Skyscraper Magazine » 2011 » April
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Sometimes, when the members of a band are barely hanging by a thread to keep the group going, there is a unique tension that creates surprisingly likable artifacts: The Beatles’ White Album, The Clash’s Combat Rock, Fleetwood Mac’s Rumors, et al. They all remain a salvage yard of scraps somehow pieced together to form a coherent whole, in spite of immensely trying circumstances surrounding their creation. Occasionally it works, but in cases like Angles, sometimes success keeps a group together despite themselves.

The fourth album by The Strokes is a spotty hodgepodge of loosely focused ideas that sounds like the middling result of songwriting by committee. Unlike their first two full-lengths, it’s not the music made by friends spending endless hours working and playing together. Their somewhat unlikely return is a confusing mix of emotions weighed down by myriad baggage accumulated from a decade of heavy touring, attempts to escape the shadow of their debut album, individual projects, strained relationships, and personal growth. It’s not that it’s exactly a bad album, but rather, it’s a depressing one. There’s a certain passive-aggressiveness to the proceedings that makes most of its musical ideas sound tentative and lacking the brash confidence that’s long been the band’s hallmark.

The tension within the group has been widely publicized (also see here and here). Following their excellent yet strangely underrated 2006 album First Impressions of Earth (RCA/Sony Music) and subsequent touring, the band splintered off to pursue various side projects and personal pursuits. Front-man and songwriter for the bulk of the band’s earlier material, Julian Casablancas seemed to wait patiently on the sidelines for several years for the band to reconvene before opting for a solo endeavor of his own, after initial writing for the new album fell apart. For a while, it seemed as though the band was finished permanently. But, when Casablancas’ tour behind his solo album, Phrazes For the Young (RCA/Song Music, 2009), ended in commercial failure, others’ side projects faltered, guitarist Albert Hammond Jr. emerged fresh from rehab, and all other band members crawled back to the commercial comfort of The Strokes. By this point, it seems as though they were all squeezed out by the elephant in the room.

Angles bears a hollow sadness and palpable detachment that, at times, each musician seems to attempt to gloss over with impressive flourishes. Yet, it sounds phoned in. And, perhaps most tellingly, all of Julian Casablancas’ vocals were, figuratively, phoned in – opting to record his vocal parts separate from the band with most communication occurring via email. Throughout, his vocals sound patched in over the music, detached and disjointed. It’s as if the lo-fi Julian of earlier recordings was slapped over the top of a glossy sounding band. The music tends to rely on atavistic gimmickry (such as adopting 1980s synth-pop cliches), supplanting substance rather than giving the music a point of context as they had with the late-1970s stylings of their debut. Where the latter made the aesthetic choice to frame the album’s songs with a gritty lo-fi lens in order to heighten the band’s iconoclasm within the major label world of that era, Angles sounds almost entirely written and recorded to mimic an album from the mid-1980s with little point to it. Considering how Julian’s solo album was a synth-laden, musically dense work, one can’t help wonder if the band were attempting to follow previous guidelines from the singer with much more derivative results. At times, you can sense an odd feeling of the band attempting to appease their singer, like abandoned sons yearning to please a distant and difficult father.

The Strokes’ first three albums were a seamless progression of ideas. Lyrically, Casablancas was always clever with wordplay, but really hit his stride on First Impressions and then superseded himself on Phrazes For the Young (lyrics are printed on both The Strokes web site and Julian’s web site). So, the comparatively vacuous and uninspired lyrics of Angles seem to be just another passive attempt at self-sabotage. His ambivalence regarding the band in interviews seems heightened by his apparent frustration at the failure of his solo career and having to go back to the shackles of the group he’d likely written off. The irony is that Casablancas’ solo album probably would’ve been better with the musicians of The Strokes playing the songs.

Angles opens with a strange ascending whirring noise that’s either a nod to the winding tape sound that kicks off their debut album or just a “safe” familiar way for them to start an album. “Machu Picchu”: the song’s title is seemingly a reference to the ruins of the ancient Incan temple, a marvel of early architecture whose purpose remains a mystery. The song itself sounds like an abandoned relic from Men At Work’s retrofitted reggae pop. Then, the chorus throws in a strange, seeming nod to Michael Jackson’s “Wanna Be Starting Something“. Like its namesake, “Machu Picchu” is an unfinished ruin.

The album’s lead single and strongest tune, “Under Cover of Darkness,” is lyrically incongruous, while musically a return to the band’s upbeat garage-pop, flecked with hints of the flair that guitarists Nick Valensi and Albert Hammond, Jr. previously reigned in on earlier recordings. Although the song is very catchy, it sounds like a safe move, with each member expanding slightly on the musical ideas of their well-worn hits – sort of like a “what I wished I’d played on the original” version of “Last Night.”

