Women – Public Strain
Label: Flemish Eye (Canada) / Jagjaguwar (US)
The hometown of a band and the geographical location of the recording studio evidently permeates through numerous records – Turn on the Bright Lights by Interpol showcased the boisterous and brooding qualities of NYC. Through the grime came an exceptionally poignant, bold and evocative album. The dark winter of Alberta, Canada allowed Women to record their second album Public Strain during the relentless cold, yet it’s served to exude a honed sound and sensibility instead of an overtly calculated follow-up. Public Strain uses the alternating rise and fall of drones with shimmering guitars and emphatic percussion to create a criminally understated album that builds and progresses upon the self-titled debut.
Ominous bowed-guitar screeches open the album with ‘Can’t You See’, a gently lilting portion of reverb drenched, lo-fi hum. While the mood is markedly more subdued to the agitated upbeat ‘Cameras’ off the self-titled debut, a distinct undercurrent of unease remains present – owing to the dedication of Women to the album listening experience. Lead vocalist and guitarist Patrick Flegel croons with a couplet that describes the newfound territory for the listener and artist – “Not so sure I’ve seen this place before / Can’t you see? Can’t you see?”
Admittedly, few of the lyrics are decipherable on the album, but it’s this deliberate obscurity that heightens their impact. Similarly, the driving beat of ‘China Steps’ allows for groove to give way to thrash, with both aspects fusing, providing one of the standout moments in an exceptionally solid album. It’s ‘Eyesore’ though that closes out the record with a demonstration of tight rhythm and arpeggiated guitars to provide the pinnacle. Leaving the best ‘til last shows a certain amount of audacity, but it primarily highlights the faith the quartet have in this record as a whole and the songs.
A willingness to forego the clichés of pop-song structure and a desire to experiment with alternately brash and swooning guitar sounds defines the bold sophomore release. Public Strain uses just the right amount of haphazard explorations into a noisy oblivion and delicately intertwined counterpoints to provide us with one of the best of 2010.
Wireless Bollinger – Originally Published : Jun/2011
Unknown Mortal Orchestra – Unknown Mortal Orchestra
Label: Fat Possum Records / True Panther
Unknown Mortal Orchestra started out in 2010 as a doorway into the creative wilderness forNew Zealand native Ruban Neilson after the disbanding of the Flying Nun supported all-male quartet The Mint Chicks. The release of the self-titled debut calmly follows the upload of the opening track ‘Ffunny Ffrends’ to Bandcamp in late ’10 and a lengthy run of shows in the US and particularly the adopted home of Portland, Oregon. Insistent grooves underlying intricate and spirited vocals, coupled with static and sparse guitar fuzz are the force behind this coolly confident yet industrious and oddly psychedelic debut from the trio.
Upon the upload of ‘Ffunny Ffrends’, it wasn’t too long before there was label attention – even before a lineup was solidified. Perhaps in reaction to this, there remains a seeming unwillingness to post updates and showing a preference for performance and word-of-mouth over media-saturation paints UMO as primarily a live band. It’s to be expected therefore, that a finely manicured brashness demonstrating a distinct energy adorns the record, notably on tracks like ‘Bicycle’ and ‘Nerve Damage!’ On the former, maracas and guitar stabs drive the track almost mechanically as Neilsen half yelps / half croons “What a difference between what I saw / and what was before my eyes”. On the latter, wah-wah guitar gives way to a garage beat Times New Viking would be proud of and howling, cop-killing co-vocals.
Comparisons to bands from a bygone era could be drawn, but it wouldn’t do justice to the level of quality UMO has attained in distilling influences from the likes of Captain Beefheart, Sly Stone and RZA. The sounds are familiar but fresh, and though it’s difficult to gauge what will age well, the future looks very promising for Unknown Mortal Orchestra, and you should probably check this record out.
Wireless Bollinger – Originally Published : Aug/2011
Label: Dew Process
Released after a brief hiatus on the back of the Triple J approved Cruel Guards (2007), Rain on the Humming Wire (2011) treads lightly on mildly symphonic, jaunty alt-pop. For the Melbourne via WA quintet, their fourth album shows a distillation of craft – striving for the quickest points of departure from resilient joy to somber reflections to respite. While the more compelling moments continue to come from a darker place, the album suffers in part from a lyrical broadness and over-simplification of song structure. Rather than forging new ground, the album falls a little too easily between folk, country and alt-rock luminaries rather than transcending them to create an inoffensive, pleasant yet bland album.
