Two decades ago, new albums from Rancid, The Dandy Warhols, Sum 41 and others were spinning away in my portable CD player. Here’s what I had to say about them back then (with some minor editing):
Now this is what you call a blast from the past. On their re-energized fifth album, the boys in Rancid sound like they have something to prove. And maybe they do. Word is this decade-old Bay Area punk foursome were kinda ticked at the tepid reception given their last disc, the ambitious 1998 offering Life Won’t Wait. Apparently some critics and so-called fans weren’t thrilled that the Clash-inspired outfit pushed the punk envelope with generous helpings of ska, reggae and blues. (Just for the record, I was not among the detractors; I thought it was one of the best albums of the year.) Supposedly, Rancid decided that if it’s old-school punk rock the kids want, it’s old-school punk rock they’ll get — right between the eyes.
That’s precisely what the band — singer-guitarists Tim Armstrong and Lars Frederiksen, bassist Matt Freeman and drummer Brett Reed — deliver in spades on this relentlessly blistering self-titled album, another contender for best-of-the-year honours. With 22 incendiary firebombs of pure punk power and bravado jam-packed into just 38 frenzied minutes, Rancid the album finds Rancid the band coming full circle. Which is to say: Returning to the streamlined, in-your-face style of their original self-titled 1993 album; reconnecting with their hardcore roots in ’80s outfits such as Operation Ivy and U.K. Subs; and renewing their vows to the punk rock credo of louder, harder and faster.
Especially faster. This album hits the ground running faster than Donovan Bailey, blasting through two songs — the explosive Don Giovanni and Disgruntled — in little more than 90 seconds. And that’s just the warmup. For the next half hour, the band never breaks stride and barely even pauses for breath, furiously barreling through nearly two dozen top-shelf hardcore anthems with an intensity so unwavering it becomes exhausting. At the midway point of just 19 minutes, I was already wondering how long they could keep this up — the full-tilt, thrashing pogo beats, the mile-a-minute guitar lines, the double-time bass licks, the hoarse, yelling-at-the-top-of-their-lungs vocals. The answer, of course, is all the way to the end of the line. And if you can’t keep pace, you’ll be dumped on the side of the road, ridiculed and left behind.
You won’t be alone. Along the way, the band fires drive-by potshots at some of the expected targets: Organized religion (Corruption); wheeler-dealers (Antennas); trendy bands (Rattlesnake); mass media (Rigged on a Fix); and genocide (Rwanda). About the only target they neglect is the one they really should have taken a poke at — fickle punk-rock fans who were stupid enough to accuse them of going soft.
Well, those ingrates have nothing to complain about now. And if they do, they’d best keep it to themselves; frankly, I don’t think Rancid could kick it up another notch without doing themselves serious injury.
Wide Awake Bored
Writing commercial pop-rock can be a delicate balancing act. Make it a little too fast and urgent and suddenly you’ve stumbled into punk punk; slow down too much and get a bit grouchy and you’ve wandered into heavy metal. On this third release, Canucks Treble Charger come off like skilled plate spinners, confidently and creatively whirling sprightly grooves, ringing guitars and soaring, summery vocals into hook-laden tunes like American Psycho and Favorite Worst Enemy, neither of which would be out of place on a Matthew Sweet or Sloan album — if either of those acts sang with the reedy tenor of The Weakerthans’ John Samson. Sometimes the flat, bland production fails to do justice to these well-crafted songs, but that’s the only misstep on this otherwise sure-footed disc.
The press bumpf for this L.A. trio’s sophomore CD calls it “melodic pop-punk.” Well, two out of three ain’t bad. Granted, these boys have a knack for a catchy pop hook, and these modern-rock anthems are smartly constructed, radio-ready servings of crunchy tunage. But let’s be real — no self-respecting punk would be caught dead within 100 yards of this CD, and not just because the guitarist is wearing one of those sports shirts with a little alligator on the back cover. The real problems are the overabundance of slick production, keyboards, wussy songs and staggeringly bad lyrics — I can’t decide whether “Like Jessica Rabbit she collects bad habits” is a worse couplet than “Amphetamines and jellybeans, she was pretty in her teens.” Still, their sunshiney power-pop should fit quite well at a summer festival — if you don’t pay too much attention to the words.
