BLK JKS – After Robots

SC197lpjacketRating: ★★★★½

Having started in 2000 in Johannesburg, South Africa, and only releasing an EP (Mystery EP, recently reissued by Secretly Canadian in March) the BLK JKS (pronounced “Black Jacks”) have built up quite a substantial buzz stateside in the recent months in anticipation for their debut album, After Robots. After several listens to After Robots I have to tell you, that buzz was justified.

BLK JKS will initially be compared to The Mars Volta, but to write them as a prog-rock doppelganger would be unfounded.  Sure, the frenetic pace of the music is there, but the guitar work of Lidani Buthelezi and Mpumi Mcata is way more focused and stable than Omar Rodriguez-Lopez could ever hope to be and Buthelezi’s vocals is an even mixture of Tunde Adebimpe (TV on the Radio) and Nick Urata (DeVotchka) rather than the caterwauling of Cedric Bixler-Zavala. (This paragraph just won Scrabble)

Having lived in Africa (Nairobi, Kenya and Mwanza, Tanzania, specifically) for a considerable amount of time, the beats and rhythms showcased by BLK JKS encapsulates the frenzied lifestyle that exists most major metropolitan areas on the continent: it’s dirty and hot, but vibrant and alive.  In the songs ‘Molalatadi’ and ‘Banna Ba Modimo’, I can see the streets of Nairobi, with heavily armed police officers and feel the tear gas stinging the back of my throat.  These songs are punctuated by the 9-piece Hypnotic Brass Ensemble (Mos Def, Erykah Badu) which adds an extra layer of urgency.

The other seven songs in this collection run the musical gamut from jazz (‘Lakeside’) to dub (‘Skeleton’) and even hints of folk (‘Tselane’).  Throughout these changes in style one thing remains constant: joy.  These songs are played with a verve that, I assume, could only come from group of individuals that grew up with the specter of apartheid looming throughout your country. These nine songs have a spirit not found in the majority of the music we easily label fresh and groundbreaking, they feel like they were poured out on to tape not because a new record was due, but because they had to be.  Music needs more of that.

Between the success of District 9, Charlize Theron’s appearance on Between Two Ferns with Zach Galifianakis and the release of BLK JKS After Robots, South Africa is having a pretty good month.

You can also catch these guys live October 12 @ Emo’s.  Tickets for that show will be sold at the doors for $10.

[audio: http://austintownhall.com/wp-content/uploads/2009/09/molalatladi.mp3]

Download: BLK JKS – Molalatladi [MP3]

FT5: Extended Hiatuses & Welcomed Returns

0911top5coverWe all have our hobbies. Whether it be collecting records, knitting, or making graffiti stencils, we all have something that steals away our time and makes the monotony of everyday life a little more bearable. But sometimes our hobbies consume too much of our time or, God forbid, our hobbies become just as monotonous as our day job. You must take a step back and to see what you loved about that hobby in the first place.

For this Friday Top Five we will take a look at several bands that have for one reason or another taken a break. These bands have never formally broken up; they have just gone on extended hiatus.
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Pete Yorn & Scarlett Johansson – Break Up

pete_yorn_scarlett_johanssonRating: ½☆☆☆☆

With Break Up Pete Yorn and Scarlett Johansson have made something unique. Is it a deconstruction of the anatomy of a relationship? No.  Is it a transcendent pop record that balances sweetness and heartbreak? No. What Scete Jornsson (will this catch on?) have made is quite possibly the whitest record ever to be put on a five inch disc (The Proclaimers can now breathe easy).

Is it possible for Pete Yorn to be any less inoffensive than what he already was? Apparently so.  This is also two more vanity projects than what Scarlett Johansson needed.  First she ruins the songs of Tom Waits, and now she, over a two day recording session (is that something to be proud of?) has put down some of the most boring vocal tracks I have ever heard.

