Prefer the Gentlemen (Gentlemen/Soda Pop)
If you’ve seen Mike Gent’s other band, the Gentlemen, which
matches the Figgs front man with three-quarters of Boston’s
Gravel Pit, you know that this is more than just a side project—for
few bands bring the rock like the Gents. Imagine, if you will,
Elvis Costello at his nastiest (late-’70s model) fronting
Thin Lizzy or Bon Scott-era AC/DC.
In the past year or so, I’ve seen two rock concerts I’ll never
forget. One is the Who at Madison Square Garden. The other
is the Gentlemen at New York City’s Brownies last winter.
A slashing, ice-cream-headache-inducing rain kept most folks
indoors, but the Gentlemen played to the half-dozen or so
assembled as if their lives depended on it, with chest-thumping
guitars swinging from barroom squalor to arena-ready crunch.
More time went into the production of this sophomore effort,
Blondes Prefer the Gentlemen, and sonically it’s a
better representation of the Gents than the group’s debut.
Bassist Ed Valauskis and Lucky Jackson also played a larger
role, contributing some fine tracks to back up Gent’s tunes.
This is a world where a subtle sleight of hand can turn a
rock cliché into something grander, and the opener, “Let Us
Know,” throws down the gauntlet, starting with a bone-crunching
riff before Gent spews “Are you coming? I thought I heard
you mooaann.” Other highlights on this outstanding effort
include “He Is Risen” and “It’s Phony Rock and Roll.”
Nearby Stars (Evil Teen)
Let’s start at the surface and dig our way in. A name that’s
three initials: VPN. The initials stand for Very Pleasant
Neighbor, which is an espionage code from the Second World
War that meant “friends of the Communist Party.” The core
of this New York City quartet is a trio of siblings, two of
whom are twin sisters (both of whom are registered nurses).
As raw data goes, that’s nice, chewy stuff indeed. This is
all worth noting because VPN’s recently released second album
(recorded in a defunct 1920s silent movie theater) is sympathetically
layered with songs that reveal surprises and contradictions,
all within a landscape of smartly written and arranged music.
On the surface, there is such bracing variety that VPN seem
like a couple bands rolled into one. However, further listening
offers the rewards of a group whose diversity is a healthy
and honest aspect of their true character—no affectation can
be found here.
VPN create pop songs with a dark sort of gusto. The lush harmony
vocals make all manner of oblique texts sail past like a summer
breeze (“Turning all your passion into golden teeth/Hide them
in your pocket/Instead of using them to eat/There goes your
flame”). The baroque pop arrangement flourishes of the opening
“Flypaper” are darkly alluring, with a mesmerizing coda that
has all of the tightening drama of the Beatles’ “I Want You
(She’s So Heavy).” “Ten Years From Tomorrow” could be from
the first couple records by the dBs. Elsewhere, overlapping
vocal parts create swirls of hypnotic power, while the core
of guitars, bass and drums fearlessly moves between brilliant
foundation and inventive fury.
Now (Undertow Music)
Dolly Varden can be roughly lumped into the alt-country camp—such
is the increasingly Catholic reach of that label—but like
fellow iconoclasts Richard Buckner and Varnaline, Dolly Varden
work the fringes of the genre, creating their own rules and
following their own muse. There’s a great songwriting balance
between the husband-and-wife team of Stephen Dawson and Diane
Christiansen. Dawson’s earnest, cosmopolitan roots-pop recalls
Freedy Johnston at times, while Christiansen hangs back in
the haze, crafting some of the most hauntingly sweet tunes
since Mazzy Star stumbled into “Fade Into You” or the Sundays
covered “Wild Horses.” Forgiven Now is the Chicago
group’s strikingly strong fourth album.
There’s a forthrightness to Dolly Varden’s songs that quietly
demands your attention, like snatches of a fascinating conversation
in another room. And just as you relax your vigilance, a thorny
little phrase pulls you back in. “A red steak and a Canadian
Club/America loves a lighthearted drunk,” croons Dawson in
“Trying to Live Up.” “You’ve never had a fat girl before,”
sings Christiansen in the smoky, gorgeous “1000 Men Like Cigarettes.”
“Time For You to Leave” features the riposte “I think the
time has come for me to leave you here among your boxes and
your stacks of quarters/Leave you here with the filthy jokes
about your daughter.” It helps that the music is equally as
alluring, swinging from glib, country-tinged rock to dreamy,
atmospheric pop. This is a well-produced, well-written and
well-performed effort from top to bottom.
Boy, other than to say “this is a really, really good record”
or “these guys rock hard,” it’s pretty darn tough to get your
hands far enough around Autophile to be able to stylistically
summarize it. I mean, just listen to the first three songs:
“Home” grinds along in a disturbing aural groove similar to
that etched by Korn on their influential “Ball Tongue”; “Stay”
wouldn’t feel out of place when pressed up against some great
stoner-rock classic from Kyuss; and “Soul Patch” could almost
be a (great) lost Soundgarden track. Ain’t too many metalheads
who can evoke that many stylistic touch points over the course
of 13 minutes of music. . . . And when you note that there’s
another 36 minutes to go after those first three songs, well,
you can imagine the dilemma that a 250-word review poses.
So let’s just boil it down to those basic introductory points
again, shall we? Autophile is a really, really good
record, and Spinecar rock hard—not to mention smart, and that’s
worth a lot in a world of dumb Korn, Kyuss and Soundgarden
imitators. Singer-guitarist Eric Braymer, bassist-vocalist
Larry Gagliardi and drummer Art Bernstein deserve rich credit
for thoughtfully mapping the point where those bands—and dozens
of others—intersect, creating a unique and impressive sound
of their own in the process. And the nicest thing about the
musical place where they end up is that it’s radio-ready as
all get-out, proving that you don’t have to dive for the lowest
common denominator in order to create art with broad popular
appeal. That makes Spinecar a band worth pulling for. Go!