Part of the seemingly endless stream of Southern Californian ska-punk bands, San Diego-based Buck-O-Nine tempers its joy with sadness and its anger with a bit of maturity. Grown-up ska? Yup. It's not just for 14-year-olds with too much energy anymore. By cutting back on the goofiness quotient, adding a handful of different styles and using different guitar textures and rhythms, Buck-O-Nine creates an album that's more song-oriented than the majority of third-wave ska records. Instead of sounding like a ska band dabbling in rock songs, Buck-O-Nine sounds like rockers throwing in horns and offbeat rhythms. The band hasn't abandoned ska but has made strides in the songwriting department. It's a welcome change of pace for a band like this, which has cut its share of thrash-and-burn songs.
The most impressive track is "Awkward Girl," what with its exploding hook that recalls the simple innocence and happiness of new wave. Built around a tribal drum riff and twin guitars, the song features singer Jon Pebsworth bragging of love, which he does in an endearing way. With old-school-style backup singing, as the band repeats Pebsworth on the chorus, it's as much pop as ska. The horns fill in the spaces, which prop up the song and give it depth without being obtrusive. Elsewhere, even when the horns are given more room and the rhythms are allowed to be more traditionally ska, the band is still interested in telling a story through the music. In the case of "Headlines," it's the frequently sad and unshocking current events in the media that propel the lyrical narrative. Punctuating Pebsworth's somewhat cliched "what's wrong with the world" questioning, the band's mood switches from appropriately low-key during the verses to appropriately poignant during the chorus when Pebsworth's voice sounds anguished.
Toward the end of the record, there are up-tempo ska tracks -- "Here We Go Again," "All Along," (awful vocals) and "Pigeonhole Disease" -- that don't seem genuine. But Buck-O-Nine has certainly shown itself to be more capable of reaching new ska ground than the majority of Southern California bands have.
-- David Simutis
Houston has always produced its share of musical enigmas, from the 1960s psychedelic freaks of The Red Krayola to blues/folk savant Jandek, a musical recluse who, while releasing records annually, has never revealed himself to the public. The husband-wife duo of Tom and Christina Carter, known together as Charalambides, falls right in line with this tradition, having spent the last six or so years producing an admirable and extensive body of work orchestrated primarily in the couple's living room and rarely taken beyond those four walls. Having already composed two full-length recordings by themselves, with another three joined by guitarist Jason Bill (who also joined the band during its sporadic periods of live work), the Carters return to their original two-man lineup with Houston, their third release for the Philadelphia-based label Siltbreeze. The record is a dark, often unsettling piece and further evidence that the silent, hermetic musician is far more disturbed than the glitzy shock-rock act any day of the week. If being disturbed is "cool."
Understanding the music of Charalambides requires some patience. The sound is folk music but not of the protest-singer kind. Charalambides's music is simply music made by ordinary folk, performed on traditional instruments and isolated from contemporary music's trends and ideologies. It is organic and unforced material, more representative of how musicians can use a song to make a piece of art rather than of how musicians can use a song to make a political statement. Tom Carter's guitar style could be said to bridge the gap between acoustic blues and the drug-addled expressionism of, say, 1960s fringe psychedelic groups Popol Vuh or The Godz. And Christina Carter's vocals are, oftentimes, traditionally beautiful, so much so that it's surprising to realize that of the six songs on which she sings, only one contains something decipherable as actual lyrics.
The highlight on this record is "Morning Chants," a tune on which Christina's eerily tuned guitar, which she pairs with a repetitive open-string drone often heard by blues musicians, sounds ghostly and is made even more unsettling by the off-kilter chord pattern. Slowly the sound of an organ creeps into the mix, adding a low-end drone of feedback while Christina hobbles her voice in such a way that it almost sounds as if it were being played backward. Eventually the chaos gives way to an unsettling sample from what sounds like a recording of a voice lesson, as an irritated and crazed man forcefully pleads, "Sing it! Put some spirit into it!" Such verbal snippets have become somewhat of a Charalambides trademark: The duo's last studio album began with a frantic and hysterical call left on the Carters' answering machine by a young man who mistakenly thought he had called a suicide hot line. Remember that next time someone rants about how screwed up Marilyn Manson is.
