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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