Wednesday, 16 February 2011

The Dears - Degeneration Street

Something that should be quoted at the beginning of any review of a band on their third or later album is the saying that the definition of madness is
"doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results"
Huh. The other thing is something that I have tried to figure out for a long time - should I, a consumer of music, really expect that a band can make more than one great album? And do I feel guilty for wanting an album like their original stuff, pretty much the most 'indie' thing you can want? The Dears created something magical with their first major release, No Cities Left, a certifiable indie-classic that is almost timeless in its execution and style, with the crooning vocals and puncturing rhythms that sound like lightning in a bottle. The album is one of very few - like Is This It and Turn On the Bright Lights - born from that early 21st century stable of indie rockers that can still be listened to. But...

There is a problem. Since then The Dears have struggled to match their heady heights, and here's my question? Should I expect them to, do I have an investment that needs returning from my affection in the first place, am I out of order to expect that they can make another album of the quality? The recent albums, Gang of Losers and Missiles were albums that I wanted to love but left me feeling a little out of sorts. They weren't bad records but held up against their startling older brethren they seem less polished and less compelling.

Eight years since No Cities Left they are back with another set of tracks in a perverse perseverance. Should you care that they are back? Should I care that they are back? Is this the album, these 14 tracks, the ones that are going to reaffirm that solid belief that The Dears were the next big thing?

No. No, it's not. Degeneration Street is 14 tracks of great song craftsmanship, good vocal work, nice lyrics, competent guitar and a certain confidence that exude a good atmosphere. But the thing is to understand why I don't like Degeneration Street as much as No Cities Left I have to take apart why I like No Cities Left and you know what? It's the past that makes it so great. In 2004 when I first heard the album I was shocked because it was an album of sheer depth the like of which I'd not really been exposed to - growing up amongst fans of Nu Metal and Pop music I found it difficult to find my footing in bands, and The Dears is a good example of a band that opened my eyes, much like Belle and Sebastian and Godspeed You! Black Emperor - they were a gateway band to a world I had hoped existed and that I was happy to have found. The lead me to a host of new bands, namely The Smiths and Yo La Tengo.

So where does Degeneration Street sit? Quite well, actually - the assured style is akin to No Cities Left and the return of the dark lyrics, slow build up and long over blown drum solos are here in full effect, and it is the best sounding album they've made, better in some respects that No Cities Left. It has a few pretty amazing highlights - Blood being a stomping anthem with a rollercoaster melody on the chorus line. Lamentation is a slow burner like 22: The Death of all the Romance and has the same sense of despair and really does show that the band have the same feelings that made No Cities Left so special.

The album could do with two or three tracks cut from it's running length. Yesteryear is a jaunty sing along pop song that sites rather awkwardly on the record, and the song Easy Suffering sounds like it was culled from session on a Robbie Williams record... but for all it's flaws, Degeneration Street is an album worthy of that 20 year old students love, promise that they might have a place in modern day rock music. The Dears though have yet to make a truely essential album since their first, and the question I must ask then is why do they need to?

They don't. And finally, I don't think they are trying to anymore. This is one of the best albums of the year.

Monday, 14 February 2011

Five Songs For Valentine's Wallowing

The Anti-Valentine’s Day music playlist is probably as much of a cliché as the Valentine’s Day one, with music fetishising heartbreak and desolation as much as it does love and mawkish sentimentality. But seeing as I myself am a cliché-ridden tit, I figured I was on fairly safe ground indulging. Nonetheless, in lieu of the full playlist, and because definitive lists are generally Just No Fun, here are five songs to soundtrack your misery this wallowsome day.

The Walker Brothers – The Sun Ain’t Gonna Shine Any More

What better way to start this group misery exercise than with what I think of as the definitive break-up, loneliness, whatever song. Scott Walker’s croon has always been mournful, but you don’t need a sad voice when you’ve got someone so desperate at being alone as the protagonist in this song. The song seems to creep along; tired, afraid to commit to itself as it basks in the misery, then suddenly, wham! The sun ain’t gonna shine any more! The moon ain’t gonna rise in the sky! The tears are always clouding your eyes, when you’re without her! Those chimes and those sixties melodies and harmonies tug at the heartstrings, but were there ever truer words spoken than those in that chorus? I think not. Wallow on.

The Delgados – Child Killers

So you found love, met “The One”, moved in together, settled down, got married and had kids – you won, yeah? All that’s left is the happily ever after, right? Wrong! Although the whole of The Delgados’ classic album “Hate” deals with the subject of post-natal depression, nowhere is it more harrowing and sweetly soul-destroying than in this 7 minute-long opus. It’s the rich synths, the lullaby-like quality of Alun Woodward’s vocals that softly lull you, while all the while lyrics suggest that “maybe soon we’ll find peace in another world, say goodnight”. Hell, the pizzicato strings and orchestra in the outro could soundtrack a desperate, deranged woman kissing her child goodnight before stepping into traffic, a peaceful smile on her face. It’s that dark. And if you consider there’s supposedly no love purer than a mother’s love, then this song; this wretched, beautiful, heart-rending song, sits on here as snugly as any other.

The Auteurs – Light Aircraft On Fire

No, I’m not just picking the most antisocial sounding songs I know. A friend recommended a different Auteurs song for this, and though I wasn’t going to pick that one I knew there’s no-one better for a lazy anti-Valentine’s sentiment than King Curmudgeon himself, Luke Haines. Scuzzy guitar intro, vocals so repugnant they should be given an Asbo, and lyrics proclaiming (according to the liner notes at least) that “if you cut your lover slack, you’ll get a fucking monster back”. Alright, the recorded version shuns the swearie, but come on, you’ve got a song called “Light Aircraft On Fire”. It’s catchy. It pretty much espouses being a tyrant in a relationship within the first ten seconds of it (the first ten seconds of the album it’s cut from, too). It’s by Luke sodding Haines. It’s so far from the sentiment of Valentine’s Day that news of it will only reach Earth fifteen years after it’s happened.

The Cure – Disintegration

Considering they’re the same band that wrote “Friday I’m In Love” and “Love Song”, The Cure sure have a morbid streak running through them. This shouldn’t really surprise me, but what gets me every time is this track, number 9 of 10 (or 10 of 12) on the album of the same name, their 1989 classic which you really should listen to. It’s gothpop by numbers, but with a great groove, and a fantastic vocal performance by Robert Smith, which veers from distant, almost distracted, to a frantic, pleading, desperate yelp by the end. But what’s he singing about? Some people say post-breakup, but nuh-uh, it’s not that at all. He’s singing it from a point of view of a dead lover or husband, looking back at his now-widowed wife and child, apologising sure, but acknowledging the inevitability that “both of us knew how the end always is”. Coming so close to the end of Disintegration the album, an album jam-packed full of icy peaks and depths, it’s not so much a gut-punch as the last shower of soil on your coffin.

Richard Hawley – Coles Corner

Putting Richard Hawley and Scott Walker in the same list is always slightly suspect, but this is the kind of music both thrive in. Hawley does misery like few other, and Coles Corner is the epitome of that. Starting with soaring strings, recalling the aforementioned Scott Walker amongst others, before Hawley's wonderful rich voice flows in, singing “hold back the night, for us”, and it's this deep, lulling verse, with soaring orchestration which really draws you into the song. And then, the chorus hits – you notice the melancholy stakes have risen a little, but it's not until those final lines that it really hits you: “No-one there real, waiting for me, no smile, no flower, nowhere.” Bam! It's the sheer finality of that, as you listen you feel all the positivity just drain out of you, leaving you a shell of a man, barely stifling the tears as one of the most heartbreaking songs plays out its course, and with any luck, leaves you wallowing in just the right amount of misery for a day like today. Happy February 14th!

Thursday, 10 February 2011

"Hello Cleveland, We Are....Trigger's Broom!"

I’ll tell you what I find oddly fascinating – Wikipedia band member line-ups and charts. Maybe it’s due to slow madness setting in; but there’s nothing I find more interesting than seeing who has been in what band over so many years. In my mind, a band is always seen as a unit – a team when it starts out; built around those core members that started and created the music, and seeing so many members leave, rotating around one or two permanent members (sometimes none) makes me wonder – is it still the same band? Or is it essentially now a covers band led by a sole remaining original musician. Also, how must that one remaining original band member feel? Are they lonely with having to play with essentially new people every five minutes? How long is spent on teaching 4 different drummers over 3 years your entire back catalogue? Why the constant line up changes? Is that guy (or girl) a complete twatfarm? Possibly; hey, look at how many people were in Guns ‘N Roses and The Fall (my Nan on bongos is a contender according to Mark E Smith).

Also, what happens if all the original band members leave? Who has control of the name? Is it better to just throw in the towel and realise that this just isn’t working out? I mean, you don’t want to end up like Billy Corgan playing with a bunch of 25 year olds who grew up listening to Siamese Dream.

