Category: Reviews


I don’t need this boxed set.

The albums Naked City released from 1989-1993 sit in a permanent spot on my shelf. When sifting through my collection to find which albums could earn me cash at a second-hand store, these albums are never touched.

Still, Naked City: The Complete Studio Recordings marks the first time a majority of these albums have been released in America.

John Zorn recorded the first Naked City album while he was signed to Nonesuch Records. But legend says Nonesuch balked at the cover art Zorn proposed for subsequent releases, and the composer departed the label.

The following Naked City albums were released on various labels in Japan, including Zorn’s own Avant.

In the span of its compact existence, Naked City released seven albums, each one distinctive, all of them covering a broad spectrum of style and mood.

The original self-titled debut is a dazzling display of showmanship, and at the time, it was inconceivable just how much further this ensemble could go. They would go very far, indeed.

Naked City was the nexus between high art and punk rock. Brash and noisy, but accomplished. Spontaneous and unpredictable, but precise. Dissonant and unsettling, but melodic.

Rock fans took to the band for the volume. Student composers took to the band for its breadth. Jazz listeners took to the band for its improvisatory fire. Not everything in the Naked City lexicon appealed to everyone, but it sure brought a lot of different fans together.

In my college days, I preferred the band’s melodic material over its purely improvised performances. But nearly a decade later, even the parts that didn’t appeal to me have something to appreciate.

Heretic, a soundtrack to a French erotic film (yeah, I could have called it pr0n), is thoroughly improvised, but even in all the chaos, there’s an underpinning of logic to the performances.

It wasn’t just the cues — Zorn, guitarist Bill Frisell, keyboardist Wayne Horvitz, bassist Fred Frith and drummer Joey Baron possessed a telepathic chemistry. In the greatest of jazz improvisatory traditions, they made music on the spot that sounded like fate.

By contrast, Absinthe is the band’s darkest performance and perhaps Zorn’s most brilliant studio creation. On this album, none of the band members sound like their parts.

Guitars and keyboards go through heavy effects processing, bass and drums get spliced up and pasted every which way. What results is a nightmare soundscape as alien as it is terrifying.

Zorn had already anticipated this slower, gradual structure with Grand Guignol, something of a mish-mash album. The title piece is a slow, ominous collage, ever-shifting between extremes and never seeming to settle on one direction.

At the time, it seemed like Zorn’s least cohesive piece. As it turns out, it was. Zorn re-mixed the piece with a new vocal track provided by ex-Faith No More singer Mike Patton, and the new version brings a clairty to the piece missing in the original.

The rest of Grand Guignol is split between ethereal covers of classical pieces and the remaining 30 tracks from Torture Garden that did not appear on the self-titled debut.

Zorn resequenced Grand Guignol to put the classical covers at the end, and the result is an album with better flow.

By the time Naked City recorded Radio, Zorn got the sense the band had gone as far as it could have. (Original plans called for a second volume of Radio, but Zorn nixed them.)

With Radio, the band returns to the varied program of its self-titled debut, with more of an emphasis on improvisation. The first half of the album contains melodic material, but the second half goes utterly bugfuck. On one level, it wasn’t as successful as the first album, but still, it’s a performance to behold.

Naked City: The Complete Studio Recordings doesn’t give much room to reproduce the sparse but disturbing cover art of the original albums. And Zorn’s annoying aesthetic sense to put light text against light backgrounds makes the accompanying bound book, Eight Million Stories: Naked City Ephemera, useless.

Not totally, though — the booklet contains snippets of Naked City scores and a lot of great photos and art.

This boxed set contains some of the most amazing music ever produced by one band. Naked City managed to create more great music in five years than other bands who lasted twice as long.

I don’t need it, but I have it anyway. And man has it been nice revisiting it!

Trip through her wires

You think three months would be enough time to warm up to an album, right?

I’ve spun Sasagawa Miwa’s second album, Amata, just about non-stop since its release in January 2005, hoping there would be a tipping point where I could wrap my head around what she was doing this time around.

It didn’t take me three months to reach the conclusion her debut album, Jijitsu, was one of the most original works to come across my media player in a long, long time. (Hell, it didn’t take me three seconds to decide that.)

But with Amata, I’ve waited and waited.

It just isn’t going to happen. Sophomore slump? Perhaps.

Thing is, Sasagawa on a bad day is still far and away distinctive from any of her contemporaries — in Japan or the rest of the world.

Amata continues Sasagawa’s exploration of traditional music and pop. It’s not everyday a Japanese songwriter writes pop songs with a definite influence from Scottish waulking music.

