Monday, January 06, 2003

Music to My Ears XXII
A baker's dozen of new record reviews!

And I Can't Wait "Hardcore Justice" EP
While I admire the band's intensity and idealism, presenting lyrics such as "He will learn about community" so they're indiscernable does no one any good. The lyric sheet represents an array of worthwhile manifestos addressing sexism in the scene, drug abuse, hardcore honesty, and responsibility, but the presentation clouds the content of the creative catharsis. Everything here should be said, but if your delivery mechanism is music -- recorded or live -- it'd be good if the ideas for solutions were identifiable. As it is, the record fails to get its points across. The spoken-word portions are more accessible and applicable, but the angry, acidic screamo sectopns are singing -- screaming -- to a choir. How big is your choir? Wouldn't you like it to be a little bigger? If you don't want people to join your choir -- or even hear your message -- keep it up. But as it is, hardcore records like this are vanity projects. Valid, but vain. Agitprop Records, P.O. Box 748, Hanover, MA 02339.

Baxter CD
This two-CD release is a discography of a Chicago band that was active in the mid- to late-'90s. Members later participated in bands such as the Lawrence Arms, Rise Against, and the Killing Tree. Shades of the Explosion by way of Fugazi, Baxter's sound is melodic yet intense, even if the shouted vocals and chunky guitars sound a little lackluster in the recording. "Burden" is the first song that really impresses me with some nice Dag Nasty moments. Baxter maintains this sound for the bulk of the record, never really breaking out or down. This is frustrating because the band had such promise -- a retrospective discography should be more impressive. "Sidelines" breaks the midtempo monotony and shows what the band is capable of, as does "Attempt." The second CD opens on a more promising note, sharing several unreleased tracks that were recorded in 1997, a year later than the first CD, which was previously released as "Troy's Bucket." The guitars are brighter, and the vocals are more intense. The bass on "Out of Reach," which was released on the "Lost Voices" 7-inch, is recorded a little heavy, but the songs on that record continue the new level of energy and intensity. Interestingly enough, so do the six songs from Baxter's 1995 "Red Tape" demo. Just goes to show that sometimes, raw is good. "Surge" is a silly bit of testosterone posturing, but "I Am a Cop" caps the demo with a wonderful Minor Threat-inspired burst. The final two tracks, recorded in 1998, again feature too-heavy bass and seem to be largely disposable, with out-of-tune singing and some sloppiness. The second CD is the standout here, but Baxter never really takes -- or loses -- control. The edge is missed. Will Not Clear Man, P.O. Box 911, Elgin, IL 60121.

Carpenter Ant "Never Stop Skating"
Skate rock, dude! With songs about dedication, dedication, dedication, this metal-edged hardcore expands on self-expression, honesty, intent, and transition. But despite its skateboarding allusions -- and illusions -- you can't really skate to this. Would Pushead be proud?
Carpenter Ant, c/o Union City Records.

Common Rider "Am I On My Own"
Featuring Operation Ivy's Jesse Michaels and Green Day's Billie Joe, this East Bay punk-rock superstar set features four songs of absolutely excellent pop punk with tinges of Michaels' reggae tastes. The title track is a quick hit of surreptitious sing-along, while "Insurgents" is a slightly more pretentious piece of futuristic fatality, shades of some of Naked Raygun's lyricism. Turning to the B side, Michaels' reggae and ska tastes become more clear. Suddenly, OPIV sans Rancid, makes more sense. I want to thank Billie Joe, in light of his major-label success with Green Day, for his work with Adeline Records, but I also want to thank him for his continued involvement with Bay Area punk icons such as Michaels. Songs like "Thief in a Sleeping Town" could've easily happened in 1989 as well as 1999, or now. Thanks, Billie Joe, for helping Chris bring this to life. Lookout! Records, 3264 Adeline St., Berkeley, CA 94703.

