"C'MERE," A MAN'S voice beckons, whispering, in the dreamy opening of Imperial Teen's Seasick. "No, no, no, no... closer." It's a seduction, a standard rock & roll come-on. Except that it's followed by a song about sickness, rashes, chicken hawks, and black eyes. In this particular world, love is more than a bitch--it's a cesspool of the sexual power and control struggles that have always been at the crooked heart of rock meaning. That Seasick also reads--subtly--as one of the queerest alternarock LPs ever is almost beside the point. As with recent releases by Team Dresch and Sleater-Kinney, Seasick (on a major label, no less) hitches unimpeachable music to universal emotions, and in the process turns hetero rock assumptions inside out with more authority than either the blow job odes of Pansy Division or the castration anthems of Tribe 8.
That Imperial Teen is led by Faith No More keyboardist Roddy Bottum (whose name I'd never really, you know, noticed before) is only the first surprise here. Made up of two boys and two girls, the group makes chiming, almost bubble-gummy pop that draws a lot from the Velvet Underground--not just musically but lyrically, both in poetic voice and their Dante-esque ventures into the sexual demimonde. This being the '90s, though, what was once Underground is now pop, and so in writing songs about shooting heroin, selling your body (literally or metaphorically), or flipping through sexual roles like one would a closet full of clothes, Imperial Teen know not to bother with false dramatics. "Butch is pink and butch is blue," the boys and girls sing in unison on a Rev-ready pop song, "You like strawberries, I like you."
Whether Imperial Teen will go on to rule the world remains to be seen. But for now Seasick will suffice for those of us in search of non-straight rock & roll role models with stories worth telling. "I'm looking for a family that listens to my songs," sings Roddy Bottum near the record's end. We're all ears, brother. (Will Hermes)
Give It Up For...
NATIONAL DYNAMITE HAVE been visible on the local scene for almost two years, but they seem to inhabit a parallel plane where songcraft is rigorous and traditional pop structures feel as fresh as a new crush. They're not shooting for groundbreaking originality, nor are they merely rehashing old material without admitting their musical debts. Instead, they're part of an expanding lineage of bands both here and abroad who still believe the aesthetics of '60s and '70s pop can be relevant, exciting, sexy, and important.
A friend of mine who was looking for an argument once claimed that rock fans could be separated into Stones people and Beatles people. National Dynamite fall hard into the latter category, in part because they've clearly listened to the the Fab Four a lot, but also because, at heart, their music deals with vulnerability, melancholy, and the pleasure of translating these sentiments into smart, sweet pop songs. Their debut album's a treasure box of oblique and overt tributes to power pop past. But whenever frontman Benno Nelson puts on a rock-star pose (which he does often), there's a chuckle behind it. For these boys, most of the time, a guitar is just a guitar.
Take the swinging opener, "Sister Lovers." A shameless anthem/homage to Big Star and the Beatles, yes, but not a rip-off, nor a copy of a copy: Its rousing pulse and Nelson's naked vocals distinguish it from the plodding of fellow pure pop devotees Teenage Fanclub, or the hook-lifting, skinny-hip posturing of Oasis. The album's also a hell of a lot more affable than the aforementioned Brit darlings, even at its most melancholy ("Sunday Blue," "Lazy One"), when the ennui of a hundred late-summer afternoons seems to simmer between the guitar strings.
All of which is not to say that the band can't rock. They do, and at their best, as on "Sister Lovers" and "The Question of How," it's with the curving, wide-open hooks of Hunky Dory-era Bowie. Macho rock seems either a bore to them, or an uncharted land where they tiptoe along the edges, sometimes flirting with an interesting way to say "Fuck you." "Mean Streak" is a good shot, with witty lines ("Got a smile as thin as a papercut") and a Bowie-ish yelp. But the country-rock "Work Song" takes it too far--it feels harried and threatens to break the album's momentum.
Still, this is an elegant, self-possessed album.
A line printed on the CD asks, "doesn't it make you feel better?" Sort of a presumptuous question, but the answer is yes, it does. (Kate Sullivan)
National Dynamite perform May 24 at 7th St. Entry.
Everything is Wrong
(Non-Stop DJ Mix
by Evil Ninja Moby)
Mute Records (import)
A GOOD FRIEND of mine despises remixes with a passion. "Why can't they just spend all that extra time and money on recording brand new songs?" she asks. Obviously she's no dance music aficionado, and probably no lover of Moby's latest 26-track, 2-CD remix album. Excuse me, but remixes are new songs--in some cases, only the title remains from the original.
Moby's latest effort is a case in point. He takes his year-old major-label debut, Everything is Wrong, and, save for three tracks (remixed dynamically by Westbam, DJ Seduction, and Josh Wink), reconstructs the entire opus by his lonesome on "two turntables and a mixer" into a continuous groove sequence. The idea of a select few tracks being remixed three and even four times here does lend to thoughts of overkill and pretension. But Moby's saving grace is his mastery of mood.
The original album's track "Into the Blue," an ambient Portishead-esque musing, is rejuvenated as "Into the Blue (Spiritual)," an upbeat ravers' delight. Said track reoccurs soon after as "Into the Blue (Voodoo Child)," with a slightly sinister, hard techno edge, before sliding into its final incarnation as "Into the Blue (Simple)"--a Pet Shop Boys-ish propulsive ditty with all the sunniness that was sapped from the original.
