Chris Rehm: [i found an] Elephant Ring [and gave it to you]

Chinquapin Records, 2012

Even in an insular music culture like that of New Orleans, where there is rarely any attention – nary even lip service – paid to industry conventions like album cycles, public relations pushes or award banquet back-patting, the “solo ambient album” as an objet d’art tends to escape the honest and centered attention of even the most attentive listener. With few exceptions, the simple act of stating that a particular artist has made an ambient record has an almost automatic consequence of marginalizing the work as something extraneous, or maybe even parallel to, but ultimately less important than that artist’s ordinary output. And whether by design or defect of progressive rock’s cult-maintaining mainstream alienation, in the context of modern indie rock most ambient artists are ostensibly satisfied with endlessly building upon their own unheard, un-vetted and un-critiqued recordings, as if ambience is a musical phenomenon that only exists to perpetuate its own existence. The best we the audience can hope to glean from such music is an understanding of the innerworkings of an artist’s personality because, though released for consumption by the general public, it is music ultimately made for the musician’s piece of mind, not ours.

Nevertheless, it doesn’t hurt to pay attention, in the off-chance that you’ll hear something greater than a collection of basement-esque, masturbatory noise exercises. Chris Rehm – known to most as one half of Houston-by-way-of-New Orleans noise pop duo Caddywhompus, is no stranger to the ambient compulsion. Hailing from a Clutch City community nationally revered for its experimental noise culture and now living and playing among a group of New Orleans musicians in Chinquapin Records who spend nearly as much time speed-releasing minimalist electronica as they do crafting perfectly gestated indie rock, he can routinely be heard eschewing his guitar in favor of pedals and knobs.

In truth though, Rehm’s solo recorded output has been spottier lately than in the past, the result of both Caddywhompus’ manic creative tear and a mishap that left volumes of unreleased tracks stolen from his tour van last Summer. Aside from split cassingle with Native America and Ghostandthesong, as well as a single contribution to the Chinquapin/Skanky Possum Holiday Jingler in 2011, his recently released [i found an] Elephant Ring [and gave it to you] is the only true taste of a Sean Heart-less Chris Rehm anyone has heard since early 2011’s Worries, etc.  (Okay, holistically his output isn’t that spotty; but compare it to that of contemporary Tyler Scurlock and holy shit pick it up dude.)

As tends to be the case, Elephant Ring is the result of a relatively unfocused culling of tracks that span almost the entire length of Rehm’s New Orleans tenure. What’s surprising, though, is how unfocused the record doesn’t sound. Quite the opposite: as far as bedroom “fuckaround” releases go, it’s arguably more flowing and concise than anything we’ll hear all year, a deceptively gift-wrapped offering that shrouds – while not totally obscuring – the talent for melody and disarming sentiment that makes Rehm one of the most beloved figures in the HOU-NO corridor.

After a pleasant and not altogether unforgettable primer of noise collage and diagetic melody, the album reveals its personality of ripe, affected acoustic numbers with “They All Are”. Meanwhile, on “I Can’t Feel Anything but You Anymore”, a parallax of dueling acoustic guitars that sway in and out of rhythmic unison, Rehm sings an echoed, doubled riff vaguely reminiscent of Bowie’s “Five Years”. Numbers like these, among a record of otherwise traditional noise and ambience, are what remain with the listener long after the record has come to its blistering, otherworldly conclusion with frequency-shattering single “Coming Up Roses”.

Perhaps it’s the presence of bleeding melody seeping from almost every crevice of Elephant Ring that will hold the attention not just of musical aficionados and fellow ambient musicians but of the listening public as a whole. Though sonic meandering tends to be a breeding ground of new ideas and creative techniques, Rehm doesn’t meander here; and if there lacks, in Elephant Ring, any game-changing or wheel-inventing influence, it is more than balanced by a focus of musical identity and the quality of material on display. In short, this record isn’t a traditional fuckaround release in any sense of the phrase, rather a standalone offering devoid of sophistication but masterfully intelligent and accessible. It might not be considered the most groundbreaking ambient record of 2012,  but [i found an] Elephant Ring [and gave it to you] is certainly the most rewarding so far.

