Friday, March 16, 2012

Joseph's Picks Of The Week 3/16/12 - Disappears and Mount Carmel

When Sonic Youth’s Steve Shelley joined the lineup of Disappears on drums it seemed to indicate the band was primed to undergo another big surge in growth. Instead, their latest Pre Language is far more concerned with refinement.
On their 2010 debut album Lux, Chicago’s Disappears spat out ten songs of melodic rock that referenced post-punk, shoegaze and Krautrock. While not straining to reinvent any wheels, it was a solid debut record, hinting at untapped potential that boded well for the band’s future, in particular the album’s closer “No Other”, a short, slowed-down “Sister Ray” rip filtered through the attitude of late-‘80s Creation Records.
2011’s Guider delivered on that promise, but not in the expected way. Where Lux’s appealing blend of influences never strayed far from the succinct in delivery, with no song topping the four minute mark, Guider entertained the possibilities of extendedness, ending with the mightily impressive nearly sixteen minute “Revisting”, the excursion drawing equally upon Can in “Yoo Doo Right” mode and the fried sensibility of Spacemen 3. If surprising, it was also quite welcome. While the five tracks leading up to it were in the same terse framework as the debut, they were detectably rougher in presentation, with Brian Case’s vocal manner suggesting the prime post-Pistols work of John Lydon.
Pre Language denies the tranced-out expanse of “Revisting”, the band instead largely choosing to further explore the sonic terrain of Lux and the first side of Guider. Initially this is something of a disappointment, for Guider’s long denouement seemed to indicate Disappears were ready to jump wholeheartedly into a zone roughly comparable to San Francisco’s Wooden Shjips. But if the first impression is one of relative restraint, Pre Language does possess an energetic cohesion coupled with bigger production and sharper instrumental prowess certainly aided by the presence of Shelley, his unimpeachable chops having synched with the band through shows in the US and Europe (including support on former Neu! member Michael Rother’s Hallogallo tour).
Opener “Replicate” immediately recalls Joy Division, and the rather conventional feel of its chorus’ guitar bursts bring to mind a heavier, less vocally dominated version of Interpol. It’s a strong opener, but it quickly portends the direction that Pre Language, with a couple notable and much needed exceptions, follows with precision.
In some ways the switch of drummers has far less to do with sticks hitting skins than it does with a sharp contrast in production. Departing drummer Graeme Gibson had also served the band in the capacity of producer, and he gave both Lux and particularly Guider a bath in reverb that made the music feel a bit distant, even when turned up loud. Shelley’s arrival plops them down in Sonic Youth’s Echo Canyon West studio with John Congleton (The Polyphonic Spree, St. Vincent) at the knobs, and the difference is significant. Formerly fuzzy and occasionally muddy, the music now delivers more punch while also holding an increase in polish, even when it’s dishing out the distortion.
And this shift in production quality causes Disappears’ music to register in a somewhat different way. Where previously their song’s melodic tendencies were leavened with appealing waves of guitar drone and an interest in rock’s experimental traditions, on Pre Language they largely feel like the work of an edgy contemporary indie rock band. And again, this is initially a disappointing circumstance. But after a few listens it becomes clear that the songs are uniformly solid and the presentation, while streamlined, hasn’t been neutered. If disappointment nags, two standout tracks show this is still the same band that made such a favorable impression with “Revisiting”
The first is “Joa”, a sweet bout of rhythmic repetition that holds a chilly, incessant post-punk tension. At nearly six minutes long, it shows that one of Disappears best attributes continues to be their ability stretch out, a process that can turn a good idea into a great one.
This trait also plays a factor in Pre Language’s other highpoint “Love Drug”, and it’s no accident that it happens to be the second longest track on the album. It opens with a menacing riff, pulsing bass and Shelley slapping out a simple, incessant beat; when Case enters vocally, he does little more than moan/chant the song’s title. And that’s all that’s needed. It’s a sturdy exercise greatly enhanced through escalated intensity, the track’s second half being punctuated with a wicked ruckus of guitar pedals and crashing cymbals.
If different on the surface, Pre Language and Guider are similar tactically, their boldest moves back-loaded in the track order. While neither “Joa” nor “Love Drug” (even collectively) equal “Revisting” in terms of scope and sheer pleasurable impact, the goal still seems the same; to first establish Disappears’ dominant melodic paradigm and then embellish it with stylistic detours. On Pre Language these divergences are very impressive, but on the previous record they’d frankly proved capable of delivering the exceptional.
Also, that melodic paradigm has shifted here, being much more about the establishment of mood. If Lux and Guider announced the band was conversant with the Velvets, Can and Spacemen 3, it also flashed moments that recalled The Clean, Ride and yeah, Public Image Limited. That range has been whittled down, their Krautrock and shoegaze tendencies greatly reduced. The emphasis now feels firmly on the post-punk.
This style of moodiness is often expressed through lyrical stance and vocal mannerisms, and Case has a nice handle on the latter, but in regard to the former he seems far more inclined to let the band’s instrumental prowess set the tone. If his vocal model has shifted somewhat from Lydon to one Mark E. Smith (with a dollop of Ian Curtis added in for good measure), that’s okay, since it’s apparent he’s disinclined to dominate the tunes through playing the role of front-man. Also, it seems that Case, formerly of Chicago tunesmiths The Ponys (and 90 Day Men), has at least temporarily lost interest in indulging the poppier side of his personality. This would be fine if moments like “Joa” and “Love Drug” were more frequent, but that’s not the case.
Strangely, closer “Brother Joliene” sounds a bit like Spoon shooting for a beefed-up, distorted Stooges/Sonic Youth synthesis. Maybe not so strange, considering Shelley, and even less so when it’s recalled that Spoon’s name references a Can song. No matter; Pre Language is a solid, at times very good record, but it leaves a lingering impression that Disappears are holding back their best qualities.

