Get to know Balaclavas, then read the rest of Doug Mosurock and Co.’s wax write-ups.
Still Single: Vol. 6, No. 7
Roman Holiday LP
Interest turned into raves, and now raves turn into worship. I’d like to consider Balaclavas the premium dark/Gothic/post-punk band of the Americas circa 2010, and hopefully for a lot longer. This short debut album keeps the mood of their first EP, maintains the sinister consistency of its follow-up Inferno, and hones everything to a point that could draw blood. Staying together for a couple of years has ratcheted up their game, which now consists of some guitar shardery that totally nails the less-is-more approach, a renewed interest in rhythm (drummer Chaz Patranella works over the polyrhythms, saving the electronic drum pads for last in quite the tasteful display), and a stone well of bass and reverb to fill out the ends. Most bands these days find that they need more bodies on stage; Balaclavas keep it tied down to a trio, with occasional sax moves by Culturcide’s Ralf Armin, and they really work for it, delivering a massive record that warrants play after play. The opening title track rips into a four-note melody, massive dub-style poptones, and a menace that draws a thick line between them and most bands dicking around with candlelit moods and ominous posturing. It sounds like it’d work in Buffalo Bill’s dungeon, so don’t be too shocked after it ends, and you’re standing in front of a mirror, feather boa and kohl in the right places, your dick tucked firmly between your thighs. Space is at a premium, even in these times, but Balaclavas have figured out how to make a lot of it but still maintain a strong economy of songwriting and downright mean chops. There’s more borrowing going on here than in previous efforts – “Up the Newel” explores a bit of a Nine Inch Nails fetish, while “Runes” melds the sort of glam-mournful guitar the Cure went to town on with “Fascination Street” – but what they do with the bits and pieces cribbed from familiar brooders is what counts, and these seven tracks do an admirable job of just hanging there, making you remember every little detail, nothing wasted throughout. Guitarist Tyler Morris steps back from the frontman role ever so slightly, the band working as more of a team at this stage, but his vocals are as memorable as on previous efforts. Look, so very few bands have actually made a dent in the canon that when one comes along that does, you gotta let people know. I don’t feel embarrassed about this band at all, and I couldn’t say the same for the bulk of the substance-lacking “let’s discover synths and tight pants” turn this music took cultivated in the late ‘90s, nor the hyper-organized, brainless mush of anyone claiming legit Goth/industrial status from then on out. Repeated spins have brought out the nuances of this record, revealing a band whose moral compass got tacked onto one of those 12 volt battery magnets and now spins wildly out of control. There’s danger here, and if I have to tie to you a chair with a system of elaborate trusses and a ball gag in order for you to understand it, then that’s how it’s gonna be. You may even find that you like it as much as the music itself. Nice lo-res cover art, depicting a gory shot from “Caligula” on the front, and a guy buried up to his neck on the back, surrounded by the remnants of a good trash pelting. Another sure shot from Dull Knife, quickly becoming the most important American independent label of its scale. May this band get intensely popular, shock a lot of people, and become cult icons. I’m excited. 550 copies w/download card – hurry the fuck up.
