Dramarama: Hi-Fi Sci-Fi

hifiscifiYeah, I had heard of Dramarama before. They were an 80’s band (and no, I’m not mixing them up with Bananarama, at least not entirely). Which makes it kind of weird that they’re on the Dig Me Out podcast. I mean, this definitely fits in the overlooked albums of the 90’s category, it’s just so rarely from a band that had even a modicum of success in the 80’s, much less a fairly sustained run like these guys did.

I like a lot of songs on this album. Heck, I like most songs on this album. But I’m not really all that into this album. It’s got some serious sequencing problems (putting the slow drag of a track “Senseless Fun” in at track six, where it must have been closing out side one, makes it obvious these guys hadn’t heard that vinyl and cassettes were kind of dead by 1993), and it doesn’t really know what it wants to be, vacillating wildly between disparate themes and tempi with very little cohesion between them all. Are we a wacky clever band, as the album’s best track, “Work For Food,” a clever first person story of an infantile homeless person who it turns out used to be a former rock star, and the “chocolate eclairvoyance” portmanteau from “Shadowless Heart,” would suggest? Or are we a wacky silly band as the execrable “28 Double Secret Bonus Tracks” (more appropriately listed as “Hey Grandpa” on Xbox Music) implies? Or are we deep and introspective to the point of annoyance as “Senseless Fun” and the line about her voice making you come on “Late Night Phone Call” suggest? Or is your true essence like a bad boy George Thorogood thing like on “Bad Seed”? And why do you follow up “Work For Food,” a song about somebody who has completely suffered for art, with a song whose key line is “Don’t you know it’s stupid to suffer for art?” WHO ARE YOU, DRAMARAMA?

If there’s one thing that holds this album together, it’s a strong anti-drug message. “Don’t Feel Like Doing Drugs” is probably the album’s second-best song, in part due to its awesome line about vacuuming the walls and painting the rugs, and “Prayer” mentions chain-smoking pot. And my notes don’t reveal much more, but I feel like there are a bunch of other songs that knock drugs, including “Work For Food.” Maybe not, maybe the thesis of this paragraph is null and void.

Anyway, with a different sequencing and nixing “Hey Grandpa,” I may have been able to get this up to four, or at least three-and-a-half, clowns. Probably not, though. It’s hard for me too look at these tracks and figure out a better sequence..they’re just too all over the place. Just in the first five tracks they pull out a whole host of tricks, but they’re still squarely in the alterna-rock vein. And then for the next three tracks they just start shooting wildly all over the place. “Senseless Fun,” as I mentioned, feels like it should be within the last couple of tracks of the album, but then they go in a completely different direction to start off side two with the bluesy rocker “Bad Seed” before going into the half-baked not-sure-what-it-wants-to-be “Incredible,” which, along with “Swallowed Your Cure” could also probably be chopped. They get back on track for the next two songs, “Prayer” and “Don’t Feel Like Doing Drugs,” but you’re still suffering whiplash when you’re listening to “Prayer” that it kinda zips by without noticing. And then they’re off in la la land again, pulling out a Southern rock, slow country thing in “Right On Baby, Baby” before going into the at-times wonderful but mostly confusing and slow and discomfiting “Late Night Phone Call.” And if they’d just ended it there, that would have been nice, but the insist on this stupid “Hey Grandpa” song where they have people call in (people seriously got invitations in the mail to record on an answering machine) saying “Hey Grandpa” in different intonations, which was the kind of crap that was only interesting in like 1993.

So anyway, what the heck. I don’t know. I rarely look forward to listening to this all the way through but I do like when the songs come up on shuffle.

