Sunday, June 05, 2005

When July 5th rolls around...

buy the new Sufjan Stevens album, Illinois (or possibly Illinoise, or Come On, Feel the Illinoise!. Whatever: some variant on the word "Illinois.") Easily the best album of the year thus far. How do I know this? Lucky guess...?

Sunday, January 16, 2005

The Arcade Fire Great American Music Hall 01/13/05

The only plausible answer I can come up with is luck. The question being, of course, "How did you score tickets, at face value, for the Arcade Fire show at the Great American Music Hall?" Sold out for a month, the three shows at the Great American were The. Hot. Ticket. in the greater SF Bay Area. Luckily, I got a good friend named Mark. Mark happened upon a co-worker who was (regretfully) looking to unload four tickets. Lucky time, lucky place. Lucky me.

Opening for Arcade Fire were two "bands." Bands being a loose term in that each "band" consisted of one guy with an instrument. The first, Tycho B, or Tycho D, or Tyco Truck - I don’t know - was pretty mediocre. Standard singer/songwriter fare, with a below average voice and slightly above average guitar skills. Nothing more need be said.

Next up was FInal Fantasy - a young man by the name of Owen who played violin and sang. It was...really...great. Really. Aside from the unfortunate video game evoking name, Final Fantasy was a lot of fun. Owen's (I forget his last name) voice is obviously classically trained, as is his violining. (Violining?) He ran his violin through a pedal that allowed him to loop back what he had played. Then he played over that and created some really beautiful music.

Then the headline band lull. Not bad - 15, maybe 20 minutes.

And then: The Arcade Fire.

I feel like such a poseur, or a bandwagon jumper. Of course I heard about The Arcade Fire through Pitchfork, and of course I bought the album because they told me to. But - honest! - I like ‘em cause they’re good. The next bit I’m gonna say (trust me!) is from my own, lucid, original thought, not Pitchfork manipulating the machinations of my mind: The Arcade Fire is the best band I’ve ever seen live. They opened with start/stop strums of “Wake Up” - the most incendiary track on Funeral. And it only got better from there. They played with spirit, reminding the crowd that, even though the Great American is filled with stunning gold moulding, we weren’t in a museum. Members of the band ran into each other, played drums on each other’s heads, and just all-around wrecked shop. At one point a Latvian flag (!) made its way on stage. What is this? They closed the main set with Neighborhood #1 (Tunnels). The band left the stage and about a dozen members of the Great American staff dispersed flashlights (once again - !) throughout the crowd. Of course, The Arcade Fire came back and played Une Annee Sans Lumiere. Speak French? Know Latin? If so, you get the joke. They ended with In the Backseat - one of the more remarkable songs about death in the last few years. If you get the chance, see this band. Regardless of the cost, it will be worth it.

Thursday, October 21, 2004

Chutes Too Narrow The Shins

Release Date: 21 Oct., 2003
Review Written: 19 Feb., 2004
Rating: 9

Esque. It is a pestilence in music; a pandemic that has claimed the oeuvre of many a reviewer as it’s victim. Beatlesesque, Dylanesque, Zeppelinesque, Dexy’s Midnight Runnersesque. The suffix is tired and yet, occasionally, warranted.

Chutes Too Narrow, The Shins’ sophomore album on the Sub-Pop label, has been called Beatlesesque and other famous-band-nameesque derivatives and, on many fronts, it is highly deserving of these somnambulant praises. I’ll be damned if these songs don’t smack of Lennon, McCartney, and Brian Wilson. How so, you ask? Well, the songs don’t have the dueling vocal interplay of a Ln/McC penned tune. Nor does the entire album, even though it holds together well, possess the thematic unity and grandeur of Abbey Road. And, although the production is top-notch, it does not possess the epic perfection and pousse-café layering of Pet Sounds. What Chutes Too Narrow does have in common with The Beatles and the Beach Boys is the key component in what made those bands so amazing - a bright sense of what goes where. Belying the brevity of Chutes (it stands at a paltry 33:46 with the longest song weighing in at 4:25) is a subdued complexity – what it lacks in length it makes up in depth.

James Mercer’s vocals intertwine perfectly within the confines of the solid bass and coupled acoustic and electric guitars. Behind everything lies Jesse Sandoval’s perfectly in-the-pocket drumming. All these parts add up to far more than their sum because of their placement. From the first stabs of an overdriven guitar on “Kissing the Lipless” to the fading see-you-soon whistling on the closing “Those to Come” everything is in it’s right place. The Beatles and the Beach Boys had far more than their portion of knowing what goes where and The Shins approach that same level of knowledge.

This all sounds grand: an indie-rock blueprint on how to make a perfect record. Just plug in everything where it goes and you have a gem on your hands. But, the music lover asks, where is the soul? To put it plainly: everywhere. The harmonies are tight, but still loose enough to feel conceived at the moment of the take. In fact, Mercer’s singing in general, from his meandering melodies to his poignant lyrics, embodies a freedom and soul that is refreshing enough for spring and heavy enough for winter. Even the would-be clichéd slide guitar on the instant classic Wilcoesque (got ya!) “Gone for Good” feels alive and without remorse for it’s meanderings. Goodness - even the packaging, with its child-like pop-up dream world, shows a good measure of heart and soul.

Most of all, Chutes Too Narrow has the fun factor of The Beatles and the Beach Boys. Every song is brimming with a dichotomous lifeblood of youth and maturity. But, in the end, it moves and jangles with all of its plasma and urges you to forget your staunch companions while quickly rising to dance.

Tour Ep '04 Pedro the Lion

Rating: 5

The Tour EP, it seems, has become a sort of Indie Rock Tradition. The venerated Insound Tour Support series are not only interminable, but they command a pretty penny on eBay. In the mid-90’s (remember those days?!) the Champaign-Urbana dwellers, Braid, would have a neatly packaged tour exclusive EP, or 45, for almost every road trip. Conor Oberst can barely walk to the corner store without releasing a 4-song disc of bedroom anthems. So, finally, Pedro the Lion has caught on.

It seems that Pitchfork has a running joke with Pedro the Lion releases: every reviewer really liked the last release, but can’t seem to get into the one in the front of them; the disc they’re reviewing. It’s a pox for Pedro; a nagging terrier that just won’t stop humping their collective leg.

I will unabashedly profess that I am a huge Pedro the Lion fan. I believe that David Bazan knows his way around a lyric. He adroitly treads the fallow and formidable ground of Christianity without a) sounding like a misled Bible Thumper or b) abandoning his moral values. And while his sound has not made any leaps or bounds, it has done something of a microevolution, exploring all the avenues within its cityscape.

Notwithstanding my profession in the previous paragraph, I am disappointed with this 6-song ode to the road.

Randy Newman, Cat Power, and Radiohead. At least there are no Ludacris covers. My checklist for a good cover consists of one criterion: do it better or do it different. The Randy Newman cover is the most successful. In 1972, with the Cold War looming, Newman wrote “Political Science.” With its deftly worded self-deprecation regarding Nuclear War, it was clearly a jewel of a song. Newman sang it with his trademark marbly rasp in a soft cabaret style. And oh my! It was ever so scathing in its tongue-in-cheek verbal assault on America©. With Pedro’s version, which is decidedly apropos of the times, gone are the soft musings of Newman and here to stay are the incendiary tongue-lashings of Bazan. Instead of something that one can easily laugh at, like Newman’s version, Bazan has conjured up a feeling of anger and fright. It succeeds on all fronts by making Newman’s song fresh again.

The Cat Power and Radiohead covers do not fare as well. Chan Marshall’s voice on the original “Metal Heart” is eerie and hurt. The double tracking of the vocals and subdued arpeggio of the guitar provide an ambiance that builds until Chan intones, “Metal heart you’re not hiding/Metal heart you’re not worth a thing.” Bazan blows up the spot from the start. His “Metal Heart” isn’t hiding; it’s right out in the open, making a scene. It’s hurt but instead of retreating, it lashes out. Hardly an improvement, Bazan’s version can barely hold a candle to the original.

As for “Let Down”, the Radiohead cover, it comes off more as an homage to Bazan’s favorite band than a cover. What amazed me was that, until Bazan starts singing, it sounds exactly like the Radiohead version. And even when Bazan starts singing, his voice has the same reverb on it that Thom Yorke had on his. The song isn’t different, and it isn’t an improvement – it is the exact same song as the one Radiohead recorded.

