Fiona Apple wastes no time answering her cult's "Where ya been?" questions. "I certainly haven't been shopping for any new shoes... I still travel by foot and... it's a slow climb," she sings on the opening track of Extraodinary Machine. Meaning it probably wasn't label pussyfooting as much as writer's block that accounted for the six(!)-year lapse between releases. The PR-approved website explanations for her absence prove she's still the self-absorbed musical version of Prozac Nation she was when she slunk onto the scene in 1996. The years of handwringing and remixing don't seem to have led to a huge sonic difference. The mincing of disjointed waltzy piano, staccato strings, tricky rhythms, and oodles of lyrics are still the core. But years have passed, and as evidenced on this strong outing, they've imprinted some fruitful openness and confidence on her famously fragile veneer.
Right off the top, "Extraordinary Machine" is a confident rebuke wrapped in a supple Weimar Republic–style cabaret swoon. "Get Him Back" is a snappy twist on her heartbreaker rep. Turns out she really only loved one guy all along, and now she wants him back, if only to "figure how to kill what I cannot catch." Bipolar women are not very interesting, but brazen cockiness is a hoot, hootier still if she could get equally operatic swaggerers like Cobra Verde or Tenement Halls to help bust up her shiny glass house. Especially since juggling pricey producers had much to do with this CD's delay, not to mention that in her absence other Fionas like Regina Spektor have appeared. But on plaintive piano/voice pieces like "Parting Gift" and "Oh Well," Apple remains the spread-the-legs-and-tickle-the-keys grand champeen.
Lyrically, what keeps things from spilling over into fumbled tongue twisters (as they might've before) is a newfound sincerity between the lines. Though the consistently arch-angled arrangements sometimes pull her emotions, she mostly lays off the wounded affectations, and the general timbre of her voice is getting more complex. Songs from the swaying ballad "O' Sailor" to the approximate power pop of "Please Please Please" and "Better Version of Me" feel looser, more emotional.
Unlike most hyped "geniuses" that are gone for long on some soul searching, Fiona Apple's back in better shape. ERIC DAVIDSON
Fiona Apple performs Wed Nov 23 at the Moore, 8 pm, $40 plus fees.
The Standard's mix of brisk-but-melancholic rock hasn't changed significantly since their 2001 self-titled debut. And while consistency works for some outfits, for the Standard it only works toward stagnancy. Guitars, pianos, and keys are melodic and low-key, drums not too flashy, and frontman Tim Putnam's fragile whimper still wants you to know how hard it all is. The sound has been called everything from emocore to post-punk to prog-pop. Whatever label you go with, this is undoubtedly beautiful music—only it's a little too content to sit there and gaze at itself in the mirror, an oversight that finds Albatross about as visceral as a tax audit.
Putnam takes it easy with the whole vibrato thing this time around, though, and the restraint somewhat hedges the forced emotionalism of the band's previous work. Unfortunately, Albatross suffers from the opposite ailments that plagued 2004's Wire Post to Wire, where flowing guitar lines and rich melodies were cheapened mainly by Putman's vocal overcompensation. Here everyone's taken a step back, and the result is a little too safe, while still feeling too false, to be all that moving. Too bad the five-piece can't create more material like the final moments of "In Waves," during which it sounds like someone flipped the studio lights on, and the upped snare cadence and charging guitars hint at what could be. GRANT BRISSEY
The Standard perform Friday Nov 18 at the Crocodile, 9 pm, $8 adv/$10 DOS.
CHILDREN OF BODOM
Are You Dead Yet?
In addition to prompting rap and rock to seek a mutual restraining order, groups such as Limp Bizkit drove a wedge between "heavy" and "metal." Downtuned stutter riffs sound robust, but they're forever tarnished as the chosen weapon of recent history's most atrocious acts. Similarly, guitar harmonies and melodic choruses—elements the Family Values set ignored—have come to symbolize real-metal purity, having outgrown their hair-band stigma. Even synthesizers, which fans savaged Iron Maiden for incorporating in 1986, have become a valued extreme-music fixture. Counterintuitive as it might seem, Children of Bodom's fey keyboard-and-soaring-solo passages rate devil-horn salutes, while their chunky staccato segments prompt sellout shouts.