Still puzzled? Sorry then, but discussing dance music's nuances on the printed page is, admittedly, close to useless; the real power of this genre lies in the actual dance floor vibe, where talk of BPMs and remixer prestige becomes irrelevant as the drums and bassline trigger that pleasure center in your brain. Can this recording make you dance? Yes. Mission accomplished. (Matt Keppel)
GLENN DANZIG'S MISFITS stormed out of Lodi, New Jersey in 1977 as sort of gloomier, doomier younger cousins to the Ramones across the river. But the Misfits weren't interested in Queens family dysfunction and solvent-huffing in garages. What they were interested in were B-horror flicks, aliens, zombies, fiends, blood, skulls, death, and the whole attendant host of horror-rock imagery now codified into punk and metal cliché. The Misfits did it first and best, and have since survived as cult heroes for the initiated.
Caroline's new box set finally drags the band out of cult history. Doing everything a retrospective should, it combines (in a swanky, coffin-shaped-box) pretty much everything the Misfits committed to tape in their short 5-year lifespan. Most importantly, this includes the legendary Static Age LP, their first record made only eight months after their debut gig at CBGB's, and never released due to contract tangles with the Plan 9 label. Other highlights include the original recordings of the Legacy of Brutality songs, the Evilive bootleg, early singles and outtakes first compiled on Collections I and II (known colloquially as "yellow skull" and "green skull" by fans), and a photo-filled booklet with lyrics to every song in the compilation.
Completist packaging aside, however, it's the music that kills. Danzig never pulled any punches vocally; there were only a handful of punk singers who actually sang, and he was one of them. In fact, nothing sums up the Misfits sound better than "Astro Zombies," an irrepressible Dion-style pop melody over Ramones-grade three-chord sludge; Danzig's voice soars over the darkened landscape, elevating the silly chorus ("prime directive--exterminate the whole human race!") into some kinda high art.
Nevertheless, every thinking Misfits fan eventually has to attack the question of Danzig's lyrics. "Skulls" contains the memorable line "hack the heads off little girls and put 'em on my wall"; "Last Caress" leads off with "I got something to say/I killed your baby today"; and their songbook includes titles like "Mommy, Can I Go Out And Kill Tonight?" If this sort of stuff makes you grind your teeth in disgust, well, maybe the Misfits' brand of trash rock isn't for you. In the end, though, the quality of the tunes makes the whole question a dead one anyway. Over and over again the band shows their ability to craft everlasting pop melodies in the guise of the Famous Monsters Of Filmland songbook. This is the Misfits' true punk legacy, and one hopes it will no longer be criminally underheard. (Missy Nelson)
WHAT IS IT with these children of '60s male folksingers? Coupling with obviously beautiful women, Bob Dylan, Tim Buckley, and Donovan have created pretty progeny ready to pop into a style mag's gossip column, often before the young ones had even considered taking on their elders' legends. And while Jakob Dylan (and his band The Wallflowers) and Jeff Buckley have opted for earnest, if shiny versions of their fathers' folk-rock glories, Donovan Leitch, son of the Mr. "Mellow-Yellow" Donovan, has forged ahead with a solid glam rock fantasy.
Leitch, who also punches the clock as a part-time model and film actor, is Nancy Boy's ringleader. Taking obvious slices of early '70s T. Rex, late '70s Blondie, and early '80s New Romanticism, he fashions a world of pill-popping "cyberpunk mods" bent on obtaining both girls (yes, the band's straight) and world domination. However, Nancy Boy is also a band for whom the epithet "one-hit-wonders" is taken as a compliment. Reveling in an era that was a goldmine of style over substance, Nancy Boy bridges and celebrates those times when men wanted to look like women, and everyone seemed to want to be robots (hence synthpop, breakdancing, and bad man-made fabrics).
"Johnny Chrome and Silver," the song that should, but probably won't take them to the top is their finest moment: Slinky bassline, sharp new wave guitars, mumbo-jumbo lyrics, and vocals with that definitive Bowie theatricality. (What post-'70s band has that man not influenced?) But the transatlantic accent of Leitch's voice is enough to ensure distrust and inbred avoidance in most red-blooded Americans.
THE STORY OF Palace/Palace Brothers/ Palace Songs/Palace Music is a strange one, and I'm not sure I fully understand it. Which is fine by me, since Will Oldham's little enigmas keep me coming back to figure them out--to chat, to question, to draw pleasure, to get quietly freaked out.
Compared to last year's Viva Last Blues, the new record is a return to more hushed affairs. Someone I know and like but don't completely respect (he's too smug sometimes) dubbed it "Nick Drake as an inbred mountain singer with a beatbox." In fact, the hesitant delicacy, the gorgeous accidental melodies here do recall that late British folkie--especially his bleak stuff circa Pink Moon, which also taps a root of traditional British folk in much the same way Oldham does with Appalachian and other sources.
But Palace songs also have a threatening quality that Drake's pastorals almost never do. Here, with only the barest sketches of melody on guitar and piano, and Oldham's warbly voice breaking all over the place, songs always feel at the brink of collapse or implosion. And as always, sexual menace seems to lurk everywhere. Like the sudden wah-wah burst and dissonant piano in the dreamy "The Sun Highlights the Lack in Each," when its narrator suddenly starts warbling something about women as commodities and throwing someone over a bedpost. Or the looming violence of "A Sucker's Evening," where the singer croons "I'll hold his arms, you fuck him/fuck him with something/the fuck--he deserves it."
It's these sorts of touches, too, that put Oldham at a remove from the alternative country/No Depression school. His traditionalism is not about nostalgia, but about how the past carries through into the present, and it isn't always pretty. (Though it can be: For one thing, Arise Therefore shows the most soulful use of a drum machine since Timmy Thomas's "Why Can't We Live Together" and the Young Marble Giants' Colossal Youth.) And ultimately, like Gene Booth's spare pencil drawing on the cover, Palace Music is also about the white spaces between the marks, the ones that we fill in as we go. That's where history and mystery lay (and lie) together. And it's why "figuring it out" will remain, appropriately, an ongoing process. (Hermes)
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