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Music Reviews

The Pop Group

The Pop Group

For How Much Longer Do We Tolerate Mass Murder

Freaks R Us

My first though when I heard this reissue of For How Much Longer Do We Tolerate Mass Murder was, good god, no wonder I was so depressed in college!

I owned this record when it first came out. It was like a lot of what I was listening to then, loud, angry, political and not very optimistic. The agit-prop posturing of vocalist Mark Stewart bangs away at the ills of the world. Looking back, the Pop Group were screaming, the world is fucked and nobody is doing anything about it. Just the kind of thing an angsty undergrad social science student would eat up.

Playing it loudly also bugged the crap out of the preppy dudes in the dorm.

The Pop Group came out of Bristol in the ferment of the late ’70s post punk movement. Their music raged against injustice in a way that made bands like The Clash and Gang of Four sound like college debate clubs. The musical mash-up brought together funk and dub rhythms, free jazz and squally avant-garde guitar freak-outs and abstract sonic experimentation. It was, and remains, a potent sonic stew.

It’s rather sad that, all these years later, the rants still ring with inconvenient truths. The “hit” single from For How Long Do We Tolerate Mass Murder is a song that echoes my old philosophy professor’s favorite saying; “We Are All Prostitutes.” Both singer Mark Stewart and my old professor assert that we all sell ourselves for whatever we can get. The only difference between a college professor and a call girl is what they’re selling and how much they’re getting paid.

Elsewhere, the names could use updating, but the subjects are sadly the same. You could switch out Nixon and Kissinger for Bush and Cheney and the title track would be pretty up to date. The same could be said about the rant about big banks. The song “Justice”, could apply just as well to Ferguson or Baltimore; who is policing the police? I guess the world is still pretty fucked up.

The Pop Group’s sound was a volatile mix and For How Much Longer Do We Tolerate Mass Murder was their second and last studio album. After the band split in the early 80’s, members moved on to groups like New Age Steppers, Pigbag, Rip, Rig and Panic and Public Image Limited. The Pop Group reformed in 2010 and released their third studio recording Citizen Zombie in 2015.

thepopgroup.com

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Event Reviews

Wilderness

Wilderness

San Serac

Beachland Tavern, Cleveland, OH • November 24, 2008

Having played in a fairly active band for the last three years, my drive to partake in gigs solely from the audience’s side of the stage has steadily declined. It’s hard to muster enough interest to make the trek a few miles down the road for shows, let alone ones that would require the crossing of state lines.

Wilderness

Laura Goins
Wilderness

Baltimore, MD’s Wilderness, however, are a definite exception to that rule. To my knowledge, in their three years as a band they’ve only passed through Michigan once, well before my interest in them had a chance to solidify. Here was an opportunity to see them via a reasonably manageable 6-hour round trip.

The Beachland Tavern wasn’t exactly bustling with indie rock throngs shortly before opener San Serac began his short set, but he was quick to win over those in attendance. Serac played the part of an electro vampire; it was almost as if he was a holdover from a theoretical age of auteur disco. Preprogrammed beats and melodies streamed from his iPod, while he added occasional keyboard/synth flourishes. It was all invigorating, disposable leftist dance-pop — which he referred to as “The House Song” and “The Peter Gabriel Song” among others — but his stage presence was his true x-factor. His vocalization and mannerisms struck many of the same poses as David Bowie in his blue-eyed soul era, with a more manic slant. His set even went so far as to inspire break dancing from a kid with a broken foot.

San Serac

Laura Goins
San Serac

While San Serac was a colorful act in his own right, there’s little to link him and Wilderness beyond an affinity for progressive politics and for pushing the realms of music in subtly experimental directions. Tenuous though these connections may be, Serac provided an excellent hedonistic foil to the headliner’s cerebral repetitions.

Wilderness’ wordless introduction to their set began with a low guitar drone of “High Nero” and took the band sequentially through their entire new album, (K)no(w)here. There wasn’t even breathing room between the tracks for applause, as the band’s reverb-rich sound and improvised noisy connective tissue interludes mimicked the album’s ebb and flow of the songs into each other. In an age of MP3s, it was amazing to hear a band treat an album as a complete document, rather than a collection of songs to be re-arranged and integrated into their old material.