[i found an] Elephant Ring [and gave it to you] on Bandcamp


Hurray For The Riff Raff: Look Out Mama

self-released, 2012

In the five plus years since songwriter Alynda Lee Segarra began the project, Hurray For The Riff Raff have always been a standout in the particular genre of waltzy folk-pop common among the groups of buskers and street musicians who’ve established formal musical partnerships in New Orleans.  In a spectrum that is bounded by the delightful Bywater orchestra Why Are We Building Such A Big Ship? at it’s most baroque extreme, HFTRR’s country tinged ballads have existed comfortably at the opposite, more modestly appointed end.

While the band has undergone the requisite personnel shifts common in this city’s close knit community, the stylistic evolution of Hurray For The Riff Raff has really only taken a sharp turn in the last year as Segarra has stepped out as the band’s principal songwriter.  The result, this month’s Look Out Mama, is an enchanting mix of all things Americana, with her acrobatically plaintive voice backed by sonically rich arrangements that still manage to be deceptive in their simplicity.

The album’s opening act, with the title track as a centerpiece, provide cool comfort to those familiar with Hurray For The Riff Raff’s simple, southern-folk origins, but in the rambling second half of Look Out Mama, Segarra and Co. assert themselves as far more than a simple, southern-folk band.  The surfy guitar breaks in the rollicking “Lake Of Fire” add a rockabilly swing to an already danceable number, and whining harmonica in “Born To Win (Part 1)” gives the exaltive shanty a subdued, early-Crazy Horse sheen. But as an example of the diversity Hurray For The Riff Raff offers on their newest set, the sprawling “Ode To John and Yoko” is the album’s true standout. By the time you reach the song’s playful Rubber Soul-era Beatles coda, the nearly six minute tour de force of psychedelic backwards guitar and breathy background vocals has shown off both emotive ends of Alynda Lee’s impressive register as well as a daring slant to her natural songwriting talent.

Even with a few decided departures from their normally tradition-steeped sound, the even-handed and confidently restrained production of Look Out Mama (handled by the same Andrija Tokic behind Alabama Shakes’ much buzzed-about Boys and Girls) injects every tune with a familiar vulnerability and intrigue, consistently complementing Hurray For The Riff Raff’s subtle exploration and never seeming to clash with it.

Look Out Mama at Euclid Records

High In One Eye: Memory Hoarders

Hi-Fi Octopi, 2012

“Don’t you think it might be a little too messy to actually enjoy?” asked a car ride acquaintance of mine recently after hearing Memory Hoarders, the newest release by New Orleans noise punk duo High In One Eye. I suppose on some level she was right to at least bring it up: Andrew Landry and Evan Cvitanovic aren’t exactly in the business of pleasing ears, certainly not those of the casual listener; with unrecognizably muffled vocals and every guitar effect piped through a Line 6 amp, HIOE exists almost purely to make noise. But I’ll give my friend credit for how she framed her assessment, even if unintentional. She wasn’t talking about noise; she was talking about messiness, which is a different animal altogether.

Is High in One Eye messy? Does she even know what “messy” means when talking about punk rock?  Though I wanted her to love the record as much as I’d come to, I really had no good way of winning her over. So, I asked the only question I could, knowing full-well how stupefied it would leave her: “Have you ever heard Whippersnapper?”

The only reason that question or the band in that question – a defunct Lagwagon/NOFX clone from the late 90s and early aughts – is relevant to the enjoyment of High In One Eye in any way is that in 2002, Whippersnapper made a swansong record, Appearances Wear Thin, in which drummer Pat Kerr abandoned his traditionally tight, jaw-dropping pop punk techniques in favor of some strange, badly recorded and drunkenly executed arena rock drum work. For years I hated (not just hated, openly shit-talked) that record specifically because Kerr always annoyingly seemed to be just a little out of step with the rest of the band or, at his best, would shift tempos so freely that not even singer Andy Munn knew exactly where to place his vocals. It wasn’t until four or so years after the fact that Kerr’s work on that record became one of my favorite drum offerings of all time, by which point I had realized that he wasn’t out of his element but quite the opposite: in the same way that avant-garde guitarists have been toying with negative space for decades, Kerr was subtly stealing the record with negative rhythm, creating anomalous underlayed drum melodies totally independent of the musical subject matter being sung and strummed, but no less accessible or addictive. After all, listeners instinctively know where a punk beat would otherwise go, so why not leave it up to their imagination?

