Monday, November 9, 2009

Big D and the Kids Table - Fluent in Stroll (2009)

Rude boys need not apply because this isn't ska- it's "stroll." In a departure from their traditionally uber-hyper punk-ska, Big D & the Kids Table claims to have fused reggae, dub, ska, soul and a myriad of other genres into the new sound called "stroll" on Fluent in Stroll. As a huge fan of Big D, I'm personally offended that they could completely throw out their signature sound and betray their fan base. However, it's pretty unfair to judge an album on what it doesn't do, so let's try and keep this focused on what it actually does do. Ska or not, Fluent in Stroll is still mediocre at best. This is a flat and uninspired album that drags on for fifty minutes, but does show some promise for all of the "strollers" out there.

Lyrically it's a mixed bag; sometimes David McWane crafts thoughtful lyrics, and other times he pours out sappy love themes. Worse though are the painfully stupid nonsense lyrics straight out of Grease's "We Go Together" that pepper tracks. The title track opens with a shrill and piercing vocals, akin to nails on a chalkboard, vamping "Chin-chin, chadda-wadda-wa he." Speaking of vocals, the guest backing vocals provided by The Doped up Dollies does everything but tank the opening and title tracks in my opinion. Most songs plod along at slow tempos vamping ad nausea, but occasionally the group will ramp up to a faster rock'n'roll tempo for old times sake. And why bother keeping around three horn players if you're going to keep them inconspicuously in the background except for the occasional riff? But it's not all bad and high points include the Strictly Rude style "Been Wishing On" and "Chin Up, Boy!", and the surprisingly catchy "Not Fucking Around."

Judged on its own merits, Fluent in Stroll would probably a promising, but ultimately mediocre, début attempt by an up and coming band experimenting in a "new" genre. It really isn't a terrible album if you cut it some slack for being the first entry in the "stroll" cannon. However, long time fans of Big D's distinct Third Wave sound will mourn this as the band's complete abandonment of their punk-ska roots.

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Saturday, July 4, 2009

Eyedea & Abilities - By the Throat (2009)

Rhymesayers-based hip-hop duo Eyedea & Abilities return after a 5 year hiatus with somewhat mixed results. They've mostly left behind the aggressive, battle-centric lyrics and turntablism that were present on E&A in favor of a more indie rock/electronic type sound.

Eyedea's short stint as the vocalist for rock band Carbon Carousel is pretty apparent here, and many of the songs feature him crooning along to dull and uninspired guitar lines that were probably originally intended for the aforementioned band. Eyedea isn't a particularly good singer either, and the tracks that forgo singing in favor of actual rapping are generally the more successful ones.

Another thing worth noting is the apparent lack of DJ Abilities. He still makes a few appearances here and there with some scratching, but his contributions are seemingly minimal compared to the first two albums. This can be explained by the complete change in direction sound-wise, but it is still pretty disappointing, considering Abilities used to be an integral part of the E&A sound.

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Friday, April 17, 2009

Reel Big Fish - Monkeys for Nothing & the Chimps for Free (2007)

If you don't know Reel Big Fish, you didn't listen to the radio in 1997. Their mega-hit "Sell Out" smashed through mainstream playlists and blazed the train for the 3rd Wave punk-ska breakout of the late 90's. They followed that up with a decade of constant touring, honing their stage performances to near perfection, but I've always felt disappointed by their studio catalog since Turn the Radio Off. Their subsequent albums always felt tired, uninspired, formulaic and oddly flavored with more and more hardrock/metal. But after being dropped from Jive Records, Reel Big Fish turned it around with the 2007 Monkeys for Nothing & The Chimps for Free, which I would venture to call their best effort since Turn the Radio Off.

First and foremost this album is fun to listen to. Most tracks are quick, upbeat and have that effortlessly fresh sound that makes ska so fun. The crisp horn riffs, engaging vocals, hectic tempos and "snarky" lyrics that made Reel Big Fish world famous fly out of every track. And as every veteran act does eventually, RBF expands their style a little and ventures into some new territory on a few tracks. The harder, darker and more mature songs sound authentic and work really well here. The laid-back and chill songs feel forced and entirely miss the mark. The standout tracks come in an epic fan service that especially puts a smile on my face when RBF covers and slightly updates "Call Her" and "Hate You", two fan-favorites from their pre-breakout era.

Monkeys does have flow, but isn't bullet-proof as some tracks feel out of place and break up the overall experience. Also the trademark irreverence and "sillyness" critics love to praise RBF for venture into the sophomoric and mornic on occasion here. However, that shouldn't stop die-hard fans and newbies alike from jumping headfirst into Monkeys for Nothing & The Chimps for Free, Reel Big Fish's best studio work in a long time and the spiritual successor to Turn The Radio Off.