“Dog Food” b/w “Diet Coke” 7”
Here’s some new work from Atlanta garage rockers (late of the Hiss, and an overseas major label deal that translated into nothing stateside), with a previously had a single on Douchemaster. "Dog Food" is literally about pet food and all the zany stuff that dogs will eat (like tampons…gross). It’s humorous, Alpo and Beggin’ Strips are namechecked, and the band members howl like dogs. It’s basically what your dog would sing about if it was in a fonzie garage band. "Diet Coke" isn’t just about soda, though a Diet Coke is what this guy’s previously hard-drinking date to the Gentleman Jesse show orders that lets him know they ain’t gonna have much fun that night. The self-aware (and scene-aware) lyrical detail is effective and fits alongside the intentional novelty of the a-side. Lighthearted and not completely off-putting, but not exactly essential either. (http://www.bachelorrecords.com)
The Soft Skin 12” EP
This EP contains four bright and gentle songs from Brown Recluse (featuring Still Single contributor Herbie Shellenberger, no less), recorded in 2007 but not released until last year. Fans of the British side of indie-pop will enjoy the light, airy vocals and lush instrumentation, though these guys are American. There’s cello and trumpet/flugelhorn everywhere, though you can tell they are added layers, with the songs obviously written around the acoustic strum. It’s a pleasant, inoffensive sound, however, made more pleasant by the quality of the recordings. The snare drum cracks through the mix and the Wurlitzer electric piano drives along ‘Night Train’ in a glorious way. In the liner notes, “Rainy Saturday” claims to look at love and sex through “the bleak lens of capitalism and mortality,” though singer Timothy Meskers sounds caught up in his own personal web. His lyrics are loosely formed around phrases that are easy to relate to, though perhaps a bit imprecise. “Contour and Context” is maybe my pick, as it finds the flugelhorn finally integrated in a way that isn’t just salad dressing. I love the Field Mice and early Belle and Sebastian, so I can’t really find anything wrong with this record, but it definitely works from a niche. (http://www.slumberlandrecords.com)
“New Cypress Grove (Black Dirt Mix)” b/w “Forever Again (Alternate Take)” 7” picture disk
(Three Lobed/Divide By Zero)
Between the too-small fedora hat and the sport coat so short that the elbow patches rest on his biceps, Hans Chew looks like a guy who wishes he could walk straight into a ‘70s-vintage Tom Waits song and live there forever. But like more recent Waits, his antique affectations coexist with modern antics. A stranger to recording studios four years ago, lately Chew’s shown his range at the ivories by nailing between-the-wars barroom rollick on a couple Jack Rose LPs and covering the bases from honky-tonk plonk to flowery, Marshall Tuckeresque boogie with D. Charles Speer. The songs on this single, his first, will also be on an upcoming LP, albeit with different mixes. The space between his antique sartorial style and a marketing strategy only a decade out of date argue that Chew isn’t totally stuck in the past. More proof comes in the form of a distorted electric keyboard that gamely farts behind his fleet boogie-woogie figures on the well-caffeinated a-side and the gospel-steeped “Forever Again,” with its references to a brother living on an HIV pension. If this guy keeps reaching beyond mere revivalism the way he does on this record, he’s onto something. A satisfyingly weighty and noiseless Czech pressing sweetens the pot. Picture disc, 500 copies, and it comes with a free download coupon. (http://www.threelobed.com/tlr)
s/t 7” EP
This Vancouver band plays some reverby garage rock, slightly country-inflected at times, that might remind you of any number of similar bands. The textural grit of the Seeds or some other some Nuggets-esque steez is what they’re going for, though their sound is much more ramshackle and lacking the rhythmic backbone of a tight ‘60s combo. The rockers, like "Odds And Ends" on The Basement Tapes, or Billy Bragg & Wilco’s Mermaid Avenue sessions, could be other points of reference, but let’s not get too carried away here. On the flip side the lead singer lets his voice crack, then yelps and whoops during a bar rockin’ geetar solo. Lively lads, and probably better on stage. Booze was probably enjoyed at the session, and not surprisingly whiskey is mentioned in a lyric. They’re having fun but this didn’t really light my world on fire, as there really are a shitload of bands that sound like this, today or yesterday. Four-song EP with some colorful sleeve artwork by John Malta. (http://www.bachelorrecords.com)
“She’s So Crazy” b/w “I Am Your Trash” 7”
This single opens with big attitude as Mickey comes out with a vintage glam/powerpop trick – an upfront vocal lead-in, the instant rave-up scream of "She’s so crazy!" Immediately a glammy atmosphere is achieved (of course, the band is called MICKEY), and the sass is pinned proudly to their leather jackets. Tuneful and classic sounding, rockin’ and a-rollin’, and centered on the lead vocals. This would probably be more entertaining from the stage at your local rock pub, if places like that still exist near you. Not a bad single for fans of the flashier side of garage pop, but anyone else could probably carry on without hearing this.
