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Universal Doldrums

By David King

Matt and Kim

Sidewalks

Matt and Kim sure know how to squander goodwill. They are the couple everyone loves to love. Their last dance-punk album, Grand, was ready-made for an iPod commercial, but they delivered it with such sincerity. It was motherfucking catchy and it all came spewing out with wonderfully ragged edges—Matt’s whine, and Kim’s thumping, out-of-tune drums and “good try” backup vocals made the band feel like that comfy, worn-out safety-blanket of a sweater that you just can’t bear to throw away.

Sidewalks takes the fuzzy feeling and wraps it up in plastic, puts labels on it like “Cute!” “Hip!” and “Easily Accessible!” and makes you want to puke. “We’re universal — and we’re aiming for that genre-less sound,” Matt told Spin while trying to describe the band’s new direction. I guess no one told the band that “genre-less sound” usually translates to elevator music, and that is exactly what you get on Sidewalks: overprocessed, overemotional, oversentimental elevator music for the iPad generation.

The band recorded with Deerhunter/ Animal Collective (and ex-Bad Boy) producer Ben Allen, and boy he sure as fuck did not get the band’s appeal. The rough edges are gone; the beats are no longer frantic. The percussion sounds like it was mostly handled by the hip-hop presets on a Casio keyboard, and they putt along low in the mix. Kim’s frantic thump is nowhere to be heard. Matt’s singing is processed into annoying oblivion, and Kim’s voice is buried deep under boring synth lines. There are no more quirks here, just a band trying too hard to make something everyone can like.

Don’t think for a second that this album is the band experimenting with a more electronic sound. There is nothing creative about the electronic production—it just makes everything sound sterile. Perhaps it is an attempt to fit conveniently alongside Passion Pit at Wal-Mart or maybe the band were just dominated by Allen’s production. They even tried to capture past magic by rerecording “Silver Tiles,” a song they recorded in their makeshift home studio in 2005. It sounds like a 14-year-old kid using the same line they used as a 7-year old to try to get candy from their parents. It used to be cute but now it has a cynical, glossy, polish that is simply irksome.

 

Cowboy Junkies

Demons: The Nomad Series Volume 2

No longer affiliated with any label, Cowboy Junkies are flexing their muscles as they pass their 25th anniversary. They launched a series of four albums last year, the rest of which will be appearing over the course of 2011. It’s called “The Nomad Series,” and the second volume, Demons, is devoted to the songs of Vic Chesnutt. The band actually had been discussing doing a collaborative project with him before his death at the end of 2009.

Chesnutt’s musical identity straddles genres in much the same as the Cowboy Junkies do. He was equally able to project with just an acoustic guitar as with a band and an arsenal of noisy foot pedals. He loved sandpapery surfaces, both in sound and words. Margo Timmins’ controlled singing may at first seem an odd match for Chesnutt’s propensity for vocals that seem just a few steps away from talking. But when Cowboy Junkies’ recipe works it’s because of the tension between Margo’s vibratoed timbres and brother Michael’s scuffed sonics. That combination is what makes most of this set work exceedingly well. The standout tracks tend to be the more intimate ones. “West of Rome” is heartbreakingly poignant and cinematically riveting, while “We Hovered With Short Wings” has a paper-thin bearing that seems like it could disappear from the slightest wisp of air.

The only misstep is “Wrong Piano.” The band sound lost in a large loud room, a problem that may have been tempered by it not being the opening number. But to close these remarks with that issue would incorrectly frame what is a lovingly considered and realized album.

—David Greenberger

 

The Left Rights

Bad Choices Made Easy

If you are familiar with New York City techno-rap-punk act Mindless Self Indulgence, you know they have an off-kilter, sometimes offensive sense of humor. But if you thought MSI’s bizarre sexual lyrics were the apex of their depravity, and their music the apex of their creativity, you were mistaken. MSI vocalist Jimmy Urine and guitarist Johnny Righ? use side project the Left Rights as a dumping ground for their most far-out and fantastical musical atrocities. The lead single “White” is likely blasphemous to a good number people on myriad levels. “Just like Michael Jackson I will be white, suburban, middle class/I’ll never have to work again.” The auto-tune effect on Urine’s vocals is the first tip that the song is a diss-track aimed at Kanye West and his MJ obsession. The follow-up lyrics that drip with absurd levels of auto tune only confirm it: “I can always piss my life away/There will never be any consequences/It doesn’t matter what I say/Mommy’s always gonna pay for college!”

Just when you think you’ve pinned down exactly who the band are trying to insult, they switch it up. “Retail stores/Liquor and whores/I got one black friend and I don’t want more/The only thing better than Star Wars/Is a keytar solo from 1994!” Urine raps. As said keytar solo unfolds, Urine comments, “Oh yeah, this is better than standing still at a Radiohead concert!”

For the record, Urine and Righ? are both white and probably rich by this point. But they exist to provoke, inflame and simultaneously break down stereotypes. They do it in one- or two- minute long blasts of odd samples, shitty guitar licks and big beats. Ween-like folky interludes sung in bad foreign accents break up the techno-punk. Songs like “Little Hardons” and “Alabaster Street” are delivered like Irish folk tunes but focus on perverse sex acts. “All the people that you meet/Here on Alabaster Street/They wank you with their feet!” someone sings like a cockney carnival barker.

At 41 tracks, Bad Choices is either the most immature and insulting or insanely creative and hysterical album you will hear all year. It just depends on what type of person you are. I, for one, love it. And that means most normal people won’t.

—David King


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