Wilderness

Laura Goins
Wilderness

The group’s music is majestic in its aural assault. They ply tropes from post-punk, post-rock, shoegaze, prog, and world music onto the most anthemic templates. Perhaps the best song of the evening “Strand the Test of Time” saw guitarist Colin McCann joining William Goode on drumming duties for the first verse before launching into a stratospheric release of guitar. McCann and singer James Johnson provided their set’s visual engagement and tonal counterpoints. McCann flailed over his guitar like a not-quite-reformed hardcore casualty, while Johnson’s slow, fluid movements evoked a marionette attempting Tai Chi or Ian Curtis walking on the bottom of the ocean. I’ve never seen anything like it, though it was a fitting physical display from a singer whose phrasing and enunciation are some of the most idiosyncratic out there. It’s easy to overlook the rhythm section when there are two such strong focal points elsewhere, but bassist Brian Gossman and drummer Goode provided the launching point and guided the trajectory of a band whose sound excels on a tight leash. All together they transmitted an hour of catharsis churned out at maximum volume that was surely echoing off Lake Erie days later.

Wilderness: www.wildernesssounds.com

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Music Reviews

Empire Isis

Empire Isis

Sound The Trumpets

Nutz

Empire Isis sounds like a gangsta rapper, but cleverly subverts the racism and sexism to a feminist, world peace message. The Ho’s are all still hanging around, drugs are as ubiquitous as branded clothing and status heavy sneakers, and the guys aren’t any more loyal than anywhere else. There’s a strong rasta/island influence, and an attitude that women can run the world better than its current male stewards.

There’s an intro segment with some quick cut vocal cuts, but soon enough we’re immersed in the infectious beat and quickly pick up the message — what’s good for the guys is just as appropriate for Isis and her posse. By the second cut “Mission,” you can feel the party starting to roll. “Sidney” tells a man’s story, but the message never overwhelms the dance angle and that’s the way things keep up for the entire disc. Production values are lush and easily some of the best in the genre. The warm tones of Isis’s vocal chords make you feel like she’s in love with you, and buying into the whole rasta I-and-I mindset might make sense.

Empire Isis: www.empireisis.com

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Music Reviews

Below Jupiter

Below Jupiter

Step Into Home (Act 1)

Below Jupiter is a dreary mixture of laid-back piano tunes laced with a potent political massage that somehow avoids the anthemic call-to-arms of ’60s protest music yet fails to push any boundaries of 21st Century pop. Titles like “Eyes Have Been Opened” and “Complicity With the Butcher” recall the self-important re-education projects of Maoist China, and even a tribute to Eugene Debs fails to bring any bile to the surface. It takes more than an agenda to make world-changing political art, but Below Jupiter has yet to climb to the level of a good talk show tirade.

Below Jupiter: www.myspace.com/belowjupiters

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Music Reviews

Catman Cohen

Catman Cohen

The Catman Chronicles 2: How I Want to Live

Keevay Music

A follow-up to The Catman Chronicles 1: How I Want to Die, this second volume tells us how Catman Cohen wants to live. While the title track starts off the album, “Water is Blood” really sets the tone for this socially-conscious undertaking, the second from the Catman Project. The theme this time around focuses on the upcoming fresh water shortage. Headed up by the enigmatic singer/songwriter Catman Cohen, the group aims to move music from vacuous entertainment back to being a force for change. Their success will have to be determined at a later time, for now, I can focus only on the music.

Catman himself sounds like a cross between Tom Waits and Leonard Cohen, a raspy bullfrog voice that grabs your attention. He speaks rather than sings his way through the tracks he takes the lead on. While his voice has a strong quality, I could see getting tired of it rather quickly. Thankfully, he realizes this too, and has several other members of the Project handle vocals throughout the album. It ranges from simply having background vocals liven the space behind him on the title track, to a lovely counterpoint/harmony between Catman and Simone Simmons on “Dancing With Mr. Daddy” to “My Key to the Stars,” a heartbreaker sung by Jimmy Swan.