I will give two songs their due: the opening track, ‘Relator’ is actually a catchy pop song, and it gave me hope (and earned the album half a star), but only gave way to blinding whiteness.  The closing track ‘Someday’ gets noticed because it means that this listening experience is finally over.  This album is perfect for buying a caramel macchiato, if you love Jack Johnson, or if you need something to listen to while killin’ time waiting for DMB.

So boring.

[audio: http://austintownhall.com/wp-content/uploads/2009/09/pete_yorn__scarlett_johansson-relator.mp3]

Download: Pete Yorn & Scarlett Johansson – Relator [MP3]

Polvo – In Prism

polvo-inprism

Rating: ★★½☆☆

 Chapel Hill, North Carolina’s Polvo began in 1990 when most of us were mere babes.  After four critically acclaimed albums, a sting of EPs released on Merge and Touch and Go, and tours across the United States and Europe with bands like Sonic Youth and Pavement, Polvo called it quits in 1997.  But, as is the recent trend, Polvo reunited in 2008 for All Tomorrows Parties and several stateside shows, this string of performances then mutated into Polvo’s first album in twelve years, In Prism.

To this reviewer, Polvo has always been one of those bands that is familiar in name, not by output; the scene workhorse that consistently releases albums without much fanfare.  I always felt a bit guilty about not really giving Polvo my attention: they wrote solid well-crafted songs and delivered them genuinely, what’s not to love?  The problem I saw Polvo having was that they there were other active bands at the time (Archers of Loaf, The Jesus Lizard, and Jawbox, to name a few) that were doing the exact same things, only better.  Polvo got relegated to the indie rock B-team with bands like Giants Chair and Gauge.  I am not trying to slight these bands. They all deserve much more credit than what they received for one reason or another.

That brings us to In Prism, which, like the rest of Polvos career, isn’t good or bad, it’s just okay.  The songs are interesting, but they all seem to follow the mid-nineties math rock playbook: riffs on top of riffs, changes on top of changes, quiet part, vague emotional lyrics, noodling solo, repeat for 5-8 minutes, TA-DAH!  The songs that having staying power are track three “Beggar’s Bowl” and the album closer “A Link in the Chain”:  “Beggar’s Bowl” deserves recognition for two reasons, besides being one of the stronger cuts on the album, 1) It’s laughable, yet endearing use of chimes, and 2) I defy you to listen to the song without singing Queen’s “Another One Bites the Dust”.  “A Link in the Chain” displays the slower side of Polvo, which does well to show how truly great guitarists Ash Bowie and Dave Brylawski are at their instruments (although I could’ve done without the epic Yes-ian build-up only to be met with, essentially, an instrumental cock-block [don’t worry I won’t quit my day job]).

We live in a time where everyone longs for their favorite bands to reunite and release “just one more album” or go on “one more tour” and while In Prism is a solid album that any band should be proud of, I think it’s time to retire those thoughts of Pavement, Archers of Loaf, or Quicksand reuniting and just be happy with memories of the way things were, rather than grieving over what those bands have become (I’m looking at you Weezer).

Vivian Girls – Everything Goes Wrong

 vivian_everything

Rating: ★★★½☆

After riding a wave of critical acclaim with their 2008 self titled debut, the Brooklyn based Vivian Girls return with their brand of lo-fi garage-pop on the sophomore release of Everything Goes Wrong.

Having hated, HATED, their debut, I approached Everything Goes Wrong with much trepidation.  I was already coming up with snarky comments based on the album title and track names like ‘I Have No Fun’ and ‘Before I Start to Cry’. I was pre-planning diatribes asking questions like “Do bands hide behind the ‘lo-fi’ aesthetic to mask their lack of talent?” It was going to be fun tearing this thing apart. 

