Harmonies for the Haunted
One of the biggest drawbacks to playing in a retro band is that no one praises your originality. The most you can hope for is what NYC quartet stellastarr* got for their self-titled 2003 debut: a pat on the back for well-executed songs and a thumbs-up for a fine selection of influences to be mimicked (in this case, less obvious ones like Pulp and Talking Heads). But sadly and somewhat predictably, the stella kids have gone and pissed even that away with their follow-up.
That's not to say Harmonies for the Haunted doesn't have its moments. It's great, for instance, to hear frontman Shawn Christensen dragging his attention-starved baritone away from the mic long enough to let bassist Amanda Tannen sing actual words. And when the band follows the bright faux-Britpop formula like on the peppy "Damn This Foolish Heart," you'll find your head bopping and feet tapping. But for most of the record, they're going for the overdone post-punk worship at the altar of Gang of Four or Joy Division, except at this point it's such old hat that Harmonies comes off more as a bid to sound like Interpol sounding like Joy Division. Technically speaking, nothing is wrong with cuts like "The Diver," where a high-hat march and militant bass line rip into a melodious guitar-led chorus. Artistically speaking, though, it's hollow and lazy. Ironically, the song in question is Christensen's shit-talking scene-slam: "They say you're a product with nothing to sell/You can fool your fans but you can't fool yourself." Dude could stand to take a bit of his own criticism. JOHN VETTESE
stellastarr* perform Sat Sept 17, Chop Suey, $13 adv, 8 pm.
My main problem with all this weird Americana, the neo-folk scene as championed by Sonic Youth and left-field UK magazine the Wire, is that often it's way too precious. Bare feet and people lying on the floor I can do without. At heart I'm a '60s pop/'70s punk fan, and that means the three S's—structure, structure, structure.
And so to Devendra's new album—that he can write songs, that he has plenty of inspiration to draw upon is without doubt. This 22-track offering is his fourth in, like, two years, and his muse shows no sign of dimming. But whereas previous records like the winsomely-titled Oh Me Oh My the Way the Day Goes by the Sun Is Setting Dogs Are Dreaming Lovesongs of the Christmas Spirit seemed to revel in their formidable avant-garde eccentricity, Cripple Crow is too much in thrall to the '70s country-rock of Canned Heat and Santana to be too dippy. Not that it's lost its preciousness—Devendra is too much a hippie to lose that—but now, amid the experimental warbling, there are recognizable structures, songs... and not a little Spanish. The album's centerpiece "I Feel Just Like a Child" could've been on the last Gomez record, for c'rissakes.
And yes, this is a good thing. Not least, because Banhart is never lumpen. EVERETT TRUE
Generally speaking, Norwegians don't rock like we do. Nor do they jazz (or jazz-rock) like we do. There's something about the Scandinavian musician's sensibility that urges him/her to go to extremes of either quietude (see a fair portion of the ECM Records roster) or blastitude (see black metal). Ultralyd fall squarely (or oblongly) into the latter approach. The quartet—Frode Gjerstad (alto sax, clarinet), Kjetil Brandsdal (bass), Anders Hana (guitar), and Morten Olsen (drums)—avidly push the needle into the red with the fury of people who spend half the year shivering in darkness. Chromosome Gun will sound familiar to fans of Japanoise samurais Acid Mothers Temple and High Rise, to aficionados of the fieriest jazz rock (Tony Williams Lifetime, Last Exit, Mahavishnu Orchestra), and to appreciators of high-pressure sax blowers like Albert Ayler and John Coltrane. Combustible, controlled chaos reigns supreme throughout the album, filling you with national-emergency adrenaline. Chromosome Gun is mostly about the power and the gory, with its prevailing mood tilting 180 degrees away from tranquility. These scary Scandinavians mean war, and decorum—and perhaps your tenuous grip on sanity—is the first casualty. DAVE SEGAL
There's nothing like the Bush administration to get KMFDM's blood boiling. Last year the legendary industrial rockers released WWIII with songs like "Jihad" and "Pity the Pious" that served as a scathing critique on the president's interminable occupation in Iraq. And Hau Ruck ("Heave Ho" in German) fans similar flames. "The beatings will continue until morale improves," growls Sascha Konietzko on the opening song, "Free Your Hate." The ringleader (and Seattle resident) propels his dark humor and incendiary political diatribes with thumping bass lines and some blistering beats from drummer Andy Selway. But Konietzko ditches the digital electronics that became part of the band's arsenal over the years in favor of a bunch of analog gear he probably last used in the '80s. The resulting retro-techno sounds and effects lean heavily on the relentless barrage of dueling machine-gun riffs from guitarists Jules Hodgson and Steve White, especially on head-banging anthems like "New American Century" and "Feed Our Fame." All this macho aggression is tempered slightly by the tracks featuring Lucia Cifarelli, the band's sultry and intimidating diva. Her sublimely sexy vocals on "Real Thing" can make even the most aggro KMFDM fan weak in the knees. But she also lets loose with some of her trademark screams on "Professional Killer" and as the backup voice on "You're No Good." After 20 years you might expect KMFDM's battle cries and ultra-heavy-beats to be a little tired, but the current American zeitgeist makes these guys as relevant as ever. DAVID SLATTON
KMFDM perform Wed Sept 21, Premier, $22.50, 8 pm, all ages.