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Reviews: Ventura's Ultima Necat

Ventura's Ultima Necat

Three years between albums is not an eternity, but I was beginning to wonder if Ventura would deliver a follow-up to their mammoth 2010 LP We Recruit. Being an ocean away from the Swiss trio’s tour dates, I was left to dwell on their last proper release, a heartily recommended seven-inch released later in 2010 with David Yow on The Jesus Lizard on vocals. When a considerable part of your aesthetic is founded upon ’90s Touch and Go guitar rock (i.e., aggressive, tight, and bullshit-free), teaming with Yow is a potentially dangerous form of wish-fulfillment. I was ignoring the flipside of that coin: Yow was equally fortunate in the team-up, jumping from the Jesus Lizard’s reunion tour into a European vacation with a younger group with something left to prove. The lingering question remained, however: did they already prove it through this dalliance with a noise rock hall of famer?

Apparently not. Ultima Necat is not the product of a band resting on its laurels—it’s a significant step forward from the already impressive We Recruit. Few bands achieve the tonal consistency displayed here: its gravitational pull locks you into a seriously heavy and downright serious forty-two minutes. In true Touch and Go spirit, nothing gets in the way of the songwriting. The production is bruising but clean, delivering its monstrous heft without collapsing underneath it.

Extend that ethic to the lyrical approach, too. We Recruit had moments of gallows humor, but Ultima Necat never cheats its focus. Case in point: I initially anticipated that the album’s epic centerpiece, the nearly twelve-minute “Amputee,” would undercut its wailing refrain “I feel like an amputee / I want my legs back” with a smirk like We Recruit’s “Twenty-Four Thousand People” did, but Phillipe Henchoz instead goes deeper, repeating “I’d like to dance again” and “If that dance could be with you,” his voice breaking down as the riffs lock in. There’s a fearless honesty to it, like Brian McMahan’s wounded vocals on Spiderland: if someone laughs at the vulnerability displayed, they’re the idiot (who will get caught in the crossfire of the seven minutes of escalating riff warfare that follows).

Ultima Necat draws from other pairings of heaviness and vulnerability. The chord progressions of “Little Wolf” echo Hum’s Electra 2000, but its outro dives down to Mastodon’s hull-crushing depths. Henchoz revisits Come’s chord battles with the twangs of “Body Language.” “Intruder” starts out like a malicious version of Codeine, but abandons John Engle’s starker arrangements in favor of layers of back-masked guitars. “Very Elephant Man” head-fakes at the math-rock of Don Caballero’s For Respect before ascending into the territory of Sunny Day Real Estate’s LP2 (h/t Shallow Rewards). Closer “Exquisite and Subtle” floats Herchoz’s vocals and blurred, shoegaze-inflected guitar far above the rhythm section. It’s heavy, yes, but the tractor beam of the preceding eight tracks has been lifted, letting you drift out of orbit.

Even with near-twelve minutes consumed by “Amputee,” Ultima Necat still clocks with a perfect forty-two-minute runtime. Such economy proves essential; the album’s unblinking focus could have turned suffocating with the addition of a few more songs. Instead, I ride out the muscular plateau of “Exquisite and Subtle” and gladly start back at the top with the aptly titled “About to Despair.” Consider Ultima Necat written in pen in the upper echelons of my 2013 year-end list.

Ultima Necat is available digitally though Bandcamp, Amazon, and iTunes. However, it’s well worth importing a physical copy of the vinyl from Africantape or an American distributor for the gatefold sleeve alone.

Reviews: My Bloody Valentine's M B V

My Bloody Valentine's M B V

I half-joked on Twitter last weekend that there should be a 22-year moratorium before writing about My Bloody Valentine’s M B V, exaggerating the vast difference between the wait to receive and the wait to critique. Naturally, it didn’t take long for the major outlets to disregard my edict. Some reviews rolled in Sunday morning—“I’ve listened to it three times and I was super high the first two but here goes”—before I even got a chance to hear the album. (Moral: Always bring your laptop on trips in case My Bloody Valentine follows through on their long-standing threat to finally release a new record.) Most took three or four days, like Pitchfork’s 9.1 Best New Music tag. Anything longer than that felt remarkably patient, like Chris Ott’s piece in Maura Magazine (subscription for iPhone/iPad only). By Friday, I was willing to break the edict myself for one simple reason: I wanted to write about M B V, even if finality of opinion is impossible now (or ever).

The central point that rang out to me, over and over, as I listened to M B V on repeat this week, was that it’s undeniably My Bloody Valentine. A significant percentage of my record collection owes intellectual royalties to Loveless—so many titles that extract a part of its appeal, cross-breed it with a newer movement, slavishly copy its technical approaches—but M B V reminded me more of what those bands lacked, not what they offered over this long-overdue return. That Kevin Shields’ guitar work can remain both inventive and familiar is a testament to the master, given how many others have explored his terrain. That Shields and Bilinda Butcher’s hushed vocal smears remain singularly intoxicating is an equal surprise, since that style was ripped off almost as often with far less notice. M B V initially stood out as a lazy title, but its shorthand is appropriate; at last, the other side of the “MBV meets” equation is empty.

Yet MBV needs to be (re)defined. Debbie Googe’s interview with Drowned in Sound can be read as liner notes for M B V, confirming that she didn’t play on the album, that the drums have been “added and then taken off at least once” (with Jimi Shields getting the first crack before Colm O’Ciosoig redid them), that Bilinda Butcher came in to do vocals but nothing else. All of these facts seem like eye-openers until I confirmed that virtually every one is a repeat of Loveless’s recording. Googe didn’t play on that record, Butcher didn’t play guitar on that record, O’Ciosoig’s drums were a mix of loops and live performance. (He did author the soundscape “Touched.”) Loveless took nineteen studios, whereas M B V took twenty-two years, but at their essence, they’re both Kevin Shields solo albums.

My main issues with M B V stem from this point—the drums are often seem like an afterthought, the bass is frequently challenging to locate. There’s a buried percussive pulse and a vague bass throb to the womb-like opener “She Found Now,” but if you finish hearing the song with anything other than the vocal coos or the careful swoops of the guitar in your memory banks, you must be Debbie Googe or Colm O’Ciosoig preparing for the next round of tour dates. The mid-tempo shuffle of “Only Tomorrow,” “Who Sees You,” and “If I Am” could pass for an under-rehearsed live band, but keyboard lullaby “Is This and Yes” only picks up a neighbor’s kick drum sound-check. “New You” is the sprightliest pop song on M B V and its up-front bass line is a major reason why. Much of the percussive attention on the album steers to the last three songs, which eschew the pretense of live drumming in favor of pounding (“In Another Way”) or swirling (“Wonder 2”) drum loops. This approach recalls Shields’ remix work in the late ’90s, which jumped on jungle and drum ‘n’ bass trends (see remixes of Mogwai’s “Mogwai Fear Satan” and Yo La Tengo’s “Autumn Sweater” for starters). The stuttering, headache-inducing “Nothing Is” marks the only point when one of Loveless’s descendents overshadows the legitimate follow-up for me; I’d rather hear the metallic repetition of Glifted’s Under and In (the side project of Hum guitarist Tim Lash).

It’s tempting to imagine M B V with a more prominent, more considered rhythmic foundation, but that impulse just redirects into the decades-old Loveless fan-fiction competition. If you want My Bloody Valentine with a sturdier, more forceful rhythm section, there are bands for that itch. If you want My Bloody Valentine with contemporary drum programming, there are bands for that itch. If you want My Bloody Valentine with no drums at all, there are bands for that itch. You can spend years—literally, I have spent years—tracking down those alternate permutations of MBV’s sound, and the most confounding aspect of M B V’s existence (reminder: a new My Bloody Valentine album actually exists) is reconciling decades of genetic experiments with the re-emergence of the real thing. Sometimes those experiments were successful, even to the point where other reviewers think My Bloody Valentine didn’t have to follow-up Loveless because the Lilys or Sugar or whoever else actually did.

I can understand if that roadblock cuts off some people from appreciating M B V, but repeating my central point, I’m overcome with relief that what I’m hearing is undeniably My Bloody Valentine. Even if “She Found Now” is a dream, it’s one I’ll feverishly try to document upon waking, but always fail to capture. “Who Sees You” lopes without urgency, but it’s to allow Shields’ woozy guitar lines proper room to sway. Yes, the lyrics of “If I Am” are nearly impossible to pinpoint, but that point doesn’t stop me from humming the vocal melody hours after hearing it. “In Another Way” may be propelled by a cyborg drummer, but its combination of aggressive riffs and floating melodies could outlast the throttling loops by hours without wearing thin. All of these moments reassert what My Bloody Valentine offers then and now, an inscrutable pairing of the vague and the specific, the tangible and the intangible.

Let me be perfectly clear, even if My Bloody Valentine themselves discourage the practice. M B V is neither Loveless’s equal nor superior. You don’t have to squint hard to see its flaws (and implying that they’re even present on Loveless can be seen as sacrilege). Unlike Loveless, it’s plausible that a few of My Bloody Valentine’s challengers surpassed M B V. But what they did not do was make M B V irrelevant or ineffectual. It still surprises, and not just through its mere existence. It still demands more listens from me, and not just because of its historical importance. It’s an album loaded with qualifying statements (“for a reunited band,” “for such a long layoff,” “for being from a different era”) that somehow sheds these statements. By the close of “Wonder 2,” I’ve stopped comparing M B V to my rolodex of descendants and focus only on the record at hand. That’s the achievement here, and it is by no means a minor one.

One final consideration: What if M B V opens the floodgates? Terrence Malick took twenty years to follow Days of Heaven with The Thin Red Line and has since been slowly accelerating his rate of output, with a shockingly large slate of projects on the horizon. That’s my desired result: Kevin Shields, ceaseless tinkerer, becomes Kevin Shields, creator of finished products. M B V’s existence in 2013 shocked me, but the release of two more My Bloody Valentine albums in the calendar year would not.

Reviews: Songs of Farewell and Departure: A Tribute to Hum

Hum

Champaign, Illinois’s Hum has reigned as one of my favorite bands for more than half my lifetime, but when I listen to their records, it’s easy to understand such devotion. Heavy but not plodding, spacey but always grounded, intelligent but still approachable, Hum’s trio of Electra 2000, You’d Prefer an Astronaut, and Downward Is Heavenward made the world of ’90s alternative rock a considerably more interesting place. While they’ve been essentially inactive since 1999, you can count on a reunion show every few years to satiate their legion of die-hard fans.

The only surprise about the release of Songs of Farewell and Departure: A Tribute to Hum is that it took this long to happen, given the number of Orange amplifiers the group helped sell. Pop Up Records issued The Nurse Who Loved Me: A Tribute to Failure back in 2008, and the cross-over in fan bases and influence is significant. Perhaps the lack of a big name like Paramore, who covered “Stuck on You” for the Failure tribute, delayed the release of its Hum-honoring counterpart, but Songs of Farewell and Departure did net a few groups (Junius, Constants, Actors & Actresses) that I’ve long suspected of pulling influence from Hum and a completely unexpected guest appearance from Jawbox / Burning Airlines frontman J. Robbins.

The big name that presumably escaped Pop Up’s grasp is the Deftones. Vocalist Chino Moreno has expressed his fondness for You’d Prefer an Astronaut and it’s easy to hear echoes of Hum’s heavy-yet-spacious guitar tones in countless Deftones songs. (I remember wondering if White Pony bonus track “The Boy’s Republic” was an overt nod to Hum b-side “Boy with Stick.”) The Deftones may be absent from Songs of Farewell and Departure, but their presence is still felt in the metallic approach taken by some of the groups. In a recent run-through of eighteen covers of the Smiths’ “Please Please Please Let Me Get What I Want,” which included one from the Deftones, New Artillery collaborator/BFF Jon Mount said, “The Deftones are a litmus test for people who liked Hum for all of the wrong reasons.” While I disagreed with the sentiment to a certain extent, there’s a nugget of truth there. Hum’s endearingly nerdy tendencies—Matt Talbott’s scientifically inspired lyrics and thin singing voice (that cracked awkwardly throughout Electra 2000)—are not the source of their prevailing influence. Instead, those heavy-yet-spacious guitar tones are often picked up by groups already heavier and/or more aggressive than Hum in the first place, like the Deftones.

