Skyscraper Magazine » 2011
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You probably know better than to expect that The Pale King will give you, the David Foster Wallace fan, a measure of closure. So go in with your eyes open. For casual readers, there are so many other works of his to tackle before this one becomes necessary. And for those completely unfamiliar with Wallace, those who have only looked at the size of Infinite Jest (1996) and shuddered, turn back. Here be dragons.

No one knows what this book was intended to be. Michael Pietsch, Wallace’s editor for Infinite Jest and the man responsible for assembling The Pale King into something resembling completion, admits as much in the preface: “Some notes among David’s manuscript pages suggest that he did not intend for the novel to have a plot substantially beyond the chapters here.” But it’s equally difficult to escape the heart-compressing feeling that The Pale King is only getting started when it comes to an end.

And boy does it take a roundabout path to get there. It’s true that the novel centers around the IRS, but it’s not about the IRS. In part, this is because The Pale King is boldly polyphonic in a way few novels are. Narrators come and go; chapters float in space, unmoored to surrounding ones or even anything at all; one of the characters is named David Foster Wallace, and keeps insisting he’s the author. There are doubles, then, and even triples, extending literary tools well past the breaking point. The closest comparison is to Evan Dara’s sprawling The Lost Scrapbook (1995), where voices merge mid-paragraph until the entire thing rises to a symphony by the book’s end.

From a reader’s standpoint, the symphony never emerges from The Pale King. It is replete with brilliant passages so emblematic of Wallace it’s very nearly painful. There’s the IRS’ official seal, “depict[ing] the mythic hero Bellerophon slaying the Chimera, as well as the Latin motto… which essentially means ‘He is the one doing the difficult, unpopular job.’” There is Lane Dean picturing himself “running around on the break waving his arms and shouting gibberish and holding ten cigarettes at once in his mouth like a panpipe”; and a put-upon assistant Leonard Steyck who at 16 was “5’1” and 105 pounds soaking wet, which he was (soaking wet) when the boys in his PE class’s shower all urinated on him after knocking him to the tile floor.” These are gifts, and devoted Wallace followers will no doubt crack a smile at the characterization of one character’s hands as being of different sizes from extensive writing — the same thing was true of the forearms of the tennis prodigies at Enfield Tennis Academy in Infinite Jest.

But beyond his undeniably unique voice, what remains most impressive in his writing is his colossal empathy for thinkers. Wallace is unfairly knocked for being brainy, characterized as acting like he’s smarter than you, but what he shows here is his enormous capacity for sharing the suffering of those trapped in their own heads. He’s not showing you up; he’s showing you how hard it is to think like this. In one of the book’s most moving passages, he tracks the thoughts of a man named Bondurant from staring at a cornfield through thinking of the girl he’d taken to prom, who wouldn’t have sex with him, to his greatest moment, hitting a hanging slider for a pinch-hit triple in college to finally bedding said girl, one Cheryl Ann Higgs and how “he had avoided her eyes because the expression in Cheryl Ann’s eyes, which without ever once again thinking about it Tom Bondurant has never forgotten, was one of blank terminal sadness, not so much that of a pheasant in a dog’s jaws as of a person who’s about to transfer something he knows in advance he can never get sufficient return on.”

For some of us, passages like the above will be enough: overwhelmingly sad and glorious at the same time, both an affirmation of the human condition and a condemnation of our own shortcomings. But it’s clear that Wallace was simply mobilizing these little troops — these passages of startling insight — in service of a goal that was perhaps unattainable: a book centered around boredom and its toothier friend, depression. Over and over again here and in other works, Wallace talks about the black, winged thing that emerges from nowhere and looms above his characters. In the light of his untimely death, there’s an inescapable sense that he was very much engaged in trying to wrestle this thing by going directly at it in his writing, unwilling to soften its blows through any kind of mental legerdemain. This struggle oozes out into The Pale King.

Nowhere is this more in evidence than in the colossal 22nd chapter, which takes up 100 pages and is nothing but an uphill fight. The narrator of this chapter describes everything from high school through several abortive attempts at college and up to his joining the IRS, beginning paragraph after paragraph with “Anyhow” before launching into another digression into the minutiae of his struggles to find a place in the world. It feels Sisyphean and one gets the sense that Wallace is doing the work he feels is most important here, even as the book is at its most satisfying when it keeps the chapters short, the observations pointed.