The first three tracks, ‘Walking Alone at Night’, ‘I Have No Fun’, and ‘Can’t Get Over You’ didn’t do much to assuage my fears. It was sloppy with bored vocals and maybe the worst guitar ‘solos’ I have ever heard.  It’s almost like, mid-song, the bass player mouthed ‘guitar solo’ to the guitarist, and feeling tired of arguing over the pettiest shit with the bass player (that’s what you do with bass players) the guitar player relented, and the unnecessary solo was born.  I digress.

Something happened in the fourth track, ‘The Desert’, though, and I began enjoying myself.  The music tightened up, the vocals become more dynamic. By track seven, ‘The End’, I became a fan.  ‘The End’ is definitely the winning track on this album, the Vivian Girls take the best parts of early Hole (yes I feel odd using that comparison, but Live Through This was and is a great album), and the garage-y aesthetic and makes it their own.  The rest of the album plays out much the same way. It’s light, airy and fun: Everything Goes Wrong is great for a road trip or a quick jog around Williamsburg (from the hipster J. Peterman catalog).

If you have one Vivian Girls album in your collection (and really, you only need one) make it Everything Goes WrongBut, and this is a big but (HA!): I get the feeling that the Vivian Girls don’t have many more tricks in their bag, and will have to step it up big time on their third release, because, while Everything is Wrong is a fun record I can see more of the same getting awfully tiresome.

Amy Millan – Masters Of The Burial

amy-millan-masters-of-the-burial-artRating: ★★★☆☆

Having clocked in years with Canadian indie mainstays Stars and Broken Social Scene Toronto native Amy Millan struck out on her own in 2006 to release her debut album Honey from the Tombs to mostly favorable reviews, receiving comparisons to Emmylou Harris or Lucinda Williams.

Arts and Crafts Records will be releasing Amy Millan’s sophomore release, Masters of the Burial, and I must admit, coming into this review the only exposure I had had with Amy Millan was her work with the aforementioned bands.  Being a fan of Broken Social Scene and the solo outings of Brendan Canning, Kevin Drew, and Leslie Feist I was excited about the prospect of jangly, slightly quirky indie-pop album. Boy, was I in for a surprise.

Masters of the Burial is a very mature record. The majority of the eleven tracks could easily be seen as middle of the road adult contemporary, but in the best way possible.  This album is very easy to listen to, relying on softly brushed drums, well placed mandolins and, of course, Millan’s beautiful voice.  On tracks like ‘Bruised Ghosts’, ‘Towers’, and the album closer ‘Bound’ it is evident that Millan could easily hold her own with the Allison Krauss’ and the Norah Jones’ of the world, just ask your parents or Brenda in the accounting department if you don’t believe me.  When Millan breaks away from the country-tinged folk trappings on tracks like ‘Bury This’, the percussion heavy ‘Day to Day’, and the beautifully haunting ‘Lost Compass’, she truly shines, easily evoking feelings of loss and regret.  Plus there is a cover of Death Cab for Cutie’s ‘I Will Follow You Into the Dark’, if you are into that kind of thing.  Like my mama always says “A cover is as a cover does…” (my mama never says that).

While this record won’t be on my end of the year lists, I have nothing but respect for it.  It is comforting, and I know it has an audience out there that will love it. I just fear that, with it’s ties to indie rock, it will be shot down before it even has it’s chance to shine.

FTC: A Tribe Called Quest

FTC_tribecalledquestI know I’m new here and don’t mean to rock the boat too much with bringing up hip hop, but when I think about a record that deserves to be taken from the shelf and dusted off, I always default to A Tribe Called Quest’s The Low End Theory. The Low End Theory is quickly coming up on its nineteenth anniversary, which shows two things: 1. I am getting old and 2. This record truly is timeless.  The meshing of the larger than life drum loops, the smooth upright bass, and the honey soaked rhymes of Q-Tip and Phife Dawg makes you feel like you are listening to something from the past, present and future.  If you will allow me to go a little “get off my lawn” for a moment I feel blessed to have known hip hop when it was at this stage; where groups like The Tribe and De La Soul turned these cold elements into a vital artifact.  Pop Matters music editor David Heaton wrote, “Any 30-second snippet of The Low End Theory will go further to convince of the album’s greatness than anything I can write.”  I’ll give you four minutes with A Tribe Called Quest’s “Vibes and Stuff”.

