The Mars Volta | The Bedlam in Goliath | Universal
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In some obscure way — what other way would this band have it? — the Mars Volta were apparently inspired prior to making The Bedlam in Goliath by a soothsaying object that lyricist/vocalist Cedric Bixler-Zavala found in a market in mysterious old Jerusalem. And it has seemingly guarded and protected and guided the band wisely: The band have suffered neither tragedy nor hassle since the soothsayer came into their presence.
Bixler-Zavala and guitarist-producer Omar Rodriguez-Lopez, the band's guiding light, now perhaps predictably bring a slightly reined-in (not much, though), ever so slightly less fantastically high-concept and grand-scale gargantuanness to Bedlam in Goliath. Again, Mars Volta offer a kind of hard rock unto art rock that most often appears to very consciously meld previously sneered-at or perceptibly disparate musical styles (shrieking Deep Purple–style dumbness, breathless punk rock, doomy-beautiful early King Crimson art-rock-jazz, to name three) in an in-your-face way, as if to provoke, almost, through sheer hubris.
The songs, given extra cryptological obscureness by perfumy, moldy-redolent DIY titles such as "Agadez," "Askepios," "Ouroboros" and "Aberinkula," take a tack of pouring myriad buckets of intensely, frantically high-energy and high-end sound over one's head; lyrically, they all shroudedly reference atrocities and horrors and arcane ancient mysticisms and cannibalisms. The opener, "Aberinkula," kicks it off in double-time spasms of rolling Ragnarok, horserace-spectacular rhythm courtesy of new drummer-singer Thomas Pridgen, Bixler-Zavala wailing in fine snarly crying mode — through-the-nose, big hair swinging to and fro. Especially in deceptively heavy tracks like "Tourniquet Man," "Goliath" and "Conjugal Burns," Rodriguez-Lopez and guest collaborator John Frusciante extend and mutate the ostensibly metal form in continually surprising and seemingly natural ways; often, a righteously uncorny "Middle Eastern" mode will suggest a quick transition to a medieval (evil) garden stroll, quickly followed by a saber fight with dinosaurs atop the Great Wall of China. The twin guitars — and even horns — are layered and effected so ornately that they surely would've been laughed at in the "good old" punk-rock era, and I assume they still are.
It's when they find a balance, as on "Metratron," that the almost foolishly ambitious Mars Volta know where and when to truly follow their muse. These great swirling dervishes of cascading sound push the boundaries of what is generally accepted as rock "cool," while headbanging their way unto infinity.
Radar Brothers | Auditorium | Merge
The Radar Brothers may be an L.A. band, but their music has more in common with the homey, lazy indie rock that springs from California's Central Valley. Their slowly jangling, guitar-strummed antianthems are too even-paced and contemplative for our sprawling metropolis, not to mention the often uninterested, short-attention-spanned audiences bum-rushing the bar during sets at Eastside shows. For nearly a decade, singer Jim Putnam and company have been crafting tunes that require a sit-down listen, spinning tales of flora, fauna and human conflict over a bed of folksy, country-tinged chord progressions with nary a guitar solo to be found. This tradition continues on the excellent Auditorium. Heavy shades of Grandaddy, Pavement, postmillennial Yo La Tengo and, in particular, Silver Jews can be found within the schematics of these 12 songs. The carefree, theremin-infused "Lake Life" and the lush "Happy Spirits" are good examples of the band's ability to combine country leanings with poppy hooks, and the results are rather lovely. One of the defining characteristics of the band is certainly Putnam's warbling, David Berman-esque voice. He has referred to himself as a "nature boy," and his lyrics reflect that as he muses about going home "just like the cows" ("Watching Cows"), one of several animal-related songs. Recorded entirely at Putnam's own Phase IV Intergalactic Recording studio, the album sounds crisp, clear and warm. The Radar Brothers are never in a hurry to go anywhere, letting their songs stretch their legs without outlasting their welcome. This may not appeal to those who spend their time with herky-jerky post-punk or two-minute electro outbursts. But Auditorium's unhurried, softly rocking track list is well worth a bit of focus and patience.