In the context of a fiction writing workshop, author Wells Tower opined that Wallace was perhaps too smart to write fiction. On the surface, it’s a weird statement for a profession we tend to associate with the very brilliant, but it might just be right. Successful fiction is most commonly the province of people banging their heads against human nature, fighting to define and redefine what it is to be human and, ultimately, succeeding. Maybe Wallace was running out of winnable victories, crossing battlefield after battlefield until something insurmountable rose up before him. The Pale King is not a triumph but it is a testament to the fight, a document capable of revealing to us both the terror and the overwhelming beauty of the mundane.

Something about My Morning Jacket’s Circuital, perhaps its total lack of innovation and generally unchallenging nature, invites derision. I found the experience of listening to this middle-of-the-road album to be acutely disappointing.  I wanted to like it. I have enjoyed scattered tracks by this country-tinged, classic-rock styled band over the years, ever since I first heard them as a promising, if out-of-place band on an early Darla Records compilation (Darla being a label better known for indie space-pop) sometime in the late 1990s. But before assessing shortcomings, there are positive aspects. I like the tasty and sometimes moody pedal steel and electric guitar leads on this album. Moreover, Jim James has a strong, appealing voice.

Diving in, however, Circuital stumbles out of the gate with a plodding, soporific dirge, “Victory Dance,” which begins with a ludicrous bugle-like riff that sounds like it is played on a kazoo. Frankly, if this song were submitted to a record label by an unknown band, even in this polished state, it would likely be rejected. The title track, a comfortable, rootsy folk song, while not entirely enthralling, is more upbeat and builds to an understated guitar solo before dropping down again. The muted guitar riff at the beginning and end recalls Bruce Springsteen’s 1980s hit “I’m On Fire.” Unfortunately, or better comically, on “Circuital” it sounds as though James is earnestly singing, “suck iiiiiiit.” This track, perhaps the best here, would have almost made it onto a Fleet Foxes album. Almost. No doubt, Fleet Foxes were clearly influenced by My Morning Jacket, but that group has, based on a comparison of this album and Fleet Foxes’ recently released Helplessness Blues (Sub Pop), neatly eclipsed their forebears.

“The Day is Coming” is a decent rock song, but fails to develop. Released as a single, “Holdin’ on to Black Metal” has its charms, including its punchy horn hits, but is basically akin to a big, slick, late-Santana pop song like “Smooth.” Its background vocals sound as though young female fans were handpicked to sing with their favorite band. It turns out that the standout horn figures and semi-funky guitar riff are not even original to the band, but were taken from an Asian 1960s group. Ultimately, it is quite catchy, if slightly cheesy. “Black Metal,” similar to numerous other songs here, sounds like a conscious stab at radio airplay.

Repeating its title ad nauseum, “Wonderful” is a fuzzy-headed dream of a Utopia in which the singer yearns for a place with “no beliefs” and “no disease,” just “spirits at ease.”  When you think about it, death provides such an easing of care and tension, but without a guarantee of “sprits” outlasting the body. Or shooting up heroin, but what’s the point?  The Beatles could pull off such a theme, but in the context of a children’s song such as “Octopus’s Garden” or “Yellow Submarine” or as a sparse and radical statement like John’s solo track “Imagine.” Recalling a John Denver outtake, “Wonderful” is flatly embarrassing — in listening to this tripe, one feels as though IQ points are being lost as the seconds tick past. Speaking of The Beatles and their solo careers, this album is in tone particularly reminiscent of non-top-tier solo work by Paul McCartney from the 1970s through the mid-1990s, which is overtly commercial, built on conventional melodies and harmonies, and mostly declines to take risks. Like Paul but less so, the men of My Morning Jacket are obviously talented but they have chosen to tread water or eschew experiment in order to render their music most palatable to a mass audience.

“Outta My System” is mildly redemptive, with lyrics bordering on clever, but on the whole harmonically banal and overly familiar. Still, it definitely merits a listen. “First Light,” however, is bunk: repetitive, mundane, and tiresome. It would have already sounded stale in 1970. “You Wanna Freak Out” is a simple, unremarkable song in 6/8 time, even if it does rock a little.

Although lackluster, Circuital will serve its purpose of building a larger audience and providing new material for the band’s sun-baked festival crowds. In this way, the record resembles a couple of 1970s studio albums by The Grateful Dead, another act esteemed as a live band that didn’t always come across to their best advantage on disc.

