Friday, July 07, 2006

Parkas, Matthew Sweet, Susanna Hoffs, Gnarls Barkley

a bunch of stuff I've written lately for the El-P:


A Life of Crime & The Scars to Prove It DVD & CD
Little Records of Concrete
4 stars

In the spring of 2004, Ontario’s Parkas embarked on a fateful cross-Canada toured punctuated on either end by triumphs. They launched the tour to a packed house at Toronto’s storied Horseshoe Tavern, and their penultimate show saw them, again in Toronto, deservedly win “Most Promising Band” at the North-By-Northeast Music Festival. What happened in between, and immediately afterward, however, was anything but triumphant. That’s what makes A Life of Crime, the documentary of the tour and its effects on the band by filmmakers Jon Eagan and James Loftus so compelling.
The film begins at the end, with the four Parkas, guitarist Michael Brown, drummer Greg Rhyno, bass player Mark Rhyno and guitarist Grady Kelneck driving home after the final show of the tour. They’re starting to plan the recording of the follow-up to their fantastic debut album, Now This Is Fighting. That’s when Kelnick drops the bombshell: he doesn’t want to be in the band anymore. As the other three Parkas absorb this news, the audience is taken back to the start of the tour.
Heading out to the East Coast after the Horseshoe gig, the Parkas face night after demoralizing night of playing to empty saloons, pizza parlours and even a Peanut Bar. They have to press venues to live up to the most basic parts of their agreements, namely to pay the band, feed the band, and sometimes, provide lodgings. Why do they put up with us? “There's too many bands,” Greg Rhyno tells the camera. “We're pretty expendable.”
The audiences generally improve as the band makes its way to the West Coast, though the gorgeously-shot Regina gig at the Easy Alibi (which shut down just days after the Parkas gig) had a pathetically abysmal turnout. Among those who did show up for brilliant set was a certain local music writer whose head looks freakishly huge from behind.
By the time the action returns to the long drive home and the band’s reaction to Kelneck’s announcement, we’ve certainly been convinced that he has good reasons to not want to go through that again. But at the same time, we share in the remaining three Parkas sense of betrayal. After all, they survived the ordeal of the tour, paid their dues, as it were, and most importantly, they made it through together.
Counter-balancing the depressing reality of touring as a band still making its name is the postively joyful music of the Parkas (even at their most melancholy, the Parkas’ songs are refreshingly life-affirming). Even when the audience is made up of little more than the self-described “baddest mother#&*$er east of Sussex” or people who would rather hear Jack Johnson covers, the Parkas still manage to thoroughly kick out their jams.
In many ways a coda to the documentary, the accompanying six-song EP The Scars to Prove It was recorded mere months after Kelneck’s departure. Where Now This Is Fighting presented the Parkas as cheeky adherents to the kind of catchy, fun, and distinctly Canadian rock promulgated by folks like Joel Plaskett or Cuff the Duke, The Scars to Prove It finds the former pranksters battle-worn and contemplative. And rivetingly so.
“Darling, the Wolves” and “Recipe For Sick” show off a new aggressive edge, while “Start Your Own Country” showcases the Parkas’ knack for bringing out the emotional oomph in geography. “Sweet Amputations” is melodically a follow-up to “My Life of Crime” from the first album (and also featured here as a live cut), but gets deeper and slower and more sophisticated. But the real masterpiece of the EP is “The Highway Divides”, a direct response to Kelneck’s departure from the group. It’s a slow-burn with an enormously rewarding pay-off that deliciously revels in bitter resentment. If only all break-ups sounded this good. (Emmet Matheson)

