Newsflash: Music Doesn't Suck (Any More)

By shane

So I went and disappeared again.

Please don't think I've "matured"... that I've evolved... that I've somehow managed to put something together in my life that's more important than geeking out to music, 'coz I can happily report that my social life remains in a state of shit due to my overwhelming consumption of popular (and, quite often, not-too-damn-popular-at-all-really) music.

So screw the apologies. I won't babble on about what I've been up to, and how sorry I am that I havent written a proper column in ages. Suffice to say I've been busy.

But something's finally happened to incite me to put finger to keyboard once again and wax poetic about the grandeurs of music.

What's happened? Music's gotten good again.

Over the past couple of years, let's face it, the music landscape was pretty damn grim. Here I am, a supposed devout member of the Anglophile sect, and I spent two years hating almost everything I heard from England. Cooper Temple Clause? Thanks, I'll pass. Coldplay? Well, it's true that I could use a nap. Travis? Their first album was pretty good. In all honesty, the biggest UK thing shaking in my CD collection last year was me finally completing my Kinks catalogue.

In the meantime, American critics have spent the last two years revitalizing the "young, dumb, and full of cum" garage rock scene. I guess I'm supposed to say "yay" here or something... but I won't. Coz I'm already sick of it. The Strokes? They're an okay opening band. The White Stripes? They're a fun diversion, but little more than a novelty act. The Vines? I'm no fan, folks.

Truth is, I've spent waaay too much of the past two years listening to Top 40 and hip-hop, thanks to my ever present weekend DJ gig. Though it's oftentimes upsetting to think of myself as a musical sell-out, I'm at least happy to report that our little club is now the talk of the town, with an average 20 minute wait outside to be let in on Saturdays. And I had some big, hulking, spooky looking dude approach me in a convenience store the other night just to tell me that quote, "My shit be slammin'." So I figger I must be doing something right.

But anyways, I digress. Point is, decent releases have been few and far between over the past couple of years. Until NOW.

Here's my token Controversial Universal Statement of the Column, you ready? 2002 has been hands down the best year for music in the past half decade.

Over the past few months, I've hit upon a few releases that haven't just reinstilled my faith in music, they've reshaped the way I think about music. Best of all, they've gotten me excited about indie bands again, because finally I'm hearing releases that are speaking to me again. And it's been a loooooooong time.

So instead of making any kind of "statement" in this column... oh, who am I kidding, it's not like I ever have anything important to say -- let's re-phrase -- Instead of cracking dumb jokes like usual, I'm gonna spend this column highlighting the bands that have re-lit my fire this year. And I'm doing it for only ONE simple reason -- to get you, Joe Q. Anglophile, to do whatever it takes to hear these records, because if you can reach the same levels of appreciation on these bands -- even just one of 'em -- as I have, it'll be worth it for you.

TURNERJOY - Transplant
Mohofusu Records

  Some of you might be rolling your eyes. To those that are, please fuck promptly off. Seriously. I'll make no secret of the fact that I know the members of Turnerjoy on some degree of a personal level. I was in the crowd at one of their first gigs (opening for the Candyskins in Chicago) and went up and introduced myself to them. A year later, I got them a gig in my hometown and a featured spot on Excellent's own "Intertwined" compilation. But other than that, it's not like I'm best buds with them or anything. So if you think I'm being biased when I tell you that Turnerjoy's "Transplant" is the best album I've heard in two years, I don't know what to tell you, other than you're wrong, and I feel sorry for you, because you're dismissing one of the best albums I've EVER heard, seriously. I liked Turnerjoy in the beginning because I thought they were good kids with a great penchant for shoegaze-influenced pop. I didn't think they were remotely capable of a record like this.