Songs of Farewell and Departure: A Tribute to Hum

To help me sift through the sixteen covers on Songs of Farewell and Departure, I’ve recruited a peer from the Hum Mailing List days, Dusty Altena, who you may know from his blog, Tumblr, or Twitter.

SS: How many of these bands had you heard prior to this compilation?

DA: The only band I’ve heard of is Junius and J. Robbins (full disclosure: I am apparently not familiar enough with Jawbox to know Robbins by name). I love Failure too, but I had no idea who Kellii Scott was [the drummer on Fantastic Planet]. Sorry Kellii!

Is there a band you wish had made an appearance?

SS: It honestly would have been nice to hear the Deftones take on one of these songs. I suspect that Jesu's Justin Broadrick doesn't pull much influence from Hum records, but the thought of hearing a slow-motion rendition of "Isle of the Cheetah" from him is exciting. In a general sense, I wouldn't have minded hearing a post-rock band like Caspian take on one of these songs. The Life and Times could have done a good version of a song as well—they’d appeared on the Jawbox tribute record, so they’re a reasonable possibility. Bob Nanna of Braid / Hey Mercedes did a string of covers for his blog, so unless he hates Hum, I’m betting you could convince him to essay “Dreamboat.”

DA: I am an unapologetic Deftones fan, so I love your Deftones suggestion. I’d also love to hear some contemporaries like Jeremy Enigk, or maybe even Man…or Astroman. A Jesu post-rock cover is a great idea as well. I can’t think of any folk or semi-folk singers who’ve professed a fondness for Hum, but can you imagine a Jose Gonzalez-like cover? I would love to hear that.

SS: Let's get down to the bands that did appear on Songs of Farewell and Departure.

1. Arctic Sleep's “The Scientists”

SS: This is an entirely competent, if not hugely inspired beginning to the compilation. It's a very, very faithful take on the original, barring a few minor embellishments: heavier bridge, bigger drum sound, acoustic outro. It would have been great if they did something different with the song, though.

DA: I think competent is a perfect description for this track, ‘The Scientists’ is my favorite song on Downward Is Heavenward; but do I really want to listen to that same song with slightly different vocals? Not really. I’ll give you competent, maybe even good; but not inspired. I will admit that I dug the heavy drums and even the acoustic outro. But I was hoping for a much more original take.

2. (Damn) This Desert Air's "The Pod"

DA: I was really into the beginning of this one; it reminded me of Short Bus-era Filter. But by the time the chorus starts, it’s back to the same trap that most tribute albums fall into: faithful, faithful covers. At this point I just want to listen to the original, because it’s the same, and also better. The outro brings back that Short Bus palm-muting, and I have to admit I would love to hear the whole song reimagined on those terms.

SS: This one reminded me of a Failure / Quicksand hybrid. There’s potential here for a much more aggressive and ominous rendition if they’d ran with that palm-muting, but it follows the plot too closely.

3. Solar Powered Sun Destroyer's "Stars"

SS: If you had told me in 1997 that I'd one day hear J. Robbins sing on a cover version of "Stars," my head would have exploded. It's not that Jawbox and Hum were mutually exclusive elements in my record collection—Shiner is the explicit midway point between the two groups—but it's not a crossover I ever expected. Beyond Robbins' vocal take (which I like), Solar Powered Sun Destroyer's version adds depth but no major wrinkles.

DA: This is obviously intended to be the highlight of the album for most listeners. “Stars” remains that one Hum song that everyone remembers (even Beavis & Butthead). I still remember the night I was laying in bed and first heard this on the radio. It honestly changed music for me. I really like the post-rock intro on this version, but I don’t love the sharp enunciation, and I am not sure how I feel about the reimagined harmonies (seriously, I can barely recognize J. Robbins). This version is pretty damn close to the original, but you can hardly blame them—this song is crazy fun to play.

4. Bearhead's "Ms. Lazarus"

DA: We finally get to the first radical departure from the original. “Ms. Lazarus” was never one of my favorite Hum songs, but it had its place. This, I don’t even know what this is. I applaud the effort to make it different, but I cannot stand this alternative emo bullshit—these are basically 2006 Panic! at the Disco vocals—and I don’t want them anywhere near my Hum memories.

SS: It took me a second to figure out which song they were covering. The vocals are a non-starter for me (especially the “Shines I only wish that it was mine!” emo-thusiasm), but there are a few good rearrangements of the original guitar parts.

5. Anakin's "I'd Like Your Hair Long"

SS: Here are the nerdy vocals! Between the band's name and the vocalist not sounding like a dude chugging Muscle Milk, Anakin is in my good graces. It's not a drastically different version, but slowing down the song's main riff and adding cooed background vocals in the chorus are good calls.

DA: I like the slowdown, but the Ben Gibbard vocals annoy me. The further I trudge through this tribute, the more I am realizing how perfect Matt Talbott was as Hum’s frontman. Still, despite the Gibbardish singing, this is one of the more listenable songs so far. I will agree with you that the background cooing was a nice touch.

6. Junius's "Firehead" [YouTube]

DA: Since Junius is the only band featured on this tribute who I am really familiar with and "Firehead" is one of my all-time favorite Hum songs; I was more excited to hear this track than anything else on the album. It passes the originality litmus test (one of maybe four other songs on this record)…but is it actually good? I would argue yes. It sounds almost nothing like the original—Hum’s intense subtlety is harder to grab than you would think—but it captures enough of the original while adding just enough unfamiliarity to make it interesting. It is definitely my favorite on the album so far.

SS: Co-sign on the success of Junius’s version. The big guitar/synth sound on the bridges is vastly different from the tone of the original, but fits the material perfectly. Even the vocal delivery, something that bothered me on The Martyrdom of a Catastrophist, fits well.

7. Constants' "If You Are to Bloom"

SS: This is a largely predictable applicable of Constants' space-metal aesthetic to "If You Are to Bloom." I wish they'd done an extended jam on it or something.

DA: Way too faithful for me. Once again, I immediately want to open iTunes to listen to the original. This is the exact same song with slightly different (and worse) vocals—the very same reason I generally avoid outtakes and demos. I feel like this song adds nothing unless you are a die-hard Constants fan whose dying wish is to hear them play a Hum song. My only praise is that the production reminds me of Keith Cleversley (YPAA’s producer), and I always wanted to hear what Downward Is Heavenward would sound like if it was produced by him.

SS: Wasn’t there a rumored first take on Downward helmed by Cleversley? I remember hearing that rumor at some point.

DA: I don’t remember ever hearing that, but I wouldn’t be surprised. Hearing a Cleversley-produced take on Downward will always be one of my Cancer Wishes.

SS: Have you seen Cleversley's site? Apparently he gave up producing a few years ago to get into shamanism.

DA: Ha! I hadn’t heard that, but that is amazing. I guess there isn’t much less to prove after perfectly producing one of the greatest records ever.

8. City of Ships' "I Hate It Too"

DA: Another faithful cover. At this point I would kill to hear Cat Power’s take on one of these tracks. Is the problem that it’s impossible to get at the essence of Hum without sounding like…Hum? The vocals are good, and so are the guitars; but, this honestly just sounds like an unreleased demo. It’s one of the better tracks so far, but that’s just because it sounds the closest to the original. So, what’s the point?

SS: This is absolute par. How many bands do you think took Hum’s gear list as a starting point for their musical careers and saved up for Orange amps? Do you think sounding exactly like Hum on a tonal level is the end goal for these bands?

DA: Judging by all of the @replies I get whenever I mention I own both pressings of You’d Prefer An Astronaut on vinyl, I would imagine that number is huge—I can’t think of any other band that has such a ridiculous cult following. I certainly remember buying MXR Phasers and salivating over Orange amps back in the day. I think a big part of playing Hum songs is trying to get that heavy-as-hell space sound that the band perfected.

9. Actors & Actresses' "Aphids"

SS: I can't tell of Actors & Actresses' version of "Aphids" is that much better than the covers which preceded it, or if picking a song I haven't heard eight million times is an enormous help. It's an interesting instrumental mix with softly delivered vocals that amplify, rather than disregard, the original vocal melody. Worth going back to a few times.

DA: "Aphids" has always been one of my least favorite Hum songs, but oddly, this is one of my favorite covers on the album. It feels like Actors & Actresses are taking a Hum song and making it their own rather than the other way around, and I truly appreciate that. I feel like these guys have come the closest to reaching that thin (and coveted) coverer/coveree relationship thus far.

10. Digicide's "Comin' Home"

DA: And we’re back to pseudo-Hum songs. In fairness, I don’t know how you’d cover this song and maintain the Hum elements while making it your own; but come on—this is basically the exact same backing track with slightly different (more emo) vocals. I honestly think (nu-metal band) Dope could record a better cover of this song. 10 times out of 10 I would rather listen to the original than this.

SS: Pseudo-Hum is right. Aside from some double-kick drum and the nu-metal scream of “And we wouldn’t know!” it’s a too-faithful take on “Comin’ Home.” Yawn. Speaking of takes on “Comin’ Home,” do you remember the original live version that was floating around before Downward came out? I always thought the chorus was “I’ll treat you like a son,” which killed me, but the It's Gonna Be a Midget X-Mas version is “I’ll treat you like a sound,” which I also like.

DA: Yes! I loved that version of “Comin’ Home”, and I think I might even still have an .mp3 of it somewhere. I listened to it enough to be bummed when such a different version appeared on Downward. That original was so powerful! There was an early bootleg of “Dreamboat” that was just awesome, too. Speaking of misheard lyrics; I always thought the end of the chorus on “The Pod” was “Wait, wait on me, yeah”, but on [Damn] This Desert Air’s version, it’s “Way, way on the end” (and what sounds like “Way, way on the edge” the second time). That puts the mood of the song in a totally different context for me.

11. The Esoteric's "Iron Clad Lou"

SS: I knew this was coming. The monotone post-hardcore/nu-metal bellow points its finger right in my face. The rigid arrangement opens up a bit on the bridge with dueling solos, but it all sounds like an exercise. No, you do not win.

DA: I actually appreciated this one. I loved the attempt to make it their own. Do I think it worked? No. But I will take this a thousand times over the “Comin’ Homes” and “If You are to Blooms” on this tribute. I appreciate the effort. Maybe it would work better with a band like Glassjaw, or something else along those lines. The Esoterics have me interested in the possibilities, which is more than most of these covers.

SS: I like the idea of a Hum tribute band named The Comin’ Homes.

12. Tent's "Little Dipper"

DA: I don’t even know what to say about this one. "Little Dipper" is arguably my favorite Hum song ever, but is this even a cover? The only recognizable element is the lyrics (which are barely audible in the original). I give them props for the crazy originality, but I feel like this is more in the realm of appropriation than cover. It’s not awful musically, but I feel like it’s a fork in the road pointing to A) Hum or B) Clouddead. Not exactly a cohesive take one of Hum’s more transcendent songs. Even after more than one listen, the music has absolutely no similarity to the original for me. I love Failure, but I’m not giving Kellii Scott a pass on this one.

SS: It’s a cover of “Little Dipper,” a song that thrives on its waves of guitar riffs, done with no prominent guitar parts. Instead, they’re replaced by up-front drums, piano, strings, and spoken word vocals that turn the sci-fi romance of the original version into weird threats. There’s heavy breathing, for fuck’s sake. You’re right that there’s no similarity to the original on a musical level, but I’ve heard covers that take that route and still succeed (Joel R. L. Phelps & the Downer Trio’s “The Guns of Brixton” comes to mind). What bothers me most here is the abandonment of the original sentiment.

13. Stomacher's "Why I Like the Robins"

SS: If you'd told me that one of these covers would be undone by an irritating vocal affect, I would have presumed it was Junius, but Stomacher sabotages an otherwise acceptable version of "Why I Like the Robins" with its overly manicured delivery. Most of it is par for the course, but they add some nice guitar textures to the outro.

DA: I never loved this song in the first place (except the song title, which weirdly has always been one of my favorites), but once again I am annoyed by the proximity (close, but worse) to the original. I can’t say I am actually irritated by the vocal effects as much as you are, but this song is more boring than the original and adds nothing new, save for a nice effects-laden outro.

14. The Felix Culpa's "Puppets"

DA: “Puppets” is one of my favorite Hum songs, but mostly because it’s recorded with an excitement by the band that isn’t found on any other release (perhaps due to the members switching instruments on the recording). This cover basically takes all of that excitement away, which is unfortunate. It isn’t horrible to listen to, but I feel like it’s lost its essence.

SS: This was when my “I really just want to listen to the original version” impulse kicked in. It’s a faded carbon copy. “Puppets” is a great song, but I don’t know how much any group could have done with it. Once you lose the forward momentum of the original, it falls flat.

15. Funeral for a Friend's "Green to Me"

SS: These Welsh post-hardcore/emo guys try their damnedest to turn "Green to Me" into a power ballad, but pulling out the heavy guitars, adding IDM-for-beginners beats, and going super MOR on the vocals just makes the song boring, if not elevator-ready.

DA: The intro was nice for all of about 25 seconds. Once again, someone emphasizes just how bad Hum would suck without Matt Talbott as the frontman. Even Guns’N’Roses could have made a better power ballad out of this song. (Although I wouldn’t be surprised to hear this on next week’s episode of Teen Mom.) This is probably the worst song on the album, despite the band’s effort to make it original (which I am usually on board with). My god, I just want to turn it off.

16. Alpha Stasis's "Scraper"

DA: I always hated "Scraper" back in the day because it was so hardcore, but I have recently come to appreciate it a lot more. This song does an okay job of capturing that energy, but as with the rest of the album, it is too similar to the original. The Electra 2000 version is better, and it’s actually Hum, so what’s the point of listening to this? There is absolutely nothing new brought to the song. Isn’t this why you start a band in high school—to cover your favorite songs and get them to sound exactly the same? I feel like this would have been an amazing song for J. Robbins to appear on. Can you imagine Scraper sounding like "Savory"? We can wish.

SS: Now you’re making me imagine how great an Electra 2000 covers record fronted by Jawbox-era J. Robbins would be. Thanks a lot.

I’m tempted to just criticize the original, which is one of the weaker links on Electra 2000. Its two-chord trade-off plods, Talbott’s delivery is trying, and the lyrics are painfully confessional without the filter of some science-fiction narrative. The best part is the spoken word bridge: “Say hi to your folks / be nice to your lunchmeat,” etc. Aside from tossing out that bridge, Alpha Stasis mostly gives “Scraper” a modern production update, at least until the nu-metal “Yours make me cry!” scream. I got a laugh out of that one.

SS: Wrapping up, are there any songs you’d wished a band had tackled?

DA: I would have loved to hear the namesake of the album, “Songs of Farewell and Departure” (always one of my favorite Hum songs). “Winder” would have been great. I also would have loved to hear a new take on “Shovel.”

SS: “Songs of Farewell and Departure” would have been a good pick. I would have liked to hear versions of "Afternoon with the Axolotls," "Winder," and "Isle of the Cheetah." Those all seem like songs that could be taken in vastly different directions and still hold up. Do you think a band could have done something different with “Diffuse”? Would you want to hear an aggro rendition of “The Very Old Man”?

DA: That’s a good question. I originally put “Diffuse” in my list of songs I would have wished for, but I took it off when I realized it probably would have just ended up another pseudo-Hum song. I think it would have ended up being treated the same as “I Hate It Too” or “The Pod”. “The Very Old Man” would be awesome, though. It’s always been my absolute least favorite Hum song, but I would love to see what someone (think Chad VanGaalen) could do with it.

SS: The moral of Songs of Farewell and Departure (and the vast majority of tribute records, to be fair) is that more of the bands needed to try different things with the material and actually pull off the concepts, not just aim for and easily achieve pseudo-Hum status. The hypothetical covers we've come up with interest me a lot more than the majority of songs here, although Actors & Actresses, Junius, Solar Powered Sun Destroyer, and Anakin deserve credit for their contributions.

The Haul: Constants' The Foundation The Machine The Ascension

I have a love/hate relationship with mail order. I owe a key chunk of my music collection to shipments from Parasol Mail Order, Newbury Comics, and the now defunct CDNow and Music Boulevard, since they granted me access to independent rock staples that I couldn’t find at either the nearby Rhino Records or Circuit City / Media Play / other defunct big box stores in high school. Yet as I’ve grown accustomed to shopping at record stores, including Parasol in Champaign and Newbury Comics in Boston, I’ve had less reason to rely on mail order, and with the threat of Somerville mail thieves, I dread the potential of an unsuccessful delivery. Maybe once I have a house in the suburbs [editor’s note: i.e., now] it’ll be a less pressing concern and I’ll return to my mail-ordering ways, but I’d much rather go out to a store and press my luck with stock than place an order and press my luck with neighborhood kids. If you’re willing to steal a copy of Rachel’s Systems/Layers, I’d consider limited edition vinyl fair game as well.

I’d mentioned this particular limited edition vinyl before, but it’s worth mentioning the specifics again—three colored LPs in a triple gatefold sleeve with embossed artwork. Mylene Sheath deserves special praise for one-upping vinyl-oriented labels like Temporary Residence and Hydrahead. (Okay, the Eluvium box on TRL is impossible to one-up, but still.)

96. Constants – The Foundation The Machine The Ascension 3LP – Mylene Sheath, 2009 – $25

Constants' The Foundation the Machine the Ascension

Constants’ aesthetic blueprint could’ve been drawn from various parts of my brain. Take the churning space rock of Hum and Failure, add in the weight of post-metal groups like Isis and Pelican, then pull in a secondary dose of instrumental post-rock for the drifting passages. “Passage,” an emotional, heavy, dynamic rocker from an exemplary split single with post-rockers Caspian, was the perfect advertisement for The Foundation The Machine The Ascension. It put my hopes for TFTMTA through the roof, so it’s not surprising that the album doesn’t quite hold up to its imagined heights.

Although the sonic template is compelling and many of the songs are excellent, The Foundation has two key problems: the vocals and the length. The gang vocal approach works in small doses, which is why I enjoyed them on “Passage,” but over the course of an hour-long record, they often sound muddy. Multi-tracked vocals work best when you can hear different intonations from the various takes—Cat Power is exceptional at this trick—but too often Constants’ vocals blur together, detracting from the emotional impact and making for too many similar-sounding choruses. A more-is-less issue also pops up occasionally for the layers of guitar and keyboards, which reminds me of how effective Isis is when elements bob and weave instead of pile on top of each other. Constants use this approach from time to time—the beginning of the extended outro in “Passage” is a great example—but I suspect changing from two guitarists to one during the writing and recording of this album took away from some of the counterpoint between guitar parts.

The Foundation’s epic vinyl package is certainly impressive, but it would’ve been a noticeably better album if it had been condensed to two LPs. It simply lacks the instrumental variation to support 12 songs and 59 minutes. Highlights like “Genetics Like Chess Pieces,” “Those Who Came Before Pt. 1,” “Ascension,” and “Passage” feel buried rather than highlighted. Cut out two or three songs (“Identify the Indiscernables” and “Eternal Reoccurance” are prime candidates), trim the run time down by ten or fifteen minutes, and it’s a profoundly different album.

I’m likely being too hard on Constants and The Foundation The Machine The Ascension, since it’s not that far off from being a top-ten album for the year, but that’s what happens when you release such a beast of a song as the pre-album single. If you’re into Caspian, Pelican, Isis, Hum, Failure, or The Life and Times, there’s certainly something here for you, but I suspect that Constants’ next album will be when those elements converge into a thoroughly impressive album.

Hum, The Life and Times, and Dianogah at the Double Door

Jay Ryan's poster for the 1/1/2009 Hum concert

Considering that the only bands I see nowadays—seemingly, at least—are groups that I loved in high school (Polvo, Shudder to Think) that have reformed out of some combination of nostalgia and profit, adding Hum to that list shouldn’t be a huge surprise. Hum’s been doing these semi-reunions every two to three years since they officially went on hiatus with a New Year’s Eve show 12/31/1999. They played Furnacefest in 2003 (with a warm-up show in Champaign) and Rockfest in Champaign in 2005, so the two shows at the Double Door were right on schedule. The surprise, however, is that I was scheduled to be in Chicago for these performances. I had assumed that Hum would only play shows when I was firmly planted in the east coast, whether visiting family or moving there for graduate school. I was initially afraid that I’d missed my opportunity by waffling on the $65 New Year’s Eve show until it had sold out, but the addition of more manageable New Year’s Day show for $20 made my prior hesitation easier. I was going to see Hum for the first time in almost eleven years.

The only other time I saw Hum was at Irving Plaza in New York City in February of 1998 as a seventeen-year-old junior in high school. As we drove to the Double Door, my wife asked me what I thought of that show and I laughed, because it’s impossible to look back at that show with any semblance of a critical mindset. Getting to see my favorite band at seventeen was all shock and awe. Heroic Doses and Swervedriver opened up for Hum and I remember absolutely nothing about their sets. What I remember is the push of the billowing mosh pit, the thrill of hearing those songs live, the ringing in my ears from not wearing earplugs, and seeing Bush’s Gavin Rossdale and No Doubt’s Gwen Stefani as we waited outside of the club to meet the band. Tim Lash’s guitar tone? Matt Talbott’s live vocals? Bryan St. Pere’s fills? Beats me.

While I still count them as one of my favorite groups, it’s been years since I’ve listened to Hum almost exclusively. I’ll save the details of my full-blown Hum obsession and its passing for a pending article on You’d Prefer an Astronaut, but the short version is that I still listen to their last three albums from time to time, but not on a daily basis like I did in high school. (Sorry Fillet Show.) As frustrated as I was with the eleven-year wait, it did help my recharge my potential enthusiasm and/or nostalgia for the concert.

The openers for both shows were quite familiar for any Hum fan who kept track of their touring partners. Dianogah’s opening set displayed their progress since 1997’s As Seen From Above. Still channeling largely instrumental double-bass math-rock, Dianogah added some flair with female vocals on a few songs, accompanying guitar or keyboard on others, and a few aggressive songs that presumably were from their newest LP, the nigh-unpronounceable Qhnnnl. I’m tempted to pick that one up to bolster my copies of Battle Champions and the Team Dianogah 2 Swedish single, but I opted to pick up the Bird Machine posters for both evenings from poster guru and Dianogah bassist Jay Ryan.

As excited as I was for seeing Hum, I would have been just as psyched for a Shiner reunion (a group I saw eleven times in six cities, or, in other words, the anti-Hum), but catching Allen Epley’s The Life and Times again was a fine alternative. Their shoegaze-meets-math-rock aesthetic loses some detail in the live setting, but the songs from their forthcoming Tragic Boogie LP (coming out on Arena Rock Records in April) came across well. I missed hearing a few of my favorite songs from Suburban Hymns like “Mea Culpa,” “A Chorus of Crickets,” and “Muscle Cars” this time, but at least they played the excellent “The Sound of the Ground” from the Magician EP. Look for them on tour in the spring when their album comes out.

With a seemingly endless string of Rush songs between sets, I began to wonder if Hum was playing an elaborate joke on the audience. But once the smoke machine started up and the house lights dimmed down to a blue glow, Hum came out to enthusiastic applause and launched into “Isle of the Cheetah.” It didn’t take long for the first coordination hiccup to hit, but once the song’s intro passed and it hit overdrive, they were back on track. Tim Lash’s leads were spot-on in this song and throughout, and he even added some flourishes. Immediately I was struck by how metal the guitar tones sounded, especially Lash’s guitar, but that influence was always present during his tenure in the band. Everything else was as I remembered it: Talbott’s nerdy vocals bursting out with emotion on “The Pod,” Dimpsey’s solid bass lines, and Bryan St. Pere’s forceful drumming. I don’t remember Talbott being quite so funny at the Irving Plaza show, but the numerous Centaur shows I caught during college were as memorable for his stand-up bits as the actual songs.

The set represented their final three albums equally, with “Iron Clad Lou,” “Pewter,” “Shovel,” and “Winder” from Electra 2000, “The Pod,” “Stars,” “Suicide Machine,” “I’d Like Your Hair Long,” and “I Hate It Too” from YPAA, and “Isle of the Cheetah,” “Comin’ Home,” “Ms. Lazarus,” “Afternoon with the Axolotls,” and “Green to Me” from Downward Is Heavenward, plus the unreleased rocker “Inklings.” I was a bit surprised to hear the throat-scraping screams of “Pewter” and “Shovel” in concert, but the encore of “Winder” was an absolute thrill. I could gripe about “Little Dipper,” “Dreamboat,” “Pinch & Roll,” and “Diffuse” being absent from the set list, but the arc of the night worked well, with the main set ending with the extended outro jam on “I Hate It Too” (marred slightly by Bryan St. Pere losing his place for a few bars) and the encore ending with a rock-solid rendition of “I’d Like Your Hair Long.”

