Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Dastardly Represents the Silent Minority

Dastardly play vaudevillian, theatrical, often darkly cynical indie rock disguised as Americana. Their latest album May You Never presents them as sort of a Chicago counterpart to Balthrop, Alabama. Like that band, they like big crescendos that jump out of nowhere, lush harmonies and a sometimes stagy sensibility. But their sound is unique. Lately there’s been an explosion of bands doing lame imitations of New Order (or even worse, Arcade Fire) with acoustic instruments, but Dastardly isn’t one of them.

The instant classic here is Middleground, a bouncy, scurrying country song that makes a great anthem for every self-doubting cool kid. The singer can’t deal with his lame local scene where he takes the stage while “these guys in tight jeans to the right are making weird noises incoherently, the crowd loves them – they don’t love me.” And the big guy in town who gets written up by all the papers and the blogs “just put out a song that’s about how much I suck..I’m not pretty enough for the mainstream/I’m not weird enough for the underground/Why isn’t my face on your video screen/I’m caught in the cracks and I can’t get out.”

They also have a surreal side. The opening cut, with its ominously sweet guy/girl harmonies, has the guy pondering whether or not he should save her from the oncoming train. Traffic explores the twisted world of someone who claims to have been born in traffic and therefore has an attraction to “slow-moving obstacles, empty bottles and prophylactics.” The band’s darker side comes through vividly on Creepy, an evilly nonchalant waltz that makes another solid outsider anthem: “I’m in the shadows so no one sees me, but I see them, they don’t even know that I’m even alive, that I kill to survive.” Like many of the other tracks here, this one gets a big bridge with noisy, distant reverb guitar and a big choir of voices. There’s also the slow Morning Blue, the most traditional number here – although the trick ending completely switches that up – and Exercises in Self Loathing, a pop song set to a brisk country beat. With their unpredictable arrangements and sense of humor, Dastardly sound like they’d be a lot of fun live. They’ll be at South by Southwest at March 19 at the Jackalope in Austin.

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March 9, 2011 Posted by | Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

CD Review: The Cool Devices

Particularly appropriate that this would come over the transom a couple of days after seeing the Chrome Cranks at Santos Party House: the debut seven-track album by Chicago band the Cool Devices shares a no-holds-barred, roaring ferocity and a smart, riff-oriented post-Stooges vibe with the recently reunited LES New York legends. This effort has more of an authentic Detroit feel than most of the innumerable Stooges imitators out there, frontman Jason Frederick assailing the mic with relentless, snotty energy. The whole thing has a live-in-the-studio feel, well-rehearsed but with a spontaneity that’s hard to get just doing the songs track by track.  Right off the bad, they take it to redline with (This Is Not A) White World, muted guitar chords sputtering with natural distortion with more than a bit of an early Jon Spencer Blues Explosion feel. Some fiery tremolo picking kicks off the second track, Fatso, snarling riff-rock with trebly Farfisa or what sounds like it by Casey Meehan of Jitney (another good band recently reviewed here). 

Once I Became One Of Those is careening and atonal in the Chrome Cranks vein, practically death metal but with swing instead of stomp. Come Get Me has the guitar punching a single chord over and over again as Frederick rails and the organ kicks in at the end of the verse, an effects pedal left oscillating wildly at the end. The absolutely evil, chromatically-charged The Line Starts Here staggers along with growly Stranglers bass over some tricky time changes. The big, obvious hit is Primitive, dark second-generation minor-key garage rock also evocative of the Stranglers with that oldschool organ swirling as the chorus hits a peak. The album winds up with Someone Stop Them, running a1-3-4 riff over and over again like a less sludgy Thee Hypnotics as the organ distorts, then hands over the reins to the guitar which eventually goes apeshit while Frederick screams the tortured mantra of a title. A Guantanamo parable? 

Another triumph for upstart Chicago label Rock Proper, who in a remarkable spirit of generosity make their albums available for free download: get the whole thing here. If this is any indication, they ought to be a great live band: Chicago fans ought to go see them at their cd release show on May 28 at Beat Kitchen, 2100 W Belmont.

