None Shall Pass
Carrying the torch initially lit by his boss and former Company Flow leader, El-P, indie hip hop’s Aesop Rock returns with his first proper album in nearly half a decade (yes, EPs and compilation appearances have made this seem a much shorter length of time, but the last full album was 2003’s Bazooka Tooth).
Ridiculous backdrops are provided by longtime producer/collaborator Blockhead (whose own instrumental solo album, Uncle Tony’s Coloring Book, is one of the year’s sleepers!), furthering label Def Jux’s reputation for extreme, left-of-center hip-hop. I used to compare Def Jux production with what would happen if Radiohead did hip hop. Then Lupe Fiasco, Kanye West and Pharrell made a song using one of Thom Yorke’s Eraser instrumentals. Turns out that’s like comparing Maroon 5’s latest to Miles Davis’ Pangaea. Both are enjoyable, but one is a Little Debbie while the other is Jack Fry’s salmon. The title cut here is the clear winner, and the one that falls closest to “traditional” hip hop. Halfway through, the delivery becomes a bit burdensome, so slap this one on your iPod and hit shuffle.
I mean, if you had Jack Fry’s every day, it wouldn’t be special anymore, would it? —Damien McPherson
For their fourth full-length, dance-punk outfit Liars advance the experimental shift begun on their previous effort, Drum’s Not Dead, with intriguing results. The droning, grinding bass and vocals at times feel dark and unnerving, like an undead Ian Curtis (tracks like “Pure Unevil” would feel right at home on an early Joy Division comp). But the seductively simple, near-primitive beats provide much-needed grounding and draw the listener in, especially on “Mr. You’re On Fire Mr.!” and “Leather Prowler.” By the time “Freak Out” comes around, the layers of fuzz that intruded so menacingly at the start have become as integral to the soundscape as drums or vocals, and listeners would do well to heed the track’s titular advice. By the time the last synth chord fades on “Protection,” the extent of Liars’ accomplishment shines through their haze of feedback and distortion: Liars is an academic’s dance-punk record: dark but also inviting, exploratory but also danceable. —Justin Keenan
This veteran Louisville hardcore act blasts out 10 songs here in 24 minutes, and this brevity works well for them. What distinguishes Black Cross from other acts in the scene is their classic punk influence, which they seem to wear on their sleeves. I hear echoes of great indie/punk acts like Mission of Burma, Circle Jerks or even the ’90s-era Touch & Go scene, among these grooves.
And that’s a good thing.
Whereas some acts of this ilk focus on metal-edged heaviness and growly, down-tuned chords, Black Cross uses noise and grittiness to capture an aggression that doesn’t forsake melody or songwriting, a pitfall for many a tuneless hardcore act. “Firelight” is one particularly potent cut, while the hyperspeed ferocity of “Get Out Of My F*cking Head” is a killer ride packed with fury. The rest of the album is equally tight and rocks with a welcome amount of reckless abandon. These guys are a good, solid band, with the chops, riffs and songs that should make Louisville proud. —Todd Zachritz
Buckle in the Bible Belt
Ha Ha Tonka
Something about Ha Ha Tonka’s first track “Up Nights” on Buckle in the Bible Belt is reminiscent of local favorites Wax Fang (the singer’s voice is Scott Carney-esque), but their bio likens them to Kings of Leon (yuck, they should rethink that one) and R.E.M. (which I don’t hear.)
Upon first listen, the bluesy, indie-rock Southern vibe grated on my nerves while I sat there thinking, “Ha Ha Tonka (a state park in the Ozarks) is kind of a stupid name for a band.” However, the record grew on me and offers some strong songs like “Gusto” and “Cure for the Common Cold.”
Lyrically, this is one of the stronger discs I’ve reviewed in a while. Both “Gusto” and “Up Nights” deal with the tragic problem of methamphetamine in rural areas as the band pays homage to regional storytelling traditions. Also covered: nationalism, religion and rites of passage that might sound typical, but Ha Ha Tonka portray society’s ills in a darkly charming way, and Buckle in the Bible Belt is well worth a listen. —L. Park
Autumn of the Seraphs
(TOUCH & GO)
A still point in the rapidly shifting world, Pinback returns — officially — with its fourth studio album, Autumn of the Seraphs. Officially because singer Rob Crow has been perhaps the busiest band whore in the Western world recently, jumping from project to project like the dealers on “The Wire.” Fans worried that Crow’s extra-curricular efforts (especially a solo disc that dropped mere months ago) might take away from the quality of Pinback’s records need not worry.
The band, always a bit wispy, is a bit more muscular this time around. Rest assured, though — while the album title might suggest heavy metal (a genre that Crow has tackled recently), it’s not — it’s more like Skinny Jeans Pop.
With Pinback, Crow and partner Zach Smith have built an almost enviable machine: a band that always sounds pretty much the same. Rarely better, rarely worse, but always consistent. It wouldn’t be an impressive power on “Heroes,” but it’s comforting. —Peter Berkowitz
Lost Since Graduation
Calvert City, Ky., is a long way from Williamsburg, Brooklyn, and Williamsburg is a long way from London. But that didn’t keep American acts from aping British aesthetics, nor did it prevent an annoying rediscovery several years ago of new wave that has nearly overstayed its welcome.
Unfortunately, The October prove lightning never strikes twice in the same place, time zone, country or continent. Ignore — and this is difficult — Dustin Burnett’s desire to sing like he’s the long lost member of the Psychedelic Furs, and you’re left with third-wave pabulum.
It’s true that the band’s debut release, Bye Bye Beautiful, charted in CMJ’s Top 200 two weeks after it hit college radio, but that’s kind of like saying a 50-yard sprinter belongs in a marathon. Beyond the first few laps, The October expires from lack of physical depth, not to mention guts. —Mat Herron