Def Choice 7-inch
Another depressing hardcore record, this time from the Midwest. It is uplifting and inspirational because of its messahes about progress, the evils of advertising, work culture, nationalism, capitalism, the legal system, and pop culture. But it's sad because of the reach Def Choice has. "Handguns & TV Dinners" is a pleasing piece of blistering burst, and the Denis Leary sample opening "We've Got Our Money on You" is comic. Yet the thought behind -- and inside -- songs such as the anti-organized education ditty "The Institution of the Damned" and the anti-consumption screed "Baseball Cards to Colored Wax" is lost in its presentation. Within a subculture, it's always good to reinforce ideas of disagreement and discussion, but how productive is this? One sample says, "Don't let hardcore turn into rock 'n' roll." What if it did? What if more people could receive your revelations? Kudos for the booklet insert, at least. Def Choice, 1130 N. Pine Pl., New Lenox, IL 60451.

High-Steppin' Nickel Kids "Is It Wrong to Imagine the Impossible?" 7-inch
This Boston hardcore foursome should still be around. There's no reason why Massachusetts doesn't need -- and deserve -- a smartly political punk band a la Propagandhi, and I'm afraid that the HSNK were it. Even the song titles on this "special prerelease tour edition" 7-inch are in the style of Propagandhi and Dillinger 4: "Scratch & Win (Void Where Prohibited)," "We Wanted Adventure, We Got Adventureland," "The Good, the Bad, the Midwest," and "Now We Are 27." The music is moshy but tuneful, the vocals are raw but melodic, and the lyrics are thought provoking. RIP, HSNK. You will be missed. At least Andrew's still doing ziines. High-Steppin' Nickel Kids, 22 Mansfield St., Allston, MA 02134.

Lady & the Mant "Inexcusable" CD
Kathy Biehl has long been one of my favorite zine people. Attorney, editrix of the Cardhouse-meets-Lost Armadillos in Heat zine Ladies Fetish & Taboo Society Compendium of Urban Anthropology, creative visualization artist, and improv comedy troupe member, Biehl does a lot of different stuff. This 1999 CD, released when Biehl still lived in Houston, collects 10 pop and rock cover songs performed with two guitars, one keyboard, and "no sense." To a large extent, the songs, including "Ruby Tuesday," "Stand by Your Man," and the theme from MASH, remind me of the Gomers and the related house band for the Madison, Wisconsin, ComedySportz troupe. There are also a couple of novelty songs credited to R. Romanovsky, "Wimp" and "Guilt Trip," self-described by Biehl as the "best roman revenge song ever," which more accurately reflect where the Lady & the Mant -- Biehl and collaborator Rick Mantler -- are coming from. Next stop, as "Sunshine of Your Love" reaffirms: Dr. Demento's dinner theater. Fortuna Works, P.O. Box 184, Oak Ridge, NJ 07438.

Meridians Divided "Blind" CD
Opening with a cyclical instrumental piece highlighting Lauren Hurd's violin work and some tender guitar work by Rob Arnold, this CD eases in with a bit of Rachel's-like classical post-rock. Not a surprise, given the Chicago area's embrace of that sound, but Meridians Divided adds a nice dose of emo-infused intensity. Sleepy post-rock for the shoe-gazing set, this band would be quite at home with now-defunct Boston bands such as 71 Sunbeam and the Also-Rans. With the first vocal line of "Persistence," "Selflessly selfish for you," Meridians makes its case and then proceeds to build on it, touching on themes of love, fear, the passing of time, and loneliness. Ben Belich and Arnold's vocals are pleasant, and the band breaks up the hesitant tone of many of the songs with sone nice surprises. The title track introduces some impressive Kevin Seconds-like elements, again using Hurd's violin to good effect. At times I find the effects on the vocals and bass distracting, especially in "The Soil of Time," but songs like "Light Bleu" make it all worthwhile. A wonderful love song, "Light Bleu" incorporates an intriguing presentation of the verses that overlaps and weaves in and out of the music behind it. Nice. Will Not Clear Man, P.O. Box 911, Elgin, IL 60121.

