Friday, April 22, 2011

Dumb Love and Naked Poets


Hit After Hit

* * * *


Of the countless Bay Area garage-pop bands that have emerged in the last few years, Sonny & the Sunsets are probably the most fun. 38-year-old frontman Sonny Smith (also known for his 100 Records project, in which he created a hundred aliases and made mini-albums for each of them) is not a bitter, cynical philosopher but rather a grown-up stoner with a great sense of humor, and his band sounds more like a really good teenage Portolacore group than a hipster art band (listen to “Reflections of Youth,” one of the best songs I’ve heard by any Bay Area artist all year). If they’re preoccupied with creating high art and pleasing the critics, it doesn’t show--Hit After Hit is nothing but a good time. This a band that delivers lines like “I’m in love with you baby, I’m dumb and so are you” with a chuckle and a grin.



* * 1/2 (video * * * *)

“Stupidass” is essentially the soundtrack to a two-and-a-half-minute clip of rapper/spoken word artist George Watsky getting puked on and subsequently stripping to the bone in public, Erykah Badu-style. The actual video is great, saying much more than its content would suggest. But the song really doesn't do much more than accompany the footage--it features one brief verse that’s unremarkable by Watsky’s standards, but the rest is merely the chorus repeated over and over again. If this is supposed to be the first single to a new album, it doesn't exactly work very well. But as the soundtrack to an awkward, humiliated guy getting naked, it works just fine. Watch with visual aid.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Happy Holidays


* * * 1/2 / * * 1/2 / * * * *

This trio of sludgy, idiosyncratic recordings represent the solo work of Squash/Rats on Wheels/DFR vocalist/guitarist Kennedy Applefield. The scrap-tastic “Gabe” is all kazoos, twee “ba-pa-pa” vocals, and guitars Nineties enough to reactivate your broken GameBoy Color. “April” is the least interesting of the bunch, a dreary groove that trails off into nothingness by way of a pretty but insubstantial drone. But “Crush” is the masterpiece here, a two-part, twelve-and-a-half-minute ambient-punk behemoth that has Applefield moaning incomprehensibly in the background and letting his vocals disappear casually into the dense fog of distorted guitar. The drums on “Crush” were provided by former Squash member Clay Cobb, who died at the age of fourteen shortly after the recording was made. It’s a worthy last recording for any musicians, and many of the greatest deceased rock stars would have had a guitar battle with Death himself to go out with such a bang.


“My Old Home”

* * * *

Tumbleweed Wanderers promised glockenspiel, and glockenspiel is what we got. What they didn’t promise is that they would feature it in a song as great as “My Old Home,” which is basically their mission statement set to music. In this sad but hopeful folk-pop tune, Zak Mandel-Romann and Jeremy Lyon sing of revisiting their old home and their old lives, finding the record store closed, the clubs destroyed, and the music scene gone. Solution: play some rock n’ roll. It’s the perfect requiem for the wave of teenage garage-pop bands the duo spearheaded a year and a half ago as part of the Audiophiles, but upon accepting its fate, the duo prefers to move on, visiting an old friend instead of wasting any more time playing for a lost audience. As much as we’d all love to hear another “Nerd Chic” or “The End,” maybe their decision was for the best.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

tUnE-yArDs a l b u m R E V I E W



* * * * 1/2


The San Francisco music scene has produced some great artists in the last few years. Just look at the rise of the San Francisco garage-rock scene (Ty Segall, the Fresh & Onlys, Sonny & the Sunsets, Thee Oh Sees, Sic Alps, etc.), the equally fertile “Contingent” (The Matches, Ghost & the City, Picture Atlantic, Please Do Not Fight, Rin Tin Tiger, Girl Named T, Finish Ticket, Dizzy Balloon, Man In Space, Fever Charm, Madders, Handshake, Audrye Sessions, etc.,) and the unbelievably amazing spate of semi-connected teen bands that emerged about a year and a half ago (the SHE’s, the Psychotherapists, Adolescent Friction, the Piers, the Audiophiles, Lou Lou & the Guitarfish, Madders, the Cypher Syndicate, etc.), not to mention unconnected bands like Girls and the Morning Benders who grew too big for the scene. But there’s one problem--few of these bands have released albums as great as they have the potential to make. Most of the garage bands record largely scrappy mini-albums of excellent but half-formed ideas and dish them out like sliders; the Contingent bands are unapologetically about having fun and putting on a damn good show; and most of the teen bands never recorded more than a handful of amazing but rough songs that never found their way onto a proper release. And don’t even get me started on Green Day. So to make the best album produced by any Bay Area artist in the last two years is saying a lot without saying much. Let’s just get it off the shelf: W H O K I L L, the second album by Oakland-based musician Merrill Garbus under the tUnE-yArDs moniker, is the best album made by any Bay Area artist in the last two years.