Red Tops 7” EP
"Red Tops" on side A starts with an evil, churning Dick Dale surf riff. Sounds like listening to a band practice in a small room from down the hall, or from the other side of an airplane hangar. That’s probably quite intentional and only a total quadrilateral would suggest this would benefit from slicker production. But lyrics are hard to make out, there’s no bass, and kick-snare-crash are a distant and murky notion, though the beats are effective. First song on the B-side starts off with a strong reverb riff, could be a killed-by-Buddy Holly’s-charter-flight kind of lost nug. They have a knack for the classic garage hooks; it’s there in the choruses, you just need to crane your neck and crank the volume to really catch them. And now I’m thinking about what ‘60s collectors would think of this, or if Ugly Things would endorse ‘em; along those lines a Greg Ashley, Mantles or Sic Alps comparison isn’t hard to make. Peeping their other tracks on the MySpace, the vocals are also somewhat similar to Mr. Kurt Vile. After a few spins it becomes a pretty enticing EP, and if you need more stuff that sounds like this look for an upcoming Sacred Bones 12" and an LP on Sweet Rot, among other things. (http://www.hozacrecords.com)
“Enemy With An Invitation” b/w “Reinstall” 7”
As often as Nothing People are compared to Chrome or other synthy purveyors of cosmic slop, they have always had a focused and forceful rock foundation, which is the mode they operate in here. While their Late Night LP was an affair praised for its sinister, nocturnal lysergic vibes, the electronics and vocal treatments that warranted the comparisons they’ve received are held at bay in favor of guitars, lyrics, and concise song structures. You could listen to this sober in the light of day and be totally fine. Packaged like a classy letterpressed invitation to a white tux wedding, “Enemy” charges and chugs out of the gate with menacing tone, sending the bridegroom’s loved ones crashing into the ice sculpture/chocolate fondue station. It ends just as the central riff begins to explode. "Reinstall," a song the whole IT department can enjoy, keeps the same tempo going, with great dual guitar vs. bass action great. It’s a brief listen, seemingly a preview of their third LP in as many years (Soft Crash, just out on S-S), but a satisfying missive all the same.
Deceiving Illusion LP
(Not Not Fun)
Odd Clouds is a Detroit-based jam band (featuring members of Tyvek) that explores free rock/psych forms using primarily electro-acoustic instrumentation. As these sounds go, it’s not the most outer stratosphere thing you’ll ever hear, but the relatively grounded use of rock ideas (such as regular 4/4 drumming) provides a fairly direct interface that makes this pretty fun. It’s nice that this is so well-recorded, at least for the genre – instead of a distorted space-jam, you actually can hear the unique sounds of the instruments. The aforementioned drums aren’t played in a technically flashy manner, but they work well with electric bass and provide a pathway for the guitars, synths, and other weird drones to draw their map. Odd Clouds don’t feel a need to fill every bit of space with something, but nor are they particularly delicate in what they do. I don’t hear many edit points on these tracks, so I suspect we are getting pretty much live improvisations. There’s a Ralph Records feel to these sounds, so I suspect that early 80s art-rock and RIO may be an influence. You get a sense of these musicians really understanding each other while eschewing he traditional improvised music patterns. There’s not such a sense of trying to extend instruments or challenging structures – the focus, from what I can tell, is more on creating a strong group dynamic and exploring the idea of a collective sound-world. The scary silk-screened sleeve looks like something that Dennis Tyfus would do, but there’s something far more anti-traditional going on here. (http://www.notnotfun.com)
“More Than Me” b/w “Chemical Girl” 7”
With a name like The Powerchords, you might guess this is either powerpop … or collegiate acapella. The sound is clean-cut and poppy, and these SoCal dudes make no bones about worshipping the classic punk-angled powerpop of yore (Buzzcocks, Undertones, et al.) as well as the recent school of garage poppers along the Douchemaster/Shit Sandwich/Termbo/etc axis. Fans of those labels and bands should check them out because it’s not just a pale imitation; they actually deliver the goods. The B-side "Chemical Girl" is even better, with multi-part harmonies no less, playing at punk-fast speed while not skimping on the songwriting hookage, which really helps their cause. (http://www.bachelorrecords.com)