Bazan covers himself on “Transcontinental”, from this year’s Achilles Heel, I Am Always the One Who Calls, from The Only Reason I Feel Secure, and “Slow and Steady Wins the Race”, from Winners Never Quit. All three cuts were recorded live in the studio. “Transcontinental” suffers from an unnecessary “studio mistake” intro (oooh…he said fuck!) and a rather shoddy drumming job by TW Walsh. In the first 20 seconds, I’m bored. Likewise, “I Am Always et cetera et cetera” feels rushed and loses all the softness that made it such a standout track originally.

“Slow and Steady Wins the Race” takes the crown in this case. Bazan successfully updates the acoustic moral tale of right and wrong with a dancehall bass-line and the riding floor-tom synonymous with Pedro the Lion. As Bazan sings, “When I get to heaven/I’ll be greeted warmly” his falsetto reaches way up into the rafters and it’s tough not to believe him.

What makes a Pedro the Lion record is sincerity and conviction. But, aside from “Slow and Steady”, this one lacks both those traits. The songs are good – they’re enjoyable to listen to, but they have no backbone and no real purpose. After listening to this album I ask why. Why release this? Why was this necessary? The only answers I can come up with are “because I can” and “in hindsight, it wasn’t really.”

Achilles Heel Pedro the Lion

Release Date: 25 May, 2004
Review Written: 4 Jul., 2004
Rating: 8.5

I’m 20 years old. In roughly a month I will be 21. Those numbers are staring me in the face and saying, “Michael, it’s time to grow up.” Growing up, or at least growing older, is a fact of life and it has to be dealt with in one way or another. How one deals with growing older correlates directly with one’s growing up.

I would argue that all of Pedro the Lion’s albums have been good. I am an unabashed fan - I admit it. Upon first listen, Achilles Heel was most obviously the weakest PtL album. It seemed as if helmsman, David Bazan, had lost it all – his voice, his songwriting talent, and his conviction. It was still OK listening, but nothing beyond that. So after the first spin, I spun it again. And again. And again. And again. And it grew on me.

Why? It’s common for an album, a film, a piece of artwork to have nil impact on first encounter and to later impact greatly, but this is a Pedro the Lion album. Without a doubt Pedro the Lion is my favorite band and I’ve been gushing over every preceding album on first listen. PtL is like a mother’s cooking – even when it isn’t good, at least it’s still comforting. But Achilles Heel was neither good nor comforting at first. Unlike the last two albums, it had no linear narrative. Unlike the ancestry of those albums, it had none of the inherent hope and belief. This album seemed like the product of a man broken. And then I got it. Bazan, I think, realized that life is not 3 minute clips of hope and belief, just like life is not always a harrowing fable of a husband cheating on, and then subsequently being killed by, his wife.

It’s now been 8 years since 1997’s Whole EP was released…what I’m getting at is this: this album is greatly different than previous PtL albums. Whereas 98’s It’s Hard to Find a Friend contained “Bad Diary Days”, a song about a girlfriend stepping out on her boyfriend, Achilles Heel contains “I Do”, which asks the question – if I could take back my marriage, would I? Both songs are heartbreaking and both are great songs. But they’re different. Bazan is growing older, and moreover, Bazan is growing up. He is now married and, whether autobiographical or not, he’s dealing with the subject of marriage. The lyrics don’t deal with the ephemeral pain of the transitory, but the lifelong pain that is intrinsic to humanity. It’s not about what you have lost, but what you’re missing. No longer is little David afraid of being left and losing what is familiar, he is now afraid of remaining static and becoming too comfortable in his discontent.

As far as the stick-it-in-the-player-and-turn-it-up factor goes: this album also marks a departure. Along with the lyrics, Bazan has stretched out musically. Recruiting help from fellow bard TW Walsh, Bazan has turned out songs that sound hasty upon first fresh-from-the-record-store-drive-home listen, but reveal their overwhelming competence upon further encounters. New to the oeuvre is the falsetto harmony. After I plugged in a good set of cans and sat down with the album I realized that said harmonies are ubiquitous. “The Fleecing”, “Keep Swinging”, “I Do” – all of them (and more!) sport ‘em. Along with the harmonies, there is general mood of the 30-Something. This seems to be in the same camp as Wilco, Nick Drake, and Josh Rouse – I could find myself listening to it when I am 30. It sounds crass to say something like that at the gray age of 20, but it’s a gauge I’m quite confident in. And it is meant as a sincere compliment; after all, if it can last ten years then it must have some importance.