There are resplendent moments, however, making Angles all the more complicated. Some of the guitar work is their most aggressive and inventive. “Call Me Back” and “Life Is Simple In The Moonlight” show considerable maturity and prowess, featuring more delicate songwriting than has been heard from them heretofore. But, compared to Casablancas’ Phrazes For the Young (as what likely would’ve comprised much of The Strokes’ fourth album), Angles is a weak approximation of ideas already better realized. The most difficult aspects are songs like “Two Kinds of Happiness” – rendered toothless and gimmicky by the gated reverb on the snare drum (the hallmark “puhhhhhh” drum sound of 1980s pop) and similar contemporary cliches in song structure. The robotic, monotone chants throughout “You’re So Right” sound less like an artful affectation and more like utter disdain for the song and band itself. Likewise, “Games” sounds almost as icy as the band’s inner dialogue. As the music efficiently echoes mid-1980s Duran Duran, Julian sings repeatedly, “living in an empty world,” as if mocking the song’s New Wave cliches. It all sounds empty and uninspired. It seems as though Angles is a half-hearted olive branch extended between estranged members rather than the end result of a focused reconciliation. To paraphrase words from the band’s debut: alone they stand, together they fall apart.

Batman has been through a lot these last few years. Nevermind the movies and other media; writer Grant Morrison has been putting both Batman and Bruce Wayne through their paces in a number of DC titles since 2006. With Batman: The Return of Bruce Wayne, Morrison delivers another domino in what has become such a long track, even longtime readers are left a little confused. Casual comics fans thinking they’re picking up an easy-to-digest, stand-alone graphic novel are sure to be stunned.

The single most common criticism aimed at this six-issue series is that it’s a “weird read.” Of course, weird reads aren’t always a bad thing. Not to mention that when Grant Morrison’s involved, a “weird read” is sort of what’s expected. When announced by Morrison back in late 2009, the series sounded like a Batman fan’s wet dream, with each issue featuring Bruce in a different time period, from the late-Paleolithic Era and puritan times to the seas of the 17th century and the Wild West. In keeping with those themes, each of the issues here sees a similarly-styled Bruce/Batman, first as a caveman, then witchhunter, pirate, cowboy, and classic noir detective.

The six issues collected in this volume, which were released individually between May and November of last year, chronicle Bruce’s return to present day Gotham. For those unfamiliar with what had been happening in the DC universe at the time, Bruce Wayne had been absent from the comics following the events of two other Morrison stories (Batman R.I.P. and Final Crisis). At the end of Final Crisis, specifically, Batman had been presumed dead by his fellow superheroes. The corpse they buried, though, turned out to be that of a clone (naturally), but regardless, Gotham City was still left without its Batman – or any Batman. So, in his mentor’s absence (and following the events of another story called Battle For the Cowl), Dick Grayson, the first Robin, became the city’s new Caped Crusader.

It was around this time that DC launched a slew of new titles, such as Gotham City Sirens, Red Robin and Streets of Gotham. Morrison also transitioned from writing the Batman title itself to DC’s new Batman and Robin series, which features Grayson as Batman and Bruce’s son Damian as the new Robin. Thus, despite Bruce Wayne being absent for much of 2009 and 2010, there was no lack of Bat-centric comics put out by DC (only some of which proved worth their price). But it’s for that reason that loyal readers shouldn’t be faulted for feeling let down by Batman: The Return of Bruce Wayne. The comic could have been a victory lap for fans, a more straightforward story celebrating Batman throughout the ages.

In Morrison’s hands, however, the series is instead a Rosetta Stone of sorts – a key to aid in deciphering his preceding work on Batman and concurrent work on Batman and Robin. Such tie-ins always make for more complicated reads, though, and with Morrison it’s definitely more than a little odd to boot. However, it’s how a person feels about the series that is likely going to be linked to how much effort they’re willing to put in.

Personally, I still haven’t read every issue of Morrison’s run on Batman, but every time I finish an arc, my understanding of this graphic novel is only going to grow. That’s the real success of Batman: The Return of Bruce Wayne. As either individual issues or a collected series, it warrants returning to again and again. It’s not inconsequential. It’s not a simple “one-and-done” straightforward story. It’s a capstone. It’s that final domino, that final stroke in a Batman epic from one of the industry’s most popular and most contentious writers. It’s Morrison at play with decades worth of Batman’s history. And while an ending, it’s also a lead-in to the new Batman status quo, another new series called Batman Incorporated, which has Morrison taking Bruce as Batman around the globe deputizing new recruits.

Secret Origin: The Story of DC Comics feels like a victory lap for the publisher. And it’s a well deserved look back, for sure. DC Comics has 75 years in the industry, in which time they’ve accumulated more history than could be squeezed into this hour-and-a-half feature. Released on DVD this past November, this documentary film details the start of DC Comics and the many changes it has undergone in the decades since. Started as National Allied Publications, the company used to print tabloid-sized comics collections before debuting its now famous titles, including Detective Comics and Action Comics.

Once it gets going, the film moves briskly through the years and several different epochs of DC’s history: the Golden, Silver, Bronze and Modern eras. What’s more interesting, though, is when the film focuses on the intersection of society and comic books, not just the history of the company and its characters. Throughout the documentary, director Mac Carter evaluates the rise of comic books in U.S. culture and how the industry and the product changed with times — touching on everything from early criticism to the social issues of the 1960s.

The section on the Comics Code Authority was particularly interesting, given that, as of January of this year, DC quit carrying the body’s Seal of Approval. Other publishers have similarly opted out of carrying the seal throughout the years, marking a sort of end for the group, which at one point was essentially a censor for the industry. Such topics, though, could have easily made for their own documentaries (and apparently, soon will), which is why Secret Origin at times feels like an introduction to the company and comics in general.

