Built to Spill—KEEP IT LIKE A SECRET (1999)

220px-keep_it_like_a_secretReview by Alfredo Duarte

Assigned by Jonathan Hopkins

Prior to writing this review, i only knew Built to Spill by name. Never actually heard anything by them, but i read some people mentioning BTS as an influential and important band for the indie pop groups that came later. The cover art looked like something good was gonna come out and it was indeed, there’s always more room for 90’s power pop in my heart (oh excuse the cornyness)! I love Jellyfish, Posies, etc.

Problem: this album came out in 1999, and in 1999 for some reason all rock dudes were playing midtempo grooves or jump music. So this is midtempo power pop! See, when it comes to garage pop or power pop, i think that when you have a nice melody is more exciting if you play it fast, at least kind of fast. I remember at a show i saw a patch with The Flash playing drums with someone pointing a gun at his head and saying “PLAY FAST OR DIE!”. How cool is that? Best drummer ever!

Where was I? Oh yeah, so the tunes that sound more exciting to me are the faster ones, like “Sidewalk” wich kicks ass, or the ones who display some intense emotion despite being slow, like “You were right”, my favorite track here, gotta love those clichéd phrases and the whiny chorus. The clichés make it sound like everything is tongue in cheek but the overall mood is so depressing i guess no, is not a joke, he’s just dressing it as a joke but he kind of, wants to die and shit.

First song is also nice, the singles for some reason did not impress me much. “Center of the Universe” has an annoying guitar riff, stop doing that guitar players! “Carry The Zero” is cool but way too fucking long with not much happening in between. OK, there’s some changes but waaaayyyyy subtle for my patience. How about playing it faster? FASTER!

Back to the first song “The Plan”, sweet album opener and it has a ‘Sonic Youth’ dissonant noise rock section wich makes you hope the whole album has moments like this, but sadly nope, that’s the only one.

Overall a pretty solid CD, I am definitely going back to this or other item inside the discography of The Built To Spills for some more midtempo power pop enjoyment.

NEKO CASE – Fox Confessor Brings the Flood (2006)

Review by: Eric Pember
Album assigned by: Jonathan Hopkins

I’m sorry, but I don’t really know how to handle this one. I think it sounds nice, and better than a lot of other alt-country I’ve heard (let’s not even get started on mainstream country), but I can’t exactly detail why I think that at this time. Part of me thinks that there’s a subliminal effect from really liking Neko Case’s contributions to the New Pornographers, but I also like what I’ve heard from Calexico (who apparently play on this album), so that’s likely not it.

Trying to compare this to another alt-countryish artist I like (Woven Hand) perhaps provides a hint at why I like this. Like Woven Hand, it tries for a distinct atmosphere, unlike seemingly a lot of country music, both mainstream and alternative. Also like Woven Hand, it is a bit samey-sounding, but ultimately most songs in every genre are samey-sounding if you don’t have much of an aptitude for it.

I’ll get back to this album at some point (along with the subsequent ones from her and albums from Calexico) and see if I can figure out why I like this where most alt-country music kinda doesn’t work for me. 

A YEAR IN MUSIC: ALICE COOPER – Zipper Catches Skin (1982)

Review by: Jonathan Hopkins

It’s hard for me to think of a more unjustly maligned album than Zipper Catches Skin. Almost everybody considers it the low point of Alice Cooper’s career, and those that don’t seem to have forgotten it exists. Even the few defenders these days seem to only offer lukewarm praise along the lines of “It’s not as bad as people say.” While not quite a masterpiece, I do think this is a very good album that doesn’t deserve anywhere near the hate it gets.

First, some background: This is the second of what Alice refers to as “the blackout trilogy.” His alcoholism had gotten so bad that he claims to have no recollection of this album or the two albums bookending it, although he does seem to at least have some memory of Special Forces given that he toured it and occasionally will resurrect a couple of songs from it. The same can’t be said for this or DaDa. On that album, the picture we got was rather sad and tragic, but here, humor and irony rule the day. Also, while recording Zipper, he wasn’t just plagued by alcohol abuse – he was also addicted to crack, and apparently during the sessions, he’d hit the pipe after any given take. That’s really the key to understanding this album.

I don’t want to give the impression that Zipper is about his addiction problems – it isn’t “about” anything at all. But musically, crack is clearly the primary external influence. I don’t even know how to classify this album. Most people shrug their shoulders and call it “New Wave,” but even as loose as that term is, it doesn’t fit comfortably. The album doesn’t have the herky-jerky Cars rhythms of Flush the Fashion, nor the Police guitar tones of Special Forces. There are barely any keyboards with the notable exception of “I Am The Future,” a slow sci-fi dirge which was recorded for a film soundtrack and thrown on here to fill up space. It doesn’t belong on the album at all, but since Zipper‘s goal seems to be to make as little sense as possible, it ends up working. I suppose I’d call Zipper hyperactive post-punk as a descriptor, but even that doesn’t feel adequate.