Mix: “Work For Food,” “Don’t Feel Like Doing Drugs”
Like: “Introduction/Hey Betty,” “Shadowless Heart,” “Where’s The Manual,” “Bad Seed,” “Prayer,” “Right On Baby, Baby”
Meh: “Swallowed Your Cure,” “Senseless Fun,” “Incredible,” “Late Night Phone Call”
Hate: “28 Double Secret Bonus Tracks [Hey Grandpa]”
Song Notes: After the jump Continue reading


The Helio Sequence: The Helio Sequence

theheliosequenceMy first experience with The Helio Sequence, a duo out of Portland, was at SP20, Sub Pop’s 20th anniversary concert in Marymoor Park. It’s rare for a band I’m hearing for the first time live to impress me, but these guys did. Their calm, cool, and catchy melodies hit the spot in the middle of a hot day filled with acts like No Age and Pissed Jeans. In fact, in my review of that concert over at an old place, I said that The Helio Sequence was my New Favorite Band…until Pissed Jeans hit the stage.

That concert was seven years ago (mental note, plan trip to Seattle in three years for SP30), when the band was on their fifth album. Earlier this year they released this self-titled disc, their seventh. Why did it take me so long to listen to any more of my New Favorite Band’s material? Especially one so electronically oriented, who would seem to be suited to a studio recording? The only explanation is that I’m an awful person. But here’s my attempt at redemption.

Better late than never. The Helio Sequence sounds so comfortably familiar, which is exactly how I remember them sounding. These two guys produce rich, lush soundscapes in which they couch imaginative instrumentation and beautiful and haunting melodies. It’s amazing these two guys sound this rich. You can always tell those one-person bedroom iPad bands,  but maybe the magic number is two guys. Or maybe the magic ingredient is to have a real drummer. More likely the real magic is just these two guys.

Beyond sounding like a “real” band despite relying so heavily on electronics, another way these guys stand out from the current crop of musical duds by doing the same thing only better is that a lot of their stuff is really reminiscent of 80’s music, except it rules. I hear a lot of, say, No Jacket Required-era Phil Collins, with their dark, minor melodies and songs of smoldering, not lust or love, but longing, and from afar at that. On a more modern bent, this is kind of like what James Blake is doing if you stripped out the vocal experimentation and made it more upbeat. I mean, it’s just got that James Blake sound in the instrumentation.

Song-wise, there’s nothing bad here, or even mediocre really. If I were forced to lose one of the tracks, I’d probably settle on “Deuces” pretty quickly, but I still like it and I’d feel bad about it. On the other end of the spectrum, “Upward Mobility” gets a Mix rating because it is probably the album’s best track and gets me moving a bit more than the other tracks, but “Phantom Shore” is right behind it, and, really, you could probably pick any of the Really Likes for a mix…I just felt like I had to pick one because it would kind of be a crime to make a 2015 mix and not have this album represented.

So most of the songs kind of reside in the same zone quality wise. And tempo wise. And sound wise. And key wise. Which I usually have a problem with. But here I don’t…it’s a different take on “the album” than the one I grew up with. It’s closer to the dance/club/house aesthetic where you pick a vibe and stick with it. This is like a great soundtrack to what you’re doing throughout the day, a nice scoring of your life. But with clever lyrics and great melodies, the songs stand on their own and reward appreciation on that level, too. It’s just a really nice collection of songs that all work together, if maybe a little more closely related that what I’m usually into.

So, to all you crappy millennial musicians tearing it up on All Songs Considered, listen closely to The Helio Sequence. This is the way to do it. This is the way to write modern music with catchy melodies while integrating the last half of rock and roll’s history. Now get in line behind these guys.

Mix: “Upward Mobility”
Really Like: “Stoic Resemblance,” “Leave Or Be Yours,” “Seven Hours,” “Phantom Shore”
Like: “Battle Lines,” “Red Shifting,” “Deuces,” “Inconsequential Ties,” “Never Going Back”
Song Notes: After the jump Continue reading

Failure: Comfort

comfortFailure is one of those revered bands from the 90’s that somehow completely passed me by until about 15 years after they’d folded. (Natch they have a new album out this year, though.) I think part of it is that their second album, which is the first of what are considered their two peak albums, was released in 1994, when I was just starting to tune out of new artists cuz they were all like Bush and shit like that. I reviewed that one, Magnified, over at an old place and gave it 3.5 clowns, though I remember liking it 4 – 4.5 clowns worth. (NB: For the last several months I’ve been resisting the half-clown trying to only use them as tie-breakers, because I’d spend too much time debating between, say, 3 and 3.5 clowns, and that’s just a waste.)