May 12, 2009 Posted by | Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

CD Review: Jitney – 86-300

Budget-conscious fans of edgy new indie rock should bookmark Rockproper, the online Chicago label that’s making all sorts of intriguing stuff available, absolutely free. Their latest release is the new one from Chicago indie songwriter Casey Meehan – a real life taxi driver – which takes its title from his cabbie license. To use the word “hack” here would be inaccurate. Jitney is a pleasantly melodic rock project with a heavy 80s/90s British influence that aims to strike a somewhat noir pose from time to time. The songs are terse and smartly crafted with layers of keyboards and guitars, Meehan playing almost all of the instruments himself with the exception of some bass and drums.  

 

After a brief intro, the first song is Butterfly Knife, an imagistic 6/8 ballad recounting an ominous car ride (in the cab?):

 

As he tried to keep his blood red and his money green

She’ll never know the secret life

Of his butterfly knife

 

The next track, Love Draws Blood sounds like 60s backbeat Kinks as covered by New Order, 1985. Dizzy Spells contrasts pounding piano and slinky 80s synth over aptly tricky rhythms: “You were casting dizzy spells.”

 

The album’s best cut is Twilight, a pretty, glimmering, janglerock ballad that wouldn’t be out of place in the Madrugada catalog:  “Don’t mistake the twilight for the dawn,” Meehan casually warns. There’s a nice solo on electric piano using a vibraphone setting, then a variation on the theme, Twilight Laser Battle, a synthy sci-fi flavored instrumental. Tricky Be is upbeat, ornate piano pop that reminds of Pulp with nice layers of keys in the playful, tongue-in-cheek style of Candida Doyle. The rest of the album is a basically quick run through what appears to be Meehan’s most-played list on his ipod: late 80s Cure, Tom Waits and the Velvet Underground’s third album. Even so, most of it’s quite pretty.

 

The album’s only drawback is the vocals. Your conformist indie rock crowd won’t notice or care, but for purists they could be a dealbreaker. Much of the time Meehan sings in a cliched, affected, languid drawl that’s as real as a Chinatown Rolex. It’s not clear whether he’s trying to be Richard Ashcroft or that moron from Coldplay, probably the latter. Songs this intelligent shouldn’t sound so clueless in places.

April 20, 2009 Posted by | Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

CD Review: Jay Bennett – Whatever Happened, I Apologize

What a harrowing way to start the new year. This cd hits you with a gale force, bitter, brutal and direct. Even if you try to get out of the way, Jay Bennett – the talented multi-instrumentalist who for all intents and purposes was Wilco until he left the band and Jeff Tweedy decided to become Brian Wilson – will still knock the wind out of you. Most of this cd – Bennett’s fourth solo album –  is just voice and acoustic guitar, occasionally embellished with organ and bass that are so good that you’re left wanting more. While the songs on this album scream out for a full band to flesh them out, even if this is as far as they ever get, that’s fine: they still pack a wallop. Stylistically, Bennett evokes Matt Keating or Richard Buckner in particularly energetic mode: this is smart, terse, gorgeously melodic Americana rock with equally smart, tersely unwinding lyrics. It’s a concept album about a relationship gone awry, spectacularly: this one was doomed right from the start, and if Bennett is to be taken at face value, it’s something of a miracle he got out alive.

 

The cd starts with a road song, just a bit of ominous foreshadowing in the same vein as the Wilco classic Far, Far Away (from the Being There cd), followed by the matter-of-fact, dismissive I Don’t Have the Time. Bennett knows there’s drama coming down the line and he wants no part of it. “I don’t have the good looks, but I know yours won’t last,” he caustically tells the woman. With the next cut, I’ll Decorate My Love, the genie’s out of the bottle, Pandora’s out of the box and all hell breaks loose, setting the tone for the rest of the cd:

 

There will be no profit in protection

Even when you’re walking miles in the rain

I will curse the day I met you

And you will curse the day I lost control

And there will be no reward for your actions

Even when you’re trying to save your lover’s soul…

You were down before me

 

The themes that recur again and again here are missed opportunities and wasted time (go figure), notably on the cd’s towering centerpiece, the big, crescendoing 6/8 ballad The Engines Are Idle:
 