Singer/guitarist Dan Boeckner first rose to prominence with Wolf Parade, but there’s a reason that band was looked on as something of a supergroup. With two songwriters in Boeckner and singer/keyboardist Spencer Krug of virtually identical stature, Wolf Parade could sometimes feel like a battle royale between two fighters at the top of their respective games. And yet there’s every reason to think that Handsome Furs provides a better battleground for Boeckner to work out his essential agon when it comes to songwriting.

This is because Boeckner is a writer working at reconciling what are often diametric opposites: rural vs. urban, interior vs. exterior, home vs. the road, flesh and blood vs. gears and metal. His songs explore the places where these opposites collide and are reconciled or else destroy each other. It’s the last of those sets that comes to the fore in Handsome Furs, a more electronic, synth and beat heavy endeavor than Wolf Parade.

Against pulses of static and a crystalline keyboard line, opener “When I Get Back” explores the transformative power of travel and the way Boeckner’s raggedly desperate voice rubs against the coldness of the music that redoubles the sense of isolation the song’s narrator is raging against. “Memories of the Future” could be a Robyn outtake — all kick-snare crispness and burbling monophonic synths — but where Robyn would glide effortlessly across such a track, Boeckner’s voice cracks and slips against it. When he sings “Nostalgia never meant much to me,” you get the sense he’s more trying to convince himself than you. In much the way OK Computer’s ambivalence about technology and the modern world was strengthened by its grounding in its own technology, the musical settings on Sound Kapital reinforce Boeckner’s isolation, the feeling that he’s trapped inside the tracks themselves and kicking his way loose any way he can.

Where Boeckner’s guitar comes in, as on the slashing “Bury Me Standing,” it fits better than it has on previous Handsome Furs releases. It’s as fierce and urgent as Boeckner’s voice, but the sense overall is less and less of rock plus dance (which was how 2007’s Plague Park very much came off) and more and more something without a distinct formula or precedent. If anything, Sound Kapital is weirdly reminiscent of INXS singer Michael Hutchence’s semi-political, slightly dance-y and kinda post-modern side project Max Q.

Maybe it’s just because most of Sound Kapital seems like it could be blasting right now in a basement club in Berlin, but Handsome Furs feel simultaneously global and lost, internationally jet-setting and longing for somewhere to call home. But that’s where Boeckner does his best work: crossing borders, connecting disparate things. After all, every running away is also a running towards, right?

The day I first dropped the needle on Panda Bear’s Tomboy, the carpets in my apartment building were being cleaned. This entailed butter yellow vans idling on the street for hours while giant, snakey tubes ran all through the building, soaking, soaping, and blowing dry the carpets. The voice of Noah Lennox (aka Panda Bear, also of Animal Collective, yadda yadda, you know the drill) rose up from the speakers chanting, “Know you can count on me” but sounding like “No you can’t count on me.” The lyrical confusion seemed entirely appropriate, given Panda Bear’s often impressionistic approach to music.

2007’s Person Pitch (Paw Tracks) was a digital swatch of compelling sonic confusion, the kind of album you wanted to drop at your DJ gigs but couldn’t decide where anything began or ended. Tomboy is not like that, not exactly. The songs are more or less discrete units: “Tomboy” itself sounds like a refugee from a 1980s sci-fi soundtrack, discovered and nursed back to health by a tribe of aborigines living in a canyon; “Slow Motion” wouldn’t be out of place on The Beta Band’s The Three E.P.s (Astralwerks, 1999); “Drone” is just what it says, like an early M83 track that forgot the drums — and not in a bad way. Lennox’s unwavering commitment to that drone for the track’s final minute is admirable.

But if the music is more variegated than on its predecessor, Lennox’s vocals are just as washed in echo throughout, resulting in reverb fatigue over the distance. When the music itself was more impressionistic, this over-effected vocal approach was more effective and less affected. In places, melodies do manage to rise above: “Alsatian Darn” has a gently insistent vocal curve in what you might call the chorus, as does “Tomboy.” But overall I found myself wishing for more abstraction in the music, as on Person Pitch, or less abstraction in the vocals.