Anyway, here are a selection of bands that have had some turbulent line-up changes over the last god-knows how many years that you may or may not know about:


American metalcore-types from Greenburg, Pennsylvania – once a Christian band, the message changed due to the huge rotating line-up of musicians that passed through Zao headquarters. The band have been going for 18 years and have had 5 different incarnations (all of which are considered different bands by both the band themselves and their fans) with original drummer Jesse Smith lasting only until 2004, before bailing out. The longest surviving members are vocalist Dan Weyandt who’s been with the band since 1997, guitarist Scott Mellinger (1999-onwards) and Russ Cogdell who’s left and rejoined more times than Wes Borland has with Limp Bizkit. Original vocalist Eric Reeder quit before recording ANYTHING (commitment mate) and was replaced by Shawn Jonas who did one album then quit to become a pastor at a New Life Church (hey, he got Christ, right?)

All in all, Zao have had a massive 16 members pass through their ranks, with another 5 temporary touring members who could actually form their own Zao tribute band, considering they consist of two touring vocalists, a guitarist, a bassist and a drummer.

Status: Zao are currently still together with Weyandt, Mellinger and Cogdell still present, joined by Jeff Gretz on drums and Marty Lunn on bass and are apparently working on new material. Let’s see if you can go a year without shedding any personnel eh lads?


It must be something to do with being Christian and into metalcore. Underoath from Florida can’t hold on to band members. Only one original member; drummer and co-vocalist Aaron Gillespie, remained with the band from it's inception up to 2010 when he "left to pursue other interests" (i.e. kicked out). Currently the member doing the most time in Underoath is keyboardist Christopher Dudley, who’s been with the band since 2000, first appearing on their second album ‘Cries of the Past.’ Current vocalist Spencer Chamberlain replaced Dallas Taylor and since then there’s been a steady rotating number of bassists and guitarists passing through (3 of each) with Dudley presumably, sitting at his piano wondering why no-one wants to play with him.

So that's 17 band members in 14 years! Good going lads. At least they managed to stick to the same line up for 3 albums between 2004-2008, something which Zao could only dream of.

Status: Obviously still together, now with former Norma Jean drummer Daniel Davison behind the kit. This chart makes interesting viewing.

Iced Earth

You thought the above line-up changes were extreme, wait until you see Florida’s Iced Earth and their revolving door of musicians. Since 1984 they’ve had a total of 28 members – Jesus wept. A total of nine bassists and nine drummers have played for them in that time, as well as seven lead guitarists. Their current drummer, Brent Smedley has left the band twice, finally returning in 2006 – the guy obviously can’t get enough of this sinking ship. Props to guitarist and primary song writer John Schaffer for continuing though – there must come a time when he sees this venture as primarily a solo project and a rotating rhythm section, plus whenever vocalist ‘Officer’ Matt Barlow can be bothered to turn up from saving lives, to rave about demonic overlords and scenes from the latest Warhammer codex.

Status: still together, obviously and recording new material. Holy moly look at those line-up changes; IT'S SO PRETTY.

Now, from studying this; despite being together for other 27 years and still counting, it appears that Iced Earth have not managed to keep the same line-up two releases on the trot, mainly due to the fickle and shakeable tenure of their rhythm section.

Reel Big Fish

So at the other end of the spectrum just to prove it isn’t just metal bands that can’t hold on to a line up for more than 1 album is those wacky, Hawaiian shirt-wearing misanthropes known as Reel Big Fish. Having been together since 1992; the band has had a fast and furious line up changes, mainly going through four different drummers and a wheel-of-fortune spin of trumpet and other assorted brass personnel. Only Aaron Barrett, guitarist and lead vocalist remains from the original incarnation of the band (bassist Matt Wong left in 2007 as he was starting a family, awww!) Trombonist Dan Regan has been with the band since 1994 and is pretty much considered a core member. Mulit-instrumentalist Scott Klopfenstein (owner of the best last name ever) quit the band in January 2011 (to also concentrate on the birth of his daughter, not very rock and or roll Scott, you dork) after a whopping 16 year stint; causing uproar in the Reel Big Fish fandom (i.e.e some sad acts on the punknews message boards crying into their checked hankies).

“Whatever happened to Reel Big Fish? Why did Scott quit? Please don’t go, Reel Big Fish, all the other bands are just shit.”

Drum-roll; there have been a total of 15 past members in this Californian skank-train, alongside the five that remain in the current line-up as of 2011.

Status: See here. I’m going to leave you with my favourite RBF quote from a message board; enjoy:

Unless Aaron decides to call it quits now that Scott's left, I can totally see him going slowly insane when the RBF crowds inevitably start to dwindle down to nothing and just having RBF banter with himself even if there's no concert happening. I'll gladly pay to watch him drunkenly play "Sell Out" on a "guitar" made out of pizza boxes in an alley behind an OC strip mall should the time come.... I'd let him f**** me, but I really, REALLY don't want to become a "Reel Big Fish groupie". That's reserved for fat, pimply girls with special carrying cases for Magic: The Gathering cards which conveniently attaches to their belt loops.” - Skibz777