Vampire Weekend | Vampire Weekend | XL Recordings
It's tempting to sneer at Vampire Weekend. On paper, the latest hype-machine darlings read like characters from a yet-to-be-filmed Christopher Guest mockumentary on late-'00s indie rock. Salient influences include Afro-pop and ska. Lyrics rhyme "Louis Vuitton" with "reggaeton," and their eponymous debut features not one but two songs about Cape Cod, one of which ("Walcott") blithely calls Hyannisport "a ghetto." This is in addition to another ("Oxford Comma,"), whose hook features lead singer Ezra Koenig mewling, "Who gives a fuck about an Oxford comma?" You don't even want to know what happens when they play it in front of librarians. Pandemonium!
Visually, the band do themselves little justice. The video for "Mansard Roof" finds them lamping on a yacht, wearing ironic sunglasses, oxford shoes, J.Crew sweaters tied around their necks and capri pants with no socks. They look like extras from a party in Less Than Zero, those that were too boring and square to make the plot. Sonically, the name that lazily comes to mind is Graceland, and while both are enthusiastic, Afro-beat-inflected records, Vampire Weekend's sound is just as much Shins and Strokes (though, if pressed, undoubtedly the band would give much cooler answers, y'know, King Sunny Ade, Orange Juice, the Mighty Mighty Bosstones).
Once you get past the overwhelming preciousness of pairing soukous guitars to vaguely self-aware prep-pop, Vampire Weekend is a very good debut. Both new tracks added for the XL release, "M79" and "I Stand Corrected," rank among the album's finest, eschewing any sort of gimmickry in favor of swooning, string-laden ballads begging to be reappropriated as the soundtrack to a crucial plot point on Gossip Girls. This isn't a bad thing; Vampire Weekend have a preternatural knack for melody, one that suggests that they have the potential to be Generation Y's answer to James Mercer & Co. While the glut of upper-middle-class signifiers of wealth may trouble those nostalgic for that oh-so-recent time when rich New York kids had to exude the image of being edgy hoodlums in order to score authenticity points (hi, Strokes), Vampire Weekend are children of the mid-'80s, kids who hit puberty in the midst of the boomtown late Clinton years. In their own strange way, these guys are just keeping it real, no matter how unreal that might seem.
Crystal Antlers | "Until the Sun Dies"/"Swamp Song" | BackFlip Records 7-inch
The A-side of Crystal Antlers' newest release, "Until the Sun Dies," is the safer of these two songs — it sticks more to a dirty-guitar-dominant form with front man-bassist Jonny Bell's vocals switching between the larkish and the belted; it is the B-side's "Swamp Song" that really tears up and showcases exactly what Bell and his bandmates have to offer: unashamed, unafraid, gritty hot-mess melodies that take cues from the Stooges, Joe Cocker, Screamin' Jay Hawkins (rest his soul) and Ozzy Osbourne. "Swamp Song" begins in the midst of a high-intensity power-chord argument taking place "under moldy green, downstream, and under willow trees" between Bell and an unknown second party over the apparent state of his soul; after two minutes, the song builds to a deceptive cadence and dumps out after the break with an Aleister Crowley organ and bass line that hones Geezer Butler and Tony Iommi's work on Sabbath's "Electric Funeral" (and many other Black Sabbath songs from 1970 or '71). But the Antlers aren't really a heavy metal band. Our generation browsed in haberdasheries of vintage and contemporary influences, and Crystal Antlers are no exception to this stylistic conglomeration. A young band based out of Long Beach with only two 7-inch releases under their belt, Crystal Antlers have displayed prowess that has propagated support from erudite local media (District Weekly, L.A. Record) and will be graciously blowing their hot mess all over the northern stretches of the Southland to ring in 2008.