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the pathetic caverns - music by artist - Slow Jets

eclectic reviews and opinions

But what does it sound like?

Slow Jets,

Remain in Ether

(Morphius Records, 2004)

Hope Alane,

Pink Sky Blue

(Grasshopper Records, 2004)

New Blind Nationals,

Bury the Pattern

(Sparkle Records, 2004)

Longtime readers of the pathetic caverns will know that I have a history of ambivalence about describing bands in terms of sounding like other bands. It can be problematic. It often strikes me as lazy. Sometimes it seems to serve to show off how much the reviewer knows about obscure acts more than to make a comparison that could help the reader gauge his or her interest in the record. It makes it easy to emphasize the timbre of a singer at the expense of other musical characteristics. Some comparisons require more specificity than they usually get in order to be helpful: sounds like XTC -- well, do you mean the art-punk, the strummy pop, the retro-psychedelia, or what? And at its worst, overreliance on sounds-like comparisons can become a formulaic exercise in groupthink or regurgitating press releases.

Perhaps more interestingly, it's really as inherently subjective as any other approach to writing about music, although it doesn't always seem so. My favorite example, glenn mcdonald's the war against silence, sometimes crammed literally dozens of references to other artists into a single review, but mcdonald avoided "canonical" comparisons assiduously, which meant that the reader had to invest the time to learn mcdonald's personal musical iconography in order to extract musical information from the reviews. (For me this was one of the most obvious clues that even when TWAS was billed as a "weekly music review column," it really wasn't, at least not primarily -- it was a series of essays about how people relate to each other through art -- and his use of a highly personalized vocabulary of similarity was very much part of the point, not a quirk.)

I played the Slow Jets' third album Remain in Ether for months without managing to write about it. Their first record (Worm into Phoenix, which I adore) struck me as dwelling very much under the shadow of Guided by Voices -- short, surreal, poppy lo-fi tunes -- and I immediately felt the new one had transcended the limitation of that overriding influence.

I tried to convince myself that the new record was better described as owing debts to artists like The Who or The Kinks (those pesky timbral similarities again; one of the Slow Jets sounds a wee bit like Ray Davies), an effort that broke down the more I tried to ground it in specifics -- it was easier to compare Remain in Ether with A Quick One before I reminded myself what the latter actually sounds like. I realized I was trying to fit the record into my conception of where it came from more than I was actually listening to it and responding to it -- which is contrary to the whole point of the pathetic caverns. If I can't even be honest with myself about a record, I don't think I have any business posting a review of it.

So I put it aside for a while, and recently, as a result of the annual pressure to come up with a list of the year's best records, I pulled it out (because it's a front-runner for me, if I were to make such a list) and have been spinning it quite a bit. And I hear, among other things:

This has a suspicious degree of overlap with a list of my all-time favorite bands. It almost makes me wonder why there's no Clash, or if I (for instance) somehow would have heard The Alarm in there, if my relationship to The Alarm hadn't changed drastically over the years. It prompts me to consider what I mean by "sounding like Helium," since I often think that a melody sounds like something Mary Timony might write: I think I typically mean that the bass is spare, with a root that doesn't move much or often, but that the vocal/guitar melody (which often double each other) is busier, and jumps around the scale more than it climbs or descends through seconds and thirds. I actually had an opportunity to ask Scott Miller (formerly of Game Theory) about his characteristic guitar sound, and he told me he liked the artifacts of running through multiple effects boxes (especially compressors). A similar sense of exploration and the intricate nature of some of the arrangements could go a long way to explaining why some of the guitar bits scream Game Theory at me.

I think I can similarly rationalize most of the similarities I hear. Fugazi is probably the biggest stretch, as the sprawling three-part "Country Under Canada" is clearly in part a tongue-in-cheek homage to prog -- but then, it is one of Fugazi's rare instrumentals that I'm dredging up as a point of reference.

Many of my comparison points come from the mid-to-late 1908s, which might give the impression that Remain in Ether sounds dated -- and it doesn't, certainly not in the obsessively retro manner of bands like Interpol. I think it's a combinatorial problem -- you know, with 12 notes in the Western scale, some repetition is inevitable. The fact that I hear bits of my favorite artists all through Remain in Ether only tells you what music I've listened to obsessively enough to recognize when it's half-quoted in fragmentary form.

I think the nature of the list also suggests something more interesting (and perhaps more useful) -- that Slow Jets, at this point in their artistic evolution, sound like more like Slow Jets than they do anybody else. Which I think is good. Even if it makes it hard for me to specifically convince you that this record is worth hearing.

I have an entirely different problem with Hope Alane's Pink Sky Blue -- it reminds me so strongly and specifically of one artist -- Lida Husik -- that it's hard for me to think of it in terms other than "sounds a lot like Lida Husik."

This comparison may do Hope Alane disservice (although I nonetheless think it would be useful for anyone who happens to be a Lida Husik fan). When someone sends me a record that sounds exactly like, say, Creed, given that Creed is well known, I usually think they sound like Creed on purpose -- maybe because they really love Creed, or (because it's so difficult for me to imagine such love could be genuine) because they've allowed the pursuit of nonmusical goals to corrupt their art, or because they were never really artists in the first place.

On the other hand, I have no idea whether Hope Alane has ever heard a Lida Husik record, but even if she has, it seems unlikely that Pink Sky Blue is a deliberate exercise in mimickry -- Husik is hardly a household name or a massive commercial success, after all. It seems more likely to me any similarity I think I hear is more a result of music evolving from common sensibilities or processes.