The best part of the evening was remembering just how great those songs are, whether it was the thunderous drum salvo that launches “Iron Clad Lou” into gear, the churning bass line of “Winder,” the guitar coloring for the mid-tempo “Suicide Machine,” the quiet intro of “I Hate It Too,” or the Cadillac-selling riff of “Stars.” Talbott’s lyrics are still wonderful, especially on the You’d Prefer an Astronaut, and it’s easy to overlook a few musical missteps along the way with that set list. Unlike some of the other reunited bands that I’ve seen, Hum never went away for long enough to forget the muscle memory of how to perform those songs or to lose the passion for playing them, so they’re essentially the same band put into cryogenic freezing.

It’s still somewhat astonishing that I finally made it to one of these shows. While I’d be thrilled if Hum released new music or at least recorded a studio version of “Inklings” and put it out as a single, the odds of either of those things happening are nil, so I’m glad that I could add something to my lingering super-fandom. I’ll just have to remember to be in Illinois in 2011.

Some Special New (and Old) Bands

Matt Talbott is apparently branching out from coaching high school football, since he's joined up with former Shiner members Paul Malinowski and Jason Gerkin (among others) for the next Open Hand record. He's featured on the untitled song at their MySpace page, which sounds like Downward Is Heavenward-era Hum with background vocals replacing some of the riffs. I have no idea if they're all part of the touring line-up or if this song is a one-off, but it bodes well.

Former Doris Henson/Proudentall frontman Matt Dunehoo is now in the NYC band Baby Teardrops. I skimmed a few of the songs, which didn't grab me as much as the highlights of Doris Henson's final record, Give Me All Your Money, but I'll keep an eye out for any official releases.

Bradley's Almanac has talked about Wye Oak on several occasions, so I checked out their Merge debut If Children. Perhaps it's the male/female duo that tipped me, but the record reminds me of a more rustic version of Folksongs in the Afterlife, whose Put Danger Back into Your Life is one of the most underrated records of the decade. Wye Oak has a similar appreciation for varying tempo and approach, although there are no bossa nova joints on If Children. They're playing Great Scott in Allston on May 2nd, but that is the week of too many damn shows, so I may not make it.

The Narrator has posted a song called "So the End" on their MySpace page, which surprisingly enough is about their impending demise. Like their R.E.M. cover posted at Stereogum, "So the End" furthers the folky resonance that popped up on All That to the Wall. The gang chorus of "I can't live on this witch's salary" sure bums me out. I'm still hoping to make it down to NYC for their final show.

Jon (of Stepleader/Juno documentary fame) has plugged singer/songwriter David Karsten Daniels a few times, so I finally got the hint and checked out his 2007 release Sharp Teeth and the new Fear of Flying, which comes out on April 29th on Fat Cat. I haven't fully digested either record, but "In My Child Mind You Were a Lion" from Fear of Flying is a clear highlight, displaying Daniels' expressive voice over a skeletal acoustic arrangement before ending on a wiry electric squall. Plus he can grow a pretty sweet beard, which is a pre-requisite for joining the indie folk movement. Sadly, I have proven time and again incapable of growing a burly beard, so freak-folk stardom does not await me.

Nine Records I'll Never Again Listen to from Start to Finish

I had a conversation with Jon Mount a few nights ago about how I’m far more inclined than he is to return to mid ’90s records (or fill in the gaps from records we respectively missed). Well, there are some exceptions. One of our big talking points was the first album on this list, which got me thinking about other indie or alternative albums that I’ll likely never listen from start to finish again. Sure, I may hear a song or two, but this list is about dedicated listens. Most of these albums are from bands I even enjoy or enjoyed in the past. This list could be much, much longer, but these were the albums that stood out upon first glance at my record collection Excel database.

Smashing Pumpkins - Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness: Every now and then my mom brings up how I got my dad to drive me to Circuit City/Media Play/etc. to pick up this album on the night of its release. I don’t have the heart to tell her that I sold the album off at some point—likely between my senior year of high school and my freshman year of college—or that this record taught me a considerable amount about how artists turn away from their strengths. Jon mentioned how he sold it off within a few days, but it was a far more gradual process of acceptance for me. I think I like some of these songs. Right? That process was helped by Billy Corgan’s radical change in appearance, in which his shaved head and increased heft encouraged me to compare him to a bloated tick in the videos and live appearances. Mirroring your supposed magnum opus’s greatest weakness in your physical appearance is an awfully noticeable tell, Billy.

In terms of the actual album, I could probably make a reasonable single disc from the era, containing the album tracks I wouldn’t mind hearing again (“Bodies,” “Stumbeleine,” “Jellybelly,” “Muzzle”) and maybe a few of the b-sides (“Set the Ray to Jerry”) from the array of singles that accompanied the album. (I officially stopped buying them after 1979 and was rather ticked about that box set.) I could complete this task so long as I never again have to hear one of Corgan’s overblown attempts to grasp at teenage angst or one of James Iha’s horribly bland vocal tracks. Part of me wonders if the switch of the dominant genre tags from “alternative” to “indie” that accompanied my casting aside of my favorite band circa age fourteen might have caused me to be a bit too rough on the Smashing Pumpkins’ later works, but remembering how bland the Zwan record was, even with Pajo and Sweeney in tow, prevents me from worrying too much.

Hum - Fillet Show: If anything, Hum replaced Smashing Pumpkins as my favorite band (admittedly remaining within “alternative”), but my later burn-out on their material had far more to do with the logistics of my fandom, like running a fan site and answering daily questions about their vague demise. Lately I’ve returned to their three main albums and found that my old stances have held up: Electra 2000 is a bit too rough in parts, but has some of their finest moments; You’d Prefer an Astronaut is thematically and musically their best album; and the over-thought gloss of Downward Is Heavenward betrays some of their better instincts (the original edge of “Comin’ Home,” the delay-heavy live intro for “Afternoon with the Axolotls,” the space of the demo version of “Ms. Lazarus”), even if the album stands up fairly well. Their debut, however, is not a record I intend to check up on. I own Fillet Show on cassette, since the CD was out of print by 1996, but I don’t think I made it through the album as a whole more than once. It’s essentially a different band: one that lacks Tim Lash’s focused leads and Matt Talbott’s introspective lyrics. And hey, those are the main things I like about Hum.