Already knowing the history of the comics industry shouldn’t deter anyone from viewing Secret Origin, however, as the documentary footage of DC’s founders and the behind-the-scenes editorial material is well worth the rental price. It was interesting to see video of so many artists and creators for the first time. Having never been too interested to look up photos of the old timers — Neal Adams and Denny O’Neil, for instance — the DVD was my first exposure. Sure, I can easily pick Neil Gaiman, Frank Miller, Grant Morrison, and Alan Moore out of a line-up, but until watching the DVD, not Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster.

For casual fans of comics, there’s surely going to be a lot of interesting “new” information – such as the details about editor Julius Scwhartz and the transition into the Silver Age of DC Comics. In that respect, the DVD’s an excellent overview. But for longtime fans, those obsessive and sometimes too knowledgeable individuals, the DVD’s likely not going to satisfy. Sure, it’s well-made and highly enjoyable, but it’s only a small appetizer for something larger, like The Art of Modern Mythmaking (Taschen, 2010) — DC’s 15-pound, $200 tome comprising 720 gigantic pages about the publisher’s history.

One interesting thing about the documentary is that it ends up feeling like an unintended argument for physical, material goods. Every time scans of vintage comics appear on screen or photographs of old Batman and Superman toys are displayed, your hands will feel unfairly empty. Despite ending with comments from Neil Gaiman about the endurance of comics as a medium, regardless of format changes, one can’t help but want to skip the digital downloads and buy some print comics after turning off the documentary.

The Pains of Being Pure at Heart’s 2009 self-titled debut was as perfect as indie pop gets. Combining Kip Berman’s infectious borderline-twee melodies with washes of fuzzy Ecstasy and Wine-era My Bloody Valentine guitars in all the right places, this Brooklyn outfit proved to be the perfect marriage of Belle and Sebastian and the early 1990s Creation Records sound. Like B&S, or The Smiths for that matter, The Pains of Being Pure at Heart are champion song-smiths, the rare band whose lyric sheets you actually want to read. Tracks such as “This Love Is Fucking Right!” (a clever play on The Field Mice’s “This Love Is Not Wrong”), “Young Adult Friction,” and “Everything With You” (the latter nearly out “riding” the best of Ride) rightfully elevated the band to indie stardom.

Eighteen months and several one-off singles later, the group is back with their long awaited follow-up. How much you’ll like Belong depends on how much you like some of the bigger sounding shoegaze-y albums of the 1990s. Produced by Flood (Smashing Pumpkins, U2, PJ Harvey) and mixed by Alan Moulder, who produced the likes of My Bloody Valentine’s Loveless, Swervedriver’s Mezcal Head, The Jesus and Mary Chain, and Ride, Belong is a big step forward – emphasis on the word big. Thankfully, The Pains of Being Pure at Heart prove they can handle the step up from clubs to arenas without missing a beat.

The opening title track sets the tone for the album with some pretty amazing loud/soft dynamics, Berman’s hushed (almost too much so, at times) vocals contrasting with crashing guitars and percussion. If you’re a fan of the early Smashing Pumpkins (pre-Billy Corgan Zero t-shirt era), you’ll love this album. Even better is “The Body,” a soaring epic with a similar majestic beauty to prime time Echo & The Bunnymen (think “The Killing Moon” and “Bring On the Dancing Horses”) with its windswept atmosphere and gorgeous chorus. How can you not love the following lyric: “You try so hard to keep it together / and you look so hard in fishnets and leather / But I know who you are, you are just a lost saint…”?

Another standout is the way-too-short “Girl Of 1,000 Dreams,” the scuzzy guitar sound bringing to mind The Jesus and Mary Chain circa Honey’s Dead. The breezy “Heart In Your Heartbreak” is closest in style and spirit to Pains’ debut, an impossibly catchy ode to love gone sour (“She was the heart in your heartbreak / She was the miss in your mistake”), while “Heaven’s Gonna Happen Now” is a perfect companion piece to Ride’s “Twisterella.”

Belong proves that big doesn’t necessarily have to mean bad, and it’s okay for your favorite bands to shoot for the stars. Here’s hoping The Pains of Being Pure at Heart sell millions with this one. John Hughes would have loved these guys.

RADIO AIRWAVES: I pretty much have some radio babbling in the background all the time… sometimes two stations at once. Radio just makes me feel alive and interconnected with my fellow humans, because it has this ethereal glowing hum and I love knowing what I am hearing is happening right now. Ah, and the sound of “in between stations” or shortwave tuning is one of the most romantic sounds in the whole world. We don’t do CD players or anything on tour; it’s all radio, all the time, and it’s awesome because we are always finding these weird local stations, playing regional music we would never find on our own. If there is no good station, we just listen to static at low volume. I gotta say, the South is the BEST for strange local radio – except Texas is horrible, for some reason. Oh, but actually in Lubbock they have this great station that plays really obscure rockabilly and hour long blocks of Buddy Holly because he was born there. Lafayette has two or three killer Zydeco stations, and New Orleans has some amazing AM radio programs: late night live gospel broadcasts, lunatic fringe doomsday preachers, super-conservative Karate instructors who think they know about politics, radio for the blind, et cetera. I’m definitely not an NPR guy; I like super local AM radio much better. My absolute favorite is this show called The Food Show, which is all about wine and fine dining around town. Listening to that makes me feel rich.  Yea, I fucking love the radio. Don’t let Clear Channel take it over people! They will immediately make your radio stations sound like a beige cardboard disco box. “We want the airwaves baby!!”