So it seems fairer to try to discuss Pink Sky Blue as if I'd never heard one of Husik's albums, as difficult as that is.

My overriding impression is of intelligence and care. If I'm reading the credits right, Alane played most of the instruments, with substantial contributions from producer/co-arranger john (no last name), and guests on a song or two. One or two people layering parts over one another has a very distinct quality from a band of different people playing together. On the negative side, there's something hermetic about it, and recordings made this way are sometimes monochromatic and can feel claustrophobic. On the other hand, they can be very organic, sound more cohesive than a band performance, and arguably represent an artist's vision more purely and directly.

This is where the intelligence and care come in. There's no drummer, which can exacerbate the tendency of people working alone to make records that are stiff, but Pink Sky Blue benefits from considerable textural variation -- it sounds of a piece, but not "samey." The arrangements are interesting and they're well recorded. It would be easy, for example, for the electric guitar and cello on "Earth's Full" to sound muddy together, since they're basically playing in the same register, but they're well EQ'd and the two instruments blend effectively. I'd still prefer a real drummer to a machine, but the programming is fairly canny and doesn't prevent songs like "Brave" from managing to groove. None of the songs struck me as notably catchy on first listen -- I found the record immediately likable, but not necessarily memorable -- but after a few more spins my impression changed, and some of the songs have moved into my head.

It had been a while since I actually heard any of Lida Husik's records, so I put some on to challenge my initial impression. Hope Alane's voice was much as I remembered Husik's sounding, so the first thing I noticed was that their voices aren't really at all similar -- Husik is a husky contralto, a bit like Liz Phair circa Exille in Guyville (but with better pitch control); Alane's natural register is higher, with a smoother tone. Some of Husik's records (e.g., Bozo) actually struck me as more toward the hermetic/stiff end of the scale than Pink Sky Blue is. What I think I got right was a commonalities of process and sensibility. Many of their respective songs sound to me as if their core evolved from a voice/acoustic guitar parts. They also both favor arrangements that could be tagged as neo-psychedelic (without being overtly trippy). I think they also both explore the tension between human performance dynamics and mechanical/electronic rhythms.

Punk Planet is one of my favorite magazines, but I'm often frustrated by its reviews, and specifically the "sounds-like" descriptions. I once went through the reviews in an issue and highlighted every instance where a record was said to have a DC sound; there was almost one per page. Which is my final "sounds-like" problem: How can a band sound like a place? I used to live and play in bands in Washington, DC; they didn't sound like DC in the Punk Planet sense, and neither did most of the bands we shared bills with -- or for that matter, several bands that went national, like Velocity Girl.

Many of the people who submit review CDs to me clearly don't bother looking at the site first (otherwise they'd know better). When I get an unsolicited CD that I like, I don't really need to go looking for explanations; I get enough random music that it would be a cruel trick of fate if I didn't like any of it.

So I don't know if any one in the New Blind Nationals' camp made a conscious decision to send me in particular a copy of Bury the Pattern, or if the pathetic caverns was just on a list somewhere. Their press kit avoids any sounds-like comparisons completely -- no clues there.

But if I give them the benefit of the doubt and assume they checked me out, then I'd guess I got this CD because over the years I've written many favorable reviews of Washington, DC- and Virginia-based punk (or if you insist, post-punk) acts like Beauty Pill, 1905, Engine Down, Strike Anywhere, and Cry Baby Cry. I also sometimes stumble over myself trying not to use the word "Fugazi" to describe punk bands I really like. And maybe because other bands that I've praised, such as Unwound, The Constantines, and The Casket Lottery, are themselves frequently compared to DC acts.

(For the record: New Blind Nationals sound nothing whatsoever like Fugazi.)

Of course I do know what the Punk Planet reviewers mean when they say "DC," even if I like to pretend I don't, and I'm tempted to perpetuate the sin and claim that this Wisconsin act sounds kinda DC, even though -- or perhaps because -- they really don't sound like any one band to me in particular. The New Blind Nationals certainly don't exhibit the razor-edge start-stops commonly associated with the characteristic DisChord bands, and what I can make out of the lyrics isn't overtly sociopolitical -- lyrically, songs like "His Desperation Is so Attractive" seem to be squarely in emo territory. But if this album had come out on a DC area label like DeSoto, Exotic Fever, Lovitt, Resin, or Slowdime, it might not seem like an aberration. Musically, they're on the abrasive/mathy side of emo (a.k.a. "good emo," as opposed to "sucky emo") with lots of raw-throated screaming and pleasantly dissonant guitar lines, except that the record is also spiked with songs like "Disassociate," "Cinematheque," and "Forfeit") that are more or less poppier, but usually still decorated with noisy bits (a.k.a. "interesting"). The band is capable of hooks and has the restraint not to wear out the songs' welcome -- only the closing pair break 4 minutes.

I wish it was recorded a little better (they say they only spent five days on it, but it's less the performance than mixing/production issues that bug me -- I think the guitars could have benefited from more careful EQ to separate them and maximize their bite without competing with the vocal, and the drum recording is mostly serviceable but could be much livelier). The singing, as distinguished from the screaming, isn't always especially strong. But still, this was a really nice surprise, and I look forward to hearing more from this band -- whatever town they hail from or sound like.

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