Perhaps the best word to describe the aural maturation found on Achilles Heel would be patience. The songs sound less hurried and more focused upon the mimetic nature of man. By this I don’t mean that the songs are slower. In fact, the average BPM seems well above the usual Pedro quota. No, the songs are not slow, they just aren’t in rush – notes are dwelled on until they’re entirely finished, chorus’ are sung until the point hits home, and instrumentals are carried out into completion. As with the lyrics, Bazan is realizing that, although life is short, life is not hurried. It takes utter contemplation and patience to understand the world around you and, in turn, to deal with it. And you cannot be hurried in dealing with life, because life is never through with you.

Down the River of Golden Dreams Okkervil River

Release Date: 2 Sep., 2003
Review Written: 23 Feb., 2004
Rating: 8.5

Down the River of Golden Dreams begins with a self-professed oldie. Or rather, an emulation of an oldie. The piano-only title track recalls Huck Finn floating down the Mighty Mississippi with Tom by his side. Huck and Tom were escaping: escaping slavery, escaping rules, and escaping the current fashion and time. Likewise, Will Sheff and cohorts have made an album of music that attempts to escape the current fashion and time.

Music has become boringly predictable. Even the unpredictable music is, ironically, boringly predictable. To avoid playing the equally predictable role of music snob, I need to back up a couple sentences and amend myself. Most music has become predictable. And perhaps most music has always been predictable. And maybe this is part of the allure. And maybe I’m sounding like a broken record. My point is: the men of Okkervil River seem aware of the modern-day plights of being in a rock band. They understand that “it’s all been done before” and that “there’s nothing new under the sun.” If this is the case (and there’s strong evidence supporting that it is) one has to be anachronistic to come off as original and different. Okkervil River achieves this anachronism by pooling from widely varied source material.

Down the River of Golden Dreams seems to be equally inspired by the dirty blues of the south, the shoegazing of the 90’s, classic rock and roll, and the current incarnation of bleeding heart indie-rock. By combining these disparate influences (not as disparate as one would think: Robert Johnson ‡ Mick Jagger ‡ Kevin Shields ‡ Conor Oberst.) Anyway, by combining these influences, Sheff and co. have created something that has a timeless feel to it. The music sounds both contemporary and classic.

Another way to create a bit of originality is with lyrics that mean something and have their roots in the basic tenets of humanity. “The Velocity of Saul at the Time of His Conversion” tells of man growing older and facing the idea that his life is stagnant. Near the end, Sheff wails, “And I, feeling older, pull off to the shoulder and wonder, with my head in my hands, should I call my wife and say ‘enough “you and I,”’ enough of ‘the fight,’ enough of ‘prevail’ or ‘walk in the light’?” The lines waver on the fine edge between trite and wise, but, fortunately, make their abode on the pleasant side of the two most of the time.

The problem: Huck and Tom had to go back. They realized what we all know in our heart of hearts: you can’t stay away forever and still have some relevance. Okkervil River, regardless of how they sound, exists here and now. To sell records, to be relevant, they have to live in the here and now. They have made a good album, but not a great album. The greatest albums of music past have been stamped with both a mark of timelessness and a thumbprint that proclaims from whence they came. Taken out of ’77, Never Mind the Bollocks is merely a record of pissed off children. Down the River of Golden Dreams has nothing in it that proclaims it is of this time and important to this time. But it is good listening, and maybe that is what really matters.

Nevermind Nirvana

Release Date: 24 Sep., 1991
Review Written: Feb. 10, 2004
Rating: 10

Not only known for its stunning and entirely different music (more on that later), Nevermind was also known for the photographs harbored inside of its jewel case. On the cover a naked infant is chasing a dollar bill attached to a fishhook. On the back is a lemur strapped with dynamite. When the case is opened the first image that greets us is Kur(d)t Cobain and Co. standing. Kurt (the “d” is implied from here on out) is giving us the finger while sporting a Johnny Rotten sneer and James Dean leather.

