None Shall Pass
Is Aesop Rock any calmer in 2007? Maybe the reigning king of underground rap is just as manic with his fender-bender flow as ever, and after eight years, we're just getting used to the guy. But if Aesop's chilled or we've acclimated, his fourth full-length LP, None Shall Pass, still has an undeniable power.
If Aesop's serving up more self-doubt and fear, it's as difficult as ever to tell. The convoluted, quickly spit poetry that has brought him so much underground fame is still thick here, though the lyrics may be more introspective than on previous albums. Highlight "Catacomb Kids" digs deep into his troublemaking New York childhood: "I was a dark, dumb student, no hokey rookie daytrippin' on visions of chickens that looked like R. Crumb drew 'em/They grew 'em in the royal dirt of Suffolk County's flooring with the blood of an alcoholic clergyman in his forearms."
Improved storytelling is only one facet of None's refinement; the biggest change is a newfound sense of the organic. Forget the high-strung, panicked flow of Aesop's past. The words still come quickly, but this time, they're more controlled, deeper in pitch, and punctuated with pauses. This is most evident in the slow-flowing "The Harbor Is Yours": "This dude either got two glass eyes, or he's wearing his patch on the wrong suh-suh-suh-side."
Aesop's production matches the shift in cadence with fewer bizarre synths and more robust instrumental chunks, like the stand-up bass that rattles through "Bring Back Pluto" and the organ-loaded triphop of "No City." By the time the Mountain Goats' John Darnielle guests on closing track "Coffee," the odd cameo makes sense—None's sounds and lyrics cull as much from golden-era hiphop as from indie rock storytelling. Aesop's voice may sound calmer on None Shall Pass, but there's a dizzying amount of thought and labor packed into this hour-long disc; it's perhaps best summed up by the call-and-response hook of the opening track: "How alive? Too alive!" SAM MACHKOVECH
For a brief moment, it seemed like Liars were going to be the great diplomats between eyeliner death metal and dance rock. Their 2006 masterpiece, Drum's not Dead, was the product of the band's move from New York to Berlin, and, fittingly, its mood was of art rockers discovering the cold, dark world of Teutonic goth, industrial, and ambient. Their new self-titled album comes out of the band's relocation to Los Angeles, and most of the material sounds like a '90s rock compilation left out to bake in the sun too long. The album's influences move from emo to Porno for Pyros to Radiohead's acoustic whines, but everything is warped and blurred to the point of abstraction. Singer Angus Andrew has said this is the first time he's felt like a real songwriter, but, as on the amorphous drones of the last three Liars discs, there are only a few moments where anything as palpable as a chorus comes to light. The trio have always played whatever the hell they wanted, without any regard to critics or fans, and this album is filled with the sort of lo-fi meanderings ("Leather Prowler") and repetitive melodies ("Plaster Casts of Everything") that are indulgent yet appealing enough to plague listeners of both experimental and pop music.
Beneath Liars' overly produced surface, the band's aesthetic pillars—the guttural chants, textural guitars, clustered organs, and ominous pulsing drums that gave Drum's not Dead its creative magic—are still holding strong. The final track, "Protection," even manages to shed off all the '90s guitar décor and resurrect the characteristically hypnotic mood of old Liars—but it's not quite magical. Like most of the band's career, it's just enough to keep us hanging on for their next trick. ROSS SIMONINI
As Lightning Bolt's noise-rock reverberations continue to filter down the pop-music food chain, more than a few like-minded art guys have run with the singin' drummer/guitarist combo. The latest (and greatest) in this increasingly grand tradition are Los Angeles skater-intellectuals No Age. Comprising guitarist Dean Spunt and drummer Randy Randall (both formerly of Wives), No Age alternate between punky fuzz and noisy ambience like electrical circuits: on or off, hard or soft, no in between. Likewise, the songs on their debut album, Weirdo Rippers, work in a similar fashion: stupid or smart, shitty or pretty fucking amazing.
There's one track on Weirdo Rippers that sums up the band's entire existence, and that's "Boy Void." Opening with a caveman tom beat set against a puny, circular riff, the song shifts between tension and release at the flick of a switch—the drums erupt into crashing noise and Spunt's riff gets all huge and thrashy. Then—flick—it gets quiet again, and the process repeats. Through the whole mess, Randall's drowned-out chanting is completely unintelligible, more rhythmic than melodic, flanged out and screwed up like an eighth-generation Fugazi outtake.
Weirdo Rippers only gets shitty when the ambient parts become the main focus. Intentional or not, Randall's "singing" errs on the side of tone deaf, and it gets uncomfortably shoved in your face when he isn't struggling to break out of the noise. No Age work best when their schizo dynamics are kept symmetrical—too much of either extreme becomes boring or grating. Granted, breaking up the chaos with a few lulls is probably better than making a bunch of "Boy Void" clones, but that still doesn't keep me from playing it on repeat anyway. BRANDON IVERS
No Age play Sept 21 at the Vera Project.
PRINZHORN DANCE SCHOOL
Prinzhorn Dance School
In the name-dropping climax of James Murphy's DFA-launching, dance-punk deconstructing smash "Losing My Edge," the Fall were only one of countless bands called out. But Mark E. Smith's influence was all over the track. Murphy's rambling spoken word is a direct descendent of Smith's pharmaceutical postpunk poetry. (Smith famously called Murphy "some New York arsehole" in British record-nerd bible the Wire.)
In an odd turn of events, Smith's latest project, the Mouse on Mars collaboration Von Südenfed, swipes back from Murphy, pitting the Fall frontman's snarling speech against a backdrop of modern electro. Meanwhile, DFA's latest, the self-titled debut of Prinzhorn Dance School, reduces the classic Fall formula to its barest essentials, eschewing technologic updates to lay sly, monotonous lyrics over spare beats, swaggering bass, and only the occasional lick of guitar.
Suzi Horn and Tobin Prinz (possibly not their real names) compose the entire faculty of Brighton-based band Prinzhorn Dance School, and their arrangements are simple even for a duo. Prinzhorn Dance School is not a terribly complicated record. Like all DFA joints, the production is premium—the bass wobbles and throbs, the drums pound and kick through almost audible air, the guitars squeal and stab, and the vocals are clear and crisp. But the key to their catchy songs is repetition, repetition, repetition. Silly, weightless phrases ("Hamworthy sport and leisure center/is a sports leisure center," say, or "Eat and sleep/Eat and sleep/Eat and sleep") become absurd mantras after a few go rounds, and the band's lean hooks worm into your brain and prove difficult to dislodge. ERIC GRANDY