Under certain ineffable conditions I become a bit of a sucker for speak-singing in a rock’n’roll context (Cake perhaps my favorite example), and this one seems to hit the right buttons for me, general veneer of offbeat frenzy notwithstanding (or maybe because of it; hard to say). In any case there is no ignoring the sense of frantic drama that suffuses “Dog Stay Down”: from the wordless guttural chants in the introduction through the deft if semi-feverish vocal stylings of Angus Rodgers and the splatty horn charts, the song spools forward with an unhinged but somehow charming panache that grows more appealing with each listen. Those last 20 seconds introduce an extra level of loopy.
I have no idea what Rodgers is singing about, by the way, and it doesn’t remotely matter. Actually I’ll go out on a limb and say that lyrics in general tend to strike me as semi-irrelevant, in terms of their specific denotation. My ears require vocals on the one hand (I’m not much of an instrumental fan), but on the other hand I realize my enjoyment of words in a rock song has more to do with the voice as sound and the words as rhythm and texture than with what a singer is specifically saying. And here in fact is one of my perennial problems with standard music writing: so many reviews of albums focus so intently on lyrics that you’d almost never know the words were actually being sung, and accompanied by melodies and arrangements. More to the point, such writing tends to overlook the unique power of music, ignoring what’s most potent in the listener experience, which at its core is about sound waves, not verbiage. Or so says me. In any case, even were I able to discern all the words here, in “Dog Stay Down,” which I can’t (and at this point there’s no looking them up online), I really wouldn’t want or need to. The cathartic vibe speaks for itself.
Opus Kink is a six-piece band from Brighton, England. “Dog Stay Down” is a track from their debut EP, ‘Til the Streams Run Dry, which was released in October.
Can I tell you why some slow-ish songs bore with their lethargic pace and underdeveloped ideas while others beguile with their relaxed know-how? I don’t think I can. Can I tell you what Nullarbor means? That’s easier. The Nullarbor Plain is huge, semi-arid stretch of remote countryside in southern Australia. The name comes from the Latin meaning “no trees.” (For a sense of the scrubby flat endless-road landscape, check out the video, below.)
“Nullarbor” the song, meanwhile, presents the listener with a long, ambling introduction—not semi-arid per se but entirely without either vocals or, even, the sense that vocals are planning to arrive. A guitar strums, another guitar noodles an imprecise melody, a brushed snare keeps a gentle beat, and the world seems a serene if slightly baggy kind of place. I find myself in no hurry to get anywhere with this introduction, and maybe that’s what a slow song that’s beguiling rather than boring does most of all: it slows you down so that you join its world, rather than feeling like an annoying drag on your world. The singing, when it starts, is worth the wait: Al Montfort speak-sings with offhanded, oddly affecting aplomb, often letting the guitar lines suggest the melody he’s not quite articulating. All in all, the concise tale told here of a love gone missing has the quizzical, haphazard feel of a Basement Tapes song, but with a warmer, more personal air about it. I could listen to this all night, and might just yet.
Lower Plenty is a quartet from Melbourne, and also the name of a Melbourne suburb. “Nullarbor” is one of nine shorts songs on the band’s debut album, Hard Rubbish. The song’s wonderfully spontaneous sound has a lot to do with the fact that the album was recorded onto eight-track, reel-to-reel tape, often in one take. Hard Rubbish was released last year in Australia; it comes out next month here on Fire Records. You can download the MP3 via the link above, or through the SoundCloud page. Thanks to the indomitable Largehearted Boy for the head’s up.
No-nonsense rock’n’roll, both hard-driving and catchy, and yet too with an almost gracious sense of purpose. The opening keyboard riff sounds like a regular old piano, and gives the song an old-school swing that brings to mind the kind of radio-friendly rock made in the ’60s that was not itself Motown but existed only because Motown existed, if that makes sense.
And yet “Ghosts” is hardly a nostalgia trip; the feeling is more timeless than retro, more hybrid than homage. Front man Tom Barman speak-sings the verse in a way that both grabs the ear and fully informs you that he is not a rapper. (I don’t mean that as a criticism, just as an observation that rock singers have a particular way of speak-singing lyrics that is its own kind of thing.) The speak-singing interrupts the flow created by the catchy keyboard riff, drawing the song in on itself, creating both tension and anticipation—it is only a matter of time before that piano line returns, and when it does it finds itself in the center of the chorus, as much a part of the hook as the actual melody. The song’s last two minutes—right after the line “So chase the ghosts away ’til they’re gone”—crank up the drama and the noise as the band tips its hat more directly to its roots as an experimental outfit influenced by the likes of Frank Zappa and Captain Beefheart. (I like the “hoo! hah!”—but sometimes also just “hoo!”—exclamations that now begin to interject into the proceedings.) And then everything just stops as if accidentally deleted.
Based in Antwerp, Belgium, dEUS was founded way back in 1991, but has recorded only seven studio albums to date, including two in the last two years. The only other remaining original member besides Barman is Klaas Janszoons, who plays keyboards and violin. The band, complete with its odd typography, remains relatively unknown in the U.S.; their records have only been sporadically released here. “Ghosts” is from the album Keep You Close, which came out a year ago in Europe. That album and 2012’s Following Sea were both released in the U.S. for the first time this fall, on the label [PIAS] America.
On the one hand a poison pen letter to music critics, “Let Them All Talk” is at the same time a kind of self send-up, which makes the whole thing function in a much more delightful way than it otherwise might.
Snarly and snotty and yet still good-natured, “Let Them All Talk” is a speak-singing throwback to some earlier, more primal kind of rock’n’roll. I’m not sure I normally like this kind of thing—whatever “kind of thing” this in fact is—but I am won over by front man Brian Karscig’s unerring musical instincts. Even while sort-of-talking it’s clear that he has a fine singing voice, and even as the song sounds simple, the arrangement is inventive and the band ever so tight. I love in particular the peculiar, background guitar solos (0:57 and 2:12) and the perfect finishing touch of the female background singers who begin chiming in with fills of “Oooo! Jealous!” at 3:01.
On the one hand a poison pen letter to music critics, “Let Them All Talk” is at the same time a kind of self send-up, which makes the whole thing more delightful than it otherwise might be. I don’t know if there’s any effective way for a rock singer to take a straight potshot at critics without sounding like a whiner; Karscig avoids that with his goofy bravado, which winks while it chastises, and includes some actual flak he himself has received (e.g. “sounds like a girl when he sings,” a charge sometimes leveled at him while in the band Louis XIV). In the process he comes across as both serious and jokey, which, in a meta kind of way, allows him all the better to get some good digs in (e.g., “You act like a rock star/But all you play is your pen, and your mouth”). The best way to act like a tough guy in our post-ironic age is to make fun of acting like a tough guy.
Karscig played with the relatively successful Louis XIV (2003-2009), which released two of its three albums on Atlantic Records, and made appearances on late-night TV in the U.S. The Nervous Wreckords were started in the wake of Louis XIV’s dissolution in 2009. In addition to playing guitar and singing, Karscig has worked increasingly often as a producer. “Let Them All Talk” is the title track to the second Nervous Wreckords album, which was recorded in Karscig’s home studio on a vintage Neve board with ’60s and ’70s gear. This will be the band’s first national release, slated to arrive in September via Knitting Factory Management. MP3 courtesy of the fine folks at Magnet Magazine.
Another short song for you this week. Not many chords this time either. Easy to fit in around your pre-holiday hubbub: you can listen, and get on with it. And hey, you get a lot of sound for the time invested here. I mean, check out the fuzzed-up bash of background noise that Earthquake Party churns up, and that heavy, decisive “mi-re-do” downward riff that anchors the song. Everything immediately feels buzzy and overheated, like someone’s pinned the recording levels too high.
Then front man Justin Lally comes along and just kind of speak-sings against the noise, neither shouting to be heard nor being drowned out by the sludge; it’s a balance I find counter-intuitive and appealing. (Note that this is a phenomenon singularly available to recorded music, not live music.) Even more appealing: when keyboardist Mallory Hestand adds harmony in the chorus, and their two voices seem to ricochet away from each other B-52s-ishly. The melody they somehow describe between them is richer and deeper than the one either of them sings. And bonus points for the pithy lyrics they sing, full of both mystery and implication: “All I want’s a pretty little hand/That’s full of pills and candy.” I like how, in the end, this song feels like pop, despite all the fuss and noise. It’s amazing what a good chorus can do for you.
Earthquake Party is a trio founded last year in Boston. “Pretty Little Hand” is one of three songs on its debut EP, vs. Pizza, that the band released on a so-called cassingle (yup, a cassette tape) last month. And I do mean self-released: they bought 200 blank cassettes for $100 via mail order, put the music on them, and then made the inserts and labels, all by themselves. You can listen to all three songs and buy the cassette and/or downloads at the band’s Bandcamp page. The cassette will come with the download codes, so you don’t really need to have a cassette player, although all the better if you do. MP3 via the band. (And don’t worry about the generic-looking URL; this is a legitimately free and legal download.)
Art Brut continues to develop its Cake-meets-Franz-Ferdinand sound in capable and fetching directions. Arch as can be, the British quintet sprang to life in the middle ’00s in the midst of a semi-movement of catchy, post-punk-inspired guitar rock (think Bloc Party, think Franz Ferdinand), but was just somehow weirder than the rest of them. And it was a weird kind of weird, as front man Eddie Argos—not a singer as much as a reciter—proved himself the master of a certain kind of post-postmodern, meta-ironic songwriting, in which his dry, concrete, and often very funny descriptions of things and circumstances themselves become tangled up in the story he tells, somehow. The band’s first single was “Formed A Band,” and the lyrics began: “Formed a band/We formed a band/Look at us/We formed a band.” And didn’t say too much more than that.
This is also an outfit that gained a bit of buzz a few years back for encouraging Art Brut “franchises”—new bands going out and being their own version of Art Brut, whatever that ended up meaning. There really weren’t any rules about the whole thing. But at one point in 2006, some 100 or so different Art Brut franchises were sprinkled around Europe and North America.
Yeah so it might be tempting to write the band off as some kind of balmy gimmick, but on the one hand they’re really too ahead of you for that: if there’s a gimmick, it’s that they flaunt the fact that they have a gimmick, which is then a different kind of gimmick, and so forth. (It’s like mirrors opposite each other, receding into infinity.) But more to the point, the music’s too good, too tightly conceived and performed. Their songs are marvelous little machines of rock’n’roll goodness, all slashing guitar lines, organic drumbeats, and quippy lyrics. “Lost Weekend” is sharp and engaging from beginning to end. And on this new album, Brilliant! Tragic!, Argos says he has actually learned to sing, thanks to producer Frank Black (or Black Francis, if you will), who taught him while they recorded the album. You can hear him test the waters here the second time through the chorus—I assume that’s his singing voice at 2:20, somewhat more tenor-y than this talk-singing voice. Worlds of new arch-opportunities open up for Art Brut moving forward.