Author: Cory Xander

It was a Thursday night at Mississippi Studios, a small venue in Portland, and on display was the kind of support for each other’s bands that you always hear about. Point Juncture, WA, was the first up, and they played a solid if short set, with Amanda Spring demonstrating her amazing breath control, pounding the drums energetically for most of the set while managing to sing coherently. Smiling broadly all the while. They played some lively stuff from their most recent work, Handsome Orders, whose song “Violin Case” holds up to anything raved about on Wild Flag. But rather than plug their own work, Point Juncture, WA returned to the theme–talking up the headliner’s new album. When Deer or the Doe eventually took the stage, Spring was up front near the stage, dancing with enthusiasm. Deer or the Doe rose to the occasion, earning the accolades of their peers with their driving guitar-heavy but melodic post-Minutemen punk. The star of the night was their album on release, Tonight We Love You, a wide-ranging work that on the first few listens seems their strongest yet. It rises from pensive to flat-out slamming in a few short moments, with apparent influences from Husker Du and perhaps The Sea and Cake. In their live show as well as on the album, the band’s vocals are almost secondary, just one of the fine instruments on display. Even a more vocally-focused song like the excellent “Longest Arms” ends in shouts above the well-controlled fray. The band seemed to be having a great time, feted by their peers. The members of the second band in the line-up before Deer or the Doe were especially gracious, selling Tonight We Love You not only from the stage but cheerfully to me at the merch table. Yet their own performance that night demanded attention in its own right.

To say that Radiation City has a retro feel is not quite right. It’s a distorted retro, as if the band came from a place where the only music was from an oldies AM station playing The Shirelles and Pink Floyd, where 50s-era housewives took their first hit of 60s psychedelia. The instrumentation was tight, with organ and drum providing just the right texture for the eerily beautiful vocal harmonies to step out from and seep straight into your soul. And with their recent designation as Willamette Week’s Best New(ish) Band, Radiation City is getting even more of the attention they deserve. Just don’t tell them that–I overheard the bassist scoff at the idea that they would be at Sasquatch. I can imagine the sentiment of wanting to avoid that kind of Cluster, but not because they wouldn’t deserve to be there. With its genre-defying David Lynch soundscapes, even if 2011’s The Hands That Take You wasn’t enough to knock down the doors of virtual gate-keepers like Pitchfork, the live version would convince any doubters. The band played a number of songs from their more recent EP, which includes the moody epic “Find it of Use.”  The audience was captivated–a Very Tall Man next to me exclaimed quite earnestly that the performance brought him to tears. Like the experience of fellow Tender Loving Empire projects Typhoon and Y La Bamba, the band is in the middle of a quick upward trajectory which I imagine would be jarring for any band. Perhaps it’s modesty, but one of the most striking and refreshing things about the nice people in Radiation City is that they still don’t seem to believe how crazy good they really are.

P.S. For free downloads of earlier work by Deer or the Doe, Port Juncture, WA, and other interesting bands (like Ioa), visit www.wantstogiveyou.com.

Sleigh Bells first crashed onto the scene a couple of years ago.

With a distinctive mix of blazing guitars, bass turned to 11, screams and high-pitch vocals, they sounded like Katy Perry hijacked by the guitarists from Slayer. Their first album, Treats, grabbed attention for its blend of sonic turbulence and pop swayings. Visually, the band played on the disjunction of crashing beats over syrupy lyrics with videos featuring cheerleaders and leather jackets. Gimmicky, yes, but it seemed to work. My (inner- as well as real-life) twelve-year-old loved it.

I can imagine that the prospect of a second album was daunting for Derek Miller and Alexis Krauss, with their carefully managed image in play. In this vein, the album cover for Reign of Terror, featuring a pair of worn cheer shoes spattered with blood, serves as a clever meme for the brand–I mean, band. If there was any worry that they would sell out to their potential for wider pop distribution, their opening salvo “True Shred Guitar” aims to dispel such doubts. The song was recorded live, with pounding drums, teeth-grinding guitar, and Krauss shouting fuck-bombs–you know, just to make it totally legit. From there, the album oscillates between her familiar screams-and-melody vocals, as in “Born to Lose,” and a more breathy straightforward delivery (as in “End of The Line”). At its best, the latter effect is a kind of eerie, Julee Cruise spaciness (“DOA”). At its not best, it’s more like cotton-candy (“End of the Line”). Even the album’s single, “Comeback Kid,” has a fierce guitar line, but the vocals leave a saccharine aftertaste. Fuel to the suspicion that the odd bubble-gum and cheerleader fetishism may not be a put-on after all.

Sleigh Bells have been described as a noise pop band, putting them in comparison with such heavies as Sonic Youth and Jesus and Mary Chain. However, with Reign of Terror, Sleigh Bells suggest a more apt description such as pop noise, placing themselves much closer to the top 40 end of the spectrum. As such, the album may bring a challenge, being too bitter for the pure pop crowd but cloying for those with indie tastebuds.