While certain elements of this recording have been heard before on previous Charalambides outings, it is the unexpected, fresh elements that really set this work apart. A standout is "Lexington," named after the street on which the group lived during the writing of the song. The tune is also the first piano composition ever featured on a Charalambides record. This revelatory piece is the recording's most introverted work and its emotional high point. Christina performs an intensely beautiful slurred piano phrase in which she allows the notes to smother each other and create even more enticing overtones. As the force of the piano swells and again subsides in a percussive cycle, a distant drum cracking slowly edges to the forefront and reverberates with all the substance of a bomb.
Then, once you think you've got Charalambides's intentions all figured out, next comes the album closer, "Songs for Always," the closest the group comes to conventional songwriting. The pair somberly carries a beat along for an even ten minutes, and not once does the vocal or guitar rise above its hypnotic restraint. The unexpected appearance of a saxophone at the midway point adds a certain level of intensity but in no way upsets the song's delicate nature. In contrast to the rest of the album, "Songs" is fantastically calm and, you might even say, peaceful. Definitely a strange twist to end the work.
-- David Wilcox
CM: Cornelius reMixes
FM: Fantasma reMixes
Cornelius is big in his native Japan; his last record, Fantasma, sold almost half a million records there. And like any good Godzilla foe, Cornelius has an evil mind and a variety of weapons in his arsenal, not too much of any one genre, but just enough of every little bit to damage any random song's intent completely. He's capable of stirring together waterfalls of guitars, vocal loops, harps, hidden Beach Boys harmonies, soundtrack samples and hip-hop drumming all into one tune. And when artists request a mixer, Cornelius and his multitracked mind are high on their lists. CM is a collection of remixes he did for UNKLE, Money Mark, Buffalo Daughter, Coldcut, The Pastels, Salon Music and The High Llamas. And FM is a compilation of various artists' remixed selections from Fantasma.
The beauty of the remix is that it deconstructs the song. The remixer changes volume levels of instruments, rhythms and sometimes even the focus of the track to make new music. Since Cornelius throws so many elements into his work, the remixers on FM have a lot to work from, especially when they use the originals as canvases for new work instead of as carbon copies for cover songs. At first, UNKLE twists "Free Fall" from a punkish sing-along into a creepy, slow and thunderous sci-fi anthem almost nothing like how Cornelius meant it. Halfway through the song, the band jumps into the original, sans vocals, and transforms it into a sped-up coda instead of the main thrust of the song. The flip side of this arrangement comes from the fellow trip-hop/electronica band Coldcut, who delivers the unfinished track, "Typewrite Lesson." Slicing and dicing a brief moment of guitar feedback, looping it, fading it in and out and dropping a jungle beat underneath, plus throwing in a clicking (what else) typewriter, Coldcut fails to produce a cohesive song. The band just drops weird sounds in for the effect of putting weird sounds in. Cornelius, with his Beach Boys obsession, at least understands songwriting.
When the man named after a Planet of the Apes character gets his turn on CM, things are more varied but disappointing. Part of this system failure stems from the fact that Cornelius has a wide array of artists and styles to work from and doesn't know where to begin, and part of it comes from his attempts to Corneliusize everything. From Money Mark's pop tune, "Maybe I'm Dead," to Buffalo Daughter's cut-and-paste funk, "Great Five Lakes," to the orchestral pop of the High Llamas' "Homespin Rerun," Cornelius adds electronic instruments all over the place, whether or not they're called for. There have probably never been any vocals in Japanese on any of the High Llamas' stuff, either. Better off picking up Fantasma and hearing the man-ape work from scratch.
-- David Simutis
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