[audio: http://austintownhall.com/wp-content/uploads/2009/09/Vibes-And-Stuff-1.mp3]

HEALTH – Get Color

health_get_colorRating: ★½☆☆☆

Coming from the same scene that birthed No Age, Abe Vigoda, and The Mae Shi, Los Angeles’ HEALTH crashed onto the scene with their cacophonous brand of noise rock garnering favorable reviews with their 2007 self-titled debut, the ensuing remix collection DISCO, and spastic live shows.  On their newest offering, Get Color, HEALTH attempts to produce a more easily accessible album while retaining their trademarked aural destruction, which they do, but to a fault.

What made their debut so great was that it felt dangerous; it made you uncomfortable while listening to it, but in such a good way. The giant drum sound and the shrillness of the vocal manipulation just seemed right. I remember the first time hearing “Crimewave”, just be being blown away and wanting more.  On Get Color, HEALTH switched from recording digitally to recording directly to 2” tape.  In an interview with Drowned in Sound, bassist John Famiglietti, discussed this decision: “On tape, you can be as loud and abrasive as you want, and the more brutal it gets it just feels good to hear.  On a computer that abrasive sound registers as a brittle spike, and even though it’s the sound you want, it’s terribly annoying when it comes out of the stereo”  This is true, Get Color is easier to listen to, but it just comes off as flat noise with a beat,  sterile as a cadaver on an examiners table.  When you embrace the term “noise” as an identifier of your bands sound you shouldn’t be afraid of the “brittle spike” in the recording.  I don’t yearn for a smoother sounding Lightning Bolt record, and HEALTH shouldn’t strive to make their noise easier on my ears.  Just plug in your fifty guitar pedals and tear shit up!

The biggest mistake HEALTH made on Get Color was wrangling in their greatest asset, drummer Benjamin Jared Miller. On their debut Miller was a force to reckoned with but here, while being completely competent behind the kit, he is regulated to generic flourishes and strategically placed blast beats.  The songs on Get Color feel overly planned out, to the point of coming off as a dead behind the eyes Hollywood starlet; pretty to look at and listen to, but offering nothing of value to our world.  I struggle to discuss individual tracks, because they all, essentially, sound the same.

I originally wanted to give this release a half of a star, but I hold on to hope that seeing the band live at Fun Fun Fun Fest this year will redeem this collection of songs. After all I hated At the Drive-In’s In/Casino/Out until I saw them live.  So, HEALTH, the ball is in your court, bring it in November.

[audio: http://austintownhall.com/wp-content/uploads/2009/09/03-health-nice_girls.mp3]

Download: HEALTH – Nice Girls [MP3]

ACL Spotlight: The Dodos

dodosfeatureSo last year during ACL we worked our tails off trying to bring you guys the best interviews, spotlights, battles and all kinds of crazy lists.  We may still be a month out from the festival date but we thought it would be an appropriate time to start our spotlight feature on various ACL artists that we like.  Our first spotlight goes to The Dodos and is taken on by our newest addition to ATH, mwiliamrice.  So follow the jump for our first ACL feature on The Dodos.

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8/28 Thunderheist, LAX & Vicious @ Emo’s

ThunderheistMany of you might have got caught in the rain this past Thursday evening, but Mother Nature decided to take a breather by the time Vicious, L.A.X., and Canadian DJ duo Thunderheist hit the stage. We all know that Emo’s (outdoors) can often feel like a sweltering sauna, but the humidity didn’t stop concertgoers from making good use of their dancing shoes. Luckily, there was room to breathe so you never felt overcome with claustrophobia as you milled around the venue avoiding puddles. Follow the jump to hear our thoughts.
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