Rosie Thomas and Friends
Apartment Sessions LP/All the Way From Michigan Not Mars DVD
All the Way From Michigan Not Mars is a nicely-packaged DVD and LP combo from Brooklyn’s Factory 25 label (the same catalog number as Closer, for those keeping score). It’s a Rosie Thomas album by name, though the focus is on the small community based around her music. Director Matt Boyd tracks the group’s tour supporting Thomas’s fourth album These Friends of Mine on the DVD. The album, self-released after an ambiguous split with Sub Pop, was recorded by a small group including fellow indie-lite NPR favorites Sufjan Stevens, Damien Jurado and Denison Whitmer. The traveling and interviews, while informative, aren’t as elucidating as the live performances. Thomas tries to reconcile a silly, playful streak with completely serious and pensive songs, flip-flopping between the two poles in somewhat contradictory fashion. The best performance is towards the end of the film, the duet with Sufjan Stevens “Say Hello,” where the border between giddiness and sternness is finally mitigated. The accompanying white vinyl LP, Apartment Sessions, contains a nearly identical tracklisting to These Friends of Mine. The songs are in fact different, home recordings that are stripped down to acoustic guitars, banjos, and piano. Songs like “Much Farther to Go” and “Why Waste More Time” far outshine the album versions by using their simplicity to highlight both the songwriting and Thomas’s excellent voice. However, at times the lyrics can seem very trite and contrived, mentioning in a plain and dull manner: departing friends, trains to Brooklyn, disengagement with Christianity, and other tropes of coffee shop folk. A bit of metaphor or symbolism could turn the songs into something both more personal and universal, as they feel by turns anonymous, general, and vague. Thomas has found her niche over the past decade, and fans of hers would be remiss to not dive wholeheartedly into this generous package, but it’s unlikely that it’ll be cultivate a new legion of fans outside of the sphere of Sufjan/Decemberists folk-pop. (http://www.factorytwentyfive.com)
Glass Fountain LP
(Not Not Fun)
Isn’t it strange how “weird” rock music has a sound of its own now? Yeah, there’s a million different bands playing a million different sounds but somehow there’s a current running through quite a few bands that feels really identifiable. Maybe it’s a common interest in cheap equipment. Wet Hair, a duo of Ryan Garbes and Shawn Reed, don’t strike me as a million miles away from a band like Mouthus or even others from the Not Not Fun family. There’s a monolithic approach to their improvisations, a tendency to thicken out empty space, and vocalizations that are more moaned than melodic. “Mesmerized,” the opening cut from Glass Fountain, stays on a two-note organ riff while the vocals drone on unintelligibly through a few DOD pedals. Under it all (as throughout the record) is a layer of white noise, hiss and other trebly atmospherics. It’s not just lo-fi recording that does this, but the overall hazy intentional obfuscation. When the lyrics can be discerned, they aren’t delivered with much emotion. Voice as instrument, I guess, and words are just another building block. Things get a bit more varied as they go on; “When the Right Time Comes” actually picks out some cute melodies over a steady rhythmic gallop; I daresay it almost sounds twee, at least for Not Not Fun. The toy keyboards are very much part of Wet Hair’s sound, and sometimes they work magic with the electronic gurgles. “Cold City” is the likely peak, as the trash overtones build into an orgiastic rock beatdown, though the drumming isn’t more emotional than flashy. “Stepping Razor (To Heaven’s Door)” ends the LP with a bit of drum sequencing and more cheap (circuit-bent?) synths, probably the most unique sounding track, with its bending bass warbles and meandering caffeine buzz. I should mention the stunningly psychedelic purple marble vinyl, though if you’re looking for paisley sound circles, look elsewhere. (http://www.notnotfun.com)
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By Dusted Magazine