Sunday, October 25, 2009

Now Scything: Flipper,

Tinted Windows, Felix da Housecat

Score: 6

Like sardines with an impossibly distant expiration date, Flipper's first studio album in 16 years is grungy goodness straight from the tin. With Krist Novoselic on bass and Jack Endino producing, there are even moments reminiscent of Nirvana's Bleach, albeit without Kurt Cobain's songcraft. (Check out the opening of "Triple Mass," in which the bass burbles up and the guitar materializes out of feedback.) Former bassist Bruce Loose has stepped up to the mike, rasping and snarling over the blunt-force dredge 'n' roll supplied by Novoselic, drummer Steve DePace and guitarist Ted Falconi. "Old Graves," the album's plodding highlight, recounts a car plowing through a children's stick ball game. The foreshadowing is wonderful, with Flipper enacting a wordless grind for two-and-a-half minutes before Loose comes in. His voice numb, he hints at the tragedy by pointing out objects that passersby would take for granted, ones that blend into the background of life: "A piece of chalk / laying on the ground / broken on the sidewalk / The old frayed knot / moldy with rot / once was a jump rope / on the tree trunk." Chilling.

Tinted Windows
Tinted Windows
Score: 4

The lineup was intriguing enough to set imaginations in motion: What would you get with a combination of Cheap Trick (Bun E. Carlos), Fountains of Wayne (Adam Schlesinger), The Smashing Pumpkins (James Iha) and Hanson (Taylor Hanson)? It turns out, not much worth imagining. Tinted Windows' debut endeavors to propel us on a sugar-addled spree, to have us bobbing along to fizzy pop-rock love songs sprayed out in a sheen of onomatopoeic choruses. ("Uh oh / uh oh / uh oh / woah woah woah," goes the one from lead-off cut "Kind of a Girl"). Yet the set hurtles beyond radio-friendly, threatening to fall into Radio Disney land. And while it's true that Hanson could be seen as precursors to the Jonas Brothers, Hanson made fluff, not drivel. Tinted Windows have more talent among them than a whole army of Jonas Brothers, but would they gain much comfort from that categorization? Schlesinger was the chief songwriter here, but banal has replaced his standard clever, and the riffs and lyrics allegedly inspired by that never-run-dry stand-by, love, feel more like well-meaning fakery than true-to-life ardor.

Felix da Housecat
He Was King
Score: 5

Repetition is fine until it turns into redundancy -- which makes electronic dance music perhaps the most subjective genre to hold to those terms, since it's built on repetition. He Was King has plenty of promising moments, such as the dubstep-style "Kickdrum," which blows out the instrument and features a menacing spot from M.I.A. warning of its carnal power. Yet these moments are often squandered. "Kickdrum" soon shows its hand, revealing itself to be little more than level-adjusting and knob-twiddling over her vocal loop. Similarly, "Elvi$" starts with an immediately grabbing sparkly synth line but then has it cascade over a static beat and robotic murmuring, without change, for 39 seconds. Any novelty or exhilaration that synth line possessed bleeds out as it rapidly devolves from exciting to tiresome. Felix engineers an engine-like rise and begins to develop the track, but the synth line is more handicap than foreplay. He Was King peaks early, with an ode to Prince that borrows his mojo. If only Felix had also applied it to the songs in need.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Unlike that Disturbed guy,

I am not down with the sickness

The flu tried to kill me off, but I prevailed. I can't tell you if it was H1N1, though in most people, that's supposed to cause milder symptoms. So I suspect this was the bad ol' traditional flu bug. What's up with it hitting in October? That's ridiculously early. Be careful out there!

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Big empty

Me and You
Score: 6

Over the past decade and a half, VAST have migrated from heavy, deftly programmed rock whirling with monk-chant samples to the comparative humility of unplugged instruments. Throughout, founder Jon Crosby has remained enamored with orchestras, and cello and violin embellish the traditionally structured rock of Me and You, implying human frailty in "She Found Out" and cushioning the knock of hand drums on the somber reflection "Here's to All the People I Have Lost." Harmonica, too, flecks some songs, adding a melancholy breeze to the plucked acoustic guitar of "You Are the One." Me and You doesn't forgo electric guitar, but the instrument isn't dominating the proceedings either.

Although hampered by several trite lines --- "It's Not You (It's Me)" slaps its groaner right in the chorus and title --- Me and You delivers Crosby's strongest songwriting in years. In what could be a loose concept album, the tracks outline a dysfunctional romance (or more than one), complete with resentment, obsession, fear, lies and infidelity. There's a voyeuristic quality to it, as if Crosby were exposing private sex scandals.

The waltzing "I'm Afraid of You" goes Freudian, suggesting that toxic braids in a couple's lineage set them up to make bad choices romantically. "You have a degree in photography," Crosby rumbles, "and you take it out on me." Details follow in the next song, "You're the Same": "She takes pictures of herself / with nothing on / She wants to hurt me."

"You're the Same" is not a waltz. It uses its brooding background of acoustic guitar to impale us with stark pronouncements: "She reaches into me / with hands I cannot feel." "She wants to leave me."

"How can I lose something I never had?" Crosby asks in anguished disbelief.

The bitter "You Destroy Me" locks in its hold with gentle, tom-centric drumming and the clap of a tambourine. The gliding electric guitar lines resonate the ache of forever wishing for consummation and being cursed to never have it. Crosby sings, "You destroy me / when you walk into the room / You destroy me / and you always will."

And when you can't obtain the devastating beauty, who do you go to? "Hotel Song" puts our faces up to the peephole to catch a liaison, likely with a mistress. Whether the place was a four-star or a no-star, the sign out front might as well have read BIG EMPTY, for the man takes little consolation in the meeting. As he puts it, "Tonight I'm yours, and / you're kinda mine."

We know there won't be a feel-good ending. The violin and cello bear that out. "She Found Out" is the pitiful plea of the wretched, perhaps from the rumpled bed of the hotel room. Crosby's voice is meek here as it rises up from some frightened place. "Wait / wait with me," the man implores his companion, knowing that his indiscretions have been discovered, that his partnership will shatter imminently. He knows that. He knows he's going to lose everything. What scares him most is facing that end alone.

At very least, he has the strings.