2005, 22-19 Broadcast, Bonnie ''Prince'' Billy and Matt Sweeney, The Hold Steady and Sleater-Kinney

Bonnie ''Prince'' Billy and Matt Sweeney
The Hold Steady
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Broadcast: Tender Buttons

Wait a second. Didn't I just review this album? I think I did. Let me check here and listen to Ladytron.



Yeah. I just fucking reviewed this. Now I get to review what amounts to another Ladytron.

OK, to be fair they are a bit different from Ladytron. Ladytron is far more produced and far more gothy, with more of an industrial sound than Broadcast, who is more reserved and techno sounding. But both have the same intended feel to them: ambient electronic music that retains a traditional song structure. They also have very similar lead vocalists in both style and timbre. But what separates Broadcast from Ladytron (and what makes them better) is that they sound less like a band singing over music they made in GarageBand and more like an actual group of musicians. The arrangment of music is far more organic, more analog. Some songs are even absent the electronic parts entirely. Overall, Broadcast is more musical than Ladytron and catchier. I just wish I didn't have to listen to them each in a row.

The album certainly doesn't start off with very much hope. As much as I love the title "I Found the F", the singer's voice carries with it a certain amount of dullness. As opposed to the singer of Ladytron, who carries a unique indie vibe, the singer of Broadcast inspires relaxation and comatose behavior, perhaps inspiring one to dance like the sad goth kids one might see on a mediocre sketch comedy show. The next song lets me down again, being one of the more disappointing songs inspired by Alice in Wonderland I have heard. But by the time the third track, "America's Boy" comes on, I have a much better idea of what Broadcast is all about. They're basically Bis in slow motion, electronica pop slowed down a bit; opting for atmosphere over structure, distorted and haunting background pads instead of slick and sweet instrumentation, reverb over compression. "Tears in the Typing" is a departure from the rest of the album, being a simple stripped down, reverb-drenched acoustic singer/songwriter number that reminds me of Mirah.

There are still some sore spots on the album for me. "Corporeal" is another Ladytron sound-alike, and "You and Me in Time", even at 1:24 is kind of boring. But it's very difficult to find any other negative areas on this album, because Broadcast's melodies are really very catchy. The atmosphere and her voice say "sleep", but the hooks on the album say "listen". Burn.

I was going to talk about how this was another failed attempt at being the Velvet Underground until I got a little further into the album and decided that the failure doesn't really stop there. Talking about the melodic form of this music is kind of irrelevant - it's popular because it sounds kind of cool in a noisy retro way, so let's kick the songwriting out of the way for the duration and focus on the zeeeeee.

The first track of this album is the last time we hear live drums- the rest of the time it's all held together by a casio beat barely elevated from its primordial click-track ancestry. Somebody had a couple of good keyboards (and a couple bad ones) and decided to make them interesting by running them through a variety of bargain-basement distortion effects. Throw in some equally fuzz-slathered guitar and bass and put a vaguely Nico-sounding chanteuse with an unidentifiable accent over the whole thing, and you've apparently got the recipe for indie success. I'm kind of baffled by this album: it sounds like it was recorded in someone's bedroom, and not in the good way, there's not a whole lot of interest going on lyrically or melodically, and the only thing that differentiates it sonically is that they gave the knobs on all their effects pedals an extra quarter-turn so it sounds really bumpy and 8-bit. There is a nice baseline hidden in there at one point - Track 6, I believe, "Corporeal", and of course it has the kind of one-finger fucked-synth solo snaking all over it that would make an engineer wonder where the bad circuit is.

The rest of it verges from acceptable to deeply irritating. "Arc of a Journey" is particularly fun - how you make this track is you turn on the auto-chording and arpeggiating function on an electric church organ, hold down a key for five minutes and then near the end turn your distortion up. Also feel free to solo very slowly with your other hand. And there is "Subject to the Ladder", which by cunning use of two alternating chords contrives to let you know that something is subject to the ladder. She implies that it may be her mind.