To me, these are rock star posturings. Even Kid Rock throws up the bird inside his liner notes (granted Nirvana definitely beat him to the punch.) And yes, Kurt, we get the metaphor on the cover: chasing the Mighty Dollar will only drown you AND if you happen to reach it, you’re sure to be placed in a net, gutted, and fried. The baby was a nice touch.

The real interesting bits are the other photos. Open that booklet once past the finger and you have, left to right, Kurt, Dave Grohl, and Krist Novoselic. Now, look at their eyes. These are not the jaded and embittered old men that they would have you believe they are. No, these are young sons: rebels, yes, but not without cause. These boys look confident and happy. And if I were any one of them, I would be happy too.

This album blew me away when I first heard it in 1994. That’s right, 1994 – three years after it was released. In fact, I only embraced Nirvana after Kurt’s drug-fueled suicide. In 1994, I was eleven – innocent, clean, and virginal. When I bought Nevermind, I hid it from my mom for 3 months. It was just too much: these songs did not hold anything back: it sounded like ‘grunge’ but it was pure punk rock.

10 years later, this album hits me in the exact same spot. I have become jaded and embittered, much like Kurt fulfilled his self-prophecy, but this album is still innocent, clean, and virginal. The albums begins by, at once, acknowledging it’s roots and giving a big fuck you to everything that came before it. “Smells Like Teen Spirit”, bastardized by pop culture (Moulin Rouge, The Bad Plus), retains it’s anthemic spitting pomp of “here we are, now entertain us.” This is youthful hubris at it’s best: ignorant, demanding, and pissed off. “Lithium” is an ode to depression. The AIDS of my generation is deified and embraced, not reviled. My favorite track as a young buck, and my favorite now, is “Territorial Pissings.” Through the lyrics and pure violence of the music, this track condemns everything from sexism to the government to cultural perspective. Pissings offers up a myriad of problems, but never any answers. And maybe that is the beauty of Nevermind: it unites a generation of the curious with its bleating questions. We all end up in the same place, with the same thing on our mind, but no idea what to do about it.

In the Aeroplane Over the Sea Neutral Milk Hotel

Release Date: 10 Feb., 1998
Review Written: 24 Feb., 2004
Rating: 10

I love to read the reviews on Amazon. The bad reviews, in particular. There can be great enlightenment in looking at the 1-star reviews of Ok Computer, Abbey Road, Pet Sounds, and the like. Do we like this music because it is truly great or do we like it because someone else tells us it is truly great? In the Aeroplane Over the Sea is one of those albums constantly lauded since its release. Naturally, the 1-star reviews on Amazon are outstanding:

“It sounds like its been recorded in a bedroom with no carpeting or furnishings to speak of, and using a guitar found in the shopping trolley of a can collecting toothless old lady.”
- MR P N ABBEY from the UK

“This guy's voice is HORRIBLE with a capital H. It's so far off key most of the time that all I can do is cringe and punch the "off" button on my stereo. My musically-trained ears just can't take it.”
- A Music Fan from CA., USA

“His lyrics are resolutely abstract and leave most listeners cold - or even wondering whether he is just plain mad […] and the singing is bizarrely uncontrolled, rough-edged, overly mournful and often just ordinary shouting.”
- Simon Williams from the UK

“I have listened to this album many, many times, and it always leaves me perplexed.”
- A Music Fan from GA., USA

“The songs don't hang together, the instrumentation is stark and unfriendly, the guy's voice is NOT great at all..I can get into most stuff after a while but this really troubled my ears.”
- Nick Davis from Birmingham, UK

The amazing thing here is that all these people are absolutely right. And that is ok. Neutral Milk Hotel may not be for everyone. My brother, who I believe to have great musical taste, finds this album mediocre. The first time he heard it he thought it was the worst thing he had ever heard. The second time I forced him to listen to it he merely stated, “It isn’t bad.”

As stated above, Jeff Mangum – NMH elder statesmen – is the possessor of a very unique voice - sometimes brash and bleating, sometimes calm and soothing, always unique. His lyrics, as well, are very different. He sings distorted songs about love, sex, incest, Anne Frank, and Jesus. I won’t even pretend to understand his lyrics. I haven’t even attempted to sit down and dissect them and I don’t know if I ever will. To me, this album is so rife with emotion, pure emotion, that to unravel it seems too much.

