Before The Dawn Heals Us

by M83 (2005, Gooom)

I’ve made it no secret that my impressions of M83’s previous album, Dead Cities, Red Seas & Lost Ghosts, have been lukewarm at best.  People have fallen all over themselves to sing the album’s praises (Pitchfork, I’m looking in your general direction), piling accolade after accolade onto the band’s towering arrays of guitars and analog synths.  Granted, the disc sounds impressive—at first.  However, after repeated listens, it begins to sound a little too hollow and obvious.  It’s as if the duo does everything within their power to convince people that their music is “big” and “epic”, an attempt that often feels cold, distant, and predictable to me.

Which is why it’s nice to hear the band (now reduced to just Anthony Gonzalez) opt for a warmer, more organic sound on Before The Dawn Heals Us.  The parts that were strongest on Dead Cities… were often those where the duo relaxed a little bit and let the listener peek behind the curtain, so to speak.  When they let down their guard and stopped trying to bombard the listener with wave after metallic wave of sound.

Unfortunately, Before The Dawn Heals Us is flawed in other ways.  While the more organic approach certainly has its advantages, it also means that the album often lacks much of a focus, resulting in a disc that is just as spotty and uneven as its predecessor… just differently.

“Moonchild” and “Don’t Save Us From The Flames” pick up right where Dead Cities… left off, with the same sort of bombast that one finds in tracks like “Unrecorded” and “Run Into Flowers”—albeit in a slightly more refined form.  On “Moonchild”, after a somewhat precious vocal intro courtesy of Kate Moran (“Keep on singing little boy, and raise your arms to the big black sky. Raise your arms the highest you can, so the whole universe will glow.”), castrati vocals and metallic guitars do their best to punch a hole in the stratosphere.  “Don’t Save Us From The Flames” is the album’s most intense track, its rapid-fire drumming and breakneck guitars tearing along like a Swervedriver track with its brakelines cut.

After the opening one-two punch, the album calms down and reveals its strongest suite of tracks.  “In The Cold I’m Standing” is a fairly basic track with oceanic swells of distorted guitar and sad synthlines.  Despite its fairly familiar nature, it has the same sort of enveloping effect as Sigur Rós.

“Farewell/Goodbye” is easily the album’s strongest track, as well as the strongest track yet produced by the band simply because it’s so, well, un-M83ish.  Rather, it sounds more akin to their fellow countrymen in Air. The warm, bubbling analog synthwork, wist-inducing melodies, vocoderized croon, and overly romantic-yet-oh so perfect lyrics (“I’ll write my love on more than a thousand weeping willows”) might be a bit too far on the soft-rock end of the spectrum for some, but I love it.  It’s a nice change of pace, and it’s here that M83’s more organic approach becomes most apparent.

“I Guess I’m Floating” continues this direction, with sparse guitars plucked over soft synth swells and the sounds of children at play.  As the title might imply, it’s a rather mellow track, and one that could easily last well beyond it’s short runtime without becoming too saccharine.  Meanwhile, “Teen Angst” meanders back towards more bombastic territory, with pummelling synth drums rising from up beneath building synths to explode in a short, nova-like burst of dreamy vocals.

Unfortunately, the album’s final third or so begins to sputter, meandering around with several dubious, even groanworthy tracks.  “Safe” begins the slow descent, an extremely mawkish piano ballad that finally disappears into the sounds of kids exclaiming while they watch fireworks explode overhead.  It’s the perfect sentiment for M83, who try so hard to infect their music with a sense of wonder and magic, and yet never quite seem to do so.

Actually, now that I think about it, the track itself might not be so bad except that it’s precedes “Car Chase Terror!”, a track so bad that it manages to drag down much of the surrounding album.  The song doesn’t work on paper—M83 provides the soundtrack while Kate Moran recites Z-grade slasher movie dialog, pretending to be a mother and daughter who console eachother as they drive away from a pursuing murderer—and it sounds even worse when you actually hear it.  And Gonzalez lets loose with his inner shredder on “A Guitar And A Heart”, whipping out some hard rocking guitar riffs that sound like equal parts Van Halen and Daft Punk (think “Digital Love”) and just banging away at the same progression for minutes on end.

The album ends on a somewhat more spectacular note, with “Lower Your Eyelids To Die With The Sun”, which, with its angelic choirs, fairy-like vocal pips, silvery layers, and booming tympanis, actually manages to live up to the pomp and circumstance that it surrounds itself with.

Is Before The Dawn Heals Us a bad album?  No, but it is definitely a flawed one.  I’m still don’t understand the hype and acclaim that surrounds M83, but Before The Dawn Heals Us contains several moments in which I can almost perceive a time when I might.  However, the rest of the album proves that they’ve still got a ways to go.

Life Begins Again

by The Jimmy Chamberlin Complex (2005, Sanctuary Records)

Is it alright for me confess that I was never much of a Smashing Pumpkins fan?  I mean, I knew a couple of their songs, and even borrowed Siamese Dream from a friend in high school (but I never listened to the whole thing).  I realize that Billy Corgan and Co. were the big alternative band of the mid/late ‘90s, the one that gave you instant cred the moment you mentioned you owned Gish, but I think I was too wrapped up in the early stages of my goth phase to really notice.

As a result, I was initially cautious when it came to approaching this album.  For starters, I’d have no historical context in which to place it.  I wouldn’t be able to wax nostalgic about my Pumpkins fixation, and how Chamberlin’s album took me back to the good old days.  Nor would I be able to lament how much he’d faded away since his past gig’s demise, how much this disc represented a last, desperate effort by the man.

And so, God forbid, I guess I just have to take the album on its own terms.  I will admit that I was a little worried that this might well represent the efforts of a man past his prime trying to cash in on some modern rock fad or phase.  And, being the cynic that I am, the statements by Chamberlin concerning “cosmic vibrations” and whatnot also threw up a red flag or two.

Thankfully, Chamberlin doesn’t just try to cash in on popular trends, but rather, seems fully interested in writing real songs that contain actual artistic merit on their own.  The album begins on a stellar note with the Tortoise-y “Streetcrawler”, which coasts along on Chamberlin’s intricate drumming, shifting guitar chords, Billy Mohler’s distant falsetto, and most noticeably Adam Benjamin’s deft Fender Rhodes.  As the song progresses, it eventually morphs into a lumbering jam session, the low-end rising up like a tar pit while the guitar thrashes about in its midst.

Although the album contains a number of noteworthy contributors, such as Catherine Wheel’s Rob Dickinson (who lends his voice on two tracks) and Billy Corgan (who sings on “Loki Cat”), the Complex is at its best when it’s sticks to just the four of them jamming about.

“P.S.A” drifts along on clouds of Mohler’s wispy guitar, as Bejamin’s Rhodes pulses in the background like distant satellites.  “Cranes Of Prey” is a rather schizophrenic song, moving from spacey Rhodes signals to wiry guitars that venture a bit too close to “nu metal” territory before falling back into more lush, laidback sonics.  “Owed To Darryl” is another jam that seems to fall in the same vibe as Tortoise and their ilk, full of undulating basslines, more of Chamberlin’s dextrous drumming, and a wonderful Rhodes solo by Benjamin that squawks and gurgles like an chorus of dial-up modems.

Lyrically, Chamberlin claims the album is about spiritual freedom, specifically freedom through music.  That may be so, but a quick perusal of the lyrics also reveals a certain fascination with the darker side of life, and of trying to reconcile the two.  On the title track, Rob Dickinson sings “With every breath you take life begins again/And every time you whisper death starts to descend”, and on “Loki Cat” (one of the album’s most pensive and enveloping moments), Corgan muses “Who are we to complain when God takes things away/Is it enough to confess some sadness?”