Whippersnapper’s drummer was certainly neither the first nor the last person to so wantonly engage in such experimental frolic. But without that little tidbit of crude perspective enforcing my understanding of modern punk drumming (I’m sure that weird Dave Holland shit from Judas Priest’s Screaming for Vengeance can offer something similar), I – like my friend who complains of High In One Eye’s apparent messiness – would probably have no clue as to why Evan Cvitanovic and Andrew Landry might in fact be one of the tightest, most lock-stepped creative units making music in New Orleans.

Granted, there was a particular time in the last couple of years – when contemporaries Caddywhompus were beginning to subtly veer from their experimental roots and craft encapsulated pop – that High In One Eye certainly began to appear messy in comparison. It’s no secret that Cvitanovic and Landry enjoy the weirder side of things, and – like the aforementioned ‘Whompus – theirs is an interesting deconstruction of pop music, albeit to much vaster and stranger extremes. The not-so-subtle secret at this point, however, is that through six years of exercises in abrasive dissonance, as well as nine releases of varying length and stylistic origin, the duo has slowly but surely begun to flirt with, of all things, “accessibility”. Not surprisingly, Memory Hoarders is the closest High In One Eye have yet come to crafting traditional breeds of punk and rock and roll. So, if “messy” was ever a valid adjective to describe High In One Eye, I’m sorry friend in the car, but this record is the furthest thing from it.

Not to get too carried away, the record is certainly every bit the “experimental post-mathrock death pop” that it purports to be. But with Chinquapin Records’ in-house recording guru Ross Farbe at the helm, High In One Eye seems to have found the coherent personality they’ve been lacking for far too long. At times the marriage is an odd one. “Weep” and “Indifference”, songs that would probably otherwise thrive on their rough recorded edges with screeching cymbals that drill holes in listeners’ eardrums and strings that exist solely in the low and high end, take on a different life under the blanket of Farbe’s production: instead of jagged edges, he creates pillowy low fidelity textures that often resemble an aural blur rather than a blast. In other places, the soft, demure edges aren’t simply interesting or striking but absolutely revelatory. The spacy, low-key single “Clausula” allows Landry’s doubled guitar to breathe while, for possibly the first time in High In One Eye’s existence, you can almost hear what he is singing. And on closer “G-Deny”, Farbe manages to highlight Cvitanovic’s penchant for creating the kinds of rhythms that not only set the beat but seem to exist as separate melodies in their own right.

The most striking detail of Memory Hoarders, however, is its uniformity. From that uniformity High In One Eye manages to avoid the demoishness that plagues the majority of their recorded work, regardless of production value. Above all else, there is a sense that this is less the end product of directionless experimentation than a calculated attempt to derive a collective musical character from their library up to this point. And in that regard the record is a stunning success. As a genuine representation of the band outside of their semi-legendary live show, I’d be compelled to hand a copy of Memory Hoarders to an uninitiated listener before sending her anywhere near High In One Eye’s back catalog.

King Louie’s Missing Monuments: Painted White

Douchemaster Records, 2011

Louis Paul Bankston aka King Louie is arguably the most prolific musician to emerge from New Orleans’ storied but largely obscured underground music scene.  The Harahan native has fronted or belonged to nearly a dozen bands in his 25 year career, including the short-lived but highly influential 90s punk outfit The Persuaders as well as The Bad Times, a 1998 studio project that included Eric Oblivian and a then little-known guitar raconteur by the name of Jay Reatard.  He’s toured the globe, worked with the likes of Guitar Lightin’ Lee and Alex Chilton, and lords over an undeniable sphere of consequence that encompasses artists from the Box Elders to The Black Lips.

And like literally every other garage-, punk- or noise-rock musician, it’s clear King Louie dips into the common list of influences that has been rattled off a thousand times before – The Kingsmen, The Ramones, The Sex Pistols, The Clash, The Stooges – but there is more to the his unyielding output than the relentlessly name-dropped founding fathers of underground rock ‘n’ roll.  Since his early work as a member of The Royal Pendletons, Louie has unabashedly shown a deference to some of the more saccharine threads of popular music as well, and the DNA of his new project Missing Monuments seems to owe as much to Carl Perkins and Donny Osmond as it does to Joe Strummer or Johnny Rotten.