The engines are idle and the trees are all bare

And the issues are clouded and hang in the air

The best part of the story is the part that you missed…

The best part of the record is the part where it skips

And she lost the lyrics and the jacket is ripped…

Cos it’s ageless and timeless but beauty must fade

And you looked so much better when the picture was made

 

The pace picks up and emotions reach a fever pitch on How Dull They Make the Razor: Bennett wants to wait this one out, but he ends up getting dragged in anyway:

 

It don’t matter how dull they make the razor

You won’t feel it when you’re dead 

 

On the next track, Without the Benefit of Sight, Bennett likens himself to a block of ice on a Chicago rooftop in early spring, loosened just enough to become deadly. Exasperation and despair take over center stage:

 

If you want to weigh me down there’s just one layer left

I’ve been repainted so many times it’s anybody’s guess

 

And that’s pretty much where it’s left. Bennett muses on how Hank Williams might have written this story, then throws up his hands and lets that work as a smokescreen: he’s through with trying to cut through the smoldering underbrush, and the songs follow suit. “I lost my best friend last night, I’m working on number two/Won’t you give me a chance cause your chances are through,” he warns on the stark, mandolin-spiced ballad Talk and Talk and Talk. The cd ends with a lament for the world as a whole – the relationship seems to be a microcosm of something far worse – and then with the understatement of Little Blue Pills, “that don’t make you ill – someday they will.”

 

Intensely personal yet not the least bit self-absorbed, this is the best thing Bennett’s ever done. And the best thing about it is that the cd is absolutely free: Bennett is giving it away as a free download at rockproper.com, click here and then hang on, this is not exactly easy listening.

January 5, 2009 Posted by | Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

This Band Will Kick Your Ass

What a great discovery. On their absolutely scorching new ep Cooler Than Your Boyfriend, Chicago power popsters the Romeros blast in with a BIG anthemic sound, an absolutely relentless twin guitar attack. They love Big Catchy Hooks. Cheap Trick is the obvious comparison, but without that band’s frequently cloying, dweeby vibe. They also evoke Stiff Little Fingers at their cheeriest and catchiest. Thirty years ago, they would have had a slew of AM radio hits – and that’s a compliment. The Romeros understand that hit songs are simple and catchy: after all, you don’t walk around all day with a Joe Lovano solo running through your head. The album kicks off with Tonight, almost like a slower oi-punk song with a pop feel, like something you would have heard at CBs circa 1980. It’s simple and catchy, maybe echoing what you’d hear on the Saints’ first album, with a simple but effective guitar solo then back into the crunchy chorus with tasteful lead licks on the way out. Wow!

Big in Japan isn’t a cover of the Alphaville hit: it’s another anthem with a sardonic lyric about a band not being able to make it big where their obvious audience is. It sounds like it’s a big crowd-pleaser. Love Notes is fast over a bed of acoustic and electric guitars: it sounds live, maybe better that what they’d be able to do with it in the studio since they completely cut loose with the vocals. I Could Never Take, another live recording, is a blistering rocker. The band sounds completely drunk, and better off for it. The lead player does a goosebump-inducing slide down his low E string with his guitar pick as the first couple of verses crescendo into the chorus. The guitar solo is straight out of the Ron Asheton songbook, a lot of over-the-edge bluesy licks that go absolutely nowhere, but it completely fits the song: absolute pandemonium.

Can’t Hardly Wait is another live track, very mid 80s, like the DBs with balls. Nice completely over the top heavy metal ending. Somebody to Shove is yet more live stuff, nicking its intro from some 80s song (somebody tell us what!!!) with a furious, pounding chorus, the closest thing to SLF they do. Some of their lyrics sound like an afterthought, but that’s not a big deal: this band is all about the hooks. Yet further proof that the best things in rock are happening outside of New York right now. Chicago has long been known for killer party bands and these guys are as good as they get. These guys offer a really cool deal: not only can you get the ep, you also get the “gift pack” which includes a Romeros t-shirt PLUS another bonus disc of live tracks, bootlegs, acoustic demos, basement tapes and rarites along with pins, stickers and a poster for your bedroom door for the obscenely low price of $7! If that’s not fan-friendly, nothing is. What a great way to get to know a totally kick-ass band. CDs are available online and at shows.

March 22, 2008 Posted by | Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment