Friday, January 23, 2009

The Top Metal Albums of 2008

As I've said previously, 2008 was a weird year for music, and that goes double for metal. The underground kind of disappointed me this year. The big death-metal, black-metal and grindcore releases sounded like genre archetypes, not really doing anything different or even well. The bigger, more established metal bands had more of a stake than usual in metal in 2008 (uh… Metallica, AC/DC, Guns N' Roses [if it sold better], Slipknot, Disturbed [pbbbt], and so on). Tons of older bands reunited (Carcass, At the Gates, Brutal Truth… well, not totally but they played their first NYC show in 2008), saturating the market. There just wasn't much to latch onto.

My favorite extreme release was a compilation for a change. This Comp Kills Fascists contains everything I want in a grindcore CD: Tons of bands and tons of songs, but it still seems short. Producer Scott Hull should be proud; I'm looking forward to hearing Vol. 2 sometime soon. For what it's worth, the below represents sort of what I cared about, metallically, in 2008. This year is looking much better than the last (the new Cannibal Corpse is especially good), so let me just acknowledge these before I get totally distracted by something else.

  1. Various Artists, This Comp Kills Fascists
  2. Gojira, The Way of All Flesh
  3. Aura Noir, Hades Rise
  4. Nachtmystium, Assassins: Black Meddle, Part 1
  5. Trash Talk, Trash Talk
  6. Melvins, Nude With Boots
  7. Black Mountain, In the Future
  8. Jesu, Why Are We Not Perfect?
  9. Dismember, Dismember
  10. Opeth, Watershed
  11. Toxic Holocaust, An Overdose of Death…
  12. Phobia, 22 Random Acts of Violence
  13. Harvey Milk, Life… The Best Game in Town
  14. Metallica, Death Magnetic
  15. The Haunted, Versus

The Top Releases of 2008

Since it's still January, I figure it's not too late for an obligatory "Best of 2008" lists blog. You know, since you've already read (and scoffed at) everyone else's, why not add another notch to your belt? This is Pazz + Jop week, so it's the perfect time. Specifically to me, this is the week when I learn that I was the only person to include Scott Hull's totally excellent tribute to power-violence comps, This Comp Kills Fascists, on my list. (Between Brutal Truth and Wasteoid, it was a shoe-in for me.) That's OK, I'll continue to biliously scream its praises. And don't get me started on how good the Hank III is (even if he has said he hates it.)

All in all, 2008 was a pretty weird year for music. M.I.A.'s "Paper Planes" was voted song of the year on Pazz & Jop, even though it came out in 2007 and was part of the promo machine for a movie that the general public thought largely sucked. That's OK, because it made my list last year. (My pick this year, as I've said before is Be Your Own Pet's paean to teenage homicide, "Becky.") The pop and rock releases that were supposed to be big weren't (looking at you, Axl.) Big-box metal was more ubiquitous than ever and the much-touted indie-metal releases (ahem, Torche) weren't really that groundbreaking. As you can imagine, I had a really tough time making these lists—for the worst! Anyway, after months of work compiling these lists, the below represents what I liked most in 2008, critically speaking. And yes, TV on the Radio is as good as everyone says it is.

Top 10 Albums of 2008, Regardless of Genre

  1. Be Your Own Pet, Get Awkward
  2. Hank III, Damn Right, Rebel Proud
  3. Various Artists, This Comp Kills Fascists

  4. TV on the Radio, Dear Science
  5. Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, Dig!!! Lazarus Dig!!!
  6. My Morning Jacket, Evil Urges
  7. Portishead, Third
  8. The Breeders, Mountain Battles

  9. Magnetic Fields, Distortion
  10. Gojira, The Way of All Flesh

Top Singles/Tracks of 2008

  1. Be Your Own Pet, "Becky"
  2. Music Go Music, "Light of Love"
  3. Lykke Li, "Little Bit"
  4. Katy Perry, "I Kissed a Girl"
  5. Lil Wayne, "A Milli"
  6. My Morning Jacket, "Highly Suspicious"
  7. Magnetic Fields, "California Girls"
  8. Metallica, "My Apocalypse" (Guitar Hero version)

  9. Estelle, "American Girl"
  10. Guns N' Roses, "Shackler's Revenge"

Repost: Song of the Year: "Becky" by Be Your Own Pet

Since Paper Thin Walls proved too thin in 2008, I've decided to repost some of the reviews I wrote for them. This one's about "Becky," my song of the year in 2008. If you want to hear it, click this link to watch the video (or watch it at the bottom).

from Get Damaged EP (XL)
Punk // Out Now // Rating 9.5

Witness the awesome power of double standards. Just weeks before the release of Nashville punkers Be Your Own Pet's sophomore album, Get Damaged, the lawyers at their U.S. label's parent company, Universal, deemed three tracks too violent for domestic audiences and removed them from the album. Even considering the subject matter, the doo-wopping, tongue-in-cheek teen melodrama of "Becky"—a song about a girl killing the BFF who dished her secrets—seems an unlikely target. No one got hurt in real life. Apparently, libidinous teens with litigious parents comprise an audience too scary for even the same label that released Godsmack's "Awake" and "Sick Of Life," both used in US Navy recruitment commercials. (Not to overlook the oft used, ahem, bullet points that the company also distributes 50 Cent, The Game and Marilyn Manson, among others; even M.I.A.'s "Paper Planes" holds more violent content than "Becky" does.)

Thankfully, XL released the violent troika as the Get Awkward EP. After all, "Becky" was not only the best song on Awkward but it might also be the most enjoyable benign punk song successfully removed by a label since "Carbona Not Glue." And despite the media's desperate attempts to link music as inspiration for school shootings (Klebold and Harris hated Manson, and Collective Soul lyrics surely couldn't have dictated the violence at Virginia Tech), "Becky" is not "Cop Killer."

Be Your Own Pet seem like the least likely of censorship targets. When they formed in 2004 as teenagers, they were a Stooges-influenced Yeah Yeah Yeahs clone. The lyrics on their self-titled debut contained the sorts of insolent boasts high school students are known for ("I'm an independent motherfucker, and I'm here to take your money" on "Bunk Trunk Skunk"), so those on "Becky" don't seem like too much of a stretch. "Adventure" could have been the posthumous blood B-side to "Maps." In fact, Be Your Own Pet's raucous nature seemed to define them. Now 21-year-old frontwoman Jemina Pearl, daughter of Christian artist/photographer Jimmy Abegg, can shriek biliously (Iggy would marvel at her vomitous howls on the also banned and also terrific "Black Hole") and admits to puking onstage. Guitarist Jonas Stein (musically this band's Chris Stein), whose dad manages Mötley Crüe's Vince Neil, has said the Buzzcocks are his favorite band and complements Pearl's yelps with catchy chording when he isn't bleeding or nursing a black eye himself. Bassist Nathan Vasquez, son of Latin jazz guitarist Rafael Vasquez, plays with a foolhardy confidence that probably makes his dad's skin crawl. (Original drummer Jamin Orrall, whose pops produced Reba McEntire, split for college and was replaced with John Eatherly, who plays with Stein in Turbo Fruits, which only tightened up the band.) From their legacy status alone, the band should have avoided being scapegoats. (Irrelevant to "Becky," the group has disbanded as of late August.)

By the time Get Awkward was released, the group could no longer be called wunderkinden. They were all college-aged and had enough experience to know what they were doing. Inspired no doubt by the critical praise their debut received, the album was the first that the Thurston Moore-co-owned Ecstatic Peace! would upstream to Universal. The aggression of young adulthood may have fueled Get Awkward (incidentally produced by Redd Kross bassist and teen-culture enthusiast Steven McDonald), but, lyrically, their interests were still pubescent. Of the non-censored tracks, "Bitches Leave" is about sodomy-loving scene groupies, "The Kelley Affair" about sex-indulgent Valley-dwelling drug fiends and "Zombie Graveyard Party" about romantic cerebrophagia. Perhaps someone finally took George Carlin's advice about media emphasizing lovemaking over killing one another? Still, this isn't the difference between and PG-13 and an R. If anything, "Becky"'s deletion shows an incomplete picture of high school life. If we've learned nothing else from Freedom Writers, Dangerous Minds or High School High (or, uh, life) it's that graduating high school has nothing to do with academics.

What the label suits missed, moreover, is that "Becky" is a perfect teen-violence parody. Pearl's rhymes of passion aren't so much about literally stabbing some girl to death as much as the hormones that cause her to feel that way. In May, Pearl told the Denver Westword that writing "Becky," specifically, was her way of turning negative experiences with other girls into something humorous. She also said playing in Be Your Own Pet helped treat her violent temper. (Likewise, one could argue "Becky" would be the perfect album single since, with label support, it could become a talking point about violence for parents and teens the way Tipper Gore expected "Papa Don't Preach" to be received.) Between Stein's stuttering Mickey & Sylvia-like guitar strumming and the chorus's distorted wallop, how couldn't she feel some release?

For the most part, Pearl's lyrics are sharp and tell a taut, funny story: Girl blabs to friend about crush, friend informs school of crush, girl feels betrayed, girl kills friend. Simple. Funny. Mostly implausible. It's an amalgamation of Heathers, Mean Girls and the 1994 made-for-TV Tori Spelling vehicle A Friend To Die For (a.k.a., Death Of A Cheerleader—yes, Spelling was the cheerleader). The kicker is that, in the end, Pearl doesn't feel any remorse for knocking her enemy off, "'cause in the end it was fun." This practically underscores the song's lack of seriousness.

On a macro level, "Becky" is about self-entitlement as much as it is about trust. Pearl sounds genuine only because she's been through this in real life (within limits). The lyrics are written in the only perspective she knows: her own. What's more adolescent than the inability to see beyond one's own nose? It's the same blind obsession that has fueled songs from "Is She Really Going Out With Him?" to Polvo's "Flowers Of Forgiveness." It seems her adversary's only offenses were telling Pearl's secrets, finding a new friend and the catchall of becoming "lame." Pearl doesn't miss her clothes so much as her dignity.

The song's only remaining mystery is about who Becky is. While the band pretty much establishes that they don't like her, the rest of the lyrics leave some question as to which role Becky plays in this sordid tale. The problematic line is "It was great how you made me a friendship bracelet/But I didn't know you made one for Becky 'Facelift.'" While Becky seemed like the betrayer at the beginning, it now seems as if Becky is the new friend of Pearl's former BFF, the one who blabbed. The "Becky" video portrays Pearl murdering a girl with a "B" necklace, but that doesn't prove anything, really. While what role Becky plays in this drama remains unresolved, a greater moral quandary arises when Pearl posits that she and her new friend will kick the betrayer's ass and wait with knives after class. It's doubtful that Pearl could so soon find a co-conspirator in murder. But it's that shadow of a doubt that sends shivers up spines.

If anyone would rise to the occasion of murder—as depicted in the video, this time—it's her loyal bandmates. The way the song plays out, as well as songs in the rest of the album ("Bitches Please," "Black Hole," "Food Fight!"), Pearl comes across as a tomboy with her stereotypical band of boys following her around. Bolstering Pearl's vocals with gang choruses the way Jonathan Richman's Modern Lovers and the non-Verlaine Television personalities once did ("Did you feel low?—Huh?!"), the band screams "Becky!" with even more fervent bloodlust than the frontwoman. When they sing, "We don't like Becky anymore" at the end, they've become full-fledged lemmings, forming a parade through the halls from the science room to the commons.

But the band isn't lemmings. "Becky" is one of the more evolved songs originally on Get Awkward. No longer a gritty garage band, the group shows a wider spectrum of influences on the song. Sure, they're as transparent as the band's past influences, but the conviction with which Be Your Own Pet plays makes up for any stylistic bites. Placed between "Heart Throb" and "The Kelley Affair," as it was on the original tracklisting (intact on XL's UK edition), it makes Awkward less awkward, not to mention knocks it over the half-hour mark.

If anything, removing "Becky" and the two other songs on Get Damaged only hurt album sales. The chasm between Be Your Own Pet's actual and perceived audience is vast. They're more loyal than the label gave them credit for and at least some of their fans purchased the import version, if they didn't download it. One commenter on, MyUnderstatedAnger, said, "This kind of dumb shit makes me glad that music piracy is really sticking it to the corporate side of the industry. Hopefully one day the listeners will finish the job and we can get these silly fuckers out of the recording studios for good..."

The fact "Becky" got any proper domestic release, though, at least shows some 20/20 hindsight. Get Damaged's cover, which parodies Awkward's, proves the band has a sense of humor about it, and the EP itself is a fitting epitaph for a band that just seemed to be finding itself. But after graduation, life goes on. Even if you're stuck in Cell Block Two.

Monday, January 19, 2009

The Fluid with Jemina Pearl, 1/17/09

I was already eager to see reunited Denver proto-grungies the Fluid at the Music Hall of Williamsburg, then I found out that ex-Be Your Own Pet vocalist Jemina Pearl would be opening up, playing her first post-BYOP show, which made me more excited. (BYOP’s “Becky” is my 2008 song of the year and, at one point, I had a lengthy review of it posted on Paper Thin Walls, but since that site’s since bitten the farm, I’ll re-post it here soon click here.) When Pearl eventually came onstage, I was surprised to see the place was sparsely populated. Pearl’s solo material sounds a lot like (surprise, surprise) Be Your Own Pet. Her band is composed mostly of Nashvillians and a Brooklynite drummer, and they play some pretty gritty ’60s-bubblegum inspired garage punk. In between songs, she spat and blew snot. She apologized a couple of times for not sounding her best since it was her first gig in a while, but her voice was pretty much on point. All in all, it was fun but predictable.

Jemina Pearl

The Fluid, however, came out hungry. Although they were the first non-Northwestern band to sign to Sub Pop (a cred-worth footnote, if ever there was one), they never achieved the success as their labelmates Nirvana, Soundgarden and Mudhoney. There aren’t even any Fluid records in print right now! (Their merch tonight was shirts that featured a Ford-like logo for their name.) They reunited for Sub Pop’s 20th anniversary fest last year and, from what I heard, came off as surprised at the positive reception they got. Tonight, they played many songs from their classic Roadmouth as well as a favorite of mine, “Cold Outside,” from Clear Black Paper. Frontman John Robinson bounded about the stage, though the band seemed more comfortable sticking to the back. Nonetheless, they lived up to their legacy. Now all they need to do is to get their records back in print.

The Fluid