New Wet Kojak - New Wet Kojak: Competing with Hum for my favorite band status circa 1997 was Girls Against Boys, which meant that I indulged Scott McCloud and Johnny Temple’s late night jazz-ish project for a few albums. Their self-titled debut established the aesthetic (whispered Beat gibberish, dirty grooves, horns) but I don’t recall more than two actual songs on the album and I don’t want to confirm that assumption. I’m writing this at 1:30pm, which means that any New Wet Kojak material will sound downright hilarious when accompanied with the clarity of daylight. I’ll indulge the better moments of Nasty International or Do Things if I’m driving around late at night, but the self-titled will continue to collect dust on my shelf.

Jawbox - Grippe: I returned to Jawbox’s second album, Novelty, in this round of iPod Chicanery, but that does not mean I’ll be digging their debut out of my CD cabinet anytime soon. Fillet Show is an interesting point of comparison, since debut albums show the respective bands in their infancy, but whereas Fillet Show shows a different band with two different members playing essentially disparate material from the follow-up, Grippe only lacks Bill Barbot’s second guitar position, which filled out Jawbox’s sound. It’s a dry run for the considerably better Novelty, which I even assert pales in comparison to the Zach Barocas–enabled complexity of For Your Own Special Sweetheart. I won’t rule out listening to a track down the road (the Joy Division cover, “Bullet Park”), but the whole thing? No thanks.

Wolfie - Where’s Wolfie: It’s rather unfortunate that Signal Drench’s legacy is essentially a footnote in a Brent DiCrescenzo review of this album on Pitchfork, which calls out one of my contributors’ (Ty Haas) review of the record and then implies that writing Wolfie-esque music would impress “the guy who runs Signal Drench,” or, you know, me. In comparison to the bands I’d actually stake that magazine’s legacy (and the four years of my life that it involved) upon—Durian, Shiner, Rectangle, Bald Rapunzel, Tungsten74, etc.—Wolfie is an outlier. Their youthful, technically deficient indie pop does not hold up well. Whereas Awful Mess Mystery had a few passable songs for the Rentals-obsessed Kick Bright crowd (“Subroutine the Reward,” “Mockhouse”), Where’s Wolfie played up almost all of the band’s embarrassing traits—the nasal vocals, the cutesy lyrics, the fuzzy production as a vague attempt to move forward. The band themselves moved away from this approach with their later records (and the post-Wolfie band The Like Young). I can’t imagine listening to a single song from this record again, except for penance. Oh: I even own a Wolfie side project, Busytoby’s It’s Good to Be Alive, that I picked up for no more than a dollar. That record doesn’t apply to this list since I never listened to it in the first place, but maybe its memory will merit a different list.

Weezer - The Green Album: I bought this disc the week it came out, despite having heard the lead single (“Hash Pipe”) and presumably knowing better, since I had seen the band phone in a performance back in March of that year. Like the Smashing Pumpkins, it took a bit more time to recognize that Weezer had completely lost my interest, but The Green Album certainly confirmed that feeling. This album is one of the laziest displays of songwriting I can fathom. I’d sell it off, but I’m fairly sure that a million smarter people beat me to it.

Centaur - In Streams: Centaur may be the single biggest disappointment in my years of listening to music. Given the combination of the singer from Hum, the bassist from Castor, and a Champaign-Urbana scene drummer who works at Parasol, I figured that getting in on the ground floor of Centaur’s existence by attending their first ever show at a VFW in Danville, Illinois would be a rewarding experience. Most of what I remember from that show is how loose, how seemingly lazy the band’s performance was. They numbered their songs, but debated about which songs those numbers applied to. Every song boiled down to this blueprint: take a heavy riff, repeat it, sing a verse, apply wah and distortion to the riff for a solo, play another verse, sing what may be a chorus, do another solo. It was heavy and sad like early Codeine, but all too repetitive. The skeletal structures of the songs meant that those riffs became tiresome by the end of each song. Little did I know that those songs were much closer to finished than I could have imagined.

The disappointment comes from what Centaur could have been. In Streams is a profoundly sad album about some of Talbott’s personal tragedies, but making through it from start to finish is a nearly impossible task. “Wait for the Sun” is a bit lighter and fleshed out, but it’s still too long. “The Same Place” takes a solid riff and embraces its title far too much. Talbott’s meditations on life and death are intriguing, but there’s so little energy propelling them. I don’t know if adding Tim Lash’s leads would corrupt the album’s topical focus, but it’s so remarkably telling that Lash’s album as Glifted is interesting aesthetically without containing any actual songs, while Centaur’s lone effort has interesting lyrics languishing in a lack of aesthetic. I saw at least six Centaur shows without seeing much improvement from the first. I may pull out a song from time to time, but In Streams as a whole is marked with a profound sadness beyond its thematic ruminations.

Pavement - Terror Twilight: If there’s an album that I might reconsider, it’s this one. I certainly tried to like Terror Twilight, but it just encapsulates too many of late Pavement’s bad tendencies for me to sit through it as a whole ever again. The overdone production values are somewhat understandable, but the forced attempts at spontaneity are downright insulting, the “quirky” tracks like “Carrot Rope” make me shudder, and it’s a precursor to Malkmus’s underwhelming solo career. I’ll willingly listen to the following songs: “Spit on a Stranger,” “Cream of Gold,” “Major Leagues,” “Speak See Remember,” and “The Hexx,” even though the two singles are unsuitably melodramatic and “And Then…” overshadows the “The Hexx.” The middle stretch of the record is something I’d prefer to block from my memory. If I have to choose between the mixed bag swan songs of big 1990s indie rock bands, Archers of Loaf’s White Trash Heroes and Polvo’s Shapes come long before Terror Twilight.

Rex - Rex: Though Rex’s debut contains their finest song (the impossibly melancholic “Nothing Is Most Honorable Than You”), I could never make it past the album’s mid point without a concerted effort. I could probably include Rex’s overlong follow-up, C, on this list as well, and throw in their finale, 3, given its somewhat bland character in comparison to the high points of its predecessors. Rex is by no means a singles band, but they certainly aren’t a band I enjoy enough to stomach an entire album from in one sitting.