If this is a one-person project I guess it's cool in a look what I did in my basement sort of a way. If there was an actual band involved that's sad. You don't really need to listen to it either way. Skip.

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Bonnie ''Prince'' Billy and Matt Sweeney: Superwolf

This was a strange album to review, because it was inconsistent, not in its style, but in its impact. At their best, Bonnie and Matt sound like a modern version of The Band — laidback, sloppy, bluegrass/country inspired early 70s rock. At their worst, they are so boring as to make Iron and Wine look like party animals. Most of the time, they are somewhere in between. The interplay between Bonnie Prince and Matt Sweeney is just as contradictory: at its best, they make wonderful harmonies, and their voices combine together beautifully, sometimes providing a kind of hysteric effect that is quite powerful. At its worst, it just sounds like someone who doesn't know how to sing trying to add some harmony. This kind of thing is frustrating because it seems like musicians such as this should be able to do better. The songs even change lengths, too. They leap from seven minutes long to two and a half, rarely having a song in between.

This style means that I should probably run through this album a song at a time. "My Home Is The Sea" is lyrically what you'd expect: heavily bluegrass-influenced (he uses the word "reckon" at some point) and highly poetic, describing the thoughts and life of a man at sea in a roundabout way heavy on imagery. The song is quite dynamic, going from vocals and a clean electric guitar to full band when the drums kick in about a minute in to guitar solo back down to a quiet, organ-led bridge, and then it starts over again. It's excellence in songwriting, as the drums come in at the right moment, the way the electric guitar is recorded is at once clear and refreshing, even the quiet parts are catchy, and the outro solo is a calm denoument that sails you back into port. I focus on the first song because it captures the best of both sides of Bonnie and Matt. It's an average length but doesn't leave the listener wanting more despite its length, the full band parts are that kind of nostalgic 70s folk rock, and the two vocalists work wonderfully in tandem. "Beast For Thee" and "What Are You" are more quiet, classic country/western guitar fingerpicking ditties (the most fitting term) which lend credence to the "boring" hypothesis. It's saved somewhat by the lyrics on "What Are You", which describe a romantic interlude and remind one of a modern revisioning of Victorian-era sexual relations.

The album takes it down another notch on "Goat and Ram", which has a soft section of about 2 and half minutes which is quite inaudible unless you are listening to it at full volume. Then, the song launches into full band, distorted guitar that wakes you up and scares the shit out of you (especially if you've turned up your player up to hear the other part). Then it goes back to sleep. It reminds me of cartoon characters sneaking into the bad guy's room at night, and the audience gets spooked when the bad guy stirs, maybe screaming in his sleep and tossing and turning violently, and then finally returning to rest. "Lift Us Up" is the same as the ones before, with a stripped down arrangement of two electric guitars and two singers. The song's not completely boring, however, as the hook in the chorus is quite excellent. "Rudy Foolish" is just the same, but without the hook.

Don't get me wrong: Bonnie and Matt's basic arrangement, two electrics and two singers, isn't bad on its own, even with their quiet style. It's just that when songs in this style don't have a definite hook to them, they tend to all blend into each other in a haze of soft, gentle voices and arpeggios. That makes the loud sections on "Goat and Ram" so much more powerful - but by the time they show up, I've completely lost interest. The hook on "Lift Us Up" makes it rise far above the songs around it. The excellent flow on the opener make it the clear winner. Similarly, "Bed Is For Sleeping", the next song after "Rudy Foolish" works because the main theme is so catchy. The next song, "Only Someone Running", works because the simple change to acoustic guitar totally changes the atmosphere. Above that, the chorus is excellent, although the backup vocalist kind of slaughters his question-and-answer harmony at the climax of the song, ending up sounding like a bad impression of a gospel singer. "Death In the Sea" and "Blood Embrace" are both dull songs, but "Death In the Sea" is much better because it only lasts two and a half minutes. "Blood Embrace" gives us the exact same thing for over seven minutes, kind of like "I Want You (She's So Heavy)" but not as good. It also ends with a strange dialog cut from an 80s movie or something. The album ends strong, though, with "I Gave You", whose structure laid out like a classic country song while retaining their basic style.

This album is a lot like Iron and Wine's 2004 Our Endless Numbered Days — well-performed and soothing, but there are only a few songs that manage to be very moving. The rest is mood music, and I don't give that very high regard artistically. Burn.

It's always struck me as a weird accident of fate that Will Oldham is an indie rock star and not, say, one of the endless roll of folkies and adult-contemporary reformed rockists who quietly sell out middle-sized venues the nation over without any of us kids (us who count, you see) ever having heard of them. His stuff is so restrained, so classic-minded, so grown up - man's music, not boy's music - that you have to wonder where, in the man-depleted landscape of indieness, he is supposed to fit.

This album, although ostensibly by Oldham (as Bonnie 'Prince' Billy) and Matt Sweeney, belongs to Oldham, with Sweeney adding musical polish in the guitar lines and ethereal floating harmonies to the schtick Bonnie Billy perfected on "I See A Darkness". Everything is quiet, here, drums and bass sparingly scattered behind circling or spiraling guitars which buzz and seethe gently as Oldham sings his songs of death and relationships and relationships and death.

Sweeney does get the chance to take the lead here and there, as on "What Are You", but that song is just as pretty and ethereal as everything else on the album, if not a little more so. Sweeney's idiom is slightly more countrified than Oldham's archaisms and doom-tinged meditations, and thus slightly more straightforward.. with Oldham, you have to be prepared in the middle of a dirge for a silly rhyme involving his tummy or a weirdly inappropriate use of the word 'friend' or the odd 'thee' heaving into view. (And yet, still, somehow, it always feels mature and assured... it's a dad's measured silliness.) It's worth going with him -- he always has a lot to say, as on the epic "Blood Embrace", wherein he contemplates how he would deal with a partner's infidelity, wishing he would walk away but knowing that he would stay and fight, before yielding to a lengthy sample of dialogue from a movie where the protagonist seems incapable of doing either. It's a moment that shouldn't work, but it does, because the backing instrumentals, soothing and evocative, are cinematic in and of themselves.

In an album this quiet one does eventually wish for a little more to sink one's teeth into, and a few more songs from Sweeney would've been welcome if only for their overt songiness. This is largely countered, though, by the fact that many of the album's strongest songs are near the end - like the fuzzy, bent "Death In The Sea", which oddly turns out to be about wanting to live, and "I Gave You", a song about a dead love which is nearly swallowed up in its own distortion but which is carried through by Oldham's vocals, which are (always) at once plaintive and strong.

Buy this one - it's as good as "I See A Darkness" in places, and better. And the cover art ain't bad either.

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The Hold Steady: Separation Sunday

I talked before about how some bands have a sound that attracts indie music fans. Something about their sound assures the listener that they will have unique and novel tastes in music if they enjoy it. It's fun being unique, so people are attracted to it. Two issues come to mind: first, this is not a bad thing, no matter how I've phrased it, and secondly, this happens to me a lot, too. Most recently, it's happened with The Hold Steady. Their recordings are polished and the lead singer has a voice that almost sounds like a joke when you first hear it. Maybe it just stands out against all this other lo-fi indie music — when music sounds polished, the singer should be polished, too. Nothing could be further from the truth with The Hold Steady. The lead singer sounds like a ranting homeless man up on Michigan Avenue, mostly speaking his lyrics like a drunk Bruce Springsteen combined with Henry Rollins. The music is like 90s era 70s inspired rock'n'roll, with big, loud, punky guitar, making The Hold Steady occasionally sound like Cheap Trick with a drunk, insane homeless man at the helm — which is really the way it should be.

It's interesting that I mentioned The Band in my last review, because apparently The Hold Steady was inspired heavily by Scorcese's documentary about The Band, The Last Waltz. Apparently, the lead singer said something like, "Bands don't sound like this anymore. Let's do this from now on," and they've certainly achieved success in that regard. The Hold Steady is the kind of straight-forward rock'n'roll that no one plays anymore. It's not prog rock, but it's not punk; it's not as masturbatory as Van Halen or as juvenile as AC/DC; they aren't afraid to use organs or power chords or harmonized guitar solos; it's not cheesy or pretentious, and it sounds equally good at an arena or a local festival or a small club. These guys also play guitar riffs that would make AC/DC jealous, and they routinely segue into "Layla" or Billy Joel-esque piano parts. But, despite me comparing them to 10-20 year-old music, they are undeniably modern. It's just that no one sounds like them these days.

I have to admit, I was on the fence on this one for a long time. I really appreciate what The Hold Steady does, but I wasn't entirely sure if this was something good or something great. They cover a long range of styles, to be sure, from Rancid-style guitar playing to 50s 6/8 ballads to blues riffs so bluesy they are almost country. But it's still very hard to decide if there was any depth to it. What eventually won me over was the lyrics. The album is a loose concept album about a girl named Halleluiah (Holly for short) and the narrator — who, I'm not sure, may play different characters in each song. It's kind of intentionally vague. The album tells the story of how Holly tries to reconcile her similarly vague religious teachings with her adolescent existence, has some strange experiences, gets reborn again in a bizarre program, and comes out more or less with an awareness of herself. But the story, if you can call it that, is absorbed into the mind by osmosis. It's told in circles, in a non-linear fashion, from different viewpoints. In fact, it seems as if the story actually changes as the album goes on, which makes it very difficult to compile into a continuous narrative.

One of the best songs is "Cattle and the Creeping Things", which is about someone reading the Bible with a strangely naive common sense blue-collar view:

"she likes the part where one brother kills the other. she has to wonder if the the world ever will recover. because cain and abel seem to still be causing trouble."
It's also a major theme througout the album: people trying to make themselves better, but in a perverted way. Holly skips CCD; she goes to get born again and ends up in an orgy with the participants; the people getting born again are getting high as hell.

The actual words the lyrics are made up of are just as good as anything John Darnielle writes. The Hold Steady and The Mountain Goats are actually often mentioned in the same breath, and it's because both write good lyrics that are very often sung in a spoken manner. The difference between The Hold Steady and The Mountain Goats, though, is that The Hold Steady has rhythm. The Mountain Goats desparately try to shove every word they can into each verse, no matter how awkward it is. The Hold Steady sing/speaks each line with an incredibly natural flow. The passion they sing with differs, too. The Mountain Goats sing with a warbly, sensitive, emo passion, while The Hold Steady has two basic speeds: sad drunk and angry drunk. It helps that the lead singer has the unique voice to pull this off. When he sings, "I'm a very busy man, man," you believe it.

This is an album that has to be heard. It's something you won't see come out these days, and The Hold Steady have a penchant for turning an excellent phrase. Go out and buy this album. I guarantee if you can get past the singer's voice, which may be a turnoff to some, you will have fun listening to it at least once. You may even grow to like it.

This is straight-up rock and roll with a singer who can't sing and doesn't even try, and it's glorious. It's one big story about drugs and religion and music and a kid named Charlemagne and a kid named Hallelujah. It's got barrelhouse organ and guitar solos and an awful lot of the Boss in its bloodstream, and an awful awful lot of "New York"-era Lou Reed. It's also got some choruses that will rip their way into your brain. I'm glad some folks still aren't afraid to rock out.

