Written by: Dave Cantrell
Just before our faithful readership concludes that the column has bitten the bitter editorial dirt, we bring back our occasional feature that peruses the inbox for some likely targets and attempts to give you the up-to-date skinny on their relative merits. This episode we cross the great misted plains of sylvan psych, get our adrenaline goosed like hasn’t happened since high school, then wrestle with the implications of mixing the effects of a too-assertive sobriety with the serpentine promise of rock’n’roll (hint: it ain’t all that pretty). Have a read, click some video links, get edified. And always remember, the little squigglies down there are based on a 4-strike rating system, and, more important, SEM’s here for you. [photo: Trish Tritz]
KIKAGAKU MOYO A House in the Tall Grass (Guruguru Brain)
When a psych band’s name translates as ‘Geometric Patterns’ you’d be excused for anticipating a noise that hews more to the math-y end of the kaleidoscopic spectrum. Instead, on House in the Tall Grass, the young Japanese band’s third album and first on their own label, we’re brought a warm swirl of tracks that evoke bucolic scenarios set in permeating rays of complex sunshine. From the dual arpeggiated intro of opener “Green Sugar” that gives way to a swimming Brian Augered groove and a hovering vocal to “Melted Crystal”‘s deliberate blossoming – cymbal washes, chillax bassline, watery guitar hypnotics – to the cinematic dalliances of the sitar-dappled “Silver Owl” and “Cardigan Song”‘s sylvan nod to the loamy rich textures of English folk, clouds break continuously from cut to cut on this album. Closest anything comes to the strictures of prog is, funnily enough, “Trad,” but even there the Brufordian time signature of its first couple measures gives way to the kind of calmly epic vista shrouded in a soothing mysticism that would have it nestling comfortably next to “Future Games” in 1971 (though it should be noted in its lengthy coda “Trad” indeed flips into a well-tempered guitar freakout that elevates it to feral album highlight). Lush in a playful way, manifesting sound like it’s spiritually-grounded manna, this is the stuff late afternoon dreams are made of. This way to bliss. √√√ [available here or here]
OxenFree Beacons (Sneaky Bear Records)
Riding a devilish divide between the joyous and annoying, between a straining ebullience and a rote-sounding self-confidence, Brooklyn-based OxenFree on debut album Beacons find themselves unsurprisingly stuck in a peculiar bind, summed up by the paraphrased cliché (itself appropriate) ‘damned if they’re good and damn if they’re not pretty good,’ a turn of phrase I’ll try to clarify but there’s a decent chance that it will only make sense by hearing the record, which despite some of the following we recommend.
As if to illustrate this muddled point, first track “Fine Dining,” from almost any angle, is no less than the Grateful Dead having their cosmic Americana vibe reconfigured by a touch of the Feelies and a whole lot of perky, Williamsburgian indie quirk. Schizoid “Lucky,” full of sass and horns one second, soft college strums and sunshine the next, wields the raspy insouciance of its tagline (“I am…the luckiest little motherfucker”) like they’re jousting live at a frat party against Sonny & the Sunsets, the surprise being it all works regardless, plentiful woo-hoo‘s and all. And not to damn with faint praise but album highlight “Captain” displays a debt to early Arcade Fire it can’t quite pay off (Broken Social Scene is, rightly, also cited in reference to OxenFree so let’s just say that they often sound Canadian?) but since the Fire have pretty much disappeared up a place where bands should never ever go, the band’s appropriation here – and it is indeed a very good one – is most welcome. Elsewhere, “Make Out” bounces into being with the eagerness of a song in teenage white socks and a pair of tighty-whiteys (and yes, the testosterone-centric imagery is apt), all geared up for a good time which, as it turns out, they – and we – have; “Kids” spends its first two minutes picking through a field of gentle guitar harmonics looking for where it’s going, its last two minutes getting there, ‘there’ being an uptempo’d crash through a genuine ramalama that A) seems primarily designed to get the beery hordes jumping up and down at an OxenFree live show, which it’s likely pretty successful at, and B) maybe wasn’t quite worth the search; “Foxes,” put simply, surpasses itself in the guitaring-with-glee department and in the process, even more simply put, kicks ass. Beacons‘ opus, however, has to be the relatively ornate “Believers,” rubbing as it does its hopeful-if-slightly-sunken shoulders with a melancholia that suits the band’s skill set quite well, guitars sounding like horns (when they’re not wigging out, wonderfully, in the rocking limelight), horns sounding like horns, singer Jeff’s voice finding its strongest timbre which, it turns out, has a touch of vulnerability to it.
So, do we like it? It’s complicated. It’s true that in a sense we’ve heard it all before but as best as we can recall we’ve loved it all before so who are we to cast aspersions on a variant carried forward with such verve and panache? We will, in fact, take it, and fully recommend you check them out to see if you will too (you can preview the entire record below but if you like it, buy it; the band themselves put that up on youtube). Our guess…is yes. √√√¼ [order Beacons here]
DIVINE WEEKS See Those Landing Lights (self-released)
Hoo-boy, does this ever present a dilemma. What to do when a semi-legendary, LA-based roots rock combo from the heydays of such – Divine Weeks’ debut, Through and Through, crashed the scene in ’87 to a resounding chorus of critical hosannas from such esteemed scribes as Gina Arnold, Robert Lloyd and a host of others – returns twelve years past their initial demise with their sound intact but their mission hijacked by leaden messages of clichéd spiritualism that would make the team of writers at Hallmark recoil with embarrassment? What to do indeed but plow my way through and ask the reader to understand that to whatever degree the following words might seem overly harsh, the opprobrium is not originating from this writer’s avowed – some might say vigorous – secularism but rather from a place of good old-fashioned editorial appraisal, a distinction the text should make transparently clear.
To state it plainly straight up front, what we have here are ten songs that pound the classic tropes of a college radio-era version of the Stones influenced by the Replacements saddled with lyrics that, track by track, have all the poetry of 12-step shares craftily converted into the form of an ‘inspirational’ book of self-help verse. Go anywhere here, be it the crunching immediacy of “Here’s My Heart & Soul,” all gleaming guitars and propulsive Route 66 rhythm, the Chuck Berry-goes-Paisley Underground of “Blind Kind of Love,” “Dreamers of the Day”‘s midwest road song restlessness, the ringing dynamics and melody rising out of “The Joy & the Wonder” that you could imagine hearing through a passing car window on the Sunset Strip in 1976, they are all, to a song, indelibly marred by the type of AA-sanctioned recovery-speak that would work wonders in a Monday night meeting in the basement of an Episcopal church but are the stilted kiss of death inside a rock song. Look, I get and accept and even embrace that rock’n’roll can – and often does – parallel an electrifying religious fervor but I’ve yet to encounter an entire record devoted to the, well, devotions thereof that doesn’t wear out its indulgence-begging welcome by the beginning of the second track and See Those Landing Lights is no different.
I mean, for christ’s sake – pun more or less intended – it pays to remember that this is the devil’s music we’re talking about here, which is why ‘Christian rock’ is an incontrovertible oxymoron. Rock’n’roll can indeed be righteous, but righteousness in the rock context, even (or especially) that inspired by Bill W., will never be. What singer/lyricist Bill See can’t seem to see is that for this to have any hope of working it needs the apocalyptic tension and dramatis poetica of the allegory, where the stories are, where the blood-and-suffering redemptive power is, where the art is. Atheist (and 12-step skeptic) that I am, few artists have more stirred me to my emotional core over the last few decades than 16 Horsepower/Woven Hand firebreather David Eugene Edwards, whose evangelical heat would melt this Divine Weeks disc that’s now stopped spinning in front of me into a featureless puddle. Should further examples of what’s-possible be needed, try the frequent excavations of the sacred as practiced by Nick Cave or, of course, Bob Dylan (it’s worth noting that the Basement Tapes didn’t have the word ‘Church‘ in front of it).
Bit of a pity, in the end, as the sound Divine Weeks makes is rousing and strong and reflects a deep abiding understanding of the voodoo magic from which it arose. It’s the divinity that’s weak. √√ [See Those Landing Lights available here]