It's easy to get down when your band plays the same rooms in the same small city to the same crowd. Some acts break up or move on when the walls begin to close in. Others hunker down in the basement or a more sophisticated purpose-built studio and start recording.
Sleeping in the Aviary, the Blueheels, Droids Attack and the hip-hop duo Horton the Irrelevant & August the Creep all embraced the latter strategy last year. Their high-quality new CDs underscore how important getting your ideas down on hard disc is to musical growth.
On Oh, This Old Thing?, Sleeping in the Aviary prove that pop pulchritude and punk frenzy are always a winning combination. Whether singer Elliott Kozel is setting the hook of the too-brief 'Gloworm' with his best impression of a vaudevillian warble or the whole Aviary crew are tumbling headlong through the full-scale guitar-bass-drums freakout that is 'Drug Suitcase,' the result is always irresistible.
Lots of acts have done the shabby-but-sweet, punky-but-accessible thing over the years. In fact, I can't drop the laser on this album without recalling how, in the late '70s, both the Swell Maps and the Only Ones wandered away from punk and New Wave to clear out a space for bands that like a full measure of melody with their madness. (More recent cognates would be Nirvana, Neutral Milk Hotel, the Strokes and clinically out-there screamer/crooner Craig Nicholls of the Vines.)
But just because Sleeping in the Aviary aren't unique doesn't mean they're not outrageously gifted. They are. I can see 'Gloworm,' the snotty anti-love song 'Another Girl' (as in: 'I'm always thinking of another girl') and the bouncy Kinks-style dance-hall vamp 'Lanugo' all being embraced by the star-making U.K. indie audience.
If you like your production artfully scratchy and your pop tunes creatively messed up, Sleeping in the Aviary should cream your burn. It'll be interesting to see if their upcoming tours of the U.S. get the kind of press attention they deserve.
Taking an entirely different musical tack, Neenah/Madison country-rockers the Blueheels make a strong case for the continued health of Americana on Long Gone, a varied, richly burnished country-rock disc that flows from song to song as well as any twangy contemporary rock album in recent memory.
The obvious radio hit here is 'Red Pajamas,' a portentous heartland love song salted with doubt and longing and more than a touch of fatalism. It's a prime showcase for lead singer Robby Schiller's whiskey-weathered vocals, and when his female foil, Rebecca Krafft, comes up in the mix, the effortless blending of their voices is something special.
And the tune's no fluke. Thanks to Schiller, who's able to pump country soul into just about anything he essays without sounding like he's putting on an act, Long Gone is chock-full of memorable material. In a way, much like Whiskeytown before them, the Blueheels have two rather distinct personalities. There's the full-on, rocking outfit that blasts through 'Red Pajamas,' 'Tennessee' and 'Forward Motion' and tramples all over the deadening constraints of small-town life in the process. Then there's the loping, reflective country quintet that searches for deliverance and redemption in the straight'ahead tumbleweed gospel of 'I Stumbled In.' Both approaches suit Schiller's voice, so what would surely seem bipolar in lesser hands comes off as a winning display of versatility.
To be honest, some of the album's longer tracks might benefit from some careful trimming. But that's a small complaint. Long Gone really is a slice of twang heaven. (Justin Perkins' glistening production deserves mention here, too. It's never gussied up with unnecessary digital effects, and it always puts the tune first.)
Droids Attack's Fatal/Error begins in epic fashion with 'The Lord,' a grinding squall of stoner metal that evolves from a moody growl to all-out guitar fury in the course of 11 minutes. Guitarist Brad Van's vocals are very much in the background, but that hardly matters. Fans of the high priests of stoner rock, the Melvins, or Sabbath-worshiping guitar specialists Sleep or even acid-rock pioneers Blue Cheer will be pleased by the tune's heavy riffing and boots-and-black-leather vibe.
At their most furious, Droids Attack are perfect candidates for the upcoming freebie version of Ozzfest. I mean, after the multitudes have had a couple preparatory tokes and a few PBRs, there's no way they'd be able to resist the artfully repetitive, steady-rolling 'Dope Smuggler,' an unrelenting evocation of fear and loathing on the drug trail that grows in intensity with each weed-addled bar.
Unlike Sleeping in the Aviary and the Blueheels, Droids Attack don't take pains to celebrate musical variety over the course of Fatal/Error. Although they brood and groan both fast and slow, the feel of each track is essentially the same. That's not a failing, however. As they stomp from 'The Lord' to the ferocious 'Steven Seagal' to the up-tempo metal boogie 'Malachi Crunch,' the potent power trio establish a pounding pulse that doesn't let up until the final chord of 'Scythe in the Fire' decays in the midrange. In that sense, they're the ultimate local moodists: They ride just one wave, and they ride into oblivion and beyond.
Madison hip-hop lost a couple major proponents last year when scene promoter Brody Rose (a.k.a. Bro DJ) moved East and the Rob DZ Experience disappeared from club calendars. But the emergence of loquacious local rapper Horton the Irrelevant should do a lot to ease the pain. Strange Passengers, his new 19-track collaboration with New Orleans-based sonic scientist August the Creep, is a very convincing calling card that gives full play to his stentorian vocal style, his sly sense of humor and his aptitude for racing in front of the beat.
On the radio-worthy 'Save the Brunettes,' a sardonic riposte to everyone who still believes even bleached blonds have more fun, he swaggers over August's woozy beat with regal confidence. On the more urgent 'Problems,' his pleas for clarity and purpose slap up against the saccharine uplift of Hall and Oates' 'She's Gone,' producing a ferociously effective aural hook. Some of the best production comes on 'What I Know,' a cagey mash-up of distorted electric piano and an oddly edited stop-and-start beat that flutters and flows beneath Horton's mighty bass-toned palaver. August the Creep also digs deep into his bag of tricks on 'Robots,' undergirding Horton's onrushing rhyme with a sample of some over-driven electric harpsichord.
Searching for a party in a box? Look no further.