Not that the music is without its abstract pleasures. Repeated listens, especially with headphones, reveal aural treats aplenty, and on that first day I played the LP, as it spun towards the conclusion of side two, I realized that the last song was never going to end. “Benfica” ends in a locked groove on the vinyl, meaning if you never pick up the needle, the last droning seconds of the song will loop endlessly. When I finally went to stop it, it became apparent that one of the sounds I had thought was part of the record was actually the gentle hum of the carpet cleaning vans, rising and falling outside. Your reaction to that anecdote probably tells you everything you need to know about whether this record is for you.

Wrapping up the totality of an epoch in music’s recent past is a perverse pursuit. Eric Davidson, author of We Never Learn: The Gunk Punk Undergut, 1988-2001, goes so far as to include an interviewee telling him so.

Fronting the New Bomb Turks for 20 years has apparently imbued Davidson, who also did time editing CMJ, with enough gumption to give his book-length investigation of garage, punk, and its ephemera a proper vetting. Beginning with a bit of Cleveland punk history – Rocket from the Tombs, Electric Eels, and such – distills Davidson’s understanding of the genre, even as his native-Ohioian bias comes on relatively early. Making use of his connections earned touring the world, the author weaves together an admittedly reductive view of underground rock stuffs linking the end of hardcore to bands detailed herein, grunge, and off to garage’s reiteration during the early part of the new millennium.

First hand narratives, as they often do, become a bit tiresome by the time Davidson tells readers about touring Spain. But between the sporadic first person stories, the singer’s able to coax some insightful one-liners from the performers he interviews. Everyone from the Mummies to the Devil Dogs finds inclusion. Of course, there’s an unfocused discussion of Jack White being a monster that crops up every once in awhile. The author, so judiciously, distances himself from the most famous guy in the book, never really weighing in with his own perspective on the White Stripes. There is a bit on Davidson approaching White for an interview and getting some cryptic e-mail in response. What’s funny is that while Davidson’s inexorable gushing about Billy Childish doesn’t approach journalistic detachment, there isn’t a kind word for Jack White anywhere to be found. Maybe that’s deserved, but the Detroit native gets railed for making a boat load of money (and how he went about it) even as some other major label signees are depicted as folks who gave it a shot but got mangled in the machine.

Separating the author’s affection for a number of bands mentioned throughout this volume and the actual impact these folks had on anyone gets a bit difficult. The Raunch Hands may have had a moment of glory and turned in some ravers, but proportional to the impact Mick Collins and the Gories had on folks, the space each ensemble takes up seems curious. But that’s Davidson inserting himself into the book. Despite We Never Learn eschewing even handedness, it winds up being not just an engaging read – and a quick one at that – but also an important first document in what will no doubt be an over-chronicled period of time. Shitting on grunge bands, though, only makes you sound bitter even if Soundgarden does kinda suck.

“Any similarities between certain characters in this book and real people is due entirely to insight into human nature” – Gunther Strobbe

With that disclaimer hovering before us, so begins The Misfortunates, the 2009 film from Belgian director Felix van Groeningen, his third feature. Van Groeningen adapted his film from the apparently semi-autobiographical novel De helaasheid der dingen by Belgian writer Dimitri Verhulst. Often bleak, sometimes bleakly funny, the narrative chiefly concerns the family of heavy-drinking, cross-dressing, crude-talking, Roy Orbison-loving, naked bike-riding Strobbe brothers (Beefcake, Petrol, Koen, and Marcel) and their impact upon one boy, Marcel’s son. That son turns out to be Gunther Strobbe, the author whose disclaimer opens the movie, the gangly, tow-headed kid having turned into a slender, brooding artist.

The film opens with a repo man coming to take the Strobbe family TV. The only greater indignity would be if he had taken their stash of booze. The brothers act out, immediately resorting to (somewhat comedic) violence, but it’s their long-suffering mother who will lose her only form of entertainment.

And so begins the chaotic story of the Strobbes. In short, the theme of this tale is that of  the sins of the father being visited upon the son. For Gunther may be more intelligent than his father, but he’s not spared the same stupid mistakes. Just like his father, he accidentally gets his girlfriend pregnant. He’s cold, emotionally remote from woman. His father allows him to get drunk and berates his mother before him in the harshest of terms. It’s not difficult to imagine Gunther growing up disdainful of women. Yet, he also maintains an irrational love for his father. At first.

