “supergroups.” Random alignments of musicians famous for other projects rarely add up to the sums you’d expect from such quality parts. The Flute Flies are an exception. Comprised of crooning Rosebud Ivan Howard, the equally rich voice of Schooner’s Reid Johnson, and Zeno Gill, who runs the Durham imprint Pox World Empire, they formed four years ago to raise money for Cy Rawls, a cancer-stricken Triangle music super-fan who has since passed away. The Flies are donating the profits from their engrossing full-length debut to fighting the disease. Meeting in the middle ground between Schooner’s reverb-infused swagger and The Rosebuds’ punchy pop abandon, it’s a luxurious retro-fuzz excursion that would be easy to like even if its heart wasn’t in the right place. —JL
Karmessiah – Unforgivable (self-released)
Unforgivable, the new mixtape from Columbia’s Karmessiah, references and samples a six-year-old YouTube clip in which a dude brags about nailing a girl in an arcade bathroom and subsequently upbraids her for getting pregnant. Similarly, this talented MC and producer says some appalling things, but his charismatic delivery and absorbing, mercurial beats allow him to get off as a provocateur. Contrasting muscular bass lines with frenetic rhythms and layers of ominous synths, his tracks approach the confrontational creations of Odd Future. His relaxed flow would fit in well with that outfit as well as he builds to knee-jerk one-liners like, “I’m a humdinger/ Your wife, a cum-drinker.” Possessing enough style to own each controversial utterance, Karmessiah is a prime purveyor of intelligent raunch. —JL
Mechanical River – Astral Castle (Shrimp Records)
This Charleston act – a.k.a. Joel T. Hamilton – has a Bandcamp page that promises the music will feel like avocados between your toes, scratch your back, and do the vacuuming. It’s absurdist promotion – until you start spinning Hamilton’s breezy-but-weighty songs, which soon seem capable of those pleasantries and more. Built from guitar fuzz, compressed percussion-glitch, and myriad haze-making keys, Hamilton stacks these lo-fi elements atop summery melodies that shine through occasional minor-key clouds. The syncopated guitar and Casio blips of “Never Loved” sound like The Love Language on a sunset cruise with Washed Out, while the tropical vibe of “Gimme Me” comes courtesy of Hamilton’s homemade cigar-box guitar, grounding the music in low-country roots. There’s a wistful undertow in a processional ballad like “By Fathers,” and the stately tempo of “Offer” strikes a reverent, humble tone. The contrast is welcome and provides real-life depth to what could easily have been just more run-of-the-mill synth pop. —JS
Dan Melchior – The Backward Path (Northern Spy)
From Clapton’s cocaine wails to the string-buttressed eulogies of Lost in the Trees, records ripped from an artist’s pain are a powerful, but routine, occurrence. And yet, Dan Melchior’s The Backward Path sticks out. His wife, Letha Rodman-Melchior, is battling cancer and requires treatments not covered by her insurance. The proceeds from this LP will benefit her care, and Melchior appropriately provides wrenching and rewarding insight into the couple’s struggle. A garage legend who consistently defies expectations, Melchior spreads seven arresting noise compositions between off-kilter odes akin to last year’s Assemblage Blues, spinning dark, impressionistic tales of lives warped by misfortune. “I have known the emptiness,” he sings at one point before quipping, “It made me nervous with its lack of jokes.” Bitter but resilient, it’s an overwhelming expression of resolve in the face of crushing disappointment. —JL
Shovels & Rope – O’ Be Joyful (Dualtone)
O’ Be Joyful, the second LP from Charleston folk duo Shovels & Rope, indulges in a grand ole rock & roll tradition: myth making. The past four years have seen Michael Trent and Cary Ann Hearst traversing the country with “some beat-up drums and two old guitars,” they sing together on the chorus to “Birmingham,” Trent’s gravelly grit grounding Hearst’s high-flying country belt. Wisely, Shovels & Rope don’t bemoan their ragged, road-warrior existence for the entire record. But they cash in on that reality with a collection of shambling vagabond anthems that fuse garage-based blues and old-school country much in the way of Jack White and Loretta Lynn’s Van Lear Rose collaboration. Bar flies and broken hearts drift from town to town, shouting as much as singing over stomping drums and searing guitars. Be joyful indeed. —JL
Some Army – Some Army (self-released)
Chapel Hill’s Russell Baggett is an exceptionally gifted singer and lyricist, his gruff, smoldering croon lending heat to slowly evolving narratives that climax in barbed and bitter kiss-offs. While these gifts aren’t always the focus of his other outfit — the currently shelved Honored Guests, who bury folk-rock charm within art-rock complexity — they are the boon of Some Army. On this debut EP, which pairs three gems from a previous 7-inch with three equally impressive new offerings, the band retreats to experimental folk outposts frequently occupied by Wilco. But Some Army moves with a graceful restraint that sets the group apart. Shimmering distortion paints bleary, late-night vistas as Baggett moans poetic, skewering post-modern detachment with the passion of a fraught but faithful romantic. —JL
Telecine – 5 ep (self-released)
The trio Telecine includes Sin Ropas drummer Danni Iosello and bassist Steven Teague, but this debut is all Asheville’s Andrew Larson, who wrote and played nearly everything. Still, you see the attraction, especially for Iosello, who emerged from Califone’s sonic cauldron. Larson’s songs are vintage noise-rock from that band’s turn-of-the-century Perishable label: The sturm und drang of The Fireshow run through Red Red Meat’s noise-mangled blues rock. On “Aluminum,” distortion fuzz and bolts of feedback assault the melody winding through the slinky beat, and the attack on “Every Town” is so relentless Larson’s voice rising above shines brighter for it. Even the chill “Coming Down with Her” sounds sinister, like Gish-era Pumpkins. Closer “Drag the Devil” has it both ways, its delicate Sparklehorse glitch flattened by lumbering riffs and guitar effects in the middle eight. An impressive and promising debut. —JS
Various Artists – Drift soundtrack (Post-Echo)
Compiled by Columbia artist collective Post-Echo, this collection serves as the mood music for a comic where spaceships dogfight at lightspeed, twisting the pilots’ sense of time in the process. Reaching for sounds that are equally mind-altering, the album ends up with a diverse selection of forward-thinking fare, a fitting follow-up to Future: YALL, the 2011 avant-S.C. comp that launched Post-Echo. Koda’s “Telemachus” opens the set on a deliciously disorienting note, infusing noisy space-funk with a calypso-sourced melody. VYIE’s “Too Far Away” exudes a sense of sensual dread via driving bass lines and magnificently distorted guitars and synthesizers. Boasting a surplus of such otherworldly offerings, this is a potent collection that proves once more the depth of S.C.-based avant-garde talent. —JL
Virgin Lung – EP 1 (Self-released)
“Epic” is a phrase thrown at a lot of math and post-rock, but rarely delivered on in an urgent fashion. Wilmington’s Virgin Lung open their debut with a track that backs up its grand ideas and sets an ambitiously kinetic tone. “Emergence At Dawn” features multiple guitar lines twisting around each other to create a layered knot of melody for the immense rolling beat to hurl forward. When the gang-vocals kick in — “If you need some help/Send up a flare” — you can’t help but think of the cathartic choruses of posi-poppers Yardwork, only with urgency rather than brotherhood at the fore. But the five songs here pick up steam throughout, the band deftly skirting metal (see “Black Cross Blue Shield”) and prog (“Marathon”) tropes by hammering classic guitar lines into sharp, angular corners, and realizing that fast-and-furious can be as emotional, melodic and cathartic as the usual slow swell-and-release. —JS