Craig Finn shouts his lyrics, which are stories that happen to pull rhymes out of the air haphazardly as they go. He's got a knack for song titles ("Charlemagne In Sweatpants") and character and color, and he sells every line he delivers. The songs all tell the same story, but they're mixed up chronologically and you can never be sure who's narrating what or who each character is meant to be at any given moment or who's been born again or whether the whole thing might just be about Stevie Nix. If it's your thing you could probably spend days unraveling it, figuring out who had drugs in their socks and who took who up to Penetration Park. The tone don't vary much, sure, and you can really only tell one song from another by the hooks, but it's all catchy enough, and there are some moments which stick out -- like "Don't Let Me Explode", musically a fifties make-out number stapled to a Weezer-esque rocker, lyrically a tale of two people who despite themselves never went everywhere or saw anything. This is followed by "Chicago Seemed Tired Last Night", which feels to me like the masterpiece of the whole damn thing, a song that starts with meeting W.B. Yeats at a party and proceeds to kick your ass up and down, breaking out the horn section before stopping dead in its tracks so you'll notice how awesome the bridge is. A piano comes out of nowhere and plays a series of chords that make me think of a post-Rent musical or the New Pornographers, and then the rest of the band falls on it and for an all-too-brief moment they don't sound like anybody else. Not that it's a bad thing when they take on the styles of their elders, necessarily. "Your Little Hoodrat Friend" is at least 85% Springsteen, dumbed down appropriately and tinged with country rock, and it's a delight. Weaker tracks like "Multitude of Casualties" coast a little, chugging along on the back of the lyrics, but generally somehow arrive at a moment of catharsis anyway.

The complaint will be that it all sounds the same and that the lead singer never switches up his delivery, which given the sheer weight of words this album deals in can wear on the nerves. But screw that. If you're not up for this much triumphal ass-kickery at once take it in chunks. And the real exciting part is that according to nearly all the critics they topped this one with their 2006 album. Stay tuned for our take on that and in the meantime pick this sucker up (by buying it, if possible.)

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Sleater-Kinney: The Woods

Sleater-Kinney will always remind me of my college radio station, WHPK, because when I think of Sleater-Kinney, I think of hipsters sitting around in that radio library reading their Kant at 4AM, wondering whether to play Sea and Cake or the Mooney Suzuki next (this was in 2000). I have that image, of course, because of their influence on the indie rock scene, but also because for me, Sleater-Kinney is one of the bands that matches the image I have of indie rock — the Platonic ideal, if you will. Loud, over-compressed drums, raw sounding electric guitars played with abandon, and a vocalist with a unique timbre that would best be classified as "insane" but still has the ability to sing notes. This formula doesn't always produce good bands (in fact, it's made quite a few horrible ones), but in Sleater-Kinney's case, it makes for excellent music. The other thing that Sleater-Kinney reminds me of is the futility of hyphenated names. Either your kid has to pick one of your names to drop or make a ridiculous twice-hyphenated name (or thrice-hyphenated if their mate has a hyphenated name!). But I digress.

This album is really heavy, and they don't hold back on the opening track. "The Fox" starts off with what is probably the loudest noise on the album; the guitars and drums playing as loud as they possibly can. Immediately, you know that this is Serious Rock, the kind that even the most jaded rocker is going to admit 'rocks'. On this album, Sleater-Kinney combines very simple, blues-inspired guitar riffs with heavy choruses and crooning vocals, which on the surface makes them remarkably similar to Led Zeppelin. When they sing "land ho!", they do it with soul and a vibrato that Devendra Banhart is probably very jealous of. It's also clear that their drummer is one of the reasons for their success as she basically excudes pure energy. The next two songs are based off of jaunty, elfish rhythms that quickly turn into dark, distortion filled straight-forward choruses, and in the case of "What's Mine Is Yours" eventually becomes a brief backwards guitar jam noise solo, that when used sparingly, is an effective tool in advancing the song. It works well here, but is overused a lot later on in the album, especially on "Let's Call It Love", which is 8 minutes of it. It's still somewhat forgivable if you decide to call that the "end of the record" and chalk it up to a noise outro or something, which allows you to get up and shut off the record at any time. The problem, and the largest stain on this record, is "Night Light", the song that follows "Let's Call It Love" and ends the album. The song is completely uncharacteristic from the rest of the album, and what's worse is that it sounds like an indie rock copy of Evanescence.