The scenes from Gunther’s earlier life are bleached out. The blown-out color surely representing their blown out lives in a blown out decade, the 1980s. Witihin that landscape, The Misfortunates offers something to offend quite a few folks, including copious underage drinking and hairy male nudity. The Strobbes are a train wreck of a family with few boundaries and nary a role model in sight. And that’s largely the point.

The young and older Gunther are both played convincingly by Kenneth Vanbaeden and Valentijn Dhaenens, respectively. His father and brothers are all played wincingly, comedically, forming a believable gang of incompetents. Gunther’s father is Koen De Graeve, who disappears into the role, portraying Marcel at three distinct emotional and physical points in his life. Marcel isn’t a complete monster, not always anyway. Rather he’s a man-child, a father, biologically, with the mind of a 12 year old boy. His solutions to life’s hurdles typically involve alcohol and violence.

Having escaped this environment, as an adult and a struggling writer, Gunther delivers pizza, answers phones, and pushes a drink cart on a train to make money. (Trains tell us about a country most honestly, he points out, poetically.) It’s ironic, then, at first, that in pursuing his more intellectual path, Gunther still ends up doing the same sort of menial labor his father, the town postman, did. He makes for an angry adult and he confesses to hating two people: his mother and the mother of his own child – the latter perhaps for fear of putting him in the role of raising a child and making the same mistakes his father did. So, too, he seldom returns to his village, the fictional town of Reetveerdegem. But when he does, it’s to join his remaining uncles in their traditional drunken, cross-dressing shenanigans.

“Beautiful things got destroyed or left our village,” Gunther says. Perhaps, it’s with this realization that he finally begins to change. “5 novels later,” we see on the screen a few minutes before the story’s ending. Now, Gunther is comforting his apparently senile grandmother, telling her he’s thankful for her protection, that he’s found the love of his life. He understands that this woman, who if too permissive, was never deserving of the indignities her children heaped upon her. It wasn’t the men who saved him, the women who abandoned him. It was always the other way around.

Then the story closes, with Gunther patiently, gently teaching his own son how to ride a bike. It’s a lovely, idyllic scene. But how did he get here? Five novels later? And what in between? The transformation from callous misogynist to caring father and grandson comes a little too easily. Did his wife leave him, take the boy with her? That’d be a realistic catalyst for change. If the story truly is autobiographical, something happened, even if it were a long, slow turning to the light. There are hints of that process here: Gunther asks to go to boarding school as kid, much to his father’s dismay, where he does better as a student and discovers his flair for writing. And later we learn he may have called in child services to protect himself. These moments are telling, certainly, but only go part way in explaining what changed Gunther from a remote, reluctant father into a more sophisticated, empathetic human being over the course of five novels. More such moments would be compelling to balance the admittedly entertaining portrayal of the bizarre, brutal hothouse he grew up within. That said, it’s to van Groeningen’s credit that he depicts this family so vividly, with heavy lashings of humor and nary a misplaced whit of sentiment. In the end, the Strobbe clan may be safer to watch from a distance than up close, but they’re nonetheless unforgettable for it.

Every one us loves a good recovery story, right? Remember a few years ago when Beach Boy Brian Wilson released Smile (Nonesuch, 2004), some 37 years after he originally conceived it? Was the anticipation around the release of that long-delayed effort due simply to the fact that Wilson hadn’t released much original work in the ensuing decades? Of course not. No, the inescapable themes embedded in our enthusiasm were those of recovery and redemption. Music fans knew the story of Wilson’s decline into addiction and depression, even into madness it was said. Having heard he was working on an abandoned masterpiece, we all wanted this lovable, lugubrious legend to rise again from the ashes. And we hoped he’d come bearing something rarefied. Many believe he did.

So then, consider Edwyn Collins, a witty, acerbic Scottish musician and a founding member of the seminal pop group Orange Juice. Unfairly known here chiefly for his pop masterpiece “A Girl Like You,” Collins is a brilliant solo artist in his own right, with albums to his credit like the groovy, Beatles-mocking Dr. Syntax (Setanta, 2002). Tragedy overcame Collins though in 2005 when he suffered two cerebral hemorrhages, leaving him paralyzed on one side of his body, and the abnormally articulate gent was cruelly reduced to a vocabulary of just four words. It’s an event one can hardly ignore when reviewing this, his first effort after an accident many assumed would leave him permanently incapacitated. You won’t be surprised then to find the theme of morbidity running a thick vein through his seventh solo album. Now, at 51 years old, Collins focuses on subjects relevant to his age and position, subjects made only more poignant when you inevitably consider his health. “I’m losing sleep, I’m losing dignity,” he begins on the first track. And you know as you hear his voice quaver throughout the song that he’s referring to his still imperfect physical condition. Yet, the tone? Upbeat, cheery almost, accompanied by bright horns. If the words are bleak, the tone says, Que sera, sera. What ever will be, will be.