As the album progresses, Chamberlin’s outlook does seem to lighten on tracks such as “Love Is Real” and “Newerwaves”.  “Newerwaves”, with its surging guitars and insistent percussion, is a clarion call, matched by lyrics such as “When despair takes your hand all you do is worry…/Soon a place called yesterday will be gone forever and a new love of today will come and you will fly”.  Admittedly, on paper that seems a bit cheesy, but the Complex’ music lends it the necessary heft.

And finally, the album ends with Bill Medley (of Righteous Brothers fame) singing “Close your eyes/Sleep tight tonight and dream/My dear rest your head/The sun will rise and I’ll be here.”  However, as if to temper such optimism, the album ends with a short reprise of “Loki Cat” which leaves behind a somewhat pensive note.

Life Begins Again isn’t simply yet another album by some washed up has-been desperately trying to cash in on former fame and glory—not by a longshot.  I can’t speak for former Pumpkins fans, or even former Zwan fans, but I found the disc to be a very solid debut from a group that clearly knows their strengths and plays to them consistently from beginning to end.

On Vacation

by The Robot Ate Me (2005, 5 Rue Christine)

The Robot Ate Me’s debut album, They Ate Themselves, was a quirky and dark release that found the band getting compared to everyone from Radiohead to Neutral Milk Hotel, despite not really sounding like either. Their off-kilter sound was inventive and colorful, taking little influences from all over but turning it into something completely different, and at their best they managed to craft some really beautiful indie pop songs.
 
But the album was not without its weak spots.  In fact, there were many. With close to twenty songs, it was a rather lengthy release, and it could have been trimmed down for a much stronger release. The lyrics were rather bizarre and slightly pretentious, with just about every song being about cannibalism or death, and hearing such grim lyrics got a bit irritating after awhile. Lastly, the cold, frail, and detached vocals of singer Ryland Bouchard, and at times he was talking more than singing.
 
Despite its shortcomings, though, the band had an interesting enough sound that I was looking forward to hearing what they had up their sleeves next. Thankfully, the band has managed to overcome most of the weaknesses they showed. On this, their second release, they are crafting much stronger and more daring songs, and have substituted pretension with charm and humor.
 
The first disc opens with “The Genocide Ball,” and it is truly representative of how they have progressed musically while having retained the dark lyrics. A nice little romp of a song, “The Genocide Ball” sounds just like that: with the lo-fi recording of a brass band and the hiss and crackle of a recorder, you get the feeling that you’re attending some glitzy party in the ‘20s or ‘40s. Depending on how you look at it, it’s either wacky and fun or spooky and bizarre.  That kind of World War II swing dance style shows up again on most of the tracks of the first disc. “The Republican Army” sways back and forth with organ, saxophone, and more lo-fi crackles, while a clanging and screeching beat threatens to overtake the song.
 
Whereas their first album was rampant with themes of genocide and cannibalism, this album’s first disc is all about World War II and, well, more genocide. Nowhere is this more prevalent than on “Oh No! Oh My! (1994)”, the album’s weirdest and silliest moment, where Bouchard sings “All the human Africans are statistics, doesn’t matter if they die,” to a cheery and dainty little Vaudevillian melody. The catchy “Crispy Christian Teatime” is just as fun, sounding like a ‘50s commercial with its tooting horns and playful vibraphones. On their first album, lyrics like “And sometimes we play crispy Christian teatime with Barbies, tea, and toast” would just come across as irritating, but here they manage to sound charming, and it shows that the band doesn’t take itself too seriously.
 
The first disc closes out with the album-titled “On Vacation,” which is a slow dirge with far-off organ, weeping strings, and the sound of fighter planes and a rumbling engine. The song itself may drag a bit, but it’s a good example of just how sonically dense the band has managed to make their sound, and the production is masterful.
 