So what's the big deal with this, their second record? Think Doves meets Radiohead meets Ultrasound meets Sigur Ros -- and then mix them up in a bowl that's about two sizes too small for them all to fit, and as you sit and listen, you're constantly on edge for the bowl to give way from the weight, but the record plays on with demonic intensity -- as though they're trying to get everything out before the bowl shatters. It's a record that COMMANDS attention -- you can't put it on as background music, it's waaay too demanding, too focused for that sort of role. Listening from the start, "Heartattack" seems a pleasant enough intro, a spacey woodwindy keyboard and gentle guitar strumming and all -- and then you get about 30 seconds in, and the song explodes in feedback and hypnotic bass grooves, while strangely managing to still be sweet and melodic all at the same time. Just when you think you can't be any more drawn in, in comes an over-the-top synthetic-y angelic choir going "AAAH! AAAH! AAAH!" and it still, somehow strangely, doesn't evolve into the Tales-from-Topographic-Oceans-esque nightmare that you'd expect. "Stop wasting your time/your life is fading/Each second's divine/Your heart attack's waiting in line." And it all makes sense. It's like a credo for the whole record - NOW is the time to shine, don't go about things half-assed.

There are VERY few cocky bands that really hit with me. In fact, the only bands I can think of that had the balls to put out a self-confident record this full of grandeur and over-the-top dramatics... and had it WORK on every level... are Ultrasound and Sigur Ros, which is why I keep coming back to them when I talk about Turnerjoy.

But there's a big difference between a band like Sigur Ros and a band like Turnerjoy -- Sigur Ros have a record label. Sigur Ros have money to record. Turnerjoy don't. Turnerjoy have no record label -- they're a local Chicago band who are currently only selling CD's at their gigs or by mailing money to their bassist via their own website (

And that's just a sin. This band deserves exposure. While their lyrics might not have the bizarre socio-political ephiphanies of your Thom Yorkes, their music runs miles above anything Radiohead have put out in the last few years -- it's just as artsy, just as anthemic, but happily grounded in melodic lifts that make you actually remember the songs after your soul's been assaulted by 'em.

Buy this record. Do everything in your power to hear it. If you're in the Midwest, go see one of their shows. And don't just stop there. Play it for your friends -- especially if your friends happen to be heads of A&R for a major record label.


APPLES IN STEREO - Velocity of Sound
SpinART Records

  So earlier I was talking about the "young, dumb, and full of cum" generation that seems to have crept up on us. You know what I think the biggest problem is with bands like the Strokes and the Stripes? None of 'em seem to be having any fun. Go listen to the Strokes record again. Yeah, it's got the patented "raw" sound. Yeah, there are a few tracks that are intensely fun to sing along to. But listen to the band for a second... Do they remotely sound like they're having fun? Hell no. Perhaps this is the defining element of garage rock in the post-Cobain era. What happened to the FUN? If you're trying to sound like a bunch of kids rocking out in their parent's garage, you should sound like you're having FUN. You shouldn't sound like you're being oppressed by the brutality of society. You should sound like you've just thrown back a sixer of Milwaukee's Best and are trying your damnedest to go full on with the rock star pinache so you can bone little Suzie Larson down the street.

That's where the Apples in Stereo prove so very, very valuable. Because the Apples ALWAYS sound like they're having fun, even when they seem to be touched by the hand of Garage Rock, as is the case with "Velocity of Sound." The psychedelic pop of their past releases is out the door, replaced with a more three-chord-growl sort of approach.

Yet it still works. Because, at the heart of it all, the Apples are having fun, and you can hear it in the music. Sometimes it's over the top, yeah - almost like The Archies covering The Donnas or something - but it's still got that positive energy, the mix of innocent self-righeousness and downright musical jubilance that makes indie pop oh-so-different than the emo crap that's bogging down the college charts right now. Even at their worst, the Apples still sound vibrant, and that's never a bad thing.


OF MONTREAL - Aldhil's Arboretum
Kindercore Records

  As if the year can't get any better musically, along comes my favorite indie band with their best album in half a decade. Of Montreal proved their musical chops with me long, long ago. Their bizarre hybrid of psychedelic lyrics and pastiche pop had me hooked from their second record. Imagine The Kinks meeting Parklife-era Blur in the cerebellum of an 8-year-old and you'd be close to the Of Montreal experience.

Admittedly, though, no matter how much I love them, I had to eventually admit that they'd hit a bit of a rough spot lately. Their last record, "Coquelicot Asleep in the Poppies," was sooooooo out-there that it alienated all but the band's most diehard fans. Kevin Barnes' wonderful imagination had unlocked a fantasy world where fairies and mad scientists cavorted around wax museums and distant islands with genetically mutated animals -- which, and you may have to trust me on this one, was a good thing. BUT... with the band evolving into some pretty serious concept-album bog water, what was missing from Of Montreal was the humanism and love that made me fall in love with them in the first place.