The band’s full-length debut opens with the rollicking “Girl Of The Night”, a knowing study in classic power-pop that sets the tone for an assault of bouncy rhythms, steel-trap hooks, and enormous guitar solos.  But the rough edges slowly shine through as subsequent songs ecstatically descend towards Bankston’s long and mythical garage-punk past. “(It’s Like) XTC” keeps the slick, jangly tempo of its predecessor but adds a layer of raspy gang vocals, a gradual loosening of the belt that comes to a head with “All Bandaged Up”, a bluesy, hard luck ramble filled out with raunchy harmonica blasts and extended guitar jams.  But even booze-soaked shanties like “Nite Fall” maintain playful nods in structure to the class of surprisingly inspired and undeniably catchy AOR standards that King Louie openly celebrates.

Occasionally thin production lifts a layer of energy away from quick-stop, straightforward rippers like “Hot Class”, but King Louie’s affection for these songs in particular (and songwriting in general) is obvious, while the sheer abundance of his output makes it difficult to keep a highly critical eye trained on any specific work for too long.  On it’s surface, Painted White is an engaging spin on the shameless indulgence of power-pop, and upon further inspection it’s nothing if not yet another interesting artifact from a powerhouse local musical pioneer.

Painted White at Amazon

Frankie Rose: Interstellar

Slumberland, 2012

Frankie Rose, who the heavens do you think you are? Admirably, though stupidly, averse to the gravy train, you quit the Crystal Stilts and you abandoned the Girls Dum Dum and Vivian to record one of the best thin-air albums of 2010, Frankie Rose and the Outs. You then offered the only decent cover track, that of “Soma”, on the Strokes tribute record, only to claim about-face that you’ve never even really listened to the band, which everyone knows is a lie – you being a resident of New York City and all. Your flightiness, convenient defiance and ever-lingering presence in American music have made you a genuine enigma. And now you have another record, one that nebulously wreaks of Enigma.

How Rose has sustained her presence thus far, though not very surprising, is certainly peculiar: being a bit player in a slew of large national acts can only take a person so far before audiences and the elite start to wonder whether she has something to offer of her own, and her solo work up to now has drifted gracefully under most listeners’ radars. Yet here she is again, confidently backed by Slumberland Records, an entity that seems to have a good bit of faith in her solo prowess. And with the air of whimsical confidence Rose has brought to each of her endeavors once again evident on Interstellar, it’s becoming increasingly obvious that Slumberland may have something of a budding genius on its hands; though hinting at it two years ago, Rose has now proven herself a casual dabbler able to go all in.

The record is a  fun little anomaly of panache parading under substance yet devoid of pretension: it possesses a force capable of hooking a listener onto one pristinely harmonized vocal melody in the opening title track (the specter of which infects every subsequent high moment of the album), but it refuses to allow anything beneath that melody to be mistaken for profundity. After ninety difficult and lumbered seconds, just as the listener, now fully aware of Frankie Rose’s potential self-importance, is ready to either surrender to the prospect of weathering an entire LP of unneeded Julee Cruise retreads or eject the goddamn record altogether, drums and bass of the most economic kind (tom and two-note) deviously – and jubilantly – steer the tone in a more practicable direction.

At its core, Interstellar is an old-fashioned pop record and nothing more (and thank God). But in that caveat is the revelation that Rose has the talent to let her work lie vulnerable in places where many others wouldn’t dare. On tracks like “Gospel/Grace”, she displays a vocal faculty to rhapsodize with absolutely nothing to say, and among a sweeping vista of aqueous bass and Mellotron on “Had We Had It”, she repeatedly warbles a solitary nostalgia-ridden line of written word. In the hands of someone with a less than singular vision, Interstellar would be chided for going so new age, or for weaving stylishly sugary lyrical melodies made of virtually no underlying substance; but Frankie Rose is succinct and pointed in her desire to craft works of opulent pop, and it’s comforting.

Even with a production sheen offered by Le Chev that sees Rose ditching the baroque tendencies of her Outs days in favor of textures noticeably more grandiose, nothing about Interstellar feels unnecessarily epic because she tempers the numerous sinewy, emotionally manipulative lady-in-front numbers with a nucleus of catchy hooks, accessible rhythms and sparkling guitars – the kinds of elements that make single “Know Me” truly the choice cut of the record. In a dichotomy of musical command and brazen catchiness, Rose’s recorded work complements her inherently contradictory persona – of a woman so keenly aware of what she aims to do and executing it so flawlessly while lackadaisically willing to describe it as sounding “like Sade or something”.