Half Hour Of Power
Sum 41 talk a good game. Based on the Supersoaker-sporting cover pic of their debut EP — not to mention song titles like Grab the Devil by the Horns and **** Him Up the *** — you’d expect these Ajax, Ont., teens to be wild and crazy punks. Well, you’d probably be disappointed. They may act irreverent, but the truth is this foursome are pretty much your standard pop-core outfit. And this 11-tune disc has all the pogo beats, gritty guitars and layered harmonies of any major-label act like Blink-182, Green Day or Offspring. Aside from the metal spoof of Grab the Devil … and the old-school Beastie-metal hip-hopper What We’re All About, these guys aren’t half as insubordinate as they like to pretend they are. Not that they’re bad; but if they put more of their rebelliousness into their music, they’d be about 41 times more original.
Thirteen Tales From Urban Bohemia
On the musical map, Urban Bohemia is right on the border of Pretentious Slackerville — and sometimes on The Dandy Warhols’ maddeningly inconsistent third CD, it’s hard to tell which side of the tracks they’re on. This Portland trio’s effortlessly eclectic style, which runs the gamut from blissful, hazy folk-pop to fuzzed-out stoner-rock, bombastic space-rock and jittery new wave, is a double-edged sword: When you hit a stretch of tunes that click — like the Iggy-ish trio of Country Leaver, Solid and Horse Pills — it makes them seem like talented multi-taskers. But when you hit a stretch that doesn’t, they just seem unfocused and indecisive. A few too many five-minute songs that are long on meandering melodies and short on sharp hooks don’t help. Don’t be fooled by the Jumpin’ Jack Flash sizzle of single Bohemian Like You; only about half these Thirteen Tales are worth hearing more than once.
Fans of The Northern Pikes have plenty to celebrate. Five years after the Prairie pop-rockers called it a day, guitarist and singer Bryan Potvin is back with a pair of new discs — one with his former colleagues and one without. Which to choose? Well, I recommend starting with Heartbreakthrough, his solo album. It’s brimming with charmingly heartfelt, hook-laden roots-pop gems like Read Between the Lines and Too Late, whose jangly guitars and twangy vocals will remind you of Tom Petty or John Hiatt. To keep from being accused of being one-dimensional and derivative, Potvin tosses in a few trip-hoppy beats and tender ballads. Of course, maybe the only thing you want to be reminded of is how the Pikes sounded. In that case, look for Live, taped during this spring’s reunion tour. It skips the rockier hits like She Ain’t Pretty for older, softer fare such as Better Twice and Wait for Me, although Jackie T kicks up her heels quite nicely. Oh, and there’s one new track, the ballad Out of Love. Either way, Pikeheads can’t lose.
War of the Worlds | Ulladubulla: The Remix Album
Some people love remix albums. Others think they suck. Both camps should appreciate this unexpected, left-field offering. Detractors can point to War of the Worlds as proof that we have finally scraped the bottom of the remix-fodder barrel. After all, does anybody even still own a copy of this 1978 prog-cheese concept album, let alone want to hear its pompous, overly orchestrated tracks reworked by the likes of Todd Terry and Apollo 440? On the other hand, remix mavens could argue the whole two-disc affair makes perfect sense — if any tunes ever begged to be recast into post-millennial dance-floor fare, it’s these Vocoder-fuelled space-rock excursions composed and conducted by Jeff Wayne, the Andrew Lloyd Weber of ’70s pomp-rock. Besides, this is surely the only album you’ll ever own that features both Richard Burton and Phil Lynott of Thin Lizzy. If that isn’t out of this world, nothing is.
Recreating scenes from Psycho in your CD booklet — and casting yourself in Anthony Perkins’ role — isn’t exactly the image romantic crooners generally try to cultivate. Then again, Swedish trip-hop balladeer Jay-Jay Johanson is anything but typical. And if anybody could be called the Norman Bates of the chill-out room, it’s him. Deftly fingering the line between ominous and amourous, Johanson weaves dark, rich grooves from a mad-scientist laboratory of beatboxes, scratchy samples, creepy-kooky keyboards and even Gregorian chants, ending up with a gothy-romantic hybrid that manages to be sensual and unsettling at once. Then there’s his voice — a plummy, yearning instrument that could be mistaken for Boy George or Jimmy Sommerville, if it weren’t bleakly intoning stalkerish, poison-pen lines like, “Even though it’s not my habit to intrude, I’m going to find out who’s sleeping next to you.” Well, we all go a little crazy sometimes.
At Home With The Groovebox
It sounds like some kind of weird kids’ toy — and in a musical sense, it is. The Groovebox, according to the liner notes, is a small synthesizer loaded with the most popular beats, basslines and samples from a variety of common electronic music gear. The concept behind this quirky disc is simple — let a variety of artists play around with the thing and see what they come up with. Most of them embrace that fun-loving spirit: Buffalo Daughter’s 303 + 606 = Acid, Beck’s Boyz, Sean Lennon’s Winged Elephants and Cibo Matto’s We Love Our Lawyers all bop to robot-disco rhythms and groove to cyber-pop vibes. Others, like Air’s Planet Vega, Pavement’s Robyn Turns 26, Bonnie Prince Billy’s Today I Started Celebrating Again and Sonic Youth’s bleepy Campfire, take an artsier tack, but nobody takes it so seriously that they spoil the mood. Which keeps At Home With the Groovebox fun for kids of all ages.
On the list of bands that no European goth-metal outfit wants to be compared to, I bet Duran Duran is right at the top. And who can blame them? Sadly, in the case of uniquely punctuated Finnish gloom-and-doomers To/Die/For, it’s unavoidable. Or maybe it’s just me. It’s certainly not due to their music; these lumbering slabs of operatically bleak metal have all the grinding, apocalyptic grandeur you’d expect from prime goth-metal. But every time singer Jape Peratalo opens his yap, out comes the voice of Simon Le Bon. Or at least Simon if he were depressed and on Valium or something. And no matter how valiantly Jape tries to conceal it — he drops into a low, Peter Murphy register as often as humanly possible — I just can’t listen to All Eternity without picturing Simon in a bat-wing cape belting out Bela Lugosi’s Dead. On the plus side, I bet they could pull off a mean version of Hungry Like the Wolf.
Congratulations to In Flames for being the 1,000,000th band to start their disc with the most cliche sound effect of the CD age — the scratch of a phonograph needle dropping onto an LP. Although, I will admit that in their case, it makes perfect sense. Clayman, their eighth album, is a set of gothy, melodic metal straight from the leather-and-studs days of the pre-CD ’80s. Kudos also to singer Anders Friden, who has the sort of demonic tone that presumably comes from filling his Water Pik with Drano. Even better, I can barely make our a word he’s saying — and he’s singing in English! (At least I think so.) Anyway, I must admit, it all fits quite nicely with the band’s industrious sound, which attempts to conjure up 17 varieties of subterranean demons with a furious, blood-letting offering of intricate riffage and blistering pounding. So I’ll let the cliche sound effects slide. As long as they don’t start their next disc with the sound of a motorcycle revving.
Festival of Atheists
We don’t know who’s gonna win Survivor yet, but I can tell you this — if D.O.A.’s Joe (S–head) Keithley were on that island, he’d kick all their butts. Even that grizzled coot Rudy. Because ole Joe, aka Canada’s elder statesman of punk, is nothing if not a survivor. No record deal? No band? No problem. Joey recorded this 1998 disc more or less by himself, with only the help of drummer Brien O’Brien and the occasional guest (including bassist and former Winnipegger Wycliffe Hartwig), and then issued it on his own Sudden Death imprint. Thanks to a new distribution deal, Festival of Atheists is more easily available than before, and worth checking out if you’ve missed Joey’s always-potent combination of garage-band licks, propulsive energy and left-wing bluster. Sure, you’ve heard it all before — but it’s still way easier to take than that goombah and his coconut phone.
Brian Auger’s Oblivion Express
Voices of Other Times
The Wood & The Wire
There’s a fine line between ‘Whatever happened to … ?’ and ‘Are they still around?’ And to be fair, both of these bands crossed it a long time ago. So when new albums from two such long-forgotten ’60s outfits arrived on the same day, well, I was more than surprised. Especially by the return of jazz-rock organist Brian Auger, who hasn’t been heard from in decades. Turns out he’s been raising his kids, two of whom join him here as he fires up the old B-3 and lays down 10 sides that burble and bubble along in an acid-jazzy, pre-Medeski, Martin and Wood, life-is-kinda-crazy-with-a-spooky-little-girl-like-you way. It may not pack all the punch and originality of his ’60s work, but Auger is still a long way from musical oblivion. Likewise, Richard Thompson and Sandy Denny’s former cronies in Fairport Convention have returned to prove that old folkies never die — they just fade from prominence. But it’s not as if their skills have vanished. Decades on the British folk circuit have kept these lads sharp, as evinced by their spirited and skilled performances on this set, which roams from twee rural melodies and strummy ballads to Celtic reels and even Dire Straits-ish pub rock. These tunes may lack the smouldering talent of Thompson’s touch, but the spark is still there.
The Long Decline
This oddball Brit outfit bills itself as, “f—ed up folk for f—ed up folk.” I couldn’t have said it any better myself, except perhaps to add, ‘by fabulously, famously f—ed up folk.’ As in punk pioneers Mark Perry of Alternative TV, Vic Godard of Subway Sect and Gina Birth of The Raincoats, all of whom have at one time or another been a part of this quirky outfit led by amateurish anarchist folk-punk Kenny Wisdom. With his rambling, shaggy-dog songs, off-key vocals and intensely tragic lyrics, our Ken reminds us of some weird bloke you’d see busking on the corner for change. Here, it’s as if a band suddenly appeared behind him, goofing and jangling through tearjerkers like Back to Death and onanism odes like Beat It Boys (You’re Really Jerks). It’s punky, idiosyncratic and endearingly unvarnished — although the laissez-faire trashiness could leave you thinking that it’s more fun to play in this band than listen to it.
I always wondered who bought all those Human League albums. Turns out it was some guy in the States named Paul Baroody. And he didn’t just buy ’em; he obviously loved ’em enough to soak their whole new romantic synth-pop essence right into his own DNA. Now, nearly two decades later, his new wave virus has finished incubating and broken out in the form of Yours Truly, a co-ed synth-pop duo featuring Baroody and his cool chanteuse partner Linda Smith. Actually, there’s a third star in this revue: Baroody’s blindingly sunny new-wave ditties, which have all the retro-synth zippiness of the League, along with the girlie-pop of Missing Persons and the sweet jangle of a folksier Bangles. I would say they don’t write ’em like that anymore, but Baroody proves that now and again, they do. Truly delightful.
The Space Around You
A closeup shot of an androgynous couple’s clasped hands on the front cover. A pic of a fluffy dandelion on the back. Four nerdy, short-haired guys from Massachusetts peeking out from the booklet. Yep, it’s an emo-pop album all right. But thankfully, unfortunately named Boston quartet Tugboat Annie’s third full-length is more than just all right. Singer/guitarist Michael Bethmann has a soaring, insistently plaintive voice that hooks your ears even as his yearning lyrics tug at your heartstrings and sail an ocean of emotion. The band bolsters this fragile emotionalism with plenty of dynamic tension and momentum in these 10 tracks, which more or less alternate between dreamy jangle-pop swirls and propulsive pop-core anthems. They could do with a new name, but one thing Tugboat Annie don’t need to change is their sound.