“Sometimes I wonder, what is my role?” he asks next. He’s also “Bored” and “Humble.” Later, he’s even “Over the Hill.” These songs remind us of the human characteristics Collins has so trenchantly satirized in his music before. Here, however, he considers them more tenderly. He’s careful to avoid a pity fest, too: “Humble” actually proves affirming, reverent. So does “Come Tomorrow, Come Today” and “I Still Believe in You,” not to forget the romantic, swirling “In Your Eyes.”

“Fast and quick and speedy” is how Collins has said he wanted Losing Sleep to sound, seemingly in defiance of his physical condition. The effort features an array of collaborations with members of Orange Juice, The Cribs, Franz Ferdinand, The Magic Numbers, The Drums, and Aztec Camera. Despite or perhaps because of those many collaborations, Losing Sleep lacks the wit and depth of Collins’ previous efforts. Compare a tune like the creepy, seductive, ultimately scathing “Back to the Backroom” from Dr. Syntax with the remarkably straightforward, positively jaunty “Simple Life.” Similarly, “Searching for the Truth” sounds surprisingly literal compared to some of Collins’ previous work. Earnest even. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. We’ve just been trained to expect something more caustic from Collins. Consider, then, that “Searching for Truth” was the first song Collins penned while recovering from his illness. Or that he still can’t strum the strings of his guitar with his right hand. Perhaps, he’s just been through too much, values his recovering life too greatly to revel in cynicism. He’s moved from the more convoluted trappings of irony to something, in his own words, more “direct.”

In the end then, if Losing Sleep doesn’t tread the path you might expect it to, it’s still a welcome, valiant return from a treasured pop veteran.

This review will start with a disclaimer: I am the biggest Radiohead fan there is. Okay, maybe not in the modern definition of someone who posts endlessly annoying updates on their Facebook and Twitter, linking every news story or remix video, or who updates Foursquare whenever he or she is in a store that sells one of the newfangled “newspaper” editions of this album. If it’s not already obvious from that little rant, I’m too old and cranky for all of that. Still, I freaking love these dudes in a way that only a college-aged guy who spends his textbook money on concert tickets to see them multiple times on a single tour in places he doesn’t live in can. So, it’s hard for me to condemn an album by these habitually innovative Brits, but it must be done.

The King of Limbs, the band’s new eight-song, self-released venture, is arguably the band’s worst yet. Ironically, its low standing rivals only the quintet’s debut record, 1993’s Pablo Honey (Capitol), forming an incongruous career arch to this point. Maybe that’s the karmic purpose of this release, because it certainly doesn’t serve as a solid release from a band with more than a few in the back catalog. In fact, it serves as another reminder of the fall-off of a group once seemingly on top of the creative world.

All and all, The King of Limbs is another spin of a once inspired and categorically immune band becoming insipid where there was once innovation. The formula that once turned songs magical has now turned them into uninspired rants of odd-fitting glitch, house-hop backdrops with meandering vocals and a snap-on guitar riff here or there. It’s like eight half-baked ideas jam-packed into one bland, overflowing bowl. It’s interesting that a band so dead-set on changing its sound and not mimicking what’s previously worked for them has been victimized by their own innovation – trapped in a sound that initially cemented them as sound-shifting elder statesmen.

Leading this journey off are “Bloom” and “Morning Mr. Magpie,” both of which define the aforementioned explanation of Radiohead’s current sound: one part scattered synthetic percussion, one part lackadaisical vocals, one part jittery riffage, and boom goes the Radiohead tune. “Little By Little” is more of the same but with a jagged, rhythm and blues delivery that makes what might be described as a chorus as coolly intoxicating. But still, it’s the interesting kind of trinket that made fans initially pick up frontman (and idea man) Thom Yorke’s solo offering, The Eraser (XL, 2006), though not something you’d expect as one of the lead tracks offered up by his proper legendary band.

