The Sad Bastard Book Club - The Collected Short Stories of Carrie Anne Crowe
Generally speaking, by this time of the year I am just cruising through the final albums and am probably not at the top of my game as far as paying appropriate attention or writing good reviews. That being said, it is tougher on the final albums on the year to grab my attention and I think this is even more true this year, because of the nature of the music. No normal person should spend this much time devoted to gothic americana, but I did and it wasn’t without merit. That being said, it speaks well for The Collected Short Stories of Carrie Anne Crowe that this is the case, because I was completely engrossed with this album. There was no difficulty in listening to it during these last four days. Matter of fact, it was a fitting final album for the year. It was darker than most I listened to this year and it was full of energy and strangely endearing elements.
The music is largely minimal but what they do include for instrumentation works well and ends up feeling more full than most of the bands this year that had a full ‘wall of sound.’ In the realm of percussion, they were more in line with The Builders and The Butchers in that they used all sorts of beat-makers, especially hand claps, to move the songs along. Electric guitar was not as prevalent but when it shows up it is a welcome appearance and adds a nice layer to the songs. The banjo picking is solid, as well. The only real drawback (and its not necessarily a detrimental drawback) is the vocal work. None of the guys in the band sounded like they could legitimately hold a note, but in the economy of the album and music, terrific singing was not necessarily needed. However, I would have been curious to see what some solid vocal talent could have done with the material.
The first four songs of the album slide us into the dark and deadly world of The Sad Bastard Book Club and are amongst the finer songs on the album. There may have been little dull areas here and there in the middle of the album, but, for the most part, the album plays well even on the 21st listen (which I am currently doing as I write this). ”The Pleasure Machines” was a surprisingly addictive, short instrumental track that always captured my attention as well as the original version of “The Pauper Choir of Mathias, AZ” which went for tone and less for the chain gang feel of the opening track version. There are some incredibly great tunes on this album and none of it is fancy. Just some great compositions put together well. You can’t ask much more of an album at the end of the day.
Apocalyptic Rating: 10 out of 10 (The Fires cometh, the Anti-Christ speaks and the kingdom comes to ruin)
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Viarosa - Send For The Sea
Not nearly as engrossing as Where The Killers Run, Send For The Sea is able to conjure up enough to keep it from slipping into the sophomore slump category that affects so many bands. Whereas their last album dealt in beautiful melodies and excellent harmonies, this effort is more restrained and quiet. This is not to say that there are not beautiful moments on this album, there are, but they are fewer and farther between. The one element that did transfer wholly from the last album is the vocal work of Richard Neuberg and Emma Seal. Most of the album has the same emotional intensity that was present in their debut album. Going from fragile and thoughtful to vicious and strong is not always an easy feat to make, but Neuberg is largely successful and even at his most riled up, Seal is able to counter with her beautiful and sweet voice. There are moments, however, where some of the vocal emphases and exaggerations that Neuberg plays with end up becoming distracting, if not downright intolerable. The final moments of “The Last Resolve” being a prime example, where the harmony seems more like a dying cat than actual singing. Thankfully, this is rare in the album, but when it does appear, it does grate on the senses.
All that being said, the first half of the album is easily the strongest portion. It is paced well (much like the whole of Where The Killers Run) and the melodies are just effective and overwhelming. There are some incredibly sublime moments in the first half, but, once the final half takes over, the songs seem a little aimless and wandering without a home in mind. Three of the final five songs are over six minutes and, all, strive to be epic and ethereal, at the same time. But it is hard to do epic without making the listener, especially this one, tire of it eventually. Some of the instruments used were distracting as well and seemed to go against the tone of the songs as well. But none of the album is just trash, but when compared to their last album, this one can do nothing more than pale in comparison.
I did, however, find the narrative of the, I assume, homeless man in NYC that provided the bookends for the album to be rather intriguing and a nice touch to tie the whole of the album together. Especially considering the subject matter that dealt with the nature of the miraculous and the modern world’s inability (or unwillingness) to see the hand of the Divine in even the greatest of disasters.
Apocalyptic Rating: 3 out of 10 (If you head out and dig in, you’ll beat the noise)
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Those Poor Bastards - Satan is Watching
This album has the distinct honor of being the first Those Poor Bastards record that has truly caught my attention and has given me full enjoyment throughout the week. Most of the time, as readers of the past reviews could guess, their albums consist of elements and songs that I really enjoy, but I find other parts to be dull or ineffective. And though there is a song or two here that I think could have been better (“Doggone” and “Ain’t You Gonna Cry?”), most of the collection is top-notch and finds a natural balance of all of the positive elements that have peppered the other albums. I think part of why this album works so well is because it appears to be more congealed by a specific theme rather than a broader one. As to the specific theme, there are probably some good conjectures out there and I have my own, as well. This album feels like there was something specific in mind in the writing of it. And the consistency of the album reflects that, I believe.