GIRLS: Can there ever be too many songs written about girls? Pretty much all of my best friends are girls… or complicated cave men. Do I really need to tell you, women are beautiful geniuses in a way men cannot even come close to? Some guys aim to please their dude friends with their music (metal-heads), and that’s cool, but I am absolutely cashing my checks at the lady department. Girls respond honestly to music and art and aren’t scared to dance. Girls, girls, girls!

A FINE GLASS OF BEER: Try as I might, I just cannot tell the difference between a good wine and a crappy wine. Crappy is $80 at a restaurant for one you saw at the corner store for $10. The solution (other than listening to The Food Show instead of going to fancy restaurants) is to drink a fine glass of beer instead! Everyone – except German garage rock tourists who insist Pabst Blue Ribbon is actually good – knows the difference between good beer and crappy beer. Oh yeah, and beer has alcohol in it and alcohol is quite crucial to my creative process. You work and work all day and then you wanna change the channel and see how your work looks thru a different lens. TA-DA: beer! I actually do this thing called “club testing” when I am making a record, which goes like this:

1. Finish recording a rough draft of a song at around 1am.
2. Go to a local bar where good buddy is DJing or local bar where good buddy is bartending.
3. Drink fine glass of beer, like Guinness or Duval (I hear Belgium is beer heaven).
4. Insist that good buddy play new Quintron track in public right now!
5. Wake up the next day and fix whatever was so obviously missing in said recording.

Seriously, everyone says play your mixes in a car or on a boombox or whatever, but I say go drink a fine glass of beer and play your mix in a crowded room right in the middle of whatever the DJ/jukebox is doing at that moment and you will instantly know what parts are too long, what voice is too loud, what is too bright, too dull, et cetera. So, um, a fine glass of beer can actually help you make good decisions and can also be good for you because it makes you happy and fun to be around. Ten or 12 fine glasses of beer can lead to very bad decisions and becoming un-fun to be around.

CRIME FICTION: Ok. I am super, super into this guy called James Hadley Chase right now. He was a British writer who set most of his books in a fictional Florida town called Paradise City. It’s hilarious because its all southern goth Florida settings, but he still says stuff like “que” and “lavatory” and he marks time Euro style (21:00  hours, et cetera). Ha ha…wrong! But Chase is an amazing character writer and he goes as deep and dark as Jim Thompson or Charles Willeford (my all-time favorite). Brutal, dark, hopeless stuff. Crime fiction never gets old to me. There are seemingly endless combinations of degenerate characters and messed up situations to enthrall my juvenile imagination. When your world sucks, read about some murderous Cuban restaurant owner with a nympho daughter who is being stalked by a slightly crazy Korean War vet with a deep seeded hatred for hippies. Depression be gone!

THE WORKS OF ANTONIO GAUDI: Perfection. Never has mankind come so close to creating what mother nature does in her sleep. Supernatural, impossible, and totally inspiring. Did you know he never had sex? If you cannot go visit his buildings in person, the best way to experience Gaudi’s brilliance is to check out this amazing film, Antonio Gaudi (1984), by Japanese director Hiroshi Teshigahara. It is basically a slow visual ode to the architecture with no talking, just minimal string music. Good times.

BRITISH COMEDY: I don’t know what it is exactly, but I am completely addicted to great British comedy, especially TV! I don’t find most comedy films all that compelling or funny for some reason. Maybe because television shows are created relatively quickly on a much lower budget they can be allowed to have this anarchic level of chaos. Television is trash and everyone knows the good stuff is always hidden in the trash! The Young Ones from the 1980s is just straight up punk rock television. Shit does not even make sense sometimes. They ended one episode with a giant sandwich falling thru the ceiling and crushing them all – for no reason. I think the real reason I am so attracted to this stuff is because I love what British writers do with words. They have such a deep command of the language, they can just do these beautiful surreal things with it – going all the way back to Oscar Wilde and beyond. They can just make shit up, words that don’t even exist, but somehow you know exactly what they are talking about. My current favorite is actually kinda old; it’s called Snuff Box – dark comic surrealism at its very best! Oh, actually there is an American guy (Rich Fulcher) in that one… so, uh… we don’t totally suck. I don’t know how this stuff affects what I do, but it must because I watch it over and over the way other people listen to records.

BROKEN ELECTRONICS: I derive great inspiration and mental relaxation from opening up a broken hunk of equipment and trying to fix it. There is something very satisfying about taking another designer’s work and making it whole again. Old electronics are the best. You can literally see the fingerprints in there, like a mystical braille time machine. I have always thought of analog electronics as being similar to organic plant matter. There is natural floral beauty to raw analog circuitry. The Drum Buddy is kind of patterned after decaying or “leaky” circuitry like this. New stuff imitating broken stuff: now that’s reverse engineering.

Quintron – organist, one-man band, inventor of the Drum Buddy, partner to puppeteer and performance artist Miss Pussycat – should need no introduction. His most recent album, Sucre Du Sauvage, written and recorded live during an early 2010 residency at NOMA (New Orleans Museum of Art), was released earlier this month on Goner Records.