The opening title track offers very little melodically — it’s nearly a drone on a single note, but her rhythmic delivery feels ancient.

The singles off the album are stellar — “Tomenaide” is one of those songs that never wears on repeat, while tribal-like drums provide the rhythmic foundation for “Anata Atashi”.

The first half of the album possesses the most interesting moments. The robotic-delivery of “Kodoku” belies is rock edge, while “Yuitsu no Mono” is the most earnest song on the album.

The middle of the album drags with the non-descript “Koosui” and “Joshin” neighboring each other, and while “Saki” is an breathtaking combination of guitars, folk vocals and a slowed-down techno beat, “Mooja” pretty much crashes the album.

By itself, “Mooja” is the darkest song on Amata, stretching at a lengthy 6’45”. It’s also an anamoly, influenced by cabaret jazz, though still rooted in Sasagawa’s ethereal songwriting.

It’s taken a while to warm up to this song’s charms, but for the flow of the album, it does nothing for momentum. It doesn’t help “Utsukushii Kage”, one of Sasagawa’s strongest singles, follows to make that contrast all the more obvious.

The album does end on a tender note, with “Hachimitsu” and “Toki” bringing the songwriter to more solid ground.

Amata is not the tight, appealing construct of its predecessor. It’s better moments are indeed enjoyable, but the spotty parts make the album stumble.

Still, Sasagawa Miwa maintains her edge. Even when she falters, it’s still fascinating to hear her work.

Good, but not perfect

The members of Port of Notes are good, but they aren’t infallible.

Complain Too Much, the duo’s 1999 first full-length album, was practically flawless, but its 2001 follow-up, Duet with Birds, was hit-and-miss.

The pattern was even reflected in singer Hatakeyama Miyuki’s solo work. Her 2002 album, Diving In Your Mind, was strong and forceful, but a pair of cover albums and second studio album, Wild and Gentle, were mired in sentimentality.

Hatakeyama’s earnest croon deserves as much great material as it can, so the news of a new Port of Notes album in 2004 was welcome. After three years pursing their own projects — Tajima Daisuke recorded under the moniker DSK while Hatakeyama released her solo work — could the pair still produce that same chemistry?

Let’s get the comparrisons out of the way — Evening Glows isn’t as fetching as Complain Too Much, but it holds together far better than Duet With Birds.

At the same time, it isn’t the fastest album to warm up to.

The songs on Evening Glows don’t contain the hooks that immediately grab a listener’s attention. Nor are the songs fitted with much studio flourish.

Given their bossa nova-leanings and gender dynamics, Port of Notes has drawn numerous comparrisons to UK duo Everything But the Girl. Such comparrisons were rendered obsolete when EBTG retooled its sound for techno and drum ‘n’ bass.

The first half of Evening Glows sounds closer to later-era Sade. “Sorezore no Umi” has the kind of sparse arrangement that would have fit well on Lovers Rock. “Dead Angel”, on the other hand, could have been an outtake from Hatakeyama’s Diving In Your Mind.

The album loses a bit of steam on the overly long instrumental “Woodnote” but picks right back up for its midpoint peak. “Sunshine in the Rain”, featuring Matsutoya Yumi, serves as a perfect lead-in to the exuberent “Trace of Dream”.

After that, Evening Glows retracts the momentum, drawing the album inward. It’s not a particularly bad move, but the second half of the album tends to blur into a single, slow-tempo haze.

For four straight songs, the duo limit the instrumentation pretty much to themselves — vocal and guitar, with maybe a trumpet to comment on the action. It wouldn’t seem so out of place if the first half didn’t build up to “Trace of Dream”.

“Pacific Morning Dance” demonstrates Tajima is not quite Ben Watt to Hatakeyama’s Tracy Thorn. He doesn’t posses very strong vocals, but that’s not half as distracting as his accent on his English lyrics.

Evening Glows reveals its charms after a number of listens, and its understated moments serves it well at some points. On others, they get lost among themselves.

Port of Notes aren’t infallible, but when they are good, it shows.

Big lizard in my backyard

Here today, gone today. Chris Rock may have talking about late-’90s teen pop when he made that observation at an award show earlier this decade.

But it applies just as easily to rock music. In 2002, you couldn’t throw a rock without hitting a band that ripped off Television and the MC5. In 2004, that same rock hit bands ripping off Morrissey and Joy Division.

The Hives, by all conventional wisdom, should have been obsolete just as quickly as they became relevant.

Veni Vidi Vicious was a blast of an album, a behemoth crush of sturm und drang, straight from Sweden’s garage to God’s ears.

It was a fun diversion that fit well with the White Stripes’ blues revivalism and the Strokes’ 15-minutes of uninterest. They weren’t supposed to make a decent follow-up.

Yeah, well, fuck me.

Tyrannosaurus Hives is more than a decent follow-up. It’s every bit the compact energy of Veni Vidi Vicious filtered through a New Wave lens.

The robotic beats of “Two-Timing Touch and Broken Bones” and the pulsing riff of “Love in Plaster” kill two birds with the proveribal one stone by ripping off both the MC5 and Kraftwerk.

“A Little More for You” starts off with a bouncy rhythm this side of “This Charming Man” but wisely shifts to a less bouncy chorus.

Tortured strings augment Howlin’ Pelle’s barely controlled vocals on “Diabolic Scheme”, something of an INXS track that INXS never had the balls to record.

But these ’80s flourishes, while obvious, don’t overpower Tyrannosaurus Hives. The band does a fine job of that on its own.

Don’t listen to “No Pun Intended” during rush hour traffic — it may induce road rage. “See Through Head” jack hammers with its simple rhythms, while “Dead Quote Olympics” has the dumbest chorus in the very best sense of the word.

Expectations for the Hives were pretty high after Veni Vidi Vicious stormed through America, and it didn’t help that protracted legal wrangling after the band signed a new label deal cut some of that momentum.

But the Hives prove resilient, bursting forth as viciously on Tyrannosaurus Hives as it did on its last album.

In short, these guys don’t disappoint.

Ava adore

With all the doom and gloom news about flat CD and concert ticket sales, maybe the most subtle indication of the music industry’s doldrums is the heap of praise lavished on U2’s How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb.

Mainstream music magazines consistently gave the album four-star reviews, and it’s safely ensconced in the upper echelon of critics lists and reader polls.

I don’t get it.

If How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb is the best the music industry has to offer — and the best music audiences are willing to entertain — then perhaps I should just sit in the corner with my copy of Shiina Ringo’s Karuki Zaamen Kuri no Hana.

How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb is, by no means, a bad album. In fact, it deserves the good reviews it’s garnered so far.

“Vertigo” is U2’s grimiest song, surpassing even “The Fly” for pure grit. The swaggering shuffle of “Love or Peace or Else” makes it both alluring and untrustworthy, while “Miracle Drug” comes close to the pomp and circumstance of “Beautiful Day”.

“Crumbs From Your Table” has that nice drama reminiscent of Achtung Baby, while “Yahweh” almost feels pre-Joshua Tree.

Like All That You Can’t Leave Behind before it, How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb draws upon all eras of U2’s oeuvre to create its aural atmosphere — the bombast of its late-’80s work, the electronic effects of its ’90s output.

Problem is, U2 is responsible for a lot of “essential” moments in rock ‘n’ roll. Achtung Baby, The Joshua Tree, War (perhaps U2’s most overrated album) — the band has to compete with its own legacy.

And How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb achieves a very strange distinction — it is, by comparrison, a mediocre work.

Let’s face it — when U2 fuck up, these guys don’t pussyfoot. Rattle and Hum was just overblown, and Pop was just excessive.

How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb doesn’t reach that level abysmal, nor does it really feel like it a remarkably high point either.

It’s a good U2 album. But for a band that built a career on revelatory listening experiences, it doesn’t elevate.

The best thing is, U2 deserve to make this album — they proved their game in 25-plus years, so why should they top The Joshua Tree?

But How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb isn’t an album that should be adored the way it is.

Wait it out

The last time out, I spoke around the issue. I described Tift Merritt’s debut album as modest, a work to be appreciated indirectly.

But let’s be clear about it now — Bramble Rose was a bore. The performances were tepid, and Merritt sounded like she was trying too hard to be genteel.

And yet the press — included — compares Merritt to a young Emmylou Harris, which isn’t totally unwarranted.

So I was willing to give her second album, Tambourine, a shot.

When the first strums of “Stray Paper” started up, I thought, “Hmmm. Promising.” But when Merritt kicks it with “Wait It Out”, I thought, “Oh hell yeah!”

Tambourine is the proper introduction to Tift Merritt.

This time around, Merritt does her best to rock out. And even when she tones down or turns inward, she doesn’t let herself get weighed down.

“Laid a Highway” goes a long way in reinforcing those Emmylou Harris comparrisons, while “Plainest Thing” develops with a lot more momentum than similar songs on the last album.

Soul and blues have a significant presence on Tambourine. “Good Hearted Man” starts off with some soulful horns, while “Still Pretending” lilts with a Georgia blues rhythm. “I Am Your Tambourine”, meanwhile, goes to church, while “Your Love Made a U-Turn” goes for the funk.