Most of the songs on the album are in the same vein as the first three, but it doesn't get boring or detract from the album, and no critical complaint can be made about it. That's like faulting Rancid for sounding like a punk band. There are a few points that stand out from the rest of the album, thought. The verse on "Jumpers" leans more towards the "alternative" side of indie rock than you might expect. "Steep Air" could be mistaken for the Sleater-Kinney take on Modest Mouse. "Modern Girl" is a soft song with the guitar distortion turned off that is more melodic than the rest, with a pianica(?) in it. They make up for the guitars by distorting the entire mix. Incidentally, this album was produced by Dave Fridmann, who has worked with The Flaming Lips before. His goal seems to give the album a very live feel to it, which actually succeeds spectacularly. The entire mix is saturated, and the reverb on the vocals isn't the tone-sucking reverb you might hear from say, Broadcast; instead it gives the music a live feel. (The reverb also hangs on a little longer at the end of vocal passages, bringing to mind psychedelic 70s artists.) Add to that the fact that Sleater-Kinney is a band with a phenomenal amount of energy that actually comes through on the CD, as opposed to other excellent live artists, e.g. The Arcade Fire.

If you value rock and roll in the depths of your soul, as I know you do, you will accept the gift Sleater-Kinney has given you and buy The Woods. It's also interesting in its own right as an artifact, as this is apparently the final studio album ever released by this band.

It's hard for me to discuss because it's the final album by a beloved Northwest rock institution, an album where they stretched themselves in every direction before flaming out, a sprawling slab of seventies rock laden with interminable guitar and drum solos from a band who up until this point never seemed comfortable with a song longer than 90 seconds. So you'd think it'd either have to be a classic or a monstrous stinker. My problem is that I like it but I don't like it that much, which makes it difficult for me to reconcile the myth with the reality and to rate this in a way that reflects the music instead of my own thwarted expectations.

Let's just go with instinct, then. This stuff is bitchin' in a way that went out of style a long time ago. The guitar lines are massive and yet still retain a measure of the intricacy and interplay that made Sleater-Kinney famous. Opener "The Fox" feels like the start of something huge and scary, with huge walls of chugging guitar buoying up Corin Tucker's unmistakable ululating vocals, but that overt menace is replaced as the album goes on with a feeling of timelessness. You can't be sure when this stuff was made, and on songs like "Jumpers" you feel the guitar sound sloping off into the kind of timeless growl that made Sonic Youth's best material transcend itself. Or, possibly, I'm just a sucker for baritone guitar and twining melodic lines, and songs about how soulless California is. See, maybe I do like it that much. Or not. Or...

I suppose the problem is that every note, every squall of noise, even the gimmicky "Modern Girl" (a sugary pop song about being a consumer repeated three times, each time with the distortion on every part turned up just a tad and the lyrics a little more menacing) feels inevitable, Classic, both as a genre and as a descriptor. The way Tucker shouts her 'woah-oh-ohs' on "Entertain" hearken back to a thousand other woah-oh-oh's, male and female, british and american, but all indubitably rockin'. And even as "Let's Call It Love" threatens to destroy you with its endless noise-solo breakdowns you still feel as if you're standing in a stadium, you at one end, the band at the other, both of you caught up in a ritual as old as the Rolling Stones (and that's old, brother)... and it's really kind of wonderful to hear that arena-rock, here-are-my-balls mentality filtered through a resolutely indie all-girl three-piece punk band. It works as if it were always meant to work this way, as if the sparkling production and trim guitar lines they'd always favored were self-imposed chains that they've finally allowed themselves to break. It's rockism at its best. And they do have the chops to pull it off -- the guitars are precise in their sloppiness, alternately huge and amorphous and sharp and cutting, and their drummer (Portand institution and current member of Quasi Janet Weiss) is thunderous.

So. Yeah, they got me. This is probably a classic and well worth a buy. I just hope Stephen's review is slightly more useful.

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