Photo Courtesy: Quintron

On the heels of Skyscraper’s relaunch, we’ve been reviewing a number of records from mid-to-late 2010 that we missed out on covering during our semi-hiatus. Sort of a “what we missed” series of reviews, emphasizing both some of the best releases of 2010 and some of the year’s most interesting but overlooked records. This is one of those.

Frank Norris, the American author most famous for his novel McTeague, has summed up his artistic practice in one sentence: “I never took off the hat to fashion and held it out for pennies.” Norris’ refusal to pander to stylistic trends of his time made the writer an outsider and cost him readership. Such is the fate of many artists who unflaggingly follow their visions to the end. Yet, audiences often catch up and retroactively validate the work of such visionaries, dubbing them “ahead of their time.” What, exactly, does all this literary talk have to do with Six Finger Satellite, an on again/off again post-punk act from Providence, Rhode Island? Well, everything.

During the grunge boom of the early 1990s, Six Finger Satellite jettisoned the more commercial leanings of the Weapon EP (Sub Pop, 1992) in favor of harsher, more alienating sounds inspired by Chrome, Can, Captain Beefheart, and Public Image Ltd. The results were astonishing, but failed to find an immediately accepting audience. In fact, the band has stories about early, room-clearing gigs. Discerning listeners eventually came around, and, despite low record sales and a few pointless package tours, the band earned a cult following and some rabid, well-deserved critical acclaim. Six Finger Satellite never took off their hats to fashion, and history will, hopefully, prove to be their keenest judge.

Over the past two years, interest in Six Finger Satellite has intensified. Load Records released Half Control (2009), a previously recorded LP that sat on the shelf for almost a decade, and Anchor Brain, a label helmed by Chinese Stars/Arab on Radar frontman Eric Paul, released A Good Year for Hardness (2009), the first new record by the revamped lineup. This increase in activity fueled Anchor Brain’s decision to re-release The Machine Cuisine Companion Cassette. Originally available as a mailorder-only companion to the Steve Albini-recorded Machine Cuisine 10” (Sub Pop, 1994), these songs remained unavailable for years.

Collecting demos and outtakes, The Machine Cuisine Companion Cassette highlights Six Finger Satellite’s defining characteristic: a commitment to following creative paths wherever they lead. Anyone with half a brain and a modicum of good taste needs to hear the bizarrely brilliant tracks collected on this release. They sound just as out of time now as they did, no doubt, in the mid-1990s. Electronic drums count in “Untitled Instrumental,” the collection’s first track. Hardly as generic as its name implies, it lets listeners know what they’re in store for playful, electro post-punk marrying Suicide’s menacing swagger to Kraftwerk’s nerdy, roboticized gait. Then and now, the mark of Six Finger Satellite is their ability to synthesize a host of obvious influences and still somehow create music that sounds all their own.

Although most of the remaining songs wander through similar sonic territory, listeners will get anything but a stagnant listening experience. The disco-infused, D.A.F.-inspired “Pick Up and Move” proves the point – some great synthy organ lines and sound bytes dress up a standard disco beat while J. Ryan ditches his signature howl in favor of a stalkerish spoken word delivery. “Make your move . . . I’ll drag you down all over this town,” he warns. Creepy. Not all is darkness, though. “Thin and Pointy” shows the band’s interest in creating fun, tastefully low-tech dancey numbers. A rather catchy, cut-and-pasted sax line repeats throughout the song, making it one of few tracks, historically speaking, to achieve aesthetically pleasing results via the saxophone. Sure, you might chuckle during the song’s staccato breakdown, but that is, after all, the intended result. The amount of fun that went into making these songs never goes entirely missing on this release, which makes for an invigorating listen.

Anchor Brain’s reissue includes some bonus tracks, the most intriguing being “Deep Freeze.” Apparently a leftover from the Law of Ruins (Sub Pop, 1998) sessions, it unapologetically apes Black Sabbath’s “Children of the Grave.” It’s good to hear the definitive Ryan/Pelletier/MacLean/Apt lineup rip through standard rock fare. Ryan’s voice sounds sandpapery and powerful, and we hear, fortunately, just how powerful the rhythm section was during this era (unfortunately, the low end was a bit underserved by Law of Ruins’s production). Here, MacLean abandons his usual needling, metallic-sounding guitar playing and explores a more muscular, aggressive style.

Six Finger Satellite seem to be on another hiatus, but listening to this release makes a convincing case for an enduring legacy. Few bands continually do whatever they want, and, thankfully for us, Six Finger Satellite never felt pressured by trends.

On the heels of Skyscraper’s relaunch, we’ll be reviewing a number of records from mid-to-late 2010 that we missed out on covering during our semi-hiatus. Sort of a “what we missed” series of reviews, emphasizing both some of the best releases of 2010 and some of the year’s most interesting but overlooked records. This is one of those.

For Nick Cave and his conspirators, Grinderman serves as an outlet for their middle-aged id, allowing them to release all those suppressed urges that aging rockers are supposed to sublimate. They’re meant, you see, to channel that increasingly inappropriate energy into more productive work, like writing silken ditties, which can provide the soundtrack for luxury car advertisements. Alas, or rather, thankfully, Cave isn’t having it. Consequently, Grinderman 2 showcases some of his rudest, most ribald work yet.