Next up is a real tough one to swallow from an already skimpy eight song offering from a band whose releases are akin to gold bullion: “Feral,” an instrumental track, and one that sounds like the test backing track to a B-side off of In Rainbows (TBD/ATO, 2007). After that, we are into the strong half of the record, which gives us the de-facto single “Lotus Flower.” This tune offers up more of that same nouveau Radiohead sound as a landscape, but Yorke delivers the melodic levitation that has kept fans and critics interested over the previous pair of post-Kid A/Amnesiac outings.

Nearing closer to closure, the tunes “Codex” and “Give Up the Ghost” offer up what at least this reviewer thinks the next full artistic diversion should be for the band. Each is led by a strong, solitary instrument – the former in the form of a piano and the latter a simple acoustic strum – which is something that has been the badge of all of Radiohead’s top tunes of the last decade. By the time the listener reaches the finale, “Separator,” we are back to Radiohead B-side territory.

Listen: every all-time great rock’n’roll band reaches the peak of their artistic Everest before eventually ending up in career peaks and valleys mostly the size of cul-de-sac speed bumps. But that doesn’t mean the band can’t take a visit back to the summit every few years. Hopefully the wonderful Radiohead realizes that this well-worn, if once innovative, “more is more” formula isn’t the ticket back.

Beady Eye is, of course, four-fifths of the final Oasis lineup – never mind that the missing fifth happens to be principal songwriter Noel Gallagher! While it is true that after the first few Oasis albums Noel allowed (probably somewhat reluctantly) for token songwriting contributions from his lead vocalist brother Liam, as well as guitarist Gem Archer (formerly of Heavy Stereo) and bass player Andy Bell (ex-Ride), Oasis was clearly always Noel’s gig. That said, Liam really stepped up in the songwriting department on Oasis’ final album, 2008’s Dig Out Your Soul (Big Brother/Reprise), writing two of the best songs on that record: the lush, Lennon-esque ballad “I’m Outta Time” and the explosive “Ain’t Got Nothin’,” which bordered on balls out punk rock. Perhaps Liam’s emergence as a songwriter was the final nail in the Oasis coffin?

As an album, Different Gear, Still Speeding isn’t anywhere close to being in the same league as the legendary first two Oasis albums, 1994’s Definitely Maybe (Creation/Epic) and 1995’s (What’s The Story) Morning Glory? (Creation/Epic). Nevertheless, the best material here holds its own with the rest of that group’s back catalog. The opener “Four Letter Word” is a defiant diatribe (probably directed at Noel, as the brothers Gallagher are no longer on speaking terms), highlighted by a brief yet-enticing opening interlude that sounds straight outta’ “Live And Let Die.” The song is a high octane guitar attack, similar in feel to punkier Oasis numbers like “Bring It On Down,” “Fade Away,” and “(It’s Good) To Be Free), and it sports primetime Liam vocals, in which he virtually spits out the lyric “nothing lasts forever” in disgust.  “The Roller” is an amazing epic, part The Beatles’ “All You Need Is Love” and part John Lennon’s “Instant Karma,” with Liam’s vocals soaring over the band’s stunning orchestrated sound – definitely one of Liam Gallagher’s career highlights. “Three Ring Circus” is nearly as great, recalling Lennon’s angrier solo records. If The Beatles references laced throughout the songs weren’t enough, one of the better tracks on Different Gear is actually called “Beatles and Stones,” though it blatantly steals the riff from The Who’s “My Generation”! As on “Four Letter Word,” Liam is full of bravado here, proclaiming he’s “going to stand the test of time like Beatles and Stones.”

While Beady Eye falls short on a few tracks, especially the bordering on-painful “Hey Jude” pastiche “Wigwam” and the corny Little Richard/Chuck Berry-like 1950s-style rocker “Bring the Light,” Different Gear, Still Speeding is, for the most part, a winner and something that any Oasis or John Lennon fan will want in their collection.

As one half of Providence, Rhode Island’s Lightning Bolt, Brian Chippendale has managed to create some of the most maniacal noise rock of the past decade. That duo’s frenzied racket has proved to be highly appealing to listeners who enjoy making sense out of sounds that to many others come across as complete nonsense. Chippendale also does this in another two-man team, Mindflayer, and manages to make time to create artwork, some of which can be seen on the covers for the music he creates. On top of all this, he releases solo recordings under the moniker Black Pus. From afar it may sound like a bunch of monotonous noise, everything sounding the same, but people who truly listen and understand  the beauty within the chaos can hear the myriad textures within the murkiness, which is what makes Primordial Pus stand out.