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Thursday, April 2, 2009

Dubstep Allstars Vol.05: Mixed By N-Type (2007)

Dubstep is a relatively new genre of music with roots that can be traced back to the early 2K Garage Scene in the United Kingdom. Stylistically, it borrows elements from garage, grime, dub/reggae, and drum and bass to create a musical product that is often dark, sparse in rhythm, and bassy. Dubstep is still somewhat of an underground movement, but it has slowly been gaining popularity over the past few years thanks to moderate media attention. I was first introduced to dubstep a little over a year ago with the release of Burial's second album, Untrue. The album received so much critical praise and attention that I had to check it out. I didn't really know what to expect going in, but I wasn't too impressed, and the album remained on my computer untouched for many months to come. Several months ago however, something piqued my interest in dubstep again, and I gave Untrue another shot. I have since fallen in love with the album, and have been exploring this unfamiliar genre of music ever since (Burial's Untrue is probably one of the biggest gateways for new dubstep listeners).

Now when it comes to electronic music, usually the best way to get aquatinted with an unfamiliar genre is to listen to compilation albums. This allows you to get a general feel and explore different artists within the genre without having to acquire a bunch of different albums. This rings true especially for dubstep (any many other styles of electronic music), which revolves more around songs and tunes than full-length albums. The Dubstep Allstars series is one of the more popular (and respected) compilations in the genre, with new volumes being released on what is seemingly a regular basis. Many dubstep purists would probably want you to start with Volumes 1-3 of the series, or even The Roots of Dubstep compilation, but I'm going to tell you otherwise. And while I'm still new to the genre as a whole, Volume 5 is (to me) the most enjoyable of the series and probably the best place for a beginner to start. You can then start to identify particular artists/styles that you enjoy and move on from there. Even if you're already a dubstep listener (you haven't heard this yet?), it's still worth checking out.

Another few things I forgot to mention earlier: One of the cool things about these compilations is that they're mixed by producers from the dubstep scene (in this case, N-Type mixed Vol 5). So not only do you get to see what some of the more popular dubstep producers are digging, but all the tracks blend and transition seamlessly into one another. Perfect for extended listening. Also, to get the best listening experience for dubstep, a good soundsystem or a really nice pair of headphones is highly recommended. There's a lot of really low-end bass in there that might get lost or just cause distortion if your setup isn't up to par. Just something to think about.

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Monday, February 16, 2009

Big D and the Kids Table - Strictly Rude (2007)

For a band that put out its first self-release, Shot by Lammi, in 1997, Big D and the Kids Table has managed to stay insanely active and independent over the years. Forgoing major labels and keeping an almost legendary DIY stance, the Boston natives managed to criss-cross the country for years touring with some of the biggest names in the game while cultivating a reputation for especially hectic and rowdy shows, even for punk-ska. The 2007 Strictly Rude understandably shocked die-hard fans with its mature, sophisticated and often "chill" approach to what had been before defined as raw, aggressive and energetic. But slower tempos be damned, Big D still brings their A-game in a huge way with Strictly Rude, easily one of the best alternative albums of the decade.

The most remarkable thing about this album is just how fun it is to listen to. The songs are well written, well performed, easy to listen to and very danceable. And it's amazing that a band that has been together for almost two decades can put out a record with at least four legit anthems like "Shining On" and "Try Out Your Voice". Frontman David McWane beautifully crafts authentic, meaningful and smart lyrics and puts them out there with passion, intensity and a healthy dose of melody. Songs move effortlessly from "Joe Sixpac" topics like drinking PBR with friends and getting kicked off the subway to heavyweight themes like political activism, preaching tolerance and substance abuse. And for as much press that Strictly Rude gets for being "chill" and "laid back", Big D proves that they can still turn up the distortion when they want to with "Souped-up Vinyl" and lead-off track "Steady Riot."

I'll have to admit that I personally like the older Big D catalogue a little bit better. Their frantic pace and high energy songs that I've grown to love are definitely missed on this record. But that doesn't mean that the more grown-up Strictly Rude is any less fun to listen to. Big D’s trademark DIY sound, smart and sarcastic lyrics, and authentic local vibe all blast out of every byte on the album. When all is said and done, Strictly Rude is a much more mature and accessible record that has some damn good music on it.