Zipper can’t really be measured in individual songs. Alice barely sings, preferring instead to snarl and bark his way through in a half-speaking/half-singing manner, and the tracks don’t feel so much composed as spewed out. However, the songs all have their own individual moments of intrigue. “Adaptable” is an undeniably catchy and well-constructed pop song, to the point where I’m amazed it wasn’t chosen as the lead single. “Zorro’s Ascent” and “Scrooge’s Song” combine their slightly off-kilter guitar work with snappy choruses. The manic riffage and completely out of place, but effective, backing vocals of “I Better Be Good” are incredibly charming, as is the way the song essentially constructs itself from the ground up with each passing line. I’ll never get the way Alice Cooper snarls out “I’ve got a Porsche and I’m leaving Grand Rapids” in front of what sounds like a twisted version of 50’s rock music in “I Like Girls” out of my head. Every song has something good to say about it, but there’s only so many ways I can pick out and phrase these moments.

It’s the moments that make the concept work, and that concept is essentially a portrait of the complete collapse of a man’s psyche, and that is why I find the album so fascinating. It starts off somewhat normally – composition wise, not in attitude or lyrics which are already off-kilter – and as it goes on, the tempos get more frenetic and the madness ratchets up very quickly. It’s hard to think that the album could get crazier considering that it starts with “I AM THE FOX AND I GO WHERE I WANT!” until you find out it ends with “THAT WAS THE DAY MY DEAD PET RETURNED TO SAVE MY LIFE!”

Zipper certainly isn’t perfect. I’ve already mentioned that the songs don’t seem to have any thought put into them, and while the style works for me for the 30 minutes it’s given to us, I could see how it could get annoying to some, and if it went on any longer, it probably would to me as well.

But those weaknesses don’t detract from what I consider to be a very intriguing and idiosyncratic experience. I think the backlash comes down to two things: what people expect from Alice and whether the style and hyper-self-effacement endears itself to the listener or aggravates them. The second point is subjective, but as to the first, I’ll say that while it may be stylistically nothing like one would expect from Alice, the spirit is there 100%. There are many albums and songs out there which depict something like a slow descent into madness – Syd Barrett and Skip Spence’s albums, parts of Peter Gabriel’s III, a whole bunch of stuff by Pink Floyd – but this is the only album I can think of which depicts not a slow descent, but a rapid plunge, and does so entirely without its creator’s consent, with the tongue-in-cheek sarcasm and irony Alice Cooper is known for on overdrive. Whether you like Zipper or not, there has never been anything else quite like it.

АКВАРИУМ (AQUARIUM) – Сестра Хаос (Sister Chaos) (2002)

Review by: Jonathan Hopkins
Album assigned by: Dinar Khayrutdinov

Before I get to the review, let me tell you that finding any information on this album or this band is borderline impossible. Aquarium has exactly one album entry on RYM, and isn’t this one. Sister Chaos wasn’t on Spotify in my country, nor was it anywhere easily available online. I was very lucky that exactly one person had it up on Soulseek, and that the mp3s were good quality.

Broadly speaking, Sister Chaos could probably be described as art-pop, but it’s fairly difficult to nail down. I have no knowledge of Aquarium outside of this, but here, at least, their greatest asset is their unpredictability. None of the songs really sound like each other, and the surprising moments scattered throughout the songs tend to be the best parts of the album, such as the suggestive slide riff that pops up occasionally in the funky “500” (I used to play bass for the Funky 500) or the lovely piano break that appears out of nowhere in “Fording.”

Aquarium have quite a lot of influences on display, and strangely, its diversity might be a weakness. Most of these songs are good, but none of them have much of an identity of their own. They have a few defining quirks, but in many ways, “Brother Nicotine” is a Beck song, “Fate’s Foot” is something off Harmonium’s first album, “500” largely feels like The Stone Roses (albeit with very different instrumentation), etc. That’s not to say that it’s bad. The pastiches are good. I just have a difficult time grasping exactly who Aquarium are as a band, other than that they like their trip-hop rhythms and psychedelic tinges here and there.

The album seems very even to me, but if I had to pick a couple of highlights, I’d go with the slightly jazzy, slide driven “Psalm 151,” “Fording,” which combines its groovy verses with a, unexpected catchy upbeat pop chorus, and the bright piano pop of “Cardiogram.” The only thing that doesn’t really hold up for me is “Rastamen from Hicksville,” which is an amazing title wasted on a rather bland stab at reggae. While I basically enjoy Sister Chaos, nothing stands out to me much, and nothing ever strikes me as great or brilliant. It’s a pretty good album, certainly invested with a lot of craft and talent, and worth a few listens, but I’ll probably never feel like pulling it out again.