Another interesting aspect is the rather apparent influence of Johnny Cash on certain songs, most of all in their cover of the Cash classic, “I Walk the Line.” Admittedly, for a cover, it is not altogether impressive. There is not a major difference in the basic structures of the song, but the say it is sung reminds me of a guy singing the song to a dead person (with all of the non-sick and sick connotations involved in that interpretation). However, that is where the Cash influence ends. Instead of an sinner who recognizes grace in his own life, this band only sees the Law and how it condemns man. This is part of the reason why their albums are so dark and there is really no hope present in it. They don’t recognize the grace of God that came in the person of Christ. But this album, especially, makes for a good anti-theology or negative theology which shows what humanity would deal with without grace. And in that sense, much like slasher flicks, they ultimately have something beneficial to say.
Apocalyptic Rating: 8 out of 10 (Show me a man who deserves to die, you cannot convince me)
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Those Poor Bastards - The Plague
This is a fairly reserved effort considering the bombastic nature of last week’s listen, but there is still that touch of anxiety and frenetic pace that recalls a kindred spirit with the last two albums. The electronic elements are still present, but they are not as noticed like they are on Hellfire Hymns. However, replacing the rather chaotic feeling that those electronic flourishes gave the last effort, the vocals become more haunting and violent on this effort. Guttural screams and yells present themselves on several of the tracks on this album.
Unlike the other bands, it is harder to tell with Those Poor Bastards whether each album is a move forward or backward, an improvement or back-sliding. There is so much in their music that defies classification in any kind of certain way. I did enjoy this album, but I didn’t enjoy it any more or less than the other ones so far. There hasn’t been an effort yet that just hit me upside and head and told me, “This is my favorite.” I hope that one of them will eventually, but, to be honest, I don’t have a whole lot of hope that will be the case. This will not be the band that comes from behind to beat out the favorites I have made so far. However, that doesn’t mean that I don’t enjoy them, just that I don’t “get it” yet. The best tracks on this effort are rather simple to pick out overall: “Sick & Alone,” “Black Lightning,” “A Curse,” “I Cannot Escape the Darkness,” and the title track. All of these give the appropriate amount of doom and gloom to give the feeling that should be felt with a title like The Plague.
Apocalyptic Rating: 8 out of 10 (You’re just another curse, you liar, you liar)
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O’Death - Broken Hymns, Limbs and Skin
The punk feel and frantic pace is only increased on this outing. The strings, horns, banjo, guitars and percussion all play into the strengths of the album. All of the iconic elements of O’Death from the first album are increased on this one. The punk aesthetic is still a major part of the their sound and most of the songs grab hold of that and run with it. There were 3-4 songs on their last full length that allowed for the frenetic pace to slow down. On this album, “Angeline” is really the only song that gives a break from their pace. This makes for an exciting and sonic album to blare over the speakers in you car or truck as you are rolling down the highway. The amazing thing about this band is that they don’t need the normal tools of a rock band to get the same momentum worked up for the listener. From “Low Tide” to “On An Aching Sea” is a hard-hitting stretch of bluegrass rock with very few moments relenting from the rush.
However, on this album, this is also the biggest weakness as well. For most of the album, it is hard to distinguish from one song to the next. The only moments during the first 13 songs that break the pattern are “Home” and “Angeline” (#13) because they have a slight change in pattern for the songs. This is not so much a complaint as it is a recognition of how well the slower songs divided the last album so that each song could be recognized on its own accord without falling into an intense unified whole. This album has more energy to boot, but this group of songs is allowed less individual space than the last album. The last album seemed a bit choppy, at times, but it felt like I knew what every song sounded like at the end of each listen. There are strengths in both directions. I think I will be more willing to listen to their debut album at home while relaxing or reading, whereas this album is much more suited for a commute to work or a road trip because it has the required fuel for it. All this to say, that, overall, I still think I like this album the best of the two, but it is not free from its own unique problems.
Apocalyptic Rating: 2 out 10 (Turns out the Mayans just got tired of numbering the days)
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Slim Cessna’s Auto Club - Cipher
That perfect combination of atmospheric, dark instrumentation and Flannery O’Connor-like lyrical stories that I talked about last week, well, this album is not that at all. However, Slim Cessna has once again surprised me in how they can vary their albums without significantly changing their definitive sound. This is a frightening album. Their rather dark, questioning look at the Christian faith reaches a fever pitch on this album to the point where they call Christ, himself, to account for his sins of lying to his people about coming back after saying he would and not yet coming back. Now, their case, theologically, is laughable at best, but how it gets planted toward the end of the album (“Everyone is Guilty #2) is beneficial to the overall emotional and experiential argument they are making. In other words, it fits as a culmination of the guts and emotions that build up over the whole album. The final 6 tracks of the album are a real testament to the power of Slim Cessna as a gothic americana band.