The Profits "Propaganda Machine" 7-inch
With a female-led hardcore attack, this Boston band opens with a scathing commentary on the duplicitous objectivity of the media. The second song is an under-researched diatribe against biological threats, which, while sharply pointed, comes across as overly cartoony and therefore disposable. Closing off the first side, the band brings back a quick bit of female-expedited explosion ranting about jingoistic consumerism. The opener of the B side, "Fight War," is particularly appropriate give the current political situation despite the son's avoidance of offering solutions in lieu of visceral criticism. "Spoiled" is a more solid commentary, positioned well for Nov. 29's Buy Nothing Day -- critiquing consumption-driven economic development. The name dropping of local shopping centers is a welcome bit of Bostonia, and despite this record's overall shallowness and lack of solutions-oriented thinking, it's great to hear an angry, politically minded punk band in the area. The Profits, c/o Rodent Popsicle, P.O. Box 1143, Allston, MA 02134.

Ready to Fight 7-inch
There are eight songs on this record, one an SS Decontrol cover, a standard Boston HC shoutout, and for the most part, they're your basic aggressive screamo punk-rock numbers. The songs seem to be about pride, moshing, false neutrality, scene politics, wage slavery, and media commentary. A lyric sheet would help this, but not much, as it's overly guttural and gloss-over enough that they might not be saying much more than is readily apparent. That said, "Work Sucks" stands out as the most organized critique, adequately countering the band's misinformed criticism of email. Ready to Fight, c/o Cadmium Sick, P.O. Box 35934, Brighton, MA 02135.

Somehow Hollow "Busted Wings and Rusted Halos" CD
Comprising several former members of Grade, this Canadian four-piece recorded these 11 songs in about a month. For the most part, Somehow Hollow falls on the poppier side of Victory, opting for lighter weight singalong torch songs (line from "Halfway Gone": "I think it's you/oh, it's so you") despite the news release's hardcore rhetoric about solidarity and unity. Don't get me wrong -- the songs are fine; I enjoy the record -- but I'm perplexed by the clash between the tattooed old-school hardcore posturing and boy-band pop production that's running rampant through the scene these days. As tough guy as so many Victory (and Revelation, for that matter) bands want to seem, songs like "Halfway Gone," "Walking Clothed Foot," and "A Lesson in Longing" -- actually, most of the record -- are basically emo songs about unrequited or lost love, presented with a bit more pep and less noodling. Punk points for the Canuck reference "Kamloops" and the odd Lord of the Rings-listing "Witch of Glen Cedar Gate." Major debits for the jangly college-rock opening to "Never Let You Go." Damn you, Dawson's Creek! As strong as Somehow Hollow's power pop or melodic hardcore (or whatever this is) might be, the music comes across as, well, somehow hollow. Victory Records, 346 N. Justine St. #504, Chicago, IL 60607.

Striking Distance "The Fuse Is Lit" 7-inch
This is stereotypical Boston hardcore with moshy parts punctuating the more straight-ahead moments. The music begs little description outside of saying it's pleasantly non-metal, but the lyrics deserve some mention. We've got your generic hardcore hypotheses about rhetoric, the Establishment, conformity, rebellion, and innovation. Records like this actually make me sad. As inspired by and agreeable with their message as I am, I'm depressed by their half-assed analysis and choice of aggression rather than application. OK, I say. So what? What are you going to do? "Find a Way" suggests that we can discover answers within ourselves, and "The Fuse Is Lit" posits that self-satisfaction is self-defeating, but otherwise, what, really, is within striking distance here? Bridge Nine Records, P.O. Box 990052, Boston, MA 02199.

Will Not Clear Man Sampler CD
This four-song compilation is a sampler of the bands currently working with this Elgin, Illinois-based label. Seedy Sea Controversy's "Everyone's Crazy" opens with an energetic melodic number that's somewhat reminiscent of the Lillingtons, although not lyrically. The spooky spy-theme breakdown adds a nice punctuation. Burn Elgin, which could be Will Not Clear Man head Jeremy Hansen's band, contributes "Down," which is structurally similar to the opening track. The song is solid, but the vocals seem a bit thin. Nevertheless, the piece doesn't lose steam and the variations on the chorus at the end -- complete with Freewill-like backing vocals -- are awesome. The last two songs get a little emo and post-rocky, with Over and Over's relatively boring yet anguished screamer "About Face" and Meridians Divided's "Light Bleu" -- a standout from their full length. Over and Over can be dismissed, but I look forward to more Seedy Sea Controversy and Burn Elgin. An impressive small label. Will Not Clear Man, P.O. Box 911, Elgin, IL 60121.

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