Interstellar at Insound

Prinzhorn Dance School: Clay Class

DFA, 2012

Prinzhorn Dance School‘s self-titled debut was one of those rare records that genuinely, and successfully, escaped critical dissection. Definable or vaguely describable, sure: it was minimalist, nostalgic post punk. But it defied nuanced explanations of potential importance or relevancy in the zeitgeist of 2007. Similar to MGMT’s Congratulations, Prinzhorn Dance School seemed to elude any substantive analysis beyond “It’s different, and I like it” or “It’s different, and I don’t like it”. However, as a band, drummer/guitarist Tobin Prinz and drummer/bassist Suzi Horn weren’t copping out, and their album didn’t feel like a conscious avoidance of the mainstream microscope.

Prinzhorn’s songs were impervious to the critical eye because, for the most part, they weren’t really songs at all, rather sketches and blueprints of hypothetically grander expressions – principled exercises in the repetition of words, phrases and noises that sound interesting through a funnel of southern English, set to a backdrop of mechanically fundamental drum beats and strings. Those exercises were largely successful as well: foundations of kick drum, one-note bass and twangy guitars could be left in your head for weeks, and you could find yourself unconsciously muttering innocuous phrases like “lawyer’s water jug” in a demure Brighton accent, over and over and over again. It was scattered, it was lengthy, it was jarring and it was different; but everything about Prinzhorn Dance School was dangerously infectious. It was brilliant.

It’s been half a decade since most audiences have heard a peep from the band though. Early single “Seed, Crop, Harvest” offered a preview of what was to be an album of slightly built-up, more guitar-driven arrangements. It was encouraging. While generally retaining the same three instruments (drum, bass, and guitar) in the band’s canon, “Seed, Crop, Harvest” is arguably Prinzhorn’s first fully realized “song”. It isn’t a disciplinary drill in vocal staccato or striking contrasts between positive and negative space, but a nice whole piece of music complete with verses, refrains, guitar solos and a finale – application, not experimentation.

But an album of material similar to “Seek, Crop, Harvest”, no matter how thrilling, carries with it the burden of substance: if and when Prinzhorn decide to start writing actual songs, those songs can (unlike their debut material) be picked apart by their audience; if the songs on sophomore full-length Clay Class aren’t very good, then Clay Class may simply not be very good, no matter how minimal or idiosyncratic it is; and if Clay Class isn’t very good, then maybe Suzi Horn and Tobin Prinz aren’t very good songwriters in the traditional sense, regardless of their technical mastery of deconstruction and sonic shaping. Unfortunately, when viewed within this context, Clay Class suffers from a melange of quality in terms of both having interesting things to say and finding the right words to express them.

Though starting out strong with the floor tom-heavy, head-bobbing rhythm of “Happy in Bits” and the high-energy basal rocker “Usurper”, the duo’s steadily illuminating inclination towards dry, vaguely slowcore instrumental accords can quickly grow uninteresting, and it becomes increasingly difficult, amid the never-ending swell of static bass lines and nadir guitar work on tracks like “I Want You”, to find a graspable moment, emotionally or intellectually. The distinction of Prinzhorn’s music is its penchant for plodding metronomy, deceleration and outright silence, but on their debut it was balanced – even endeared – by the duo’s ability to craft some of the most memorable word groupings in contemporary music. On the bulk of Clay Class, I didn’t find myself hanging on many – if any – of Prinz and Horn’s deadpan-delivered words.

This record finds them attempting to not just enunciate but also sing a good portion of the album’s lyrics; and not just sing, but sing about more conventional topics like life cycles and failed interpersonal relationships. Therein may lie Clay Class‘s greatest detraction, because although it’s clear Prinzhorn are trying to bring the subject matter down to earth, their approach to songwriting somehow remains as opaque as it ever was; as a result they’ve made several deceptively profound stylistic leaps that audiences may not be able to make with them. Instead of experiencing little bits of hysterical titillation in response to a verse of absurd yet perfectly-placed stereophonic two-voice syllabic utterances, the listener is trapped by an urge to decipher whatever it is Prinzhorn Dance School may actually be talking about, and the particular words Prinzhorn happen to apply this time around simply aren’t as captivating.