Apparently, with Grinderman, the band created their own “Dogme 95” contract of sorts, except, for their purposes, the vows they took were “No God, no love, no piano.” The opener “Mickey Mouse and the Goodbye Man” makes those pagan intentions clear: it’s here “the big bad wolf” first appears, a time-honored stand-in for the predatory male. “He sucked her and he sucked her and he sucked her dry,” Cave snarls, and that’s a fitting introduction to where the album’s headed. It’s an adult fairy tale written by a leering professor working on his third doctorate, a sin and sex-soaked effort laced with well-worn yet still-treasured archetypes.

If you had any doubt about the double (single?) entendres in the first song, the gents follow up with the tawdry, panting “Worm Tamer,” which leaves little to the imagination: “Worm tamer,” “serpent wrangler,” these are names Cave bestows upon his beloved. In return, she bluntly complains that he’s the Loch Ness Monster: “Two great humps and then I’m gone.” But, no, he protests, he’s more an “Abominable Snowman,” and bemoans the fact that he’s “only happy when I’m inside her.” It’s that gleefully crass way of describing unrequited lust Grinderman captured so succinctly in “No Pussy Blues” on their eponymous album.

The man’s insatiable. “I stick my fingers in your biscuit jar / And crush all your gingerbread men,” Cave sings on “Kitchenette.” It’s all blues-drenched thump and testosterone, but Grinderman pulls off a balance between the two, where other efforts would prove laughable rather than amusing. So, too, on the vaguely disturbing “Heathen Child,” we’re repeatedly encouraged to picture a young woman seated in a bathtub, “sucking her thumb,” “having some fun.” And in case we’re having any difficulty imagining the fun she’s having, we’re told she’s “full of her fingers.” The bizarre accompanying video manages to depict these themes, showing a young woman in a milky bath, while a wolf stalks her opulent modernist home. Cave and crew appear in all their horrific, hilarious, half-naked hairiness, shooting lightning bolts from their eyes. It’s a rich, bawdy exercise in absurdity with constant call-outs to mythic touchstones. We’re assured some literary continuity, too: turns out the girl’s waiting for the Wolfman and aforementioned Abominable Snowman to come.

In case you think this album arrives as little more than a cavalcade of sordid singles, the tender side of Cave does arise. The string-laden “When My Baby Comes” could’ve appeared on his double masterwork Abbatoir Blues/Lyre of Orpheus (Mute/Anti-, 2004), though, even here, the band ensures the song builds into something more suitably abrasive, eventually transmogrifying into a psychedelic freakout. Then you tune into the lyrics closely, only to realize the song’s apparently about the rape of a young girl, as recounted by a mad-house resident. Each of Cave’s obsessions are on display: hospitals, madness, guns, religion – all in one gloriously ragged, rambling song. Of course, this band wants to ensure a bumpy ride for us. Elsewhere, the disarmingly softened “What I Know” is interrupted by the shrieking, industrial “Evil.” A highlight, “Palaces of Montezuma” features a bizarre litany of iconic call-outs, all gifts from the narrator to his beloved, including “a custard-colored super dream of Ali McGraw and Steve McQueen” and “the spinal cord of JFK wrapped in Marilyn Monroe’s negligee.” We’re not sure whether to be touched or horrified, but that’s the beauty of Nick Cave and what makes him stupendously vibrant and still engaging at 53.

In all, the lads (the dads?) toss off nine songs here, most of them denser, lyrically richer, more impassioned than most bands will labor over in their brief flash of calculated, strictly-marketed careers. As for those vows, Grinderman fails miserably: God and love (or at least lust) are slathered everywhere. Nick Cave must be utterly incapable of crafting an entire album devoid of deities and reckless devotion. God love him.

Ian Parton loves to fuck shit up. The Go! Team founder even mastered the band’s third album, Rolling Blackouts, straight to C90 cassette to ensure it retained their signature screwed-up sound. Like listening to the last five decades of popular music through a broken transistor radio, the album is a woozy, schizoid mash-up of genres jumping from hip-hop to bubblegum pop to shoegaze and beyond. Opening with the thunderous “T.O.R.N.A.D.O,” it’s the greatest mixtape you’ve never heard, a golden nugget of sunkissed trash-pop.

Four years on from the release of their sophomore album, Proof Of Youth (Memphis Industries, 2007), The Go! Team are back. Reigning in the kitchen sink production dominating their earlier work, Rolling Blackouts is leaner and poppier, emphasizing Parton’s ear for a good hook. It also emphasizes his ear for vocals. In snapping up Best Coast’s Bethany Cosentino to take the lead on “Buy Nothing Day” months before the hyperbole erupted around her band, Parton revealed an extraordinary grasp of global pop trends.

Like The Go! Team’s earlier releases, this album’s at its best when Parton mashes up diverse genres. The sublime “Secretary Song” juxtaposes an effortlessly catchy indie-pop hook with a pounding backing track driven by crashing cymbals, bells, and fuzz guitars, while immaculately-titled “Apollo Throwdown” sounds like The Furious Five jamming an alphabet song with Sesame Street‘s Elmo. For the most part, Rolling Blackouts is a breakneck ride though Parton’s impeccable record collection. Inspired by low-down New Orleans funk (“Bust-Out Brigade”), 1970s Hollywood soundtracks (“Yosemite Theme”), pre-Beatles pop (“Ready to Go Steady”), and country-rock (“The Running Range”), it’s a richly detailed collection of good-time party tracks.