Anyway, this is the band’s debut, and directly precedes what’s considered to be the band’s peak. So while I might have had some exposure to this in 1992–I was pretty on top of the new artists game at that point and this was right in my wheel house, being produced by Steve Albini at Pachyderm Studios in Cannon Falls, MN (a formula that worked pretty well for Nirvana’s In Utero)–I don’t think it made much of a dent in the music scene at all. Which is kind of a shame because this is a great album, too.

A lot of what I said about this album’s successor rings true here, too. It’s very grunge-influenced, in the drop-tuning, and there’s a bit of a same-key problem, though less so with the same-tempo thing this time around. And they could maybe trim a little intro/outro on some of these songs, especially the few weird quiet sound outros that must have been in between tracks in the CD era, but man, when they hit the groove hard on the Really Likes, just turn it up, ride the wave, and all is forgiven.

Really, though, I have no complaints. It just doesn’t have any songs that stand alone strongly enough to put onto a mix. Probably a fantastic album to listen to stoned.

Really Like: “Submission,” “Screen Man,” “Princess,” “Salt Wound”
“Macaque,” “Something,” “Swallow,” “Muffled Snaps,” “KIndred,” “Pro-Catastrophe”
Song Notes: After the jump Continue reading

Faith No More: Sol Invictus

solinvictusFirst impression: The first four tracks of Faith No More’s first album in 18 years all start with “S.”

Second impression: Underwhelmed.

Third impression: My Baby walks into the room when I’m playing “Motherfucker” and is all, “What is this?” She chuckles at the two different ways Patton sings the phrase, including one very epic, soaring version. And then when she is about to leave I’m all, “Wait, you have to listen to him sing ‘Motherfucker’ a third way.” (The one where it’s all emphasizing alternating beats.)

Finally I come around to this full review, four months after its release. This is a very good album and stands well with the band’s second tier of records like King For A Day, Fool For A Lifetime and Album Of The Year. Despite bassist Billy Gould being a key member and songwriter, and keyboardist Roddy Bottum adding essential character, Faith No More’s sound has always been primarily defined by its guitarist (which makes it paradoxical that most fans were happy to see Jim Martin kicked out…because he looked “metal”). It makes sense, then, that, stylistically, this album is closest to Album Of The Year, the only other album featuring Jon Hudson on guitar. It’s full of slow burners, a style they started to experiment with on “Easy” and King For A Day and then explored more fully on Hudson’s first record with the band.

The biggest problem with this album is that there’s a bit too much slow, plodding. It’s only ten tracks that come in under ten minutes, and yet some of these songs could still be cut. The band focuses on a formula of a slow, bubbling beginning that builds into frenetic energy and passion by the end, but it just is too much slowness for the most part. “Superhero” is mostly uptempo, but spends too much time in the “leader of men” bit at the end. “Cone Of Shame” might be my favorite song on the disc, but starts of way too slow and has to go through another really slow talking point to get to the highlights. “Motherfucker” is another highlight but starts off too deliberate and the title seems too gratuitous and ends up soaking up all of the attention. It’s great, but it takes some getting into, and as a result I don’t want to pick it up because I know the songs are going to make me work too hard, especially album opener “Sol Invictus.”

I don’t think the slower style fits drummer Mike Bordin, either, as he’s not as prominent here as he was in the band’s faster period, though maybe so many years touring with Ozzy just bored the guy or maybe it’s the production. Who knows?

What I know is that I really like this album, and I love more than half of more than half of the songs.