There is a definite reason why these guys are celebrated by fans of the genre. It is hard for me to find albums that actually get under my skin and display a truly horrific vision throughout, but Cipher does just that. It is like walking through the darkest parts of the Appalachians and coming upon a small charismatic church and then being seduced by their dark vision of religion that never quite melds with true Christianity. That is this album. Theologically appalling, experientially pleasing. Their version of Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Our Land” is reverential, but it refuses to be a strict reworking of the song. Even on it, being the second track, the listener gets a sense that something is not quite right with they world they are about to enter. That feeling carries throughout punctuated by the short “Introduction…” tracks which speak of the different parts of the body that end up needing braces (arms, legs, teeth and, of course, faith, which is the point of the whole album). Each third of the album plays into the nightmare in different ways, but the darkest and most nightmarish is the final third of the album. This is equivalent to the final third off The Wicker Man where the main character finally gets burned up in a blazing wicker man as the cult looks on in approval. Unfortunately, I think the man in the blaze on the Slim Cessna album is Christ, himself. Another review of this album totally misjudged Slim Cessna as a band in that they were bent on hell and damnation music. In tone, they may be this way, but in content, the only damning they want to do is against God and Christ. Whatever doubts about their religious bent is made clear on this album. They are not friends of the faith, but they make compelling music which even the truly faithful can appreciate.
Apocalyptic Rating: 9 out of 10 (Glory be, everyone is guilty….maybe it’s time to take a count)
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Wovenhand - Ten Stones
This album is easily their most accessible work to date. Musically it is straightforward with lots of rock influence. Edwards and crew toned down the world music influences that had weaved in and out of their other albums in order to create a sonic album that would appeal to a larger group of people. Edwards’ lyrics are a lot more discernible, as well, but they are no less beautiful for it. Those who don’t agree with Edwards’ religious stance may have a harder time taking on this album because the Christian imagery is there in spades in a more apparent fashion (however if you don’t like his perspective, how you were able to choke down the other albums is beyond me). There are very few slow spots on this album; most of the time, the album rocks just as much as any of the great rock albums in music history. However, it is still Wovenhand; there is no doubting it.
The first three songs present the theological theme for the whole album, which is the supremacy of Christ, and all of the other songs are just variations on that theme. From “Iron Feather” on to the end of the album, there is festering urgency that is carried out through the electric guitars and blunt percussive beats which find their culmination in the the final two tracks, one, “His Loyal Love,” coming off as a chant and the other, “[untitled],” finishes out the album with an instrumental track that starts slows and shifts suddenly into a chaotic rush. This has the feeling of a concept album without the pretentiousness of a concept album. There is still enough variation to make it new after many listens.
The strangest inclusion on the album is their take on the Antonio Carlos Jobim track, “Quiet Nights of Quiet Stars (Corcovado).” Edwards does his most normal style of singing today. The gruff is gone, the growl is tamed and he comes off as an, almost, operatic force. If you weren’t sure that he could actually sing, then here is your proof. Though the song seems like a strange bedfellow with the rest of this collection, it still fits into the realm of the theme of the album. Plus, it provides a nice break from the breakneck speed of the rest of the album.
Apocalyptic Rating: 4 out of 10 (You can step easily out of the bomb shelter)
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Beat Rabbi feat. DeepSpace5 - DeepSpace5oul
Beat Rabbi, in his description of this album, set out to create a hip/hop album that resembled the hip/hop albums of the 90s when the samples were thick with funk, jazz and soul. Originally, it was going to be a largely instrumental album, but as the project went on and the DeepSpace5 crew became a part of it, the project morphed into something bigger and, in my opinion, better in the long run. There are some largely instrumental tracks on here, but it would not be the same without the lyrical prowess of the DS5 crew on the mic. Some places send a separate instrumental album along with the main one, which allows the listener to experience the project, both, the way it is and the way that it was originally conceived. Beat Rabbi’s work on this album is flat-out jammin’. At times, there are hints of De La’s bohemianism and Tribe’s laid-back grooves. There are moments of playfulness that remind me of Del and some wacked-out beats that show the possible influence of Company Flow. Normally, a project like this would just go onto the pile of recordings as a nice “throwback record,” but the pure talent and cohesiveness of Beat Rabbi’s work gives this album a quality that rivals the work of the great 90s hip/hop records.
And then you throw in the emcee work of DS5. On a whole, the creativity and multiple styles displayed on this record rival (if not completely shadow) their other work. There is just something about this record that works lyrically. Yes, there are moments that could be taken by some to be preachy, but all of it is done well without sounding like they were just intending to get as many Jesus-es as they could in the song. Not only that, but they are creative in how they approach talking about the Gospel. And, on top of that, they still showed the same swagger and bravado that is quintessential for hip/hop. Whether it was Playdough breaking down some battle-rap verses, Freddie Bruno dropping some science in a similar style as Gift of Gab, or the Listener doing what Lester does, there is something for everybody here and it is all placed on top of some dope beats and samples. When The Sylvers sample was dropped on “Say Yeah,” I half expected Ghostface Killah to kill a verse. There is not a weak song on this collection, but some are just over and above the rest: “Intro,” “DeepSpace5oul,” “On a Side Note,” “Soul in the Horn” (very reminiscent of “I Be Blowin’”), “Dance Your Life Away,” “Absolutely Nothing,” and “Say Yeah.” All of these songs keep the beats flowing and the groove compelling. This was an excellent album to end my year of hip/hop. I think I may just miss hip/hop, but its time to say goodbye and move on to another genre. Thanks to Beat Rabbi for making me remember all of the glory of this year, listening to hip/hop.