Merritt sounds best, though, when she’s going full throtle. “Wait It Out” smashes through from start to finish, while the honky-tonk feel of “Shadow in the Way” wraps the album up just fine.

The confidence Merritt exudes is well deserved — the songs on Tambourine are all strong, and there’s hardly a dead spot on the album.

The album is such a contrast to her debut, it’s almost easy to think that last album was done by someone else entirely.

And in a way, it was.

With little more than a guitar as accompaniment, Merritt exudes a strong live presence. Her fans clamoured for an album for a long time, so Bramble Rose was greeted with far more enthusiasm than it was due.

Tambourine, on the other hand, captures that live essence, and it does her songwriting some justice.

Gang of four

At first, I made this snarky remark: “This band was more interesting when it was called Gang of Four”.

I didn’t go to Franz Ferdinand’s SXSW 2004 showcase — it was on the same night as Japan Nite. So I had no impression to inform me when the band’s self-titled debut album was released around the same time.

The Strokes had already worn out the novelty of aural photocopying, so when Franz Ferdinand compounded the antiquity of its ’80s sound with a lo-fi production quality, it came across as ungeniune.

But you got to hand it to these four lads — however much I loved to shite on their parade, I still kept spinning that album.

I justified the repeat listens as evaluation, careful studying to figure out what I was going to write, but really, it was writer’s block — something about the album impressed me even though this 20-year revival shtick doesn’t ring true with me.

Then I ran across the Killers.

When I figured out what made me get over my similar initial distate for the Killers — Oh, look! Analog synthesizers! How quaint! — I went back to Franz Ferdinand and finally put a finger to it.

And now I’m sorry I did miss that show because Franz Ferdinand sounds like they know how to fucking party.

That dull lo-fi finish on Franz Ferdinand, the album, cuts both ways.

On one hand, it’s a far more charming resurrection of a cheeky sound, and it’s way more convincing than the disconnected cool of The Strokes’ Is This It. (Man, I wish I could take back that review I wrote three years back.)

On the other hand, it doesn’t capture the full force of the band’s performances. That’s what was trying to reach out to me in all those spins.

The abandon of “This Fire”, the grandeur of “Darts of Pleasure”, the baudy lust of “Michael”, which actually convinced me to give the band another chance. (Because how cool is it for a band of straight guys to capture the essence of a night at a gay bar.)

There’s an atom bomb’s worth of energy on all of these tracks, but it’s all compacted.

But once the aurally picky can get past that wall, here be treasures waiting.

And even if Franz Ferdinand dips too deeply into the same well from which Gang of Four drank, the band knows how to write a damn catchy tune.

The moral of this story being: if you’re still on the fence about Franz Ferdinand, go back to them after you’ve experienced the Killers.

A little less specifically, Franz Ferdinand shares with the Killers the kind of palpable chemistry that powered the music of two decades ago. If they sound like their predecessors, it’s because they play the hell out of their instruments just like them.

Sing like you mean it

I think I get it now, this whole ’80s revival thing.

Because, really — what incentive do I have to listen to a band that sounds like Duran Duran when I can, well, listen to Duran Duran?

Bands such as Interpol, Longwave and the Stills may be reviving the sonic atmosphere of two decades previous, but I seldom get the sense these bands are adding anything to it.

(At least a band like Number Girl, while obviously influenced by the Pixies and Sonic Youth, sound very much like Number Girl.)

The first time I played the Killers’ Hot Fuss, it was the same reaction — it’s nice that they’ve got disco beats and shiny guitars, but man, that’s been done before.

It wasn’t until half-way through the second listen that it became obvious. These guys would probably kick much ass live.

And that was the epiphany.

What separates the Killers from all the other bands apeing the Smiths and Joy Division — these guys have managed to recapture the energy of those early bands.

Beneath the antiquated synthesizer effects, bassist Mark Stoermer’s hero worship of John Taylor and Peter Hook and Brandon Flowers’ faux-British singing accent, there’s a chemistry.

It’s the same chemistry that gave U2 its longevity and spurred the original line-up of Duran Duran to cash in on the nostalgia market. And it’s a chemistry that comes through each song, in addition to or in spite of the slick production.

“Mr. Brightside” isn’t just a rock song with a good dance beat — it’s a ballbuster of a performance. “Somebody Told Me” updates Blur’s own homage to the ’80s, “Girls & Boys”, with twice the energy and none of the irony.

“Midnight Show” is the most refreshing use of Chic in a rock song in, well, 20 years, while “Smile Like You Mean It” has one of those choruses that would feel communal during a concert.

The UK pressing of Hot Fuss does the US version one better with the inclusion of “Glamorous Indie Rock ‘n’ Roll”. It’s placed at a moment on the album that needed a big, suspenseful break.

Even without the energy, the songs on Hot Fuss are painstaking recreations of ’80s post-punk. The sound quality is certainly a lot more up-front, but the near-orchestral attention to detail is admirable.

And yeah — they’ve got good melodies and good choruses.

I’m even humming “Believe Me Natalie”, and that song doesn’t have the same level of hooks as “Andy, You’re a Star” or “All These Things That I’ve Done”.

So, thank you, Killers. I know what to look for the next time some band decides they want to sound like New Order.

And if they don’t get it, I’ll just go and listen to some New Order.

Disorienting and structurally sound

I like this album, but I’m having a hard time writing about it.

There are many levels on which Worlds Apart is disorienting, even for an … And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead album.

It’s anamolous compared to the band’s previous work. The blistering punk rock, screaming vocals and flying expletives have given way to a polished, epic sound.

At first, it’s something of a let-down not to hear Conrad Keely or Jason Reese tear their vocal cords out, but then the album makes up for that loss in numerous weird ways that it’s easy to forgive.

The opening “Overture” features a crowd chanting the names of Egyptian gods before a woman’s scream begins the album proper. A group of children cheer at the end of “Will You Smile Again”, to which Conrad Keely replies, “Hey, fuck you, man.” And the children giggle.

And those are the moments between songs.

“Will You Smile Again” starts off loud, then crashes to a near-halt. Over the course of 7-minutes, the song slowly builds up again with an incessant beat, finishing as loudly as it started.

“Summer of ’91” begins as a piano ballad, but when the rest of the band crashes in, the song heads to a foregone loud conclusion. Midway through “Classic Arts Showcase”, a chorus of female soul singers provide the foundation for an odd mix of strings, guitars and drums.

Of course, … Trail of Dead have always written songs that feel large for their size, but this time, the album is threaded with a sense of narrative.

Songs segue into each other, often blurring the distinction between tracks. “Summer of ’91” ends on a hanging note, which “And the Rest Will Follow” picks up afterward. “Let It Dive” begins right before “Classic Arts Showcase” fades out.

Then there are the moments that just plain, “What the fuck?”

Like the instrumental “To Russia My Homeland”, which is reminiscent of the French accordion player that served as an interlude on Source Code and Tags. Or the following “All White”, which sounds like Elton John. No, really.

And at the end of “The Best”, a woman wails a plea, “Don’t go!”, while a distant chorus sings portions of “And the Rest Will Follow”.

I’m not even going to bother explicating the lyrics.

Worlds Apart may sound like … Trail of Dead’s cleanest album on the surface, but there’s a sense of ambition and focus that makes all the strange elements feel structurally sound.

It’s a disorienting album that feels incredibly grounded and knows where the fuck it’s going.

This instance is truly an example where writing about music is like dancing about architecture.

High octane

Three words: eastern youth lite.

There are a number of bands that do two-guitar, sing-to-a-scream post-punk with a lot more blister than Asian Kung Fu Generation.

Even the Back Horn, with its eclectic, overwrought excess, could probably do a few circles around them. By comparrison, Asian Kung Fu Generation seem, well, watered down.

And yet, the magnetic voice of Kita Kensuke is difficult to ignore. His scream isn’t as untangled as Yamada Masashi (Back Horn) or Mukai Shuutoku (Zazen Boys), and his singing voice is expressive and powerful.

The band’s music is incredibly melodic, and its single-minded pursuit of a fast tempo nears obssession. It’s tough to remain a naysayer for long.

On Kunkei Five-M, Asian Kung Fu’s first major label album, the songs eventually bled into each other, running bass after running bass, power chord after power chord.

But Sol-fa, the band’s second album, shows a few signs of maturity.

“Yoru no Mukoo” finds the band easing up on the pulse, with drummer Idchichi Kiyoshi playing around the beat. “My World” builds up to big chorus rather than just pummeling from the outset.

“Mayonaka to Mahiru no Yume” and “Last Scene” show the band can handle a slower tempo just fine, and the acoustic guitars on “Kaigan Doori” add a nice touch.

Still, the rest of Sol-fa doesn’t stray far from the high octane push of Kunkei Five-M, and after a while, Asian Kung Fu’s music tends to get a bit homogenic.

But the band knows what it does best and does it very well. What it lacks in breadth, it makes up for in tight performances and clear melodies.

Asian Kung Fu Generation may not test the boundaries of rock music, but they certainly do a great job at making a good record.