Really Like:
“Superhero,” “Sunny Side Up,” “Separation Anxiety,” “Motherfucker,” “Matador”
“Sol Invictus,” “Cone Of Shame,” “Rise Of The Fall,” “Black Friday,” “From The Dead”
Filed Between:
[I don’t know I haven’t unpacked by CDs yet but probably a Faith No More single or collection and then like Fanfare Ciocarila?]
Song Notes: After the jump Continue reading

New Bomb Turks: Scared Straight

scaredstraightIt wouldn’t be quite accurate to say I always got these guys mixed up with Afghan Whigs. I knew pretty well who Afghan Whigs were, didn’t care for them, and had a bunch of friends who loved them. But both bands’ names reference a Middle Eastern country or demonym and somewhere along the line I must have ingested the fact that New Bomb Turks are also from Ohio, and so it’s not too far a leap to just them assume that New Bomb Turks are probably exactly like Afghan Whigs.

But I’m happy to say they’re not. With a super revved tempo and a care-free fun-loving attitude that is evident in the hillbilly punk style of the music as well as the celebratory, this-is-who-I-am lyrics, New Bomb Turks are way too fun and happy to ever have to suffer the indignity of being compared to Afghan Whigs. Add a cocksure groove and sped-up, dirty hair metal solos that ape the song’s vocal melody, and you’ve got a rip roaring party that pushes along at a consistent 80 miles an hour from start to finish, with a slight, welcome slow down for the “Jumpin’ Jack Flash”-esque final track, “Wrest Your Hands.”

The closest band I can think of like these guys is Reverend Horton Heat, but New Bomb Turks can really write songs and don’t rely on gimmicks so much. There’s a bluesy, honky tonk feel throughout, most notably in that last track and in the piano of “Professional Againster,” but I also hear nods to Faster Pussycat’s “Bathroom Wall” in “Telephone Number,” not just in the reference to a phone number, but also in the story being told from one stranger to another (or many) in a phone conversation as well as the mix of self-love and self-hate in the call recipient.

Due to the relentless speed and heavy mix of the drums, this isn’t going to be everybody’s cup of tea. Most will want just a sample. Even I get a bit tired by the end, but thankfully their sequencing ends with the best song followed by the slowest. This could be stronger if they’d lightened the load by taking off the tracks they buried in the middle of the second half. But hey, if you need an adrenaline burst over the course of an entire album, give this a try.

[LATE UPDATE] You know this has a lot of horns on it, which seems like something worth mentioning, and also makes them sound a lot like Rocket From The Crypt, which also seems like something I should have mentioned.

Mix: “Telephone Numbrrr”
Really Like: “Bachelor’s High,” “Professional Againster,” “Cultural Elite Sign-Up Sheet,” “Jukebox Lean,” “Jeers Of A Clown,” “Look Alive Jive,” “Drop What You’re Doin'”
Like: “Hammerless Nail,” “Staring Down The Gift Horse,” “Shoot The Offshoot,” “Wrest Your Hands”
Song Notes: After the jump Continue reading

Mother Love Bone: Shine

shineMother Love Bone is essentially required listening. They had a massive impact while only putting out an EP and an LP. Lead singer Andrew Wood died right before the Seattle scene really het up, and guitarist Stone Gossard and bassist Jeff Ament would join forces with Eddie Vedder to form Pearl Jam. When Green River (of whom I’ve written extensively) broke up, it was to form Mudhoney and these guys. So, given the legacy and the ease with which you can listen to the entirety of their recorded output, why haven’t you done so? It must be something inferior about your innate being.

Anway, another nice feature of their small catalog is this EP is really a nice warm up to their album, Apple. It’s five (or four or six or seven depending on how you count them) tracks much in that style, but with a little bit of a rawer, less polished feel. Wood’s lyrical abilities and vocal charms are in full effect, as are the songwriting chops of Gossard, Ament, Bruce Fairweather, and Greg Gilmore. There’s a strong blues and glam influence and the band does a wonderful job of running with legs in both the world of catchy pop metal and that of alternative radio of the time. Which, given that this was 1989, sets them up just about perfectly for the coming merging of those styles in the early 90’s, grunge and otherwise.

You know “Chloe Dancer/Crown Of Thorns” from the Singles soundtrack, but the rest of this material rocks considerably harder. My favorite is probably the “CD Bonus Track,” “Capricorn Sister,” which might have even gotten a Mix rating if it hadn’t been for the bonus track tacked on to the end of it which also features some silly dialogue and laughter at its end.

In my mind, I can hardly separate this from Apple. I came to them at the same time, and the music of the two is barely indistinguishable. The biggest difference is the bigger production of Apple, when the band managed to get to work with Terry Date. Which is maybe why it didn’t bother me too much when, post grunge blowup, the record label stuck both of them together onto one CD and named it Stardog Champion. SO JUST GO LISTEN TO THAT ALREADY!

But this is about Shine. If I had to pick which of the band’s releases was worse, fine, I’d probably pick this one. But it’s five tracks long and all of them would have worked on Apple, so your Mother Love Bone journey, which, again, is required, isn’t complete until you’ve taken this in.

Really Like: “Thru Face Away,” “Mindshaker Meltdown,” “Chloe Dancer/Crown Of Thorns,” “Capricorn Sister”
Like: “Half Ass Monkey Boy”
Filed Between: [I don’t know I Haven’t unpacked my CDs yet] and Mother Love Bone’s Apple
Song Notes: After the jump Continue reading

Throwing Muses: The Real Ramona

therealramonaWhen you do an image search on this album’s title, you get the above first, or at least I do, maybe because Bing is used to me searching for CD art now, but after that it’s all a bunch of Real Housewives stuff. Which maybe would have been a better lead for this review than that awful, awful cover art, which unbelievably came out in 1991, when folks should have been designing for the CD format, but clearly here were still thinking vinyl was a thing.

Anyway, turns out I like this album a lot more than I thought I did and a lot more than I did on initial re-listens a few weeks ago. It’s been in my collection for probably about 20 years, me having received it as a gift, but I’m going back to do the review now that Dig Me Out is doing (did) a review of it.

So the thing about Throwing Muses is they’re like Tanya Donelly’s third band, not chronologically, but impactfully. She was also in The Breeders (I’m just learning this now) and Belly, both of which were bigger. Maybe Belly wasn’t but yeah they had like one mega hit and a monster album so okay they were bigger but I can’t stand them. The Breeders, though, they were mega critically and commercially, though moreso critically.

So anyway, mostly you’re like yeah that’s Donelly’s third most important band but then there’s Kristen Hersh who, well, there’s a Kristen Hersh camp out there and this is her most importantest band at least until she did solo stuff later on. And so all the maje Throwing Muses fans are probably like ugh this Donelly chick keeps messing things up for our reputation. I don’t know, I’m just making stuff up.

So, this is kind of typically 90’s, with its combination of catchy melodies and weirdo drawn-out experimental songwriting and song construction. On the other hand, this came out in February of 1991, which holy god is like six to seven months before Nevermind and Ten. If this had come out two years later it probably would have seen hella rotation on alternative radio, but as it was, it was basically Throwing Muses’ last hurrah in an era where hair metal still ruled supreme. This is an album out of time.

It’s a bit of a schizophrenic album. While I can make sense of the sequencing, the weakest stuff is at the top, which leads to me generally being bored and feeling like I’m being jerked around over the course of it. “Hook In Her Head,” which navigates imperceptibly smoothly through several sections and ends up as a completely different song than the one it started as, bviously seems like the centerpiece now, but that’s after I’ve listened to it 30 times…and it’s placed eighth out of 12 tracks and is kind of overshadowed by “Ellen West,” the album’s best track, two tracks earlier.

If you took the album’s best tracks as one-offs, I really like it. And if you take its weaker tracks (note that nothing is worse than Meh) as one-offs, I’m even kind of digging them. But the album just stands there confused about what it wants to be as a whole. I like this, but the whole is less than the sum of its parts.

Really Like: “Ellen West”
Like: “Hook In Her Head,” “Not Too Soon,” “Say Goodbye,” “Two Step”
Meh: “Counting Backwards,” “Him Dancing,” “Red Shoes,” “Graffiti,” “Golden Thing,” “Dylan,” “Honeychain”
Filed Between: [I have no idea, I haven’t unpacked my CDs from the move yet]
Song Notes: After the jump Continue reading