Which is exactly why the band's brand new one, "Aldhil's Arboretum," works so well. It's not a concept album (unless, perhaps, the concept is to not have a concept for once.) Gone are songs about bizarre imaginary characters, and in its place is a full record of three minute pop gems that bring Of Montreal back to Earth a bit.

I hate using words like "whimsical," but that's exactly what makes Of Montreal so special. Kevin Barnes follows a similar path as, say, Flansburgh & Linnell, in the way that both Of Montreal and They Might Be Giants can make a three-minute pop epic about anything they damn well want. And it's the schoolyard charm of the band that make tunes like "Jennifer Louise" stand out - a blissful pop stormer that simply ponders, "Whatever happened to that one cousin of mine?" It's almost like stream of consciousness pop. Think I'm kidding? Here's the lyrics:

Jennifer Louise, you don't know me but we're cousins, Your ma-ma-ma-ma-ma-ma-ma and my Ma-ma-ma-ma-ma-ma-ma are sisters. Jennifer Louise, I haven't seen you since I was a kid, My family spent the weekend at your house, your father helped when my eyelashes stuck together. My mom told me that now you're a young professional, living with a signifigant someone. Jennifer Louise, we know so little about each other, I'll probably never call you up, write you a letter, Or see you in person. Basically, Jennifer Louise, you don't know me and we're not friends, But I was just wonder-wonder-won-wonderin' about you, Wonderin' if you ever think-think-think-think about me.

It's genuine. It's unpretentious. And there's nothing more gorgeous than simple pop music completely free of affectation. Of Montreal are the real deal - and I respect them so much for it.


KINGSAUCE - Please Don't Change the Channel
Happy Happy Birthday to Me Records

  So pop can also be good from time to time even if it's NOT genuine. Such is the case of Kingsauce, a band who have always described themselves as a novelty project. Kingsauce is the brainchild of Richie Chodes from the Elephant-6 related Vince Mole & His Calcium Orchestra. And it's brilliant... yet absolutely contrived. What's the point? Make THE definitive pop album, complete with Archies-esque harmonies and the sort of mindless plastic lyrics you haven't heard since "Yummy Yummy Yummy (I Got Love in My Tummy)." The end result is one you have to laugh at, but that's the point, really. It's as much comedy as pop, and, while it sort of goes against a true pop band like Of Montreal or the Apples in Stereo, it proves that indiepop isn't too precious to take the piss out of itself now and again. The truly amazing thing is that the music is fantastic - sort of like the Raspberries trying to cover the "Welcome Back Kotter" theme. And think about this one - back in the day when pop was dominant, the upper eschelon bands needed writers and studios to do most of the work. These are guys who didn't need much help - they had the rulebook thanks to growing up around bands like The Monkees - and they do a damn good job replicating the sound on a shoestring budget. Yes, it proves pop music is pretty doggone silly. But would you like it any other way?


THE ESKIMOS - Something Must Be Transmitted Somehow
Tell Me Later Records

Wow... a band from Athens that... rocks?

I've just done one of those comical "finger-in-the-ear" wags and it's still true. It's rock and roll purism from a town known waaaay more for psychedelic pop. Not to say that the Eskimos don't have a fair amount of psych gleam to their tunes, coz they most certainly do, but they've learned the fine art of swirling their psychedelic tendencies into a Bolan-esque glam swagger that's simply heavenly. The end result falls somewhere between T. Rex, the Flaming Lips, and "Exile on Main St.," and that ain't a bad place to land. When crunching pseudo-blues riffs meet up with wall of sound keyboards and vocals sent straight from the cutting room floor of "Velvet Goldmine," it's bliss. And amazingly, the whole thing doesn't sound retrofied at all. This is how I'd like ALL bar bands to sound, frankly. And this particular one is likely gonna end up in my year-end list, that's how good this record is. If this keeps up, I'm gonna start bottling Athens water and selling it at "Magic Creativity Juice."


And that's only a few of 'em, folks. There are SOOOOOOOOO many good records out right now I can barely keep 'em straight. Doing a best-of list this year could be a serious pain in the ass. Maybe I should get started on that now... now that my confidence in the art of music is back.

To all these bands, I only have one thing to say: "Thanks."