The second disc is the stronger and more conventional of the two. It’s also much more upbeat.  Rather than being full of gloomy songs beamed in from the second world war, it’s sunshiney and immensely catchy.
 
The opener, “On Vacation” (strangely, they use the title twice for two completely different songs), is arguably the best song the band has ever done. Bouchard’s cheerful lyrics about going on a vacation are carried along by fuzzy bass and steady drum beat, building up to a chorus so catchy that it’s impossible not to sing along. The third track, “Apricot Tea,” is also one of the group’s finest moments, and certainly one of their prettiest. Mixing warm keyboards and organ, gentle acoustic guitar, and an effervescent choir, it’s just as sweet as its title implies.
 
If the band earned comparisons to Radiohead and Neutral Milk Hotel on their first outing, they sound more like The Flaming Lips than anything else on their second. “Watermelon Sugar” and “The Tourist”, with their colorful palette of sounds, Bouchard’s Wayne Coyne-ish vocals, and, in the case of the latter, a light-as-air choir, sound like they’re straight out of The Soft Bulletin.  But to cast the band off as mere imitators would hardly do them justice when the songs are so good, and The Robot Ate Me do enough with their sound to make it sounding like a complete ripoff.
 
Although overall the band is writing much stronger and catchier songs, there are times where the release reaches that sort of directionless, arty-for-the-sake-of-being-arty sound. The Mt. Eerie-esque “Jesus And Hitler”, while interesting musically, never really goes anywhere, and its lyrics, which detail Jesus and Hitler making out in the back of the car, are offensive if anything. “You Don’t Fill Me Up the Same” never really gains shape, as any drum beat it begins to develop quickly goes away after a few seconds.
 
One of the most notable changes about the band is the vocals of Ryland Bouchard. He has gained much more confidence, and whereas on the last release his voice got on my nerves once in a while, I wouldn’t mind hearing more of it on this one.
 
What’s slightly puzzling about the release is why it was released on two discs, when each disc, at twenty minutes, is no longer than an EP. Condensing the two and taking out the weaker tracks might have made a stronger release overall, but considering the fact the two discs are so musically different, separating them is the most logical choice.
 
On Vacation shows the band progressing much more musically, writing stronger and catchier songs and keeping all the good parts of their last release while getting rid of most of the bad ones. Whether or not it’s worth your $18 (most of the money, I’m guessing, goes towards the elaborate and lovely packaging) is up to you, and I would suggest downloading two or three songs off their website to get a feel of their sound. For my money, though, this collection of inventive and brilliant avant pop songs is well worth it, and I only wish it was longer.

Written by Richie DeMaria.

Becoming What You Hate

by Pony Express (2005, Velvet Blue Music)

Becoming What You Hate finds Pony Express’ Jeff Cloud making his boldest move yet as a songwriter and musician.  It’s tempting to see Cloud in light of his affiliation with Starflyer 59 and (until recently) Joy Electric.  It’s easy to see him as simply the tall, quiet guy on bass or keyboards, or the man behind the underappreciated Velvet Blue Music.  I do it all the time, and therein lies the risk of completely missing Cloud’s own efforts or writing them off as derivative of his friends and allies.

The album’s opening track, Becoming What You Hate, quickly does away with that notion.  Cloud’s soft vocals whisper “All your feelings are streaming down your leg/All your feelings are becoming what you hate” over bubbling loops, starkly abstract tones, and loosely distorted guitars.  It’s a brilliant track, both in its brevity and in the muted sense of alienation that it conveys.  If there’s one thing that Cloud has in common with Jason and Ronnie Martin (the two he’s most closely associated with), it’s melancholy, but this track may be one of most haunting songs the Orange County crew has ever produced.