Whether shouting out, “I love you Jesus Christ, Jesus Christ I love you yes I do,” or softly singing, “Daddy please hear this song that I sing/In your heart there's a spark that just screams/For a lover to bring a child to your chest that could lay as you sleep/And love all you have left like your boy used to be/Long ago wrapped in sheets warm and wet” it is entirely sincere. Never once does the listener doubt that Mangum is for real.

And yes, the guitars on this album sound like they were recorded in a bedroom with a cheap guitar. And that is part of the wonder. The singer/songwriter idea has been bastardized and raped for all it is worth. In 2004, being a singer/songwriter means having an acoustic guitar, songs about girls who broke your heart, and some great tattoos. Please don’t dismiss this simply as a guy with a guitar, though. These songs have much more in common with Skip Spence and Brian Wilson than they do with Chris Carraba and Pete Yorn. There isn’t a simple love song to be found on this album – no messy breakups, no “I want you backs”, and no hate odes. On “Holland, 1945” Mangum sings, “The only girl I've ever loved/Was born with roses in her eyes/But then they buried her alive.” Hardly a Dashboard approved love paean.

The instruments are wildly different too. A grip of the Elephant 6 Recording Company joins in on this record playing such instruments as the flugelhorn, uillean pipes, saw, and the mysterious zanzithaphone. The songs are varied: some are just Mangum and his guitar, others start in that way but end in a cacophonous wall of sound, and still others are electric based rock songs from the start. Every song has a strong element of experimentation to it. Like the rest of Elephant 6, Mangum is hardly content to let music remain static.

This is an album that demands passion - there is not much of a path to walk in the middle of love and hate. For me, it is easily one of the best 20 albums I own. Many people will tell you that this album is great. And for you, that may be true, but it might not. I’m another head telling you this album is great. Now go decide for yourself.

Castaways and Cutouts The Decemberists

Release Date: 6 May., 2003
Review Written: 2 Mar., 2004
Rating: 8

It’s an amazing irony that the contents of fragile papyrus have outlasted thick and sturdy stone. The Greek literary classics, in spite of odds that would make a bookie blush, have survived thousands of years while The Parthenon and its ilk have become crumbled shells of what they once were. The need and desire for a story has kept these tales alive – buildings are ephemeral but a good story is immortal. Colin Meloy, lyricist and vocalist for The Decemberists, realizes this truth.

Meloy spins tales of ghosts in the late 1800’s and wharf-side prostitutes in an antiquated language that might sound cumbersome in lesser hands. “Leslie Anne Levine” presents the story of a child abandoned at birth. That ghost child is then forced by her own misery to wander the streets of some London district. I say London because there seems to be something entirely British about The Decemberists - there is a prim and proper quality to their songs. That bit of England continues on in “A Cautionary Song.” But it’s a Nuevo British thing – the song sounds like equal doses Jeff Mangum and Captain Cook. This pirate infused polka song (yes, polka) is, indeed, a cautionary tale about a child who is told that their mother is a rather lurid prostitute by night in order to feed the child by day. The child is cautioned to remember what their mother does for them when she feeds them collard greens. A stretch, but it comes off as entirely pleasant and entertaining.

It should always be remembered that, without music, a song is merely a poem. And The Decemberists seem to heed this important bit knowledge. The band keeps most of the songs interesting with some extremely fine playing. On the only true up-tempo rocker on the album, “July, July!” Meloy’s voice is placed front and center in the mix while the band kicks out an awfully fun sounding groove. Of note is Chris Funk’s intensely tight guitar playing panned hard right. “Odalisque” is a duly creepy song about, what else, an odalisque. For those unfamiliar: a female slave or concubine in a harem. The concubine has a baby, it is aborted, and she then attempts suicide. The music accompanies all these twists and turns with flair and panache. The final song, “California One/Youth and Beauty Brigade” is a dual-tune that reminds me of driving along the west coast. It feels good and begs for a sunroof and a warm day.