Smells Like 

I’ve only been listening to my favorite album of the year for the past few weeks. While I had heard good things about it since its release in April, I had consciously avoided the album. Chalk it up to aNoYaNcE with C A P I T A L I Z A T I O N. When I finally took a listen, I knew immediately it would rise to the top of my list. In a year when many releases had a familiar pop alternative tameness (with a large dose of folk from northwest bands), W H O K I L L sounds like nothing else released this year, at least in the States. With its upbeat African sensibility, quirky vocals, and stray jazz riffs, the album has a level of risk so often avoided this year by other bands. And it pays off.

tUnEyArDs is primarily Merrill Garbus, a looping machine, ukelele, drums, and sax. The first song, “My Country,” establishes her cred. “My country ’tis of thee,” she sings, but with its springy beat and vocal style echoing something like the Mahotella Queens, it sounds like she could be referring to South Africa or Mali. For a further disconnect, the sunny style evident in this song and others is belied by a clear stream of protest running beneath. This is most evident in the later song “Doorstep,” about a police shooting.  Toward the middle of the album, in “Gangsta” Garbus unleashes a driving edginess from some third world street in the slums of Rio (or Detroit) that could be straight out of the movie “City of God.” Violence is a recurring theme in the work, and she reveals some swagger, like MIA but without the Tamil Tiger gunplay. In her concluding song “Killa,” the most self-referential and perhaps the weakest song of the bunch, she declares herself a “new kind of woman” whose violence is constrained by her music.

If you want to see a great demonstration of the construction of this album, and of live looping itself, tUnEyArDs’ performance on NPR’s Tiny Desk Concerts (or the video from KEXP above) serves well. One note, however. Perhaps the biggest disconnect with tUnEyArDs is Garbus herself. With all the worldliness of her album, it may come as a bit of surprise that it emanates from a young white woman with a side mullet, looking like she stepped straight off of a liberal arts campus somewhere. To me, this makes the album all the more remarkable, its musical genius in its ability to transport the listener elsewhere.

Smells Like:

Just over a year ago, I learned about Vic Chesnutt’s suicide on the radio:  “Those of us who work on Fresh Air were upset and shocked…” The usually unflappable Terry Gross sounded shaken by the news, having interviewed the enigmatic singer just a month prior. He had told her the story of his southern childhood and its sudden about-face when he was partially paralyzed in a one-car accident. He had played “Flirted With You All My Life,” explaining that the intensely personal and bittersweet tune was a “break-up song with death.” He had even told her about his past attempts at suicide, joking, “it didn’t take.” Vic’s ability to craft stories with quirky wordsmithing and self-deprecating humor came through just as much in his interview as in his songwriting, and Terry Gross, like so many fans he left behind, was clearly charmed.

I first came across Vic Chesnutt in 1993’s Drunk, a carousing album that showcases Vic’s style in full-blown fury. An acquired taste for some listeners, for me his strained vocals over minimalist guitar chording (both aspects were due to the physical consequences of his accident) created a mesmerizing effect. This album swings from eccentric musings to raucous outbursts, and it brought to mind what would happen if David Sedaris were locked in a room too long with Tom Waits and Shane McGowan of The Pogues. Witness the fucked-up glorious spectacle in “Gluefoot”:  “Cross my heart/ Cross my eyes/ Stick a needle in my thigh/ Drop kicked my unscrewed lid and fiddled fiddled fiddled with what’s inside/ A rusty mass of mechinations….” The title track that follows is what might result if that same crew crashed an AA meeting. Denial it ain’t.

I was lucky to see Vic in concert several years later, sharing the stage with his friend Kristen Hersh (of Throwing Muses and 50foot Wave). They took turns playing acoustic songs, one building on a theme from the other.  Both were remarkable, but even Hersh would acknowledge that her poetic mania seemed dim alongside Vic’s scintillating wit, as he joked with the audience and sketched stark images with his lyrics. It is perhaps this latter quality that has attracted the most attention over the years—some have likened his songs to classic southern novels. Whether this is apt or not, he certainly was able to evoke a sense of time and place as so few of his contemporaries can (my favorite example is 2009’s “Sewing Machine,” recalling a childhood in a simpler time).  His songs are sometimes melancholy testaments to decay (as in “Degenerate”), at other times veering toward the downright goofy (“…we were laughing at Dapper Dan/ We were happy as giant clams…We were bumping our birth-marks/ we were happy as lilting larks” –“Society Sue”). As Michael Stipe pointed out, it is the unusual turns of phrase at the core of his songs that make them so oddly compelling.

Perhaps the greatest measure of Vic Chesnutt’s artistry was the company he kept. He became a core member of the Athens, Georgia music scene, accompanied by locals Widespread Panic, and more recently, Elf Power. In 1996, the tribute album Sweet Relief 2 was released, featuring Chesnutt covers by artists ranging from Garbage to Smashing Pumpkins to Madonna (!). The fact that so many musicians wanted to pay tribute and collaborate with him, usually in the role of back-up to his idiosyncratic vocals, reveals the level to which he was in reality an artist’s artist. His commercial success was always limited, and he was dogged by financial troubles from past-due medical bills for the remainder of his life. Yet he continued to crank out albums, eighteen in all, and collaborations with The Cowboy Junkies (who just released a tribute album of their own this month) and the ageless Jonathan Richman were in the works. If anything, Vic’s creative energies were on the rise toward end of his life, having released three albums in a year’s stretch. “He was on such a burn,” Fugazi’s Guy Piccioto said to Terri Gross, that he instructed his fellow musicians to not let him have his guitar at night, because he needed rest.  “The music was pouring out of him.”

To me, it is incredibly sad that in such musical genius as Vic Chesnutt’s were also the seeds of his self-annihilation. Apparently, his friends were trying to get him the help he needed, having recognized worrying signs in his escalating behavior, but it arrived too late. He left a community of musicians and fans deeply appreciative of his contributions and long in mourning.

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