After that, it’s back to more familiar territory, producing slightly skewed indie pop with hints of Britpop, Jesus & Mary Chain, plenty o’ sad melodies, and surf stylings.  But the moments that make me smile are when Pony Express reach past the obvious comparisons and look to the likes of Terry Taylor and Mike Roe for inspiration.  The chorus of “Queens Of Beirut” is pure Daniel Amos; with its Beatlesque melody and layered vocals, it could be a reincarnation of DA’s “Motorcycle”.  “Headlights Are The Answer” tears out of the gates in true Seventy Sevens style, before turning into “Pray Naked” as covered by the Reid Brothers.

As it stands, Becoming What You Hate makes a perfect companion piece to the later albums from Starflyer 59.  I can say that because of how much more self-assured this recording feels.  Previous Pony Express releases (“The Eastwood Dive”) showed promise but still came off as Starflyer 59 knockoffs.  I’d be lying if I said there isn’t still more than a slight similarity between the two bands—due in part to the fact that many of the same people are involved.

But Becoming What You Hate has its own palette of sounds.  You won’t hear the jagged conclusion of “GPA”, with its clashing guitars and collapsing drums, on Leave Here A Stranger, nor will you find the bizarre choral effects that close the harmonica-laced “Sister Says”.  It’s during moments like these where Cloud steps into avant-pop territory without a shred of pretense.  It’s also where you really sense Cloud finally coming into his own, crafting music that’s able to stand on its own, not in the shadows of others.

NTEP

by Nontourist (2005, Self-Released)

Sometimes, new bands try too hard, to make an indelible statement with their very first release.  Or maybe they just get too ambitious, reaching for the brass ring from the word “go”.  Occasionally it works and something magical occurs, but let’s face it… most new artists aren’t going to save music with the first hit off of their self-released EP, regardless of how much they may advertise to the contrary.  I think that’s why I like Nontourist (a.k.a. Chicago resident Andy Kamm) as much as I do.  He isn’t trying to make anything new or revolutionary.  Quite the contrary, actually.

Although Kamm has played with more pop-oriented groups like ExtraVery and Carbonfour, Nontourist largely eschews that for an electronic-based, more downtempo/trip-hop-oriented route.  You immediately get a sense where Nontourist is heading within the first seconds of “You’re Still Okay”.  A sparse, piano melody winds its away over a subdued bassline and sharp rhythms.  Perhaps the closest comparison might be the calmer moments in Third Eye Foundation’s music, right before Matt Elliot unleashed the ghoulies, tortured kittens, and haunted playgrounds.  It’s background music, best reserved for walking down dimly lit hallways with an escaped mental patient about to leap out from behind any door.

“Avoid Separation” and “Lay Across” delves deeper in Nontourist’s Bristol influences; you almost expect to hear Tricky’s sinister whisperings come in amidst the songs’ staggered, echoing breakbeats, reverbed keyboards, and eerie field recordings.  For the large part, Nontourist’s music is instrumental.  But when vocals do appear, as on “Alpine”, and to a lesser extent, “Thursday”, they’re used more for atmosphere than anything else.

Both tracks feature Tanya Reed and Brenna McLaughlin’s exotic jazz singer routine whilst cooing over Nontourist’s beats.  It may sound like the stereotypical downtempo setup, but if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.  It worked great on Mus’ first album, and it works equally well here, especially on “Thursday”, which occasionally throws in a nice drum n’ bass flourish to keep things interesting.

The EP’s closing track wraps things up on a slightly brighter air, with more upbeat textures and Reed’s vocals appearing alongside the crackling beats.  Thankfully, however, they don’t completely disrupt the darker aspects of Nontourist’s music that I find particularly appealing.

I’d be lying if I said this was particularly innovative stuff.  There are times when Nontourist’s beats get a bit repetitive, or obviously of the Fruityloops persuasion.  But that aside, it’s still solid and well done, especially for a young release.  If Kamm is still adhering to the same basic sounds after a few more releases, I’ll be pretty disappointed.  But I don’t think I need to worry.  This EP gives him a good start, and plenty of material to build upon in the future.