JELLYFISH – Spilt Milk (1993)

Review by: Eric Pember
Album assigned by: Jonathan Hopkins

I’ve wanted to listen to this album forever, and I’m glad that Jonathan forced me to finally get around to it.

I also listened to Bellybutton so I could have proper context for this review, and I have to say that album was curiously light on hooks, although the arrangements were pretty good. The great “Baby’s Coming Back” was an exception.

That song feels like a model for this album. Brilliant character assassinations (sometimes on the self, sometimes on others) with great hooks and arrangements. Spilt Milk also adds one more thing that isn’t really in “Baby’s Coming Back” or on Bellybutton: some real rocking energy. Thankfully, these guys are smart enough to stay in their own lane and don’t try co-opting grunge in the process. The closest they come to it is “All Is Forgiven”, and even that is leavened with ELO-style harmonies. 

Speaking of ELO, in a lot of ways, this album sounds like ELO would if Jeff Lynne had some taste (which he didn’t, but we love him for it anyway).

If you want to take a listen to one song to figure out if this album is for you, take a listen to “New Mistake”. It’s the best exemplar of everything Spilt Milk does right.

Unfortunately, Jellyfish would release no more albums after this. It is worth thinking about whether they would’ve gotten weirder or tried to become more commercial if they had recorded a third album. Either way, we’ll never know, and maybe that’s for the best.

IRON AND WINE – The Shepherd’s Dog (2007)

Review by: Viudas Tormo
Album assigned by: Jonathan Hopkins

Iron and Wine. Such an interesting name, such a bad mixed drink.

“The Shepherd’s Dog”, besides being one of the most iconic figures of rural life, is the title of their third album. And I use “they” even though I could get away with “he”, as this is Sam Beam project. 

Sam Beam is a guy that was doing folk and sporting a huge beard before it was cool and way before it was hideous. In fact, his two first full length records (2002 and 2004) were trending and very interesting. 

With a voice sounding as a very very relaxed Graham Nash and nice fingerpicked guitar melodies surrounding it, those efforts were really enjoyable.

The third album, as every third album should do, tries to experiment and grow the original sound of the project. For Sam Beam, that basically meant to produce a fuller outcome for the listener. 

Probably, the most noticeable novelty in their sound was rhythmic. The drums, displaying an open sound, put Iron and Wine in motion.

Now that they are walking a little bit faster, the album gets busy with delivering songs each one with an individual identity in their own.

Sam Beam singing doesn’t offer anything really new, but it works for the same fellows that it worked last time, specially on tracks like “Flightless Bird, American Mouth” or “Resurrection Fern”.

For your humble servant, this record is forgettable, but if you dig the band, you probably have it in your shelf by now.

HARMONIUM – Si on avait besoin d’une cinquième saison (1975)

Review by: Steve Andrew Robey
Album assigned by: Jonathan Hopkins

For true connoisseurs of progressive rock, this album has become revered as an excellent example of the progressive folk subgenre. A progressive rock website I used to frequent placed it in the all-time top 20 albums at one point (based on consolidated site member ratings). When I first heard of this album several years ago, being not particularly interested in skinny guys with pointy ears and beards prancing through the forest playing flutes, I was not particularly quick to give this album a listen. Simply because when I heard “prog folk”, that was the image that came up in my head.  Subgenres and classifications are easy to fall prey to – once you think you know a subgenre, you tend to think you know what a band will sound like even before you put it on. This is a mistake which I try to prevent myself from making, but old biases die hard. In fact, I considered myself “burned out” on prog rock in general about a year ago, and although I have a fairly extensive prog collection and have even written reviews for prog publications in the past, I really haven’t listened to much prog in a while.

This turned out to be a blessing in disguise. When Jonathan assigned this album for me to review, it seemed to be an ideal time to approach it. Since I’ve been away from prog for a while, I could give it a fresh listen, not as a prog album/prog-folk/whatever-new-genre-tag-has-been-invented-this-month, but as a piece of MUSIC played by PEOPLE using their own particular creative vision and skills.  That’s something that’s easy to forget when approaching music from an academic, neatly-categorized angle: all those great progressive bands from the late 60s and early 70s were basically making it up as they went along, in the best possible sense. They were in an environment where they were encouraged to be as creative as they liked, and as a result all these new combinations of musical ideas started happening. Take Yes, and “Close to the Edge” – I read somewhere that the band admits they really didn’t know WHAT they were doing, only that they wanted to take chances and really push themselves to make something original, and just see what works, using their own particular talents to their greatest advantage. BOOM. A timeless classic is born. They weren’t going down some checklist of “elements of a prog song” and checking them off.

