Split Series Volume III
The most invigorating 25 minutes of the year thus far, this short, sharp shock of a record pairs two of the last decade's quintessential punk bands -- Cali scene-mates Rancid and NOFX -- covering six of each other's songs in the aural equivalent of tossing a toaster in the tub.
With straighter, more-regular-guy vocals and a (slightly) cleaner sound, NOFX really taps into the grandeur lurking within so much of Rancid's music, a penchant for rock-and-roll Big Statements that evokes Springsteen as much as it does more commonly mentioned band template the Clash. On 2000's Rancid, for example, the anti-entertainment-biz rant "Antennaes" was brutally hard, but NOFX softens it up, creating just enough space in the music to bring the anthemic undercurrents out and make it soar. By contrast, the band takes the organ-driven ska of Life Won't Wait's "Corazon de Oro" and transforms it into a rousing, urgent guitar song. The only exception to the formula is "Radio," a fast rock song in Rancid's hands, which NOFX transforms into a bit of mid-temp reggae with new-wave touches, like a Sublime outtake.
I'm not nearly as familiar with the NOFX originals that Rancid tackles on the album's second half, but it's clearly some compelling material. And, with the dueling vocals-and-guitars of Tim Armstrong and Lars Frederiksen popping like firecrackers over the nimble, powerhouse rhythm section of bassist Matt Freeman and drummer Brett Reed, this is one band that, despite its diminishing public profile over the last half-decade, seems utterly incapable of making bad music. Rancid's half is more intense, with the breakneck hardcore they bring to "Stickin' In My Eye" typical of their take-no-prisoners approach.
NOFX gives Rancid some memorable lyrics to play around with: Armstrong really bites into the opening salvo of "Bob" ("He spent 15 years gettin' loaded/Fifteen years 'til his liver exploded/What's Bob gonna do now that he can't drink?"), though Frederiksen doesn't sound nearly as convincing on the pro-pornography/anti-censorship "Vanilla Sex." But the standout here, by far, is "Don't Call Me White," with Freeman taking a rare lead vocal. Freeman's menacing, bellowing, croaking vocals turn the song's lyrical plaint into a desperate threat, fighting against the burden of history and the tyranny of an unwanted social construct like a pissed-off heavyweight going in for the kill. -- Chris Herrington
The brainchild of veteran U.K. hip-hop producer Trevor Jackson, Playgroup is conceptually a multiartist collective with a pronounced early '80s feel. This debut album, in fact, has the feel of a killer mix-tape from that period -- S.O.S. Band, Slits, Spoonie Gee, Mikey Dread, Human League, Scritti Politti, Prince, Pete Shelley -- as replayed and, in the process, cross-pollinated by a single band. Played, not sampled. According to Jackson, about 80 percent of the music was performed live. That helps the album not feel like a series of pastiches -- its gargantuan dub bass lines, skittering drumbeats, and sharp, disco-fied rhythm guitar are all of a piece. And the handful of samples -- R&B iconoclast Joi on "Pressure" and U.K. post-punks Scritti Politti on "Too Much" -- honor Jackson's sense of both roots and future.
Still, the mix-tape effect is just as present thanks to the revolving cast of vocalists. Edwyn Collins, of Orange Juice and "A Girl Like You" fame, sings the sinuous "Medicine Man" (and plays rhythm guitar on nearly every track). Kathleen Hanna (Bikini Kill, Le Tigre) belts "Bring It On" over a loping dub-funk groove neither of her bands has yet attempted. Kyra, of indie rockers Thee Headcoatees, demands satisfaction in no uncertain terms on the monolithic Eurodisco stomp "Make It Happen." New York dancehall toaster Shinehead and legendary dub producer Dennis Bovell are turned loose on Paul Simon's "50 Ways to Leave Your Lover." And early '90s hip-house star KC Flightt chants the corniest rap, like, ever on "Front 2 Back" ("Hip-house and jazz/Percussion and bass/And some razzmatazz" -- Jay-Z, do not call your lawyer).
The latter pair sound silly at first, but they've got amazing staying power with repeated listens. Like the rest of Playgroup, their triumph isn't how well they recall a bygone era but how skillfully they fit themselves into ours. -- Michaelangelo Matos
Source Tags and Codes
And You Will Know Us
By the Trail of Dead
Hey, with a bunch of unkempt noise addicts like Austin's And You Will Know Us By the Trail of Dead getting signed to a major label instead of dropped by one -- following the Strokes and the White Stripes -- maybe this long national nightmare of a guitar-rock recession really is letting up.
The excellently named Trail of Dead is reminiscent of fellow Texans At the Drive-In, who broke into the mainstream (well, sort of) in 2000 with a similar sound that blended the sincerity and modesty of contemporary emo and indie with the guitar freakouts of '80s-bred post-punk bands like Sonic Youth and Dinosaur Jr.
Source Tags and Codes, the band's third full-length, sets its tone from the outset: The opening "It Was There (That I Saw You)" is the alt-rock ideal at its most epic and romantic, marrying angsty love lyrics that could come from the pen of the Cure's Robert Smith with nuclear-meltdown guitars that echo My Bloody Valentine. Oblique lyrics range from the florid ("How Near How Far") to the apocalyptic (the Doors update "Monsoon") to the defiantly atheistic ("Another Morning Stoner," among others), but the sonic outstrips the verbal every time. I can't remember the last time I heard guitars so simultaneously assaultive and beautiful. -- CH
When We Were Small
Rosie Thomas must be completely free of the demons that perpetually chase most melancholic singer-songwriters, because not only is she excising them with her musical craft, she is equally immersed in one of society's greatest psychological safety valves: stand-up comedy. Yes plaintive, uncomfortably personal folkie by day and commander of the nightclub microphone by night. Or vice versa. I just hope that her humorous material offers a little more breathing room than her songs do. Thomas' tunes aren't bad or boring by any means. They're just hyperdepressing. Like watching Ordinary People three times in a row is hyperdepressing, and that analogy serves us well, because the subject matter on When We Were Small metaphorically draws a line connecting childhood dysfunction to the romantic misunderstandings that punctuate adulthood. Her tiny golden voice bounces around the guitar pluckings and sparse instrumentation, and her lyrics will make any guy feel like shit if he's been in more than one relationship with a woman. The party doctor will not be prescribing When We Were Small any time soon, nor do I recommend it for anyone planning a one-way trip to a bridge, but it serves as a perfect soundtrack for those lonely pre-dawn hours. -- Andrew Earles