A lot of bands have taken influence from the sound of early-‘70s bluesy hard rock. But one band manages to capture that era’s heavy, jamming spirit so closely that it can feel like an actual time warp back to ’73. That band is Columbus Ohio’s Mount Carmel.
It’s been often fashionable to knock the efforts of the blues-based non-purist bands that proliferated in the wake of Cream, the Jeff Beck Group and Ten Years After. It’s in some ways a punk-centric attitude, but it’s also reflective of a belief that the urge to rock should be accompanied by at least some level of taste, discernible intelligence or at least a motivation beyond the simple desire to wed big riffs, heavy rhythms and ripping solos. In short, the Nixon-era influx of bands like Free and Mountain is viewed by many as a debasement of the form propagated by a bunch of dummies trampling upon the sacred ground of the blues. A sense of respect and decorum regarding history is what separated Clapton and the Allman Brothers from say Humble Pie and Cactus.
Now a fair amount of blues-rock was bad and some of it was even plumb awful, but its success ratio is really no better or worse than any other genre. And many people tend to ignore that it was a legitimately new wrinkle in rock’s development; increased virtuosity (of a non-prog-rock stripe) heightened through extensive practice in turn lent an increased heaviness to the band dynamic. People just too often mistook a lack of subtlety for a lack of value. If Led Zep and Black Sabbath have slowly seen an increase in critical validation, then the vast majority of their brethren are still victims of often snide dismissals.
With all this said, many listeners will automatically consider the music of Mount Carmel to be an exercise in the retrograde. The band’s second LP Real Women is so boldly created in the image of its models that it’s damn near impossible to not immediately perceive it as a defiantly luddite gesture, the utter lack of contemporary (or even twenty year old) influences seemingly postulating that any musical developments to have occurred after the breakup of Beck, Bogert & Appice are unworthy of representation in their sound.
On their self-titled first record the band infused their bluesy ruminations with a hint of Blue Cheer-like grit. The drumming was loose and driving, the bass lively but not too busy, and the guitar spit out skuzzy chunks of riffs and flights of woozy soloing, all with vocals that thankfully lacked the need for emotional overreach. And just to make emphatically plain the tradition into which they were tapping, the trio covered Ten Years After’s “Hear Me Callin’” replete with an extended drum workout and closed the set with eleven minutes simply titled “Studio Jam”. It was a fine out-of-time debut, bringing to mind what I’ve always suspected Sabbath sounded like back when they were called Earth.
However, Real Women is tighter, more groove oriented, and less about the exalted properties of the jam. No track tops five minutes, and it’s obvious that considerable effort was spent building and then honing catchier songs. The singing has attained a more soulful edge while still denying any urge to succumb to the strained wailing that frankly damaged a lot of the genre back in the day. And that’s a general pleasantry of the power-trio; the person emoting is also responsible for handling an instrument instead of just standing in front of three really adept players trying to prove worthy of being in the same room or on the same stage.
And if the thrust has shifted from impolite, slightly dusted blues studies to concise melodic power-rocking, the music still feels derived from the same three guys. This is again partly due to guitarist Matthew Reed’s vocals, which while non-showoffy are also quite distinct. But it’s also true that the band’s jump from post-Alvin Lee/Cream form-stretching to a sort of Humble Pie/ZZ Top/James Gang merger isn’t really that large. It’s just notable as admirable progress.
Maybe the most interesting aspect in Real Women fresh approach comes through Kevin Skubak’s drumming. Where on the debut he was loose but never off his game, here he grapples with a thunderous heaviness that directly recalls the power of Ginger Baker. And the way he synchs up with Patrick Reed’s bass provides the songs with massive bottom end, allowing the trio to examine a sort of groove-strut that’s remindful of ZZ Top at their early best.
What’s obvious is how Mount Carmel dearly loves the music that serves as their inspiration, and in fact this love is the biggest reason for their success. It’s what instills the desire for repeated listens into their tunes, and makes clear that the band’s disinterest in any of the progress rock music has made since the early ‘70s is far more than just a gesture of audacity. They’re not sneering at the contemporary but instead enthusing over a style that’s undeniably been given short-shrift in the years following its collapse in the foul air of Arena Rock.
And that raises another point in Mount Carmel’s favor; specifically the opportunity to nix the less inspiring moments in hard-rock’s past (and there were many) and refine the far more productive aspects that make the genre perfectly valid for resuscitation in 2012. This process of selection through hindsight actually makes Real Women an experience of higher quality than some of its key influences. It’s lean, doesn’t overstay its welcome and the only questionable thing on display is an indulgence in what can be described as a non-progressive lyrical stance on the title track. But it’s not like I believe Mount Carmel actually buy the sentiments expressed; instead I just chalk it up to period flavor.
So Real Women is far more than just a replica or distillation of its influences, showing Mount Carmel to be a thriving band in excellent form. It does however lack the sheer depth of their New York blues-rocking cousins Endless Boogie. That band is equally divested of contemporary touches, but they also possess a startlingly creative moxie, with some of their lengthy jams managing to even flash undercurrents of sly experimentation. Mount Carmel in no way pale in comparison, but the band does hit a qualitative ceiling in toeing the hard rock line so closely.
The growth displayed on Real Women shows that Mount Carmel is capable of cracking that ceiling. If they don’t, it won’t be a terrible loss; ultimately it’ll just be the difference between a very fine band and a truly exceptional one.