Harmonium seems to me to display that kind of spirit as well. Hailing from Quebec, they began as more purely folk but by their second album the decided to broaden their scope and see if added complexity could aid in painting a more sophisticated musical picture than the more traditional music forms they had tried thus far. They took a chance, and history has proven that whatever they did worked like a charm. So what did they do?

The title of this album translates to “If We Needed a Fifth Season”, and it so happens it is a concept album about the seasons, with five tracks.  See where this is going? The first four tracks each represent one of the four seasons (Frankie Valli, Bob Gaudio,…. no wait, wrong seasons), and the fifth, epic-length track represents the hypothetical fifth one. Not a bad conceit for a concept album, but nothing mind-blowing either, though I confess I don’t understand French, so the lyrics may be a revelation for all I know.

Musically, they keep it mostly acoustic and gentle, with flutes, clarinets, acoustic guitars and basses, warm Rhodes electric piano, and Mellotrons. The vocals often employ excellent harmonies. Very little drums or percussion, if any at all.   I was often reminded of Anthony Phillips’ solo work – with “pastoral” being the operative idea, except that in place of Phillips’ classical leanings we have an almost jazzy feel at times. If you’ve ever heard the classic early albums by Banco del Mutuo Soccorso, their quiet sections remind me of this album too.

Where this album sets itself apart is in the sense of fun and playfulness in some of the material. The opening track “Vert” (representing Spring) begins rather austerely but soon acquires a certain swing, with groovy electric piano. The second track “Dixie” (representing Summer) employs an honest-to-goodness Dixieland style, with rollicking clarinet and barrelhouse piano and a brisk tempo. These two tracks set a unique tone for the rest of the album; even though the remainder of the album tends much more towards the serious side of things, you somehow know that anything might happen. And while they never employ whiplash-inducing shifts in style or tempo, they do put each piece through a number of subtly different movements that gives their musical painting a more three-dimensional perspective.

Most of the attention from prog-lovers goes to the aforementioned fifth track/season, “Histoire Sans Paroles” (translates to “Story Without Words”). It does in fact feel like a separate work, a “concerto” to which the other four tracks serve as a prolonged introduction. While it does have some lyrics, it doesn’t have many, and the focus is clearly on painting a detailed portrait of what this fifth season would look, feel, and smell like. After four or so listens, I find I still have a hard time keeping my attention all the way through, but I can vouch for the fact that it is a beautiful piece, probably falling somewhere between autumn and winter mood-wise (the autumn and winter pieces on the record are notably more somber than the spring and summer ones).

In conclusion, I have mostly good feelings about this record, though I do often wish it displayed a bit more aggression, if only to put the quieter sections into greater contrast. Of course, to insist on something like that is probably missing the point, and I recognize that. This album does not want to beat you over the head, and it doesn’t want to advance the idea that the passing of seasons is any more action-packed than it is. It is a tribute of sorts to the beauty of the natural processes and cycles that characterize our earthly existence. And it’s done with impeccable taste (nothing cheesy about this album, and no show-offs allowed), sensitivity (a mature perspective on the complexity and perfect balance of nature), and even humor. If this is how the Earth’s natural processes feel to them, then this must be a pretty nice place to live.

THE PEELS – The Peels (2005)

Review by: Jonathan Hopkins
Album assigned by: Jake Myers

I knew exactly what this album was going to sound like as soon as I saw the album cover. They’re an indie-rock quartet with loud, jagged guitars and a female vocalist who looks and sounds just like Nico.

That’s not quite fair. While the opening song, “Only Son” – where she sounds like some sort of Nico android – made me wary, her vocals throughout are actually very good and varied. It’s just clear who her model is. Other than that, The Peels don’t really offer anything particularly interesting here. All of the songs sound almost exactly the same, with the same post-Pixies “quirk-punk” indie guitar tones and bass lines I’ve heard a million times. It’s not bad, and every song sounds perfectly fine while it’s on, but almost nothing really sticks with me.

The only song I care to name check is “I Don’t Know,” the one song on here with a different, warmer guitar tone and a great power-pop riff. This is going to be my one take away from this album, the only thing I’ll probably come back to. I really fell in love with this song, and it was worth it to listen to the album just to gain that.

There really aren’t any other individual songs to talk about, in my opinion. It’s a very short album – actually just an EP – and the only thing The Peels managed to record. Seek out “I Don’t Know,” and if you’re a huge indie-rock fan, you’ll probably enjoy the rest as well.

In conclusion, it’s basically fine, but Wire did everything this album did but better.

Rating: B-