Such suspicions might be misguided—COB's group-shout choruses suggest they draw inspiration from hardcore's breakdowns rather than any backward-cap band—but on a strictly musical level, the criticism of the Finnish group's latest effort holds water. Having virtuosic axman Roope Latvala play generic chugga-chugga parts is like having Stephen Hawking crunch numbers at a fast-food register: He can do the job effectively, but he could be doing so much more. Latvala's magic-finger showcases, usually followed by an equally impressive speed-tapping display from keyboardist Janne Warman, outshine the song structures that surround them. Children of Bodom's album-ending Ramones cover is a telling tribute to the masters of rudimentary chordplay, coming from a group that's starting to compromise its compositional complexity. ANDREW MILLER
Children of Bodom perform Mon Nov 21 at El Corazón, 8 pm, $18 adv/$20 DOS, all ages.
It was the best of times, it was the wurst of times: By the mid-'60s, the German arts scene (cinema, in particular) was pulling out of its post-WWII slide into sentimental schmaltz, but the pop charts were still crap. Still, fertilize the soil with enough crap, and something is bound to blossom, making this 20-track anthology of mod Deutsche ditties circa 1966–74 quite the bizarre bouquet. Admittedly, only a few cuts genuinely live up to the subtitle's promise of "hip shaking grooves," most notably Marianne Mendt's "Wie A Glock'n...," a riot of brass and bells, sung with gusto aplenty, that swings harder than Petula Clark in a Peter Max minidress. The bulk of the peppy program will probably prompt more head-scratching and bemused grins than impromptu dancing: Cabaret great Hildegarde Knef updates her image with the droll yet funky novelty tune "From Here on It Got Rough," while "Bodybuilding," by Orchester Werner Müller, spotlights an Ursula Andress sound-alike and a Teutonic Felix Unger quarreling over a slab of passing beefcake. Odder still is "Molotov Cocktail Party," featuring two primetime TV personalities warbling about anarchists and fascists, punctuated by occasional explosions. Who says Germans have no sense of humor? KURT B. REIGHLEY
The Mouse and the Mask
The Mouse and the Mask is one of those dream collabs about which music geeks like to speculate, thinking they'll probably never happen. Well, whoop, here it is, and it's all that and a box of anime porn.
MF Doom may be the most interesting MC on the map, wittily waxing both sci-fi freaky and earthily scatological. He raps with a perfect blend of streetwise hipness and cartoon-watching nerdiness, his urgently easygoing voice as instantly identifiable as William Burroughs's. I, for one, never tire of hearing his wry, off-the-cuff absurdities.
On The Mouse and the Mask, Doom continues his beguiling self-mythologizing over Danger Mouse's abundant samples of zany library music and '60s TV-game-show themes. DM also worships golden-age boom-bap, but he tilts it askew, so your head-nodding doesn't become too predictable. Some of the productions here recall DM's work on Gorillaz's Demon Days: a whimsical funkiness that flirts with kitsch, but narrowly avoids bedding it. With brilliant cameos by Ghostface, Cee-Lo, and Talib Kweli, The Mouse isn't as classically indie-backpackerific as DM & Jemini's Ghetto Pop Life, but the unusual production touches (gorgeous, avant-garde violin on "Crosshairs"; an exotic Far East wind instrument on "Mince Meat") provide great contrast between textural delicacy and rhythmic ruggedness.
Unfortunately, incidental chatter from various Adult Swim cartoon characters appears throughout the disc. But it's excusable if this annoying "corporate synergy" results in greater sales and enables these talented cats to pursue stranger creative avenues. DAVE SEGAL
THE BLACK ANGELS
The Black Angels EP
(Light in the Attic)
Local label Light in the Attic is probably best known for digging the funk outta the trunk. They've dusted off forgotten Seattle soul singers (Wheedle's Groove), unearthed lost porn soundtracks (Deep Throat, Lialeh), and given vintage pop new sheen (the Free Design series). Now they're bonding with new bands whose sound is mired in past-decade worship—such as the Black Angels, who set the clock back with hits of hash-heavy riffs.