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Monday, February 2, 2009

Burzum - Hvis Lyset Tar Oss (1994)

Hvis Lyset Tar Oss (English translation: If The Light Takes Us) is often regarded as one of, if not the, greatest achievements in black metal history. Not only has the album been a major influence to many different bands (not just black metal), but it is also admired for depicting the black metal genre in its purest and rawest form.

To better understand Hvis Lyset Tar Oss, we must first take a brief look at the man behind it all, the infamous Varg Vikernes. Varg Vikernes, also known as Count Grishnackh, is the former bassist for black metal pioneers Mayhem. In the early nineties, Varg was convicted of arson upon numerous churches throughout Norway, most notably the Fantoft Stave, a historical building that had been around for centuries (a photograph of the church after it was destroyed was later used for the cover of Burzum's Aske EP). His most notorious crime however, was the murder of Mayhem member Øystein "Euronymous" Aarseth. While his motives for the murder are still relatively unclear, Vikernes himelf claims that he was only acting in self defense and that Euronymous planned to kill him first. His conviction of the murder landed him 21 years in prison, a sentence that he is still living out to this day. And although Vikernes is a self-proclaimed Pagan and an advocate of nationalism and anti-theism, none of these sentiments directly influence the album itself.

While bands like Ulver brought a lighter, folk-influenced sound into black metal, Vikernes chose to go in the opposite direction. The first three tracks of the album are bound to be some of the most morbid and unrelenting songs you will ever hear in your life. The first track, "Det Som En Gang Var," is the backbone of the album and arguably one of the best black metal songs ever recorded. It starts off slow, setting up a dark, gloomy atmosphere that will remain for the duration of the album. Then, it continues to build in intensity until you're faced with a haunting, atmospheric, raw wall of sound and presence that does not let up until the final song of the album. Vikernes is also one of the most terrifying vocalists I have ever had the pleasure of listening to. What he lacks in technical ability, he makes up for with raw emotion. His tortured voice pretty much embodies the pure, raw emotion and feeling of black metal. The album continues in this general direction until the forth and final track, "Tomhet." "Tomhet" is the track that brings everything back down and concludes the album. Instead of invoking the same feelings of death and despair as the rest of the album, "Tomhet" creates a calm and peaceful atmosphere with its droning ambience and soothing keyboards.

The ability of Vikernes to convey so many different emotions throughout one piece of music never ceases to amaze me. On the surface of Hvis Lyset Tar Oss, you'll hear some of the most brutal and despairing music ever. But below its dark and depressive shell, you're likely to discover an atmospherically beautiful album full of raw passion and emotion that has yet to be surpassed. It's certainly not for everyone, but anyone with an open mind should check this out.

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Friday, January 16, 2009

Mustard Plug / Bomb The Music Industry - Under the Influence Split Vol. 3 (2008)

Covers can be tricky. You have to strike a balance between staying true to the original source material and infusing it with your own unique sound. Thankfully Mustard Plug's version of "Waiting Room" by Fugazi walks that fine line and does not disappoint.

On this two band, two track EP, Mustard Plug offers passionate vocals, pounding base and ripping guitar riffs that mimic the Fugazi classic strikingly well. The added a layer of punctuating and angsty horns bring a lot and manage to sound right at home. After one or two listens to the MP version, the original almost feels a little empty with out the blaring horns. I think that the real draw here is "Waiting Room", but Burn the Music Industry does a good job with the stylistically different cover of Pavement's alterna-pop "Gold Soundz."

It really is refreshing to see an established band like Mustard Plug to reach out and cut an EP with up-and-comers like BTMI. Industry commentary aside, the unique juxtoposition of underground post-hardcore and alterna-pop covers makes for an interesting 5-minute listen for fans of the original material and ska-freaks alike.

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Thursday, January 15, 2009

Rachel Doe - Rachel Doe's Album (2009)

Rachel Doe has a unique sound, smart lyrics and a versatile voice that all add up to good music. A 20 year old college student studying music in Boston, Rachel writes, performs and records all of her own work in her spare time for fun. And even though I'm putting this on MvA, this isn't exactaly an album, in fact, it barely qualifies as an EP. This is just the collection of songs that Rachel gave me when I asked her for a sampling of her music- the textbook definition of independant, DIY recording.

"Bunny Hey Hey" is the stand out and my personal favorite track here. Lyrically, it brings uniquely off-beat humor that doesn't feel forced or overly silly. Vocally, the distinctly female vocals engage and simply sound great. And you can hear subtle punk/alternative influences in the quick tempo and barebones guitar work which provide great contrast to the "girly" nature of the rest of the song. She plays "Gorgey Porgey," the ballad, in an almost completely different style that makes good use of grunge-esque "loud/soft" structre that works very well against her voice. And "Organism," the shortest track is charmingly "get in, get out" while still having very mature sound.