Primordial Pus is Chippendale’s fifth solo album, and if his Lightning Bolt and Mindflayer work is on one level of distorted insanity, his solo work sounds like uncontrolled aural massacres. The opening track, “Ha Ha Havoc,” sounds like he enters a dark room with contents unknown, with a muffled chant similar to that of a pecking chicken. Now, imagine you’re in a dark alley surrounded by garbage bins and sheet metal, and you’re armed with mallets. Then, imagine yourself pounding upon them rhythmically. Suddenly, someone throws fireworks down upon you, and your only source of light is the careening sparks. That’s Black Pus, and this is only song number one.

Chippendale’s Black Pus set-up involves himself, a drum set, and what sounds like a microphone borrowed from a thrift store reel-to-reel machine donated by an elementary school. He not so much sings as he does scream, chant, and grunt as he plays. Within that mix are various sounds that he controls with effects pedals, so while you’re hearing heavily distorted guitars, sirens, and high pitched whistles, it’s all within close proxitimity to his feet and he’s triggering everything in real time. Chippendale does this in a live setting incredibly well (search for him on YouTube to see and hear proof).  “Favorite Blanket, Favorite Curse” is just odd drones with piercing bass drums that drill through the psyche. “Police Song” is a mid-tempo track that could actually take on dance floors, if the world was a better place. Meanwhile, “Cave of Butterfly” might be some kind of energetic White Stripes/Mudhoney hybrid, if arranged slightly differently.

What has always been most fascinating about Black Pus (and Lightning Bolt and Mindflayer, for that matter) is how Chippendale is able to play at such fast speeds, and that he is able to do this song after song after song, 60 to 90 minutes at a time in a live performance. With Primordial Pus, his pace is almost laid back compared to previous efforts, as if this were a jazz album on ECM or Kudu. However, don’t assume that means that this is him trying to create smooth jazz noise. For one thing, the sound quality is far from excellent – everything sounds like it was recorded on cassette, then transferred to a hard drive with little to no filtering. That is, it sounds like a raw bootleg. But the low-fidelity holds a certain appeal, considering that this is an artist for whom the live performance is paramount. For some the live recording style might sound flawed, but Black Pus is not about audile perfection. Rather, Chippendale simply seeks to execute music and energy, and he does so in songs that are carefully constructed and arranged, even though they very much sound improvised or “of the moment.”  Anyone familiar with the work of singer/comedian Reggie Watts knows how he enjoys doing routines with nothing but a microphone and effect pedals. Black Pus does exactly this, but in a much more amplified way.

The most surprising track on Primordial Pus is album closer “I’ll Come When I Can.”  If you’re a fan of Italian or German progressive rock, you’re aware that a peformer will do some incredibly wild sounds for the majority of the album and then when they’ve reached their conclusion, the last track will sound like it’s been made for mainstream appeal.  This is not to say that Black Pus will be opening up for Adele, Drake, or Rihanna anytime soon, nor is the song as it is will be heard on the radio with Maroon 5. However, the song is a stark departure, consisting of Chippendale singing in a genuine manner, mixed in with digital loops of a vocal chorus and improvisational drums. The lyrics actually expose Chippendale’s vulnerability a bit, and it is a song that could potentially be interpreted and covered in a number of ways, from jazz and pop to soul and country.  It would be hilarious if someone picked up on this and made “I’ll Come When I Can” a song for today’s generation, but when they search for the original version and listen to the other songs on the album, they’ll go, “Wow, what in the hell was this guy on?”

Despite how chaotic Black Pus’ music sounds, what stands out is Chippendale’s organization and dedication towards the simple task of creating.  Dare I say it reveals sensibility to his music, all while being as spontaneous sounding as free jazz and experimental/avant-garde music?  I just did.  Fans who discover Black Pus through the recent Lightning Bolt collaboration with Flaming Lips may be either pleasantly surprised or completely shocked by the sounds on Primorial Pus, but that’s fine.  For longtime supporters of Chippendale, these are simply new threads to an eclectic fabric that keeps on growing.