The band calls its music "Native American Drone 'n' Roll"—an odd, affected tag, since they look like a crew of white kids and sound a lot like BRMC. Maybe the reference is more to the consciousness-expanding narcotics associated with our country's earliest denizens than having 1/16 of some tribe in the band's blood. Tuning in and nodding off in the same vein as Brian Jonestown Massacre (and before them the Velvet Underground), the Austin act hammers out low-end distortion as free-spirited Eastern melodies trail the skies above. And while new psych-pop appreciators will groove to accents of organ riffs, tambourine shakes, and stoned vocals, the Angels' aesthetic could use fewer easy reference points. Their obvious attempts at creating a late-'60s mindset ("The First Vietnamese War" describes a young soldier questioning his tour of duty when there are "Charlies everywhere") detract from what could be subtler footfalls on ground tread by so many acclaimed (BRMC) and those in critical crosshairs (the Warlocks). With only four songs (less than 20 minutes) for a debut display, though, the Black Angels still have room in the future to turn the music of their beloved bygone eras into something offering an impact as heavy as their wall of sound. JENNIFER MAERZ
One must be careful when assessing the intrinsic value of art so that it not be veiled by nostalgiaphilia, the haphazard unearthing of relics and stringing them up without regard for how they might hold up against today's noxious atmosphere. Lookaftering is Vashti Bunyan's first full-length album in 35 years, so it demands the affectionate and considerate ear, rather than the brief pedestal of an MP3 shuffle.
The coupling of Bunyan and post-classical composer Max Richter has given the songs a brilliant recursive quality in which the gentle advantage of modern production runs backward, tripping over 1960s folk, Victorian parlor music, even down to medieval minstrelsy and Greek monody—all of them threaded into a mood that is both pastoral and domestic. There is her fragile innocence in "Lately," while in "Here Before" a weathered Bunyan scans over the joys and sorrows of motherhood. "Turning Backs" could well be a Ralph Vaughn Williams art song. Her voice, a disembodied flute tone, is every bit as beautiful and ghostlike as it was in the '60s, but because her timbre remains unaltered throughout the album, the words themselves suffer from a lack of articulation. Lookaftering is an endeavor born aloft by several of today's freak folk prophets, each dovetailing to Richter's detailed but uncomplicated arrangements (Devendra Banhart's guitar, the shiver of Joanna Newsom's harp, here a recorder, a glockenspiel, a piano). But there is no freak in this folk. Like English lace, Bunyan's return to music is delicately constructed and unselfconsciously beautiful. NICHOLAS SCHOLL
Blood Operatives of the Barium Sunset
The alter ego of Sun City Girls bassist Alan Bishop, Alvarius B works out of an old folk-music tradition: He's just a guy with an acoustic guitar, singin' a few songs he wrote. Still, there's something menacing and otherworldly about his music that transcends the mundane limits of just strumming a guitar and singing about your pathetic emotions. Call it "meta-singer-songwriter" music, or folk music from a parallel universe, one where underworld hit men, vampires, and the villains of the Old West are upheld pillars of society.
Blood Operatives is the third Alvarius B album, and the first since his epic 1998 double LP, Alvarius B. That was strictly a solo affair, but here, he gets some help from brother (and SCG bandmate) Richard Bishop, multi-instrumental wonder Eyvind Kang, and guitarist Tim Young (who turns in a climactic backward guitar solo on "Dracula Frizzi"). Still, the main attractions are Bishop's possessed, multiple-personality vocals and poetic, stream-of-consciousness lyrics. "I'm doin' business with the black and tan/In an overlooked warehouse/About ready to pound an Arabian spike into a Chinese coffin," he calmly intones on the standout spoken-word rant "Mr. 786." To what extent Alvarius B's songs are autobiographical—either literally or just metaphorically—I'm not sure. But I wouldn't fuck around with him, and neither should you. WILL YORK