However, that’s the worst of it. Lyrical colloquies aren’t everything; and besides, what good is experimentation in the arts if it’s not applied to rooted custom. With tracks like ultra-dim shout marathon “You’re Fire Has Gone Out” and the entrancing “Sing Orderly” balancing substance and texture more gracefully than anything else in their catalog, Clay Class feels more like a mixed bag than a misfire because it is (a) uncompromising in its commitment to applying, as a musical creative shorthand, the edginess that Prinzhorn explored on their debut and (b) a fascinating collection of songs replete with the kind of quirky and personal abstractions that place Tobin Prinz and Suzi Horn apart from the bulk of modern recording artists. It’s just that their music is no longer undefinable and, as songwriters, they’re no longer untouchable.

Cloud Nothings: Attack on Memory

Carpark Records, 2012

When Dylan Baldi first became a presence on the radar of most listeners just over a year ago, he appeared to be yet another of the endless number of nostalgia-obsessed, Tumblrized indie musicians. Like most, he had something worthwhile, or at least relatively enjoyable, to toss in the zeitgeist: a record glossed with his own refreshingly lo-fi take on generally maligned emo and pop punk. Even without the necessary context, Cloud Nothings‘ eponymous sophomore release was a collection of phenomenally poppy and creatively recorded songs that, at the very least, has engendered Baldi as the undisputed emo pop go-to guy, anomalously sandwiched between a lo-fi scene of noisy garage music and a much more “produced” indie pop scene. Without much creative legwork or disruption of the indie status quo, Cloud Nothings could probably have occupied their unique relational space long enough to make it worth their while.

However, almost as a wily rejection of the warm response their self-titled record received from critics and the complacency it can nurture, Cloud Nothings have quickly returned with the delusively challenging, hard-boiled Attack on Memory, wherein Baldi and Co. have begun to sharply shed whatever preconceptions could be made about the young Midwestern band’s modus operendi and, in doing so, have turned out to be a very different breed of band than anyone could have imagined.  While not a thorough 180° turn stylistically (there remains, in tracks like “Our Plans”, a heavy reminiscence of their earlier penchant for accessible emo and jangling vocal melodies), much of the material here could be mistaken for the work of an entirely different group of musicians. Given that Cloud Nothings tends to be something of a Dylan Baldi solo project, that could actually be the case; but, more importantly, Baldi himself is markedly different.

On opener “No Future/No Past”, doleful guitar interplay, strikingly agressive percussion and Baldi’s array of bleary croons, yelps and strained screams draw inference to some sort of indie/grunge hybrid – hypothetically the sound of true “post-grunge”, as opposed to the arena music with which we’ve come to generally associate the term. But neither this turn nor anything else on the record feels stretched or forced, thanks in large part to the band’s assured capability, blatantly obvious by the time they’ve ripped through a five-minute-long proggy noise suite in the middle of “Wasted Days”.

Reciprocating the best musical use of Steve Albini’s engineering time and talent since Neurosis’ Given to the Rising in 2006, Albini himself has turned in what will probably be the production job of 2012. The canvas of Attack on Memory is blindingly vivid with cymbals that effortlessly reach the upper registers, vocals that endearingly struggle to hold a scream and guitars that twinkle, fuzz-out and rigidly buzz with a dynamism that the tinny and shallow engineering of Cloud Nothings’ previous records could only hit at. The consummate production value found here ultimately paints Turning On and Cloud Nothings as simple scatter-shot stepping stones to the official coming-out that is Attack on Memory.

Not that the assortment-like personality of Cloud Nothings’ first two records isn’t present here as well: even at a relatively sparse eight tracks, the strange diversity in song drafting – between growers and past-era burn offs – feels less like an attempt to author a work of creative autonomy than a collection of the best music in Dylan Baldi’s current repertoire, which has probably been the band’s singular strength from day one. While many artists are focused on the album, Cloud Nothings still seem intent on focusing their energies on the song. Whether pop songs with no overt lyrical coherence or nineties alt rock-influenced instrumentals, Attack on Memory never abates the allusion that they are precisely what Cloud Nothings intended them to be.

Attack on Memory at Insound