Under the Covers, Vol. 1
Matthew Sweet and Susanna Hoffs
Shout Factory
4 stars

Under the Covers, Vol. 1 cheats. It’s just one more example of how the music industry has lost sight of traditional values like hard work, new ideas and challenging itself. Worst of all, it’s wonderful.
For starters, 90s alterna-popster Matthew Sweet and 80s Egyptian-like-walker Susanna Hoffs (of the Bangles) both have perfect pop voices. Throw those voices together in harmony? Hey, no fair! If Sweet was paired with someone less ideal, someone more ill-suited to his voice, someone like, oh, Fergie of the Black Eyed Peas or one of those anonymous Pussycat Dolls, we could get behind that. That would be a challenge. And why should Hoffs have the benefit of commingling her dulcet tones with someone so vocally well-equipped and pop-savvy as Sweet? It’s just too easy and too obvious. A far more curious and daring vocal partner would Karl Marlden. Doesn’t anybody take any risks anymore?
Speaking of risk-taking and the lack thereof, can we really let Hoffs and Sweet get away with their selection of 15 of the 60s’ finest pop songs? Talk about performance-enhancing substances! Who couldn’t sound great singing songs written by the likes of Lennon/McCartney, Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Brian Wilson and Lou Reed? Not to mention Michael Nesmith, Rod Argent and the Gibb brothers. How’s that for gutlessness?
The terrific arrangements and instrumental performances--like Richard Lloyd’s ringing guitar on “Cinnamon Girl”--only add insult to injury.
Appallingly, Sweet and Hoffs aren’t content with merely creating glorious new versions of one decade’s songbook. Under the Covers, Vol. 2 is already in the works, set to feature Hoffs and Sweet knocking out what are sure to be fantastic renditions of 70s pop songs. Rest assured, dear reader, that we’ll remain vigilant, ready to register our disgust. (Emmet Matheson)

Hell Is Eux Autres
Eux Autres
Grenadine Records
3.5 stars

Let’s get it Sartre in here!
References to French existentialism aside, Hell Is Eux Autres is a breezy indie-pop confection. Eux Autres winningly combines lo-fi jangles borrowed from the Raveonettes and Sleater-Kinney (whose Janet Weiss produced parts of the album) with the “ye-ye” sounds of 60s French pop singers like Serge Gainesbourg and Francoise Hardy into something almost original and wholly fun.
The brother-and-sister guitar-and-drums duo from Portland, Ore. charm their way through nine songs with an irresistible élan lined with laissez-faire. Sometimes they sing in the sort of French you might learn in the back pages of travel guides (“Pamplemousse, petit chien, ça ne fait rien,” on “Écoutez Bien”, sometimes in English that makes as little as sense (“Ten thousand lemons don’t make a renegade,” on “Le Projet Citron”). The refrain of “Carolina!”, which evokes Brian Wilson with its sophisticated, melancholy arrangement (and nominal reference to Pet Sounds’ “Caroline, No”) repeats, “I wanna, wanna, want to waste your time,” which, come to think of it, is sort of Ramones-y, too.
Hell Is Eux Autres, itself, is hardly a waste of time. It’s catchy, fun pop that even Albert Camus would approve of. (Emmet Matheson)

St. Elsewhere
Gnarls Barkley
4 stars

Though it’s got some stiff competition--Nelly Furtado’s “Maneater”, Lupe Fiasco’s “Kick Push”, Kardinal Offishall & Bedouin Soundclash’s remix of “Last Standing Soldier”, and even Paris Hilton’s surprisingly pleasant “Stars Are Blind” are all early contenders--Gnarls Barkley’s first single, “Crazy” is heavily favoured to be the song of Summer ‘06. With its indelible bassline, quirky lyrics, and vocals that sound like Al Green trying to be Nina Simone, “Crazy” is nigh unbeatable. Luckily, the rest of the album lives up to the single.
Fresh from his collaboration with MF Doom on the Saturday morning cartoon-themed The Mouse & the Mask, producer Dangermouse lays down 14 tracks of irreproachable hip hop soul. Cee-Lo, previously best known as a rapper with Atlanta’s Goodie Mob and solo hits like “Closet Freak” and “I’ll Be Around” or as the composer of the Pussycat Dolls hit “Don’t Cha”, emerges here as the full-fledged soul star his fans have always known he was.
While St. Elsewhere is as great as “Crazy” would lead you to expect, it’s by no means predictable. “The Boogie Monster” is a futuristic throwback to Boris Pickett’s “Monster Mash” that sounds like a mash-up between the Neptunes and Spike Jones & His City Slickers. “Transformer” owes as much to the Hasbro toys as it does to the Lou Reed album of the same name. And the Casio-toned cover of the Violent Femmes’ “Gone Daddy Gone”--well, some things just defy explanation.
Individually, Cee-Lo and Dangermouse are two of the most exciting musicians on the scene. Together, they draw out the weirdo best in each other. With 14 potential hit singles, count on St. Elsewhere to keep the summer pumping well into 2007. (Emmet Matheson)

No comments: