Thursday, February 23, 2006

Edith Frost It's A Game record review

Edith Frost
It’s A Game
Drag City

When Hank Williams bellyached about “cheatin’ hearts” it was easy to rally behind his awe-shucks chagrin. The women in Hank’s life were cold hearted snakes, plain and simple. But when Edith Frost travels the same lonesome highways on It’s a Game, her affairs are a bit more convoluted. When Frost bares her wounds from failed relationships it’s hard to separate irony from self-indulgence. Her dreamy drone embodies the voice of a woman in anguish over a long gone daddy; and her masochistic ways are rich country fodder. But her depression is impenetrable. Docile bass notes and sprinkles of organ and guitar retreat inward to view the cold realities of her world from a dark, safe place.

There is no sense of urgency when she faces the reality of a lover slipping away in “Emergency.” Trying to make relationships work really has become a game. She’s too drained to invest any more emotion into winning back her estranged lover. Rather Frost relishes the beauty in her tragedies.

Break-ups are generally accompanied by sorrow, but rage, deceit and other equal and opposite emotional reactions are never too far behind. Exploring these other dark corridors would give songs like “Mirage” and “My Lover Won’t Call” more variety. Even Hank crooned “one day you will call my name.” But Frost is most affective when dwelling in lovesick blues.

--Chad Radford

Published by Creative Loafing (February 22, 2006).

Tenement Halls

Silver From the Silt
With Tenement Halls, Chris Lopez polishes a muddy legacy

By Chad Radford

Sitting rigidly against the earth-toned wooden booth at the Little 5 Points Corner Tavern, transferring ice cubes with a fork from his water to a cup of black coffee, Chris Lopez seems on edge. The reluctant local music fixture and founder of the Rock*A*Teens has long-radiated a modest and artistically frazzled presence in his songs. With his latest embodiment, Tenement Halls, Lopez has assembled a flourishing solo record, Knitting Needles & Bicycle Bells that lifts the murky veil to reveal a humbly brilliant songwriter hiding beneath the sonic haze.

Marrying the mysterious elements of Joy Division and Jan and Dean with a cloud of reverb-drenched heartbreak, the Rock*A*Teens’ sound reached beyond Atlanta’s perimeter landing the group on indie bastion Merge Records. But instead of blowing up the group went bust after a 7-year legacy, churning out equally as many recordings. Despite being on a roster with such revered indie luminaries as Superchunk, Neutral Milk Hotel and the Magnetic Fields, the group remained a critical darling but never engaged the buying public.

Lopez cut his teeth in the post-Nirvana ‘90s, a time when bands like Pavement, Sebadoh and Guided by Voice displayed intense work ethics, while embracing willful obscurity. Does he feel pressure from this mythos? “Who’s to say what success is in that respect?” he quips. “Bands were being judged by a standard of if you came close to Nirvana you were successful. The Pearl Jams and the Soundgardens, the stuff that was on the radio was all lunkhead music anyway,” he continues. “I don’t think of Sebadoh or Pavement as obscure, but the difference between them and me is that this is not willful obscurity, this is obscurity.”

For Lopez the group’s place in history is fine with him. “I certainly don’t take myself too seriously,” he confesses. “I’m confident with the songs I write, but not with the showmanship side of being a musician. The Rock*A*Teens came to a point where the group was serving the ego. When we played shows I wondered, was I supposed to be trying to impress people and let them judge me, even though they don’t even know me?” he continues. “Speaking for myself, I never possessed the ability or desire to be a dancing monkey. I just wanted to play music and leave it at that.”

Since the late ‘80s Lopez has played guitar for once lauded locals Dirt, Seersucker and the Opal Foxx Quartet, but it wasn’t until forging the Rock*A*Teens that his talents became apparent. Beginning with the group’s self-titled debut in ’96, leading up to its definitive 1999 offering, Golden Time the rag-tag outfit drove its songs through a din of lo-fi muck. Echoing reverb and distortions that occur naturally when signals bang into each other on their journey from the guitar to the amp became the Rock*A*Teens calling card. Lopez’s distressed vocal wails complimented the gritty tonal qualities of the music with an uncanny resonance.
With Tenement Halls, the fog has lifted, but the recording is hardly squeaky clean. “Now She Knows” and “My Wicked Wicked Ways” are classic Lopez numbers that could have appeared on any Rock*A*Teens disc, and “Marry Me” utilizes a wavering tape-distortion as a key melodic instrument.

What’s most noticeable is Lopez’s enhanced lyrical strength. His bucolic mannerisms and stylish narratives have long been selling points for his songs. “Charlemagne” falls somewhere between the Beatles and Siouxsie and the Banshees respective takes on “Dear Prudence.” “Marry Me” sounds suspiciously like a disguised serenade to his wife, Touch&Go recording artist Shannon Wright. “Silver from the Silt” and “Starless Night” thunder with a passion for language that’s not often associated with the average rock band.

Though he quickly dismisses the influences of luxuriant Southern authors, such as William Faulkner or Flannery O’Connor, the comparisons are unavoidable. He defers to another Southern voice, that of Walker Percy. Averting book titles, like The Second Coming and Love in the Ruins; he pauses before offering his assessment of Percy’s style. “It’s a self-deprecating kind of loneliness, but more in an existential way; always looking at things and getting the scenarios,” Lopez expounds. “His characters are more urbane. They live in big cities and his writing is funny but it’s not gory, like Flannery O’Connor. It’s not phantasmagoric – if that’s a real word.”

Lopez also produced and played all of the instruments throughout Knitting Needles & Bicycle Bells; with few exceptions. Former Rock*A*Teen Ballard Lesemann and Will Fratesi (Cat power, Hubcap City) played drums on a few tracks while Wright played a Wurlitzer elsewhere.

For playing live Lopez has assembled a line-up consisting of Fratesi playing drums, Fran Capitanelli (Tom Collins) playing bass and Rock*A*Teen alum Jeff Wiggins playing guitar and keyboards. “[Touring] can be a real drag, but I’ll do it,” he adds. Lifting his gaze Lopez scans the dining room and reflects, “The first time I ever played live was in this very room, with the Opal Foxx Quartet back when this place was the L5P Pub. That was an entire lifetime ago. It was all a lark, but it was a lot of fun back then when I had no idea what I was doing.”

Published by Creative Loafing (August 17, 2005). Re-edited by Chad Radford

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Jonathan Kane February Record Review

Jonathan Kane
Table of the Elements

In the early ‘80s Jonathan Kane provided the mammoth percussive creep behind Swans records, like Crawl and Filth. Despite the group’s crushing industrial racket, Kane’s murky traipse held more in common with Chicago blues than the noise or lofty Manhattan art rock scenes of the era. February, his first solo release, is a blasting artifact of blues-drone dirge that bares the marks of a man who’s spent a lifetime balancing these disparate influences.

Kane’s journey from the malevolent Swans to drummer behind the cerebral swells of Rhys Chatham’s 100 Electric Guitar Orchestra culminates here with blustery instrumental bliss.

The robust rhythms of the 12-minute opener “Curl” and the circular motion of “Pops” burst and bloom into rambunctious preambles loaded with subtly changing parts shrouded in voluptuous, groove-driven nods. The staccato strings in “Sis” rock the house down to the foundation with the cadence of drunken power tools.
Traditional number “Motherless Child” unfolds with Morricone-esque majesty and a rework of Chatham’s “Guitar Trio” injects a tried and true approach to blue-collar Americana with a progressive and exploratory splendor.

In extracting the “awe shucks” sensibilities of the working man’s music February revives the dead language of the blues and transforms it into a shimmering, avant-garde barrel down Hwy 61 with nothing but the riff behind the wheel.

-- Chad Radford

Originally published by Creative Loafing, 10/05. Re-edited by Chad Radford.

Sunday, February 19, 2006

Real Punks Don't Wear Black Book Review

By Frank Kogan
University of Georgia Press ($24.95)

Real Punks Don’t Wear Black is an anthology of some 30+ years of Frank Kogan’s ramblings about pop music and the culture in which it resides. His writings have appeared in The Village Voice, Spin and his own zine, Why Music Sucks, as well as various other print and on-line outlets. But to label Kogan a music journalist understates the philosophical and exploratory qualities of his verbiage.

Kogan is the ultimate example of the critic as artist. His voice is very matter-of-fact when he claims the only real punks on the planet are Axl Rose and Michael Jackson, and that James Brown is an “indigestible problem for modern R&B and hip-hop.” These statements are not attempts at making bold claims on forbidden musical terrain just for the sake of it, but are meant to provoke his readers. He draws out pre-conceived notions and puts them under the microscope. It’s in this process that Kogan truly shines as not just a critic of music, but of the culture at large.

In analyzing the manic skronk/funk of No Wave band the Contortions while tripping on acid, or explaining why artists must insult their audiences, to avoid being "contaminated" by acceptance; Kogan is both neighborly and unpredictably coherent.

The voice in his head spills onto the page with both style and substance. Kogan tumbles headlong, explaining the simplest notions by the most convoluted means; bending all the rules your English teachers beat into your head, and reshaping them to serve his voice. Witnessing his words in action is at once baffling and alluring.

Real Punks balances half-baked high school essays with insightful rumination on punk, rock, disco, hip-hop and R&B. Any page throughout the book is an easy entry point, save for a handful of embarrassing poems buried near the middle. Grasping the linear motion of his writing is not essential to the Kogan experience, but tuning into the drawn-out processes his thoughts follow is the key to unlocking this real punk’s true colors.

--Chad Radford

Published by Creative Loafing on 2/15/06. Re-edited by Chad Radford.