And what an album it is--it’s also one of the best albums of 2011 so far by any artist from anywhere in the Anglophone world. W H O K I L L is a perfect fusion of virtually every form of music ever conceived by anyone living west of Cairo and north of the equator. The obvious influence here is African music--the insane polyrhythms, the dozens of drums, and the celebratory mood all suggest the wildest Afropop and Afrobeat as well as more traditional folk and drum music. There are also ukuleles, used in a way that evokes reggae but not Jason Mraz; a massive free-jazz horn section; complex, almost classical structure, and hip-hop... um... dare I say “swagga?” But towering above all else is Garbus’ multi-octave voice, which can sound like Joni Mitchell, Odetta, Bronski Beat’s Jimmy Somerville, or a wild animal in the span of thirty seconds. Few singers, male or female, are capable of letting their voices run as free as Garbus does while still maintaining control. Her vocals on “Bizness” are particularly impressive--her voice goes in syncopated patterns that at times seem to lead us into a different groove but always resolve, if sometimes in unexpected ways.

It’s tempting to compare W H O K I L L to the dangerous Oakland terrain on which it was conceived, mainly due to its fun sense of danger and its dangerous sense of fun. But there’s no death, doom or destruction here, not even in songs like “Killa”--the most dangerous thing here is the music itself. W H O K I L L is proof that music doesn’t need to have loud guitars or heavy distortion to be be aggressive and confrontational (hell, it doesn’t even need to be particularly dark) and there’s enough raw and concentrated sound here to knock even the most experienced listeners off their feet. Nothing’s scary here (not even Merrill), but the music is certainly powerful enough to carry a sense of menace along with it, as if the soundwaves could come to life Scott Pilgrim-style and beat the living crap out of you.

The overwhelming power of Garbus’ music may make W H O K I L L a difficult listen, and while it can be more than enjoyable to the experienced ear, the average listener might, at best, be filled merely with awe. It’s not a fun utopian masterpiece like the Audiophiles’ Fairytales and Other Tales, and unless you’re a ghetto kid or a wild animal in the Headlands, it’s hardly a fitting soundtrack for the best time of your life. But W H O K I L L is a musical treasure, an oddity, a stylistic masterpiece, the most purely interesting, fascinating, and engaging record to emerge from the Bay Area in the last couple years. And no matter who you are, what kind of music you like or don’t like, whether you like this music or not, whether you’re the most sheltered Belieber or the most jaded scholar of the avant-garde--prepare to be flattened.

Monday, April 11, 2011

75th Post (Swag)


Sleep Talk

* * 1/2

Shannon & the Clams and Hunx and his Punx share musical styles (trashy, comedic, ‘60s-inspired garage-pop) and bassists (Shannon Shaw, who also sings lead vocals with Shannon & the Clams) but are also very different in aesthetic. While Hunx and his Punx go for a sexy good-time vibe, Shannon & the Clams are more about love and loneliness but also pursue a trashy-kitschy aesthetic bordering on Zef. And perhaps most importantly, Hunx and his Punx are fun, while Shannon & the Clams are merely funny. While "The Cult Song" and "Done With You" are amusing, the grooves aren’t strong enough for any serious movement, and Shaw sounds half-asleep for most of the album. You can dance to this, but it’s more nostalgia-trip music for Spector geeks.