“Buy Nothing Day,” though, stands out as the album’s highlight. With a chorus borrowing heavily from The Bangles, Cosentino’s Susanna Hoffs-infused vocal drips like honey over jingle-jangle guitars and a bass-line that could’ve been lifted straight from “Tomorrow Never Knows.” Arguably The Go! Team’s finest track to date, it’s the perfect centerpiece for an album witnessing the band’s evolution far beyond the block-rocking samplists of Thunder, Lightning, Strike (Memphis Industries, 2004).

Unlike most other cut-and-paste outfits that run out of ideas after their first album, there’s plenty more left in The Go! Team. In Parton they have an incredibly talented producer, unafraid of mixing up genres, styles and techniques. Retaining the anything goes ethic of the bedroom hobby which birthed the band, Rolling Blackouts is a wide-eyed homage to the genius of throwaway pop culture.

The first time I heard of RABBITS (the band spells their name in all capital letters, with an upside-down capital R as the first character, so it looks somewhat like the head of an illustrated rabbit) was from doing some reading about various metal bands in Portland, Oregon. One blog lead me to other websites, which lead me to more music. Then I came across this three piece. After hearing a track or two, I bought a 10” EP released through Eolian Records and loved it. I had heard they were signed to Relapse Records, which meant the ensemble was going to go out of their way to prove a point with their music. This was their time.

Lower Forms is the kind of brutal sludgy metal with obvious punk influences that immediately brings to mind the beauty of bands like The Melvins (especially Gluey Porch Treatments-era Melvins), Eyehategod, Buzzov•en, and to some degree, the recklessness of Canada’s Superconductor. The album starts with “Burn, Sun, Burn,” which sounds drawn-out to the point that it might last forever, and yet at the same time its four-and-a-half minutes feels good and sinisterly soothing. It’s quite a contrast to the slap-in-the-face that is the 59-second penultimate track, “No Depth,” in which RABBITS guitarist and vocalist Joshua Hughes screams out, “What do you get when you beat on the brat? / Another day older and deeper in debt.” It obviously takes from other sources, merging a traditional country song with a punk classic to create something short and sweet before pulling you back into their sound and leaving you dry and ashy.

What makes RABBITS work? I like how it sounds completely chaotic, as if these guys – Hughes (formerly the guitarist in Angel Hair, The VSS, and Pleasure Forever), drummer Kevin Garrison (ex-Lion Fever), and guitarist/vocalist Seth Montfort – just ran into the studio with instruments and amps on, electricity running through them with the voltage affecting both performances and thought processes. Maybe it’s me, but while this was recorded during 2010, it could easily have been an album from 1986, 1991, or from another time long gone, while still sounding very much like a modern metal album. The low-end grumbling reveals obvious Black Sabbath and Blue Cheer influences, but there’s a punk spirit and a slight smirk that hints that they’re doing this for fun. It’s still serious metal mayhem, but with a cool attitude. In other words, less “attitude” and more for the power of a “fuck you” volume punch in the face.

RABBITS could easily turn themselves inside-out and become something else with each project, or the band could have fun and fondle variations of their sound, just getting heavier. Become one with these Lower Forms and forget how the other half lives.

To say Spark’s career has started with a bang is an understatement. Plucked from her exams at London’s BRIT School to support Marina & The Diamonds, the 19-year-old songstress has already been on tour with Pete Wentz and Janelle Monae, signed to 679 Artists/Warner Music Group in the UK, and drawn comparisons with inimitable British siren Kate Bush, all while releasing little more than two singles and a slew of remixes.

Growing up in the London borough of Walthamstow, Jess Morgan (aka Spark – her middle name’s Sparkle, by the way) was drawn to music at an early age. She wrote her first song at age 12, won a busking competition held by radio station XFM at 15, and put pen to paper on her record deal three years later. Debut single “Shut Out The Moon” landed last summer to widespread critical acclaim, followed by the sublime “Revolving,” released via uber-hip New York and London-based imprint Neon Gold Records.

A precociously talented songwriter with influences ranging from Joni Mitchell to Jay-Z, Spark looks destined to follow fellow BRIT School alumni Kate Nash, Adele, and Amy Winehouse to the top of the UK charts. Currently working on a debut album with producer Amir Amor (Plan B, Davids Lyre, Little Boots), she’s more than ready to set the world alight.

Skyscraper: Firstly, how are things going?
Spark: Really well, thank you. It’s good times.

Skyscraper: How’s work coming on your debut album?
Spark: It’s all moving along nicely and I’m enjoying it all so much. I’m working with a producer called Amir Amor, he’s incredible. The biggest difference for me, in terms of how work gets done, is who you work with and the relationship you have with that person. You get the best results that way, you need to enjoy it – and so far so good.