…Humming Wire opens with familiar stomped drum hits under chiming bells in ‘Majesty’ – a piano driven ballad about the bleak story of Australian colonisation, Her Majesty and who wore what in the A-List. It’s an upbeat, jubilant ditty comparable to last year’s Hottest 100 winners – only with an Australian accent. Obviously, the role of critics isn’t in reducing art to an intellectual exercise – we genuinely enjoy hearing albums that surprise and excite us in their exploration and creativity (among other things) – but it’s difficult to listen to The Panics most recent effort without hearing a mediocre pastiche. Tracks like ‘Endless Road’ walk with purpose under a four-on-the-floor beat, but it seems to go nowhere. Flourishes of synth-horns, pounding piano and bongo fills adorn high-school poetry but ultimately amount to forgettable tune.
I don’t want to let go
I’ve held all the hands I need to hold
It seems all that I feel
I shared with you in this room was real.
Likewise in ‘Creatures’, a wiry guitar line provides the point of interest and a few melodic licks, but the faux string-section and forced ‘oohs-and-ahs’ leaves the song sounding like a calculated exercise. On rare occasions, tracks like ‘Low on Your Supply’ connect on a more personal level – the vocal harmonies and organ atop a stripped back beat still eventuates into audience participation territory, but leaves the listener with something of substance. ‘Shot Down’ and ‘Not Quite a Home’ provide more toe-tapping moments, but it begs the question – why do The Panics – now into their 10th year together – need to fall back on utter musical simplicity?
Kudos to The Panics for consecutively charting higher with each release – it at least demonstrates a sense of aspiration – and attempting to break into the US and UK is a laudable goal – but sadly, the songs have suffered and …Humming Wire is an occasionally moody, slightly maudlin batch of disaffecting and derivative melancholia.
Wireless Bollinger – Originally Published : Oct/2011
Hailing from California, Dum Dum Girls are one of the better known all-female quartets happily lost in the mildly hazy nostalgia for the 60s. Along with contemporaries (Vivian Girls, Frankie Rose and the Outs and Best Coast) Indie-Pop has become a Summer-y institution full of black clad girls with guitars that have fun rockin’ out. In contrast to the Dum Dum’s earlier work though, Only In Dreams is quite challenging for all the wrong reasons. Influences are worn boldly on sleeves, and front-chick Kristen ‘Dee Dee’ Gundred pines with (occasionally excessive) sincerity atop a chugging rhythm section – but the album is driven by roughly 5 drum beats. Sure, there’s clearly discernable difference in the albums relative highlights, but for over 75% of the album, the Dum Dums are content with polished harmonies over the same “Oh Mickey” beat, four chords, repeated choruses, forgettable melodies and trite lyrics.
‘Always Looking’ is a punchy album opener riding on a hand clapping, 60’s surf riff slice of pop-homage that immediately announces the newfound introduction of the recording studio to the Dum Dums. It’s shortly after the opening verse that the first problem arises – wasn’t one of the most endearing qualities of the debut album I Will Be (2008) the organically thick crackle and fuzz of the bedroom? Removal of such an intrinsic quality – particularly to music so evidently imbued by a past era – has to severely change the aspirations for Only In Dreams. Love and loss (particularly of Dee Dee’s mother) are still the central themes, but the lyrics never seem to look past the painfully obvious – coming across as broad and maybe even a little childish.
The closing verse of ‘In My Head’ is as follows -“Come home and kiss me / Tell me you miss me / Tell me it right / Tell me it right / Don’t bother asking how my day was / Everyday drags the same just because / Without you I can’t get out of my bed / I’d rather visit you in my head / In my head / In my head / In my head / In my head.
Similarly sentimental rhymes about beds and ‘you’ litter the whole album, yet fail to make Only In Dreams strikingly personal. Rather, the most exciting moments come in the dreamy (sincerely Mazzy Star indebted) slow jam ‘Coming Down’. A reverb laden guitar, swooning vocals and a stomping beat adorned with minor key melodies provide respite from the dull rhythms, and strike somewhere more poignant. While it’s the longest track at six and a half minutes, it’s also the most gripping – and it’s understandably the Dum Dum’s choice for lead single. To follow up the funeral march though, the up-tempo “woah” filled tune ‘Wasted Away’ – again using the drum beat of choice attempts to pummel the listener into submission. By this point though, the territory being explored is already very clear to the listener, and the songs (if they weren’t already) become nothing more than a well-produced background fuzz to tap toes to.
By limiting their scope and accentuating jangly guitars, the Dum Dum Girls were able to carve out their niche among contemporaries – hell, their earlier work is still well worth checking out. By making the leap to legitimate recording studio, over-emphasising vocals and releasing an album with a striking lack of creativity, there’s little positive to say about the sophomore effort. Aside from occasionally interesting flourishes, what seems to be left of Only In Dreams are aimless guitar solos and an ultimately formulaic, over-produced, bland and repetitive bunch of songs.