Bottom line, this isn't really ground breaking or genre redefining, but these tracks are fun and easy to listen to. And it really is refreshing to listen to a solo/acousting female vocalist that doesn't have that late 90s post-grunge "I am woman, hear me roar!" feeling to it.

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Wednesday, January 7, 2009

The Workout - Feed Me a Stray Cat (2008)

When keyboardist Corey Tilton gave me a copy of Feed Me a Stray Cat he called it their "shitty little disk," but it is anything but. Hailing from scenic Weymouth, Ma (just south of Boston) The Workout is a unique group that sports impressive versatility, technical ability and songwriting in all of their music. A self-described "synthcore" band their songs seamlessly blend metal, punk and pop in a refreshing style that is surprisingly easy to listen to (even for ska freaks like me).

This disk may be short, but The Workout covers a lot of different ground on it. They move from pretty heavy metal, to elegant piano interludes to bouncy pop-punk in the blink of an eye and it never seems forced. On my first few play throughs I had trouble hearing when a song ended because the liquid smooth transitions thrown into every track. Passionate lead vocals set the bar pretty high for other acts and are backed up by a dedicated “screamer” which fosters interesting call-and-response sections. But that's not to say that every other band member isn't strikingly technically skilled. While it’s hard to pin down exactly what they’re doing musically The Workout definitely brings a lighthearted feeling to the table. Successfully walking the fine line between pleasantly goofy and inanely silly, you never get the feeling they’re taking themselves too seriously, even during shred-tastic solos and gut-wrenching breakdowns. The opening track is literally about Rock-paper-scissors and “Fuck Absinthe” is a hilarious and surprisingly insightful take on the classic pop-punk whiney break-up song.

My biggest gripe with this EP is the lengthy instrumental interludes and breaks. Maybe this is just why I don’t like metal, but songs seemed to take too long to intro and took too many extended interludes mid song; “The Draft” and “Return of the Hun” are both over 4:00. Aside from that one small gripe, Feed Me a Stray Cat has a lot to offer. The Workout’s sheer versatility ensures that there’s something for everyone. Throw in technically impressive... everything, a good does of melody when needed, and solid hooks and you get a winner. It may be only four tracks long, but good things come in small packages and everyone needs to give this one a listen.

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The Skank Agents - Something for Everyone (2008)

To quote a friend, The Skank Agents are "super fucking legit." An underground San Diego Ska band that started way back in 2004 and solidified a line-up by '06, you're more likely to see band members making laps in a circle pit than in the recording studio. They trade in the frantic punk energy of other bands for a healthy dose of melody and a surprisingly mature sound. "Canon in D" and "Flight of the Bumblebee" references remind the listener that this is no 3-chord act. Like a lot of bands in the genre, this album doesn't quite capture the energy, fun atmosphere and skankability that characterize a live performance, but Something for Everyone definitely deserves a listen.

Though the engineering on this album doesn't really showcase it, this blaring horn section is loud, upfront and surprisingly complex. The frontman/lead vocals/trumpet has some chops and strikes a balance between passionate vocals and crisp instrumentation. He's complimented by the dark and biting sounds of bari and tenor saxes for a very full bodied sound. Add in a solid guitars, versatile bass and steady drums and you get a band that really locks in and hits a groove. Lyrically they are generally pretty solid but can be transparent at times. Even the lyrically simpler tracks like"Party Song" and "Smash Dance" (does this remind anyone else of Planet Smashers' "The Manta Ray"?) have a certain charm and catchyness though.

My only concern with this album is the "chill songs." I'm all for expanding the genre with creative and musically sound songwriting, but I like my ska fast. Sure many will argue that occasionally slower tempos and longer songs create a more mature sound and increase the general listenability of the album, and they're probably right. But I just personally prefer higher energy songs. Still, when they want to The Skank Agents can turn up the tempos and trash with the best of them; songs like "Peace" and "Friends" showcase their punk influences and biting attack.

The Skank Agents are an archetypal "local band" and are a bunch or really cool guys. They play shows loud and fast, have a ton of energy and stage presence, and clearly love what they do. At the end of the day, Something for Everyone doesn't quite capture that feeling, but that's a problem with the genre in general and not the band. It's a really solid album with some stand-out tracks that definitely deserves repeated listens. It may not be perfect, but these guys are down in the trenches fighting to keep ska alive for 2009, and they're doing a kick-ass job. And what do you really expect from guys that still read off of sheet-music at shows?

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