Tag Archives: Rock

Album of the Day: Soundgarden, “Ultramega OK”

Like every Seattle band who became superstars when grunge broke into the mainstream, Soundgarden began as something much smaller and stranger. Before the major labels caught on and launched them to multiplatinum success, they were signed to Sub Pop, and then to Greg Ginn’s SST Records for debut full-length Ultramega OK. Even on that punk-driven indie label, Soundgarden was a square peg. Guitarist Kim Thayil had become an Iommi-worshiping conjurer of detuned, sludgy blues—punk in ethos, but far more of a metalhead in style. Thayil gave the band a sonic backbone that bridged the metal ’80s with the impending alt-rock boom of the ’90s. But the weapon that made them a mainstream force was singer Chris Cornell, who tragically passed away last week.

The many tributes to Cornell that have been written since his passing have rightly focused on his massive range and masterful control of his vocal instrument. Ultramega OK presents him as a much rawer presence than the generational talent who stalks the songs on Badmotorfinger and Superunknown. But it also shows limitless promise, like a rookie who can’t defend the pick-and-roll yet but can dunk from the foul line. The ecstatic joy of Cornell’s voice breathes pulsing, wriggling life into the album. His lyrics sometimes skew dark, as on the jaundiced love song “Head Injury,” but they’re written from a perspective far more inscrutable than the bleak autobiography of later songs like “Outshined” and “Fell on Black Days.”

The Cornell-penned “Beyond the Wheel” is the best song on the record, and it’s a stone-cold Soundgarden classic. Cornell starts the song in a low, rumbling baritone, but ratchets his register up to a Rob Halford-like falsetto, doing battle with Thayil’s jagged guitar. A crisp new Jack Endino-helmed mix—the way the album was always meant to sound, according to the band—makes the song’s impact even stronger. “We’re driving flesh and blood / Deep into the ground,” Cornell howls at the song’s climax, and those lines induce chills every time. Cornell would go on to be one of the best singers in rock history, but the primal yawp of “Beyond the Wheel” remains a major high point — gloriously unhinged, and brimming with the possibility of what was to come.

Brad Sanders

Album of the Day: Skyway Man, “Seen Comin’ From a Mighty Eye”

“Someday, you’ll wake up from a dream,” singer James Wallace croons on “Someday,” the first track from his recent LP as Skyway Man. This album, Seen Comin’ From A Mighty Eye, has a hazy quality, and if the aforementioned quote is meant to instruct, Wallace doesn’t plan to follow along.

Shrouded in thick effects, Wallace’s voice flutters throughout Seen Comin’ in a half-falsetto, the sort of sound pioneered by folk luminaries Jeremy Earl of Woods and the members of Akron/Family. In a good way, Seen Comin’ exudes a laid-back tone that favors nuance and consistency over standout singles, centering the album around Wallace’s atmospheric one-liners. Seen Comin’ is rooted in Wallace’s fascination with UFOs, and this otherworldly focus permeates the entire record. “Someday we’ll meet on terrestrial shore,” he longingly repeats towards the end of “Terre, 9999,” as if Earth is slowly fading in the distance.

Wallace’s side gig is as a member of Nashville band Promised Land Sound, and that group’s scuzzy psychedelia makes itself apparent on Seen Comin’‘s furthest reaching moments, like on the nine-minute opus “Wires (Donny Angel and the Opening Wide).” And while Skyway Man is Wallace’s project—singularly attached to his persona—Seen Comin’ is a family affair, boasting a 20-person credit list affiliated with the recording sessions.

As a whole, Seen Comin’ From A Mighty Eye is a moving portrait of a man taking control of his own peace, unbothered by worldly concerns. Wallace may be preoccupied by the mystery of night skies, but at least he’s making damn fine music while he’s stuck here.

Will Schube

Album of the Day, The Buttertones, “Gravedigging”

One word comes to mind mid-way through The Buttertones’ latest effort, and that word is “Trouble.” Every character in the songs on Gravedigging, is either in it, or about to be, and there’s a dark undercurrent to lead singer Richard Araiza’s Jeffrey Lee Peirce-ian croon, making the danger feel both real and imminent.

Opener “Pistol Whip” plays out like a crime of joy. It’s a drunken teenage James Dean smashing tombstones with a hollow bodied guitar, wearing a skull for a mask, egged on by a moody saxophone, the “oohs” in the background sounding like police sirens. There’s a particular menace behind the surf jangle on “Sadie’s A Sadist”; the guitar riffs sound less like strings on a fretboard and more like a handful coins spilling out of snatched purse. In the sorrowful “A Tear for Rosie,” Araiza cries for his beloved; one could almost believe it was a cautionary tale if that driving disco beat didn’t seem to encourage a new set of midnight mistakes.

Since their inception The Buttertones have shown an uncanny ability to conjure cinematic imagery, from the twinkly ‘50s prom from American Brunch’s “Baby Doll” to the oh-so-casual ‘60s indie cocktail lounge of “Reminiscing” on their self-titled debut. There’s a touch of those same elements here (“I Ran Away”), but Gravedigging is more like a beach party movie set in a circle of Dante’s Inferno. The songs are as punchy as they are profane, a bottomless bottle of grim Americana that’s very easy to pick up, but almost impossible to put down.

Sim Jackson 

How The Eagles Inspired Trans Am’s Latest Anti-Post-Rock Record

Trans Am

Nearly 30 years into their career, with 11 studio albums under their glittery belts, Trans Am show no signs of moving to a retirement home in Florida. Now living in separate cities, multi-instrumentalists Nathan Means, and Phil Manley have other jobs and families to raise. Drummer Sebastian Thomson recently committed to playing percussion in the metal band Baroness.

Less-dedicated musicians would have failed to keep a long-distance project alive on a part-time basis, or would have at least been susceptible to diminishment in the quantity or quality of their output. This hasn’t been the case for Trans Am.

By drawing on a seemingly discordant range of influences—including arena rock, synth pop, prog, metal, krautrock and sci-fi soundtracks—the trio created an amalgamated, largely instrumental style that is wholly their own and has shape-shifted through the years. They cut their teeth in the Washington, D.C. hardcore scene, and were initially lumped in with contemporaries such as Tortoise and Labradford; but Trans Am had little in common with the urgent, earnest polemics of the former movement, nor the chin-stroking intellectualism of the latter.

But just because they were considerably more fun than their peers doesn’t mean Trans Am were never sincere. 2004’s Liberation was a reaction to the George W. Bush administration, and their latest album, California Hotel, was recorded as Donald J. Trump was huffing his way to electoral triumph. Packed with fuzzy riffs, glistening synth tones, vocoded voices, and luxuriant rhythms, the album’s overall vibe is one of pre-dystopian melancholy mixed with a more optimistic defiance. This is especially true when it comes to tracks such as “Staying Power,” which the band nailed in one take, immediately after hearing the result of last year’s presidential election. Still, Trans Am have seen off Reagan, George Bush and his junior and aren’t going stand by idly in the face of another administration they oppose. We spoke to Trans Am’s Phil Manley about stupidity, distance, fatherhood and The Eagles.

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Oxbow’s Avant-Rock Experiments With Light and Shadow

Oxbow

Oxbow by Jennifer Hale

Simultaneously smart and loutish, severely disciplined and wildly chaotic, legendary experimental rock band Oxbow combines the musical mastery of guitarist Niko Wenner, drummer Greg Davis and bassist Dan Adams with the visceral caterwaul of vocalist Eugene Robinson. In a live setting, the band executes their songs with precision while the tattooed Robinson menaces the crowd, virtually naked. The potential for physical harm is ever present; there are countless reports of Robinson, an amateur fighter, subduing rowdy “fans” with his formidable martial arts skill set. The group is currently set to release The Thin Black Duke on Hydra Head Records, their first studio album since 2007’s The Narcotic Story. As its title suggests, The Thin Black Duke folds baroque Bowie-esque pop into the heaving, gnashing Oxbow sound for their most compositionally coherent and personally challenging effort yet.

Oxbow’s tale begins in the Bay Area in the ‘80s, when Robinson sang for hardcore punk band Whipping Boy. They’d appeared on the seminal punk compilation Not So Quiet on the Western Front, which documented the 1982 northern California punk scene. Wenner joined the band in 1984; Oxbow began in 1989 as a side project of Wenner and Robinson’s which slowly took on a life of its own.

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