Illusions of Grandeur


Brandon McCartney is a 20-year-old Antony & the Johnsons fan who also happens to be a horrible rapper. For better or for worse, he’s also one of the essential elements of Rebirth culture right now, having made his name with side-splitting “hits” like “Look Like Jesus,” “Wonton Soup,” “Hipster Girls” and the unforgettable “Ellen DeGeneres” (sample lyric: “Put me on the couch/Interview my girlfriend/Swag swag swag swag swag brrrang-dang-dang your girlfriend.”) I’d give any one of those four stars just for being so unapologetically and hilariously outrageous. But like all such oddities, he works best when he’s making no effort to be serious, and Illusions of Grandeur is the opposite. His only asset here is his incredible taste in music, which spices up the beats here, but couldn’t he do better than moan lackadaisically over Kanye’s “Devil In A New Dress?” Sometimes we just want wonton soup, and this kung pao chicken doesn’t do it.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

More Reasons To Get Pumped


“Someday You’ll Understand”

* * * 1/2

If the Audiophiles’ environment was the hilly, weed-scented heart of San Francisco, Tumbleweed Wanderers are aiming more for the Great Wide Open. “Someday You’ll Understand,” the first single from the post-Audiophiles project of Jeremy Lyon and Zak Mandel-Romann, is an acoustic, leaving-everything-behind ballad supported by a sunny yet lonely 6/8 guitar vamp and the loose vocal harmonies of the duo. The riff and the uncertain lyrics create a contrast that works surprisingly well--if there’s any sort of a cliffhanger at the end as the duo drives off into the sunset, the music is reassuring enough. There’s a bright future waiting for them somewhere along that road, and if all goes well, one for the Tumbleweed Wanderers too.


“Untitled (Inspired By True Events)”

* * * *

In case you need any more reason to be excited about a revival of the original teen Bay Area garage-rock scene, Madders frontman Sam Crocker has released his first solo single in over a year. We imagined a blast of pent-up folk-punk fury, but instead Crocker gave us this stunning, country-tinged ballad. There isn’t much here--just acoustic guitar, vocals, and some electric guitar. The lyrics are minimal to the point of being blunt, as is the playing, but Crocker’s voice, a tough yet tender croon with more than a trace of punk/garage rock/rockabilly awkwardness, gives the lyrics a striking depth. But one of the song’s most affecting characteristics is the word painting. A minute-and-a-half in, an unexpected (and, according to Crocker, accidental) spasm of echo interrupts Crocker’s voice, like a sob being held back, before the release comes in the form of a painfully beautiful electric-guitar solo.


“I Just Wanna”

* * * 1/2

Though former St. Valentinez singer Nick Martin a.k.a. Romance of Thieves is believed to be collaborating with Chris Brown, Mary J. Blige, and Flo Rida in the near future, his brand of dark and atmospheric yet catchy and addictive R&B has more in common with that of artists like the Weeknd than any of those more “aggressive” acts. On “I Just Wanna,” Martin sets multiple fluttering layers of his sweet, sensual voice over an ominous, spidery beat, sounding like a perfectly nice guy who took a wrong turn on the way to the movie theater with Ms. Rodriguez and ended up in the universe of a David Lynch movie. His prematurely sensual voice, sliding around multiple octaves but remaining restrained, is untouched by digital interference, and the organic quality adds to the intimacy. And if his universe may be a bit weird and spooky, it’s a fun place to be trapped--and Martin seems to be enjoying it plenty.

Saturday, April 9, 2011

PortolaCore Returns

1. Jeremy Lyon and Zak Mandel-Romann, formerly of semilegendary San Francisco teen band the Audiophiles, have formed a new group called Tumbleweed Wanderers. They recently released their debut single, “Someday You’ll Understand,” and will play their first show at Rooster’s Roadhouse in Alameda on April 21st.
Nick Martin has left the St. Valentinez and will reportedly be focusing more on his solo project, Romance of Thieves. Taking a leaf out of Ozzy’s book, Martin will battle the St. Valentinez at the Bay Area’s biggest outlet for intraband and interband rivalry GenSF Battle of the Bands at the Contemporary Jewish Museum May 7.
Girl Named T has gone into the studio with producer George Rosenthal (Lou Lou & the Guitarfish, Adolescent Friction, Tinkture, Downer Party, Danger Babes, etc., etc.) and is believed to be working on an EP.
Rin Tin Tiger, the Sullivan Brothers’ post-Westwood and Willow project with Mr. Andrew, is also believed to be working on an EP.
5. In other RTT-related news, the trio will be performing with Picture Atlantic, Handshake, and Lakes at Bottom of the Hill on
June 4.