The songs range from catchy (“Dancing With Mr. Daddy”) to funny (“Vegas Pussy”) to inspiring (“Water is Blood”), to all three at once (“Captain of Industry”) and are all worth at least one listen. I will admit that I was disappointed in the cover of Five for Fighting’s “Superman (It’s Not Easy)”. While dedicating the song to everyday heroes (firefighters, police, teachers, nurses, etc.) is a touching sentiment, Catman’s spoken-word delivery just doesn’t impress me on this one.

In keeping with the focus on fresh water, Catman plans to donate 20% of the profits from the CD to two organizations focused on water education and the prevention of privatization. If music that takes some chances and tries for some social responsibility appeals to you, maybe you can help a few folk singers change the world.

Catman Cohen: www.catmancohen.com

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Music Reviews

Lullabye Arkestra

Lullabye Arkestra

Ampgrave

Constellation

Even the most cursory listen to Lullabye Arkestra’s Ampgrave betrays how far Constellation has come from it’s staunchly instrumental post-rock beginnings. Consisting of bassist Katia Taylor and Do Make Say Think’s drummer Justin Small, the duo are all about genre hybridization and dialectics. The opener “Unite!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!” plays out like an amalgamation of post-harcore, metal and a mariachi sprawl of horn punctuations in the raging chorus shouts. “All I Can Give Ya” kicks some of the inclusiveness to the curb and settles into a dusty bar room groove for Taylor and Small to trade lonesome and coy banter while backed by a cooing choir. “Come Out, Come Out” does it one sweeter, quashing the pathos and rage for a delicate, communal invitation fronting a driving beat and bright piano melodies. The organ-rich funeral waltz “Hold On” does white-boy blues right: pleading, fiery and thunderous, but the group’s other foray into the territory, “Y’Make Me Shake,” veers into Jon Spencer blooze, that unfortunate stepchild of the blues where drunken, spiritless testifications (mostly by white singers) are confused with emotionality. It’s a momentary lapse in judgment, but it’s still enough to remind listeners of all the sonically under-developed guitar-and-drums duos out there beating the R&B horse, and that we don’t need bass-and-drums acts following suit. Lullabye Arkestra’s strength is in keeping things either simple or weird and flirting with the pulse of indie rock circa ’98 is doing neither. Luckily, the gonzo “Ass Worship” plays the part of redeemer, building in a cacophonous swirl of riffs, chugging horns and fist-pumping chants of “Hail! Hail! Rock and roll!” It’s a testament to many things, but certainly not the blues.

Constellation Records: www.cstrecords.com

Categories
Music Reviews

Year Future

Year Future

First World Fever

GSL

Every GSL album that comes across my plate I look on with potential of reaching the heights of Chromatics’ Plaster Hounds, a disc full of paranoid minimal post-punk and frightening songwriting. First World Fever, like much of the label’s subsequent catalog, has come up short.

Year Future’s politically-themed attempt here comes across like a more modest version of the Blood Brothers’ Burn, Piano Island, Burn. There’s the twisted surrealist imagery, sinister melodies and a steady thread of anti-Bush administration rhetoric spat by weaselly-voiced singer Sonny Kay. Unfortunately, at a time when anyone can laundry-list their beefs with Dubya and get away with it, the venom loses much of its sting. Sermonizing about America’s obsession with automobiles and plastic surgery does little to distinguish the band from the pack of groups that have been penning invectives like these for the last twenty years. These are undoubtedly problems that need to be addressed, but so is redundancy in popular music. More tracks like the epic, prog sprawl/squall of “Nature Unveiled,” with its thoroughly non-organic electronic components will bring these guys so much closer to that goal.

Gold Standard Labs: www.goldstandardlabs.com

Categories
Music Reviews

Son Volt

Son Volt

Okemah and the Melody of Riot

Transmit Sound

It’s hard to imagine Son Volt’s music existing outside of an autumn context. There’s something innately amber-hued in the band’s ramshackle rhythms and fiery barn-burners. Even after neglecting the moniker for six years to explore less traditional territory as a solo artist, Jay Farrar resurrected Son Volt — albeit with an entirely different backing band — to add another entry in the band’s back catalog. Okemah and the Melody of Riot has a different feel to it than previous Son Volt releases. Time and distance were bound to take its toll, and this time around Farrar’s world-weary tales stay closer to simple, quiet arrangements than the stormy swagger of the past. It suits Farrar’s maturation as a songwriter, but the empty spaces are aching for an incendiary track like “Catching On” or “Caryatid Easy.”

This disc is Farrar’s first overtly political album. Where political and social issues bubbled beneath the surface of Uncle Tupelo’s cover selections, “Jet Pilot,” “Endless War” and “Bandages & Scars” leave no doubt about what’s on Farrar’s mind. While UT’s venomous version of the Soft Boys’ “I Wanna Destroy You” betrayed the anger of youth, these songs plead for a resolution on a rational level.

On the flipside of the dual disc is a DVD of supplemental material, including the entire album with printed lyrics and a 30-minute “making of” documentary. The doc, while light on substance, does provide the historically press-shy Farrar with a chance to more fully explain the inspiration behind his songs. Live footage is interspersed throughout, including the non-album track “Joe Citizen Blues.” The season to fully experience this album might have passed, but these songs are likely to sustain their power for many autumns to come.

Transmit Sound: www.transmitsound.com

Categories
Music Reviews

Bambix

Bambix

What’s in a Name

Daemon

Bambix is a female-led Dutch punk band who’ve thoroughly studied every page of the Bad Religion fakebook, right down to the number-string riffs and Greg Graffin’s idiosyncratic enunciation. It should be a winner, but after a couple rounds into What’s in a Name I’ve come up shrugging. I think the problem lays mostly on my end; I’ve simply outgrown this genre of music. I would’ve eaten this stuff up in high school though…

Singer/guitarist Willia van Houdt has a great rough-but-not-ragged voice for punk, with a snarl that feels far more London than Amsterdam. She sports a limitless array of hooks and riffs to throw together; it sounds a little same-y, but that’s the nature of today’s punk. The only somewhat adventurous track, “Loch Ness,” features a brief flourish of banjo, but this still follows in the wake of Flogging Molly, etc. It’s good, standard stuff that’s not for me, but the kids out there could be listening to much worse.

Daemon: www.daemonrecords.com

Categories
Music Reviews

Cutting Edge

Cutting Edge

Humongously Yours

Thunder Quest

This is the single worst album I have ever heard in my life.

I guess I should tell you all the reasons, but it would give this CD more of my time and effort than it’s worth. So here are the facts: it’s Christian pseudo-power-pop-punk-funk, and it has “political” leanings, but those leanings are so asinine and/or offensive that I suspect that Satan must be behind it after all.

What kind of asshole equates the “tragedy” of Ruby Ridge with the beating of Rodney King to talk about the evils of the government? Well, a guy named Dave Pesnell, who calls himself “The Pezz” to make himself seem cool. He has a lot of songs that try to capitalize on anti-government sentiments among the God-loving youth of America, so I assume he’s talking about Clinton — and yeah, Clinton had his problems with power. But we have a new president now who’s making Clinton look like Abraham fuckin’ Lincoln, so it’s bouncing back on Mr. “Pezz” in a big way.

There is one other topic here, the goodness of God (“1-800-Dear-God”), but every single song is done poorly and manipulatively by grownups who should know better. This shit is toxic and an insult to Christians with brains. Everyone should stay away from it like it’s the anthrax spores that right-wingers are sending through the mail. (I have no proof of that.)

Let me reiterate that this is the worst CD I’ve ever heard. Now let me go bury it in my backyard, or send it in the mail to John Ashcroft or something.

Thunder Quest Records: http://www.thunderquestrecords.com