Top Chef judge and acclaimed Georgia chef Hugh Acheson joined me on yesterday’s Behind the Dish podcast, talking about the show but also about growing up an Expos fan, the decline of the stolen base, and the rise of coffee culture in America. Acheson’s first cookbook, A New Turn in the South, came out in 2011, with more to come next year.
On to the music… The North Carolina-based band Polvo were part of the underground noise-rock scene in the 1990s, along with Helium, Steel Pole Bath Tub, Superchunk, and other similarly out-there groups that would likely have found wider commercial acceptance if they were recording today. Polvo’s music was intricate and layered, earning the label “math rock” according to the All Music Guide (although I don’t think I ever heard that term when it was current), with lengthy tracks, shifting time signatures, and songs that included different movements as you might find in classical compositions – different enough that you think you’re listening to a different song only to find you’re five and a half minutes into the last one.
After a long hiatus, Polvo reformed for a comeback album in 2008, took another long break, and released their sixth album, Siberia, this Tuesday. It’s more focused than 2008′s In Prism without losing the sprawling sensibility that has always marked their sound, a more mature approach that brings more melodic elements to the album’s best tracks without losing its experimental feel or the densely layered style that has always marked Polvo’s work.
* Full disclosure: I received a review copy of Siberia from Merge Records a few weeks ago.
Although regular readers among you know that I’m a little bit of a short-attention span listener, I found Siberia‘s longest tracks its most memorable, especially the 6:24 opener “Total Immersion” and the centerpiece, “The Water Wheel,” which might as well be two or three songs in one. “Total Immersion” marries a heavy guitar sound with low-register vocals to create an aural experience to match the song’s title, almost drowning the listener in a wall of noise that would make most thrash artists jealous. “The Water Wheel” manages to change direction at least twice within its eight minutes, while also making the best use of the two-pronged guitar attack that Polvo makes anywhere on the album – the two axes work together even when they seem to be the on verge of outright conflict. If Sonic Youth had morphed into a jam band, this is the kind of song they would have churned out.
Those aren’t the only strong tracks on Siberia, although they’re my favorites. The album’s shortest track “Changed” still manages to pack in several tempos, from a dissonant, Sonic Youth-like (or early Weezer) jangly guitar riff giving way to a chunkier sound behind the song’s sort-of-chorus and an outro that sounds like later Led Zeppelin. “Light, Raking” winks back at the early-90s grunge period (more Mudhoney than Pearl Jam, though) before the surprise addition of a keyboard line behind the chorus, which is followed by a flat-out weird bridge where it sounds like someone is detuning the guitars as they’re being played. Polvo even seems to work in a slight shade of country-rock on the meandering “Blues is Loss,” where their past affection for Middle Eastern and South Asian sounds also makes a brief appearance.
Siberia still isn’t a commercial record, as that’s just not something you’re ever likely to find on a noise-rock record unless the band makes a wilful turn toward the mass market. It’s challenging music because it rewards your attention with its complexity and frequent changes of direction,
* I mentioned Superchunk, who are back with, I Hate Music ($5 there via amazon), just their second album since 2004, featuring what I think is their best single since 1995′s “Hyper Enough,” the musically upbeat “Me & You & Jackie Mittoo,” which opens with a much darker sentiment than the music would lead you to expect: “I hate music – what is it worth?/Can’t bring anyone back to this earth.”
* I don’t have much to say about Lorde’s hit “Royals” other than that it’s remarkable that a 16-year-old could write better lyrics, with more imagery, than nearly every adult songwriter working in American pop music today. I don’t even love the song for its music, but I love the creativity it shows – and after CHVRCHES this is my daughter’s favorite alternative/pop track right now.
* Wild Cub’s “Thunder Clatter” wins the award for “song I didn’t want to like, but can’t help myself.” It’s too damn catchy.
* Heavy English’s “21 Flights” is a focus track right now on Sirius XM’s Alt Nation/XMU, which does trigger my inherent skepticism of anything the music industry wants to push on us … but it’s actually a pretty good song, the first single from a band that rose from the ashes of Envy on the Coast. Marrying the staccato guitar style of late-70s punk/art bands like Gang of Four with neo-soul choruses you might associate more with Fitz and the Tantrums, “21 Flights” is a rousing stomper that forges a different kind of indie-rock aesthetic.
* Speedy Ortiz’s “Tiger Tank” (currently free to download from amazon) reminds me quite a bit of Helium, whom I mentioned earlier – Polvo’s lead guitarist eventually joined Helium while he was dating lead singer Mary Timony. Speedy Ortiz also has a female lead singer and intentionally dissonant guitar lines. I think Pavement comparisons are also inevitable, thanks to Sadie Dupuis’ off-kilter vocals style, where she sings the verses like she’s about to fall down a flight of stairs.
* Washed Out’s “All I Know” is a major improvement over his first single, “It All Feels Right,” which felt like it went on for fifteen minutes with no purpose. It’s amazing what a faster tempo and a keyboard sample can do.
* Terraplane Sun’s “Get Me Golden” fell out of the 1960s into 2013 with its handclaps, rising vocal harmonies, and Hammond organ. I get a similar vibe from Temples’ music, especially their one minor hit, “Shelter Song,” but Terraplane Sun does that revivalist sound better.
* The band-of-brothers (three of them, to be precise) Ceremonies releases their debut EP next week, but lead single “Land of Gathering” has been out since the spring. It’s a curious mix of heartfelt, folkish verses with high-flying Beach Boys-style choruses, over a rapid two-step drumbeat that gives way to a slower, tribal percussion pattern that backs up those verses. It’s like a new, new New Wave.
* Dirty Projectors – “Gun Has No Trigger.” So retro it should be played on an 8-track.
* Regina Spektor – “You’ve Got Time.” I can’t be the only one who saw her name and assumed she was related to Crazy Phil, right? Anyway, the singer of the theme to the series Orange is the New Black is actually a Russian emigre, no relation to the Wall-of-Sound guy, and she’s been recording music for a decade but is just now breaking out on the strength of this stop-and-go energy rush of a single.
* The Colourist’s “Little Games” reminds me a lot of another of my favorite alternative-pop tracks of the year, Smallpools’ “Dreaming,” pairing sunny vocals with tightly-produced guitar and keyboard lines. “Little Games” opens up its production behind the chorus with more reverb to the rhythm guitars to add texture to the overly-polished vocals.
* I hated the Orwells’ “Mallrats,” but their newest song, “Who Needs You” (from the EP of the same title), puts their snotty-rock approach to better use, ditching the most annoying elements and allowing the inherent pop songcraft to make its mark.
* I received a review copy of Panama’s three-song EP Always, which will be released later this week. The Australian quintet produces electronic-pop music that shows off lead singer Jarrah McCleary’s background in classical piano, with a sound similar to Yeasayer but a slower, more soulful vibe. The title track should show up quickly on alternative radio thanks to the catchy chorus and the little piano flourish that follows it.
* Wikipedia – which is never wrong – describes the Faeroese band Týr as “folk-metal,” although to my ears their sound is more melodic death metal (“melodeth”), sung without the silly screaming or growling that ruins a lot of extreme metal for my ears. I hear way more Iron Maiden, early Metallica, or thrash-era Testament here than any more modern influences, and while I might ordinarily scoff at these Viking-hero lyrics, when you’re from the Faeroe Islands you get a free pass. “Blood of Heroes” is the lead track from their latest album and would likely make Eddie the Head proud of what he’s wrought.
* Havok’s “Give Me Liberty … Or Give Me Death” is such a close homage to early punk-thrash efforts like Agent Orange, Sacred Reich, or Corrosion of Conformity that when I first heard it I assumed it was some deep track from the mid-1980s I’d never heard before. I enjoy throwbacks like this, although they can get old quickly because the formula is too familiar.