As good as Castaways and Cutouts is, it still has flaws. These flaws are “Cocoon” and “Clementine.” They’re sweet songs – they sound sweet, the lyrics are sweet, and they’re entirely polite. And therein lies the rub. They’re too polite. While The Decemberists are tainted by England, they’re more of a Cockney than a Posh. These two songs do not fit in with the rest and, ultimately, mar the record as a whole.

Minor flaws aside, The Decemberists are on to something – good writing. They’re proof positive that with good writing an album will always be enjoyable.

So Much for the City The Thrills

Release Date: 4 Nov., 2003
Review Written: 23 Feb., 2004
Rating: 6.5

I fucking hate crickets. There has been one jumping around my room all night and, due to the plethora of nooks and crannies in my living space, the little bastard keeps evading my attempts to snare him. It’s a lot like this band The Thrills – there is something I don’t like about them but I just can’t put my finger on it. Ok: so it’s nothing like that at all. In reality, I know exactly what it is I don’t like about The Thrills.

I grew up on a small island in the San Francisco Bay Area called Alameda. Alameda is in the East Bay, right next door to Oakland. When asked where they are from, a lot of Alameda's denizens simply say Oakland. Whether they do this out of shame – living in Alameda isn’t exactly a bragging right – or simplicity - saying “Oakland” was a lot easier than explaining what and where Alameda is, I’ll never know. But, I do know that there is something not entirely admirable about disrespecting your hometown. If you’re from Alameda then say it, if you’re from Sunrise don’t say you live in Sacramento, and if you’re from Ireland don’t play it off like you were born and bred in San Diego.

It is this last iniquity that The Thrills are guilty of. They grew up in Ireland, spent some time in San Diego, and then wrote a bunch of songs about how wonderful San Diego is. They even go as far as to call Dublin a one-horse town: “Well I never should have settled down, hanging around in a one-horse town.” The Thrills even emulate the California sound. The Beach Boys, The Eagles, Neil Young, and The Mamas and The Papas all come to mind. But it doesn’t feel like that’s where these young Dubliners came from.

The first track, “Santa Cruz (You’re Not That Far),” feels like a transition. It begins with Conor Deasy’s voice at it’s most Irish accompanied by a slow and pleasant piano, guitar, and drum trio. And then a mandolin breaks in as well. Someone pass me a pint of Guinness. Deasy sings, “Well tell me where it all went wrong, and tell me where you lost those damn songs.” And then: the Irish croonings fall away and a sun-bleached lilt takes it place singing, “Oh you gotta be still living by the sea cause, Santa Cruz, you’re not that far.” This isn’t bad. It’s not bad at all. It’s just not sincere either.

Musically, The Thrills are spot on. They can play their instruments really well and the songs are engaging. That is, aside from Conor Deasy who, according to the liner notes, wrote all the songs. His lyrics are asinine and banal to say the least and his voice is so mundane and without conviction that the songs are indistinguishable from each other. When playing this album as background music you feel empty. When it’s over: it seems as if you’ve only heard one song.

But there are some high points. The aforementioned “Santa Cruz” shows great promise. In fact, when I first heard it - without hearing the rest of the disc - I assumed this album would make my year-end top 10. “Big Sur” has a spot-on hummable chorus with a great California vibe and some falsetto oohs and aahs. “Don’t Steal Our Sun” is the highlight though. Great harmonies and musicianship and Deasy’s voice even comes out to play by punching out a great melody. It will be on every mix I make for the next year at least. But for every hit there are plenty of misses waiting in the wings. “Old Friends, New Lovers” labors like a wounded mule and “Hollywood Kids” waxes philosophic when Deasy sings, “Oh the death of a fast life, those Hollywood stars got to pay.” And the doomed-from-the-start “Your Love is Like Las Vegas” sounds an awful lot like a Tom Jones reject.

Apparently these guys were handpicked by Morrisey to open for him in the UK before they had a record deal. And I can understand that. They’re not terrible by any means. Some of the songs are catchy and they’re mostly enjoyable listening. Finally, though, The Thrills sound like a watered down version of California. Their sound isn’t unique and you can find it done much better on other avenues. The Beach Boys never attempted Irish Folk, and for good reason. The Thrills tried real hard to do the California thing, and they somewhat succeeded. It has all the components but none of the soul. Maybe if they lived here for a few years they might pick up what it’s really about – the damn crickets.