Skyscraper: Tell me a bit about Spark. How did you end up wanting to make a career out of music?
Spark: It’s hard to say, really. I’ve been singing for as long as I can remember and wrote my first song when I was 12, carried on writing, met my manager Jess when I was 16, went on tour with Marina & The Diamonds when I was 18, got back, signed a record deal, supported Diana Vickers, Pete Wentz’s new project Black Cards and Janelle Monae on tour, and am now recording my album. That’s literally my story. Obviously, there have been many things that have affected me and what I’m doing all around and in between those things, but that’s basically it. It sounds cliche, but I didn’t really choose to do this. It kind of chose me. I never sat down and made the decision to be a singer or musician. Things have just happened and I ran with it.

Skyscraper: You grew up in Walthamstow. How big an influence is London?
Spark: I love and hate London. I don’t write about London or anything, that’s not really my style. Although, I do have a song called “American Girl,” which is about an American girl living in London. But even that is about the girl, not the place. When I write, I tend to take key emotions and feelings and situations, then make some sort of poetry out of it. It’s always about something literal to me, but I use a lot of metaphors to open it for people to make their own interpretations. Whether we like it or not, we are a product of our surroundings. Whether that’s because we want to be or we choose to be something different from that, decisions are always based on the type of person we are, because of where we’re from and what we’re from. London is a part of that for me, but not all.

Skyscraper: You’ve billed your sound as edgy pop. What do you mean by that?
Spark: I only say that to make it easy for everyone else. No artist wants to put themselves in a box; I definitely don’t. I never sit down and say I’m going to write a pop song, or an edgy pop song. I just do what feels natural and right. The result of that is what other people brand as pop. I understand boxes and genres, we live in a society that depends on them so people can make sense of new things. That’s all the label is to me.

Skyscraper: The Guardian described you as more Kate Bush than Kate Nash. How do you feel about those sort of comparisons?
Spark: I take all of the comparisons I get as compliments. I get compared to strong, successful women in music, so I can only take that as a compliment, even if I don’t see the similarities myself. It’s been said, I’m like Kate Bush and Blondie. It’s been said, I’m like Adele, La Roux, and Ellie Goudling, even though most of them wouldn’t be compared to each other. I get that, though. People haven’t heard enough of my music to know what it is and what I do, really. Maybe once they hear more, they’ll realize I’m actually not all that much like the other girls, and I can stand on my own.

Skyscraper: You’ve said you’re influenced by everything from big pop singers to acoustic singers and indie bands. How do your tastes come across in your songs?
Spark: I think it’s the mix of liking so many musical styles that comes across in my music. I respect artists for different reasons, because they each relate to a different part of what I do. I love the lyrical depth of acoustic singers such as Joni Mitchell and Alanis Morissette or Tracy Chapman. I love Beyonce, Rihanna, Britney, Gaga for their showmanship, and the lyrical and rhythmic skill of rappers like Eminem, Jay Z, and Nicki Minaj. It’s a big mix. I love lots of bands, too. That love and respect is what comes across, I think, rather than having an idol or a hero clearly cutting through everything.

Skyscraper: What’s your approach to songwriting?
Spark: Melody and lyrics come at the same time, they always have. I guess, the natural reason for that is they have to back each other up and are almost one and the same. Both have to put the same thing across. Lyrically, I’m very honest, but not in a, ‘Oh no, I’m so sad my boyfriend broke up with me and blah blah’ – not that there’s anything wrong with that. It’s just not my style. I take those literal feelings, meanings, and situations and make something more poetic with it. And that’s it really.

Skyscraper: You finished school and went straight out on tour with Marina & The Diamonds. What was that like?
Spark: It was amazing. I finished school May 11th and went on tour on May 12th, so it was pretty crazy. I’d only ever had one gig before and I was only confirmed to support her a little while before the tour started. It was all very last minute. The two weeks leading up to the tour were definitely the most stressful, exhausting, and draining of my life. I was having exams, doing work and making sure everything was ready for me to leave school with my qualification, which I somehow managed to do, and also make sure everything was ready for me to go on tour. But it was so worth it and I wouldn’t change any of it to make it any easier. It’s all a part of my work ethic now. I don’t want anything if I don’t have to work for it.

Skyscraper: You’re signed to 679/Warners. How did that come about?
Spark: When I got back from tour, I had a lot of meetings and some key gigs. When I met with 679 it all happened really quickly. It was obvious that it was the place I should be, so there was no beating around the bush. We just got on with it and started doing things straight away.

Skyscraper: You’ve said you’re not something you can construct. How important is it to stay true to yourself and your own image of who you are as a performer?
Spark: I don’t think I would even be capable of being constructed, and there isn’t really a reason why I would ever have to be. I’m fortunate to have an amazing manager, we go through everything together. I signed to 679 having already written all the songs for my album, so we’ve been recording it since. They’re completely supportive. It’s all been completely natural, everything has. From the way I look, to the way I sound, to the things I say. All of it. I would never want to pretend to be something I’m not, because that would have no benefit for me or for people who would listen to my music. I respect honesty and truth in people and would never be someone or give anything out I don’t believe in.

Skyscraper: What’s all this “boom” business about?
Spark: Ha ha, there is no “boom” business. It’s a word I say when I think something is good or I’m happy about something. That’s all. There’s no story behind it.

Skyscraper: What are your plans for the future?
Spark: Carry on making music, working hard, and then see what happens.

Photos Courtesy: Spark