The Von Bondies
Lately, Jason Stollsteimer has been known more as Jack White's punching bag than as the singer for Detroit's Von Bondies. That November episode of fisticuffs was the climax of a long history between the two musicians -- they played together in a previous Detroit band, and White dated guitarist Marcie Bolen and produced the Von Bondies' first album, Lack of Communication -- but it unfairly places Stollsteimer in a supporting role to White. As Pawn Shoppe Heart, the Von Bondies' rip-roaring major-label debut, ably proves, Stollsteimer is definitely a lead.
So are Bolen, drummer Don Blum, and bass player Carrie Smith. Pawn Shoppe Heart was produced by Jerry Harrison with both precision and spontaneity. Each member has a distinct personality and brings a unique element to the mix: Blum flails on high-hatless drums; Bolen dispenses compact, catchy guitar riffs; Smith supports everything with dependable bass lines; and Stollsteimer wails like the unholy spawn of Rhett Miller and Glenn Danzig. But most important, all four Von Bondies play as a single dynamic unit.
The interplay between instruments and personalities often sounds like a co-ed Sleater-Kinney, and while the Von Bondies cannot approach the righteous anger or social relevance of that Washington State trio, their boy-girl-boy-girl composition and he-said-she-said songwriting make for some fascinating gender tension. On "The Fever" -- surely one of the best songs to spell out its title since Carla Thomas' "B-A-B-Y" -- Stollsteimer sings, "She don't know what she's talking about she can't sing, she just screams and shouts," to which Smith replies, "He thinks it's easy/but it's not easy." On the album's first single, "Come On Come On," Stollsteimer wonders "Was it right to leave?" and "Will I never learn?" while Bolen and Smith complete the call and response, chanting the song title and pushing him toward his emotional breaking point.
Lyrically and vocally, Pawn Shoppe Heart beats with sexual antagonism -- in lines like "I'm a broken man/With my broken band" and the delicious bad-date put-down "You're not that social/Just a good drinker" -- as if men and women could never reconcile their differences in perspective and experience. On the other hand, the tight interaction between guitars, drum, and bass, which creates a dizzying momentum on songs like "Crawl Through the Darkness" and the cathartic title track, suggests that music might bridge that gender gap. -- Stephen Deusner
A literal and figurative four-letter word, "twee" is a category that polarizes indie-rock fans. More so than emo, it is the music that, in a genderless fashion, sits down to pee. With roots in the post-punk pop of the Marine Girls (later Everything But the Girl) and Young Marble Giants, twee-pop came to fruition in the latter part of the '80s with the Pastels and the Field Mice. A case could be made that Calvin Johnson's Beat Happening and his K label carried the U.S. torch, but I've never understood the appeal of Beat Happening.
Back to the other side of the Atlantic and bam! (or more like "er, pardon me"), Belle and Sebastian emerged. All of a sudden everything was cute and cutely literary, and the world was regaled with tales of rolled-up knickers, stream-wading, and bicycle baskets -- all saddled with a flaccid undercurrent of class discourse. Belle and Sebastian eventually grew out of this and into an enjoyable Zombies/Smiths/Lambchop hybrid. But now Camera Obscura are here like a time-traveling, acutely precious mid-'90s footnote.
From Glasgow, naturally, Camera Obscura have surgically nailed every nuance of early Belle and Sebastian and redirected the whole affair through (mostly) female vocals. Pop smarts meets precocious naval-gazing at the starting line with the '60s easy-listening vibe of the opening "Suspended from Class," which boasts the memorable chorus "I should be suspended from class/I don't know my elbow from my arse." One thing, one thing, that sets this apart from its genre ancestors is its countrypolitan aura, like an indie-folk treatment of late-period Byrds.
Not a good gift for the badass in your life, Underachievers is nevertheless a workable and elegantly crafted facsimile of a recent era and is more than suitable for fans of the genre. -- Andrew Earles
Typically, EPs either document a musician's tentative steps in a new direction or serve as a money-making dumping ground for a chockablock assemblage of covers, remixes, outtakes, and studio doodling. They aren't usually intended to be thematically cohesive or accessible to anyone outside the artist's most loyal fan base.
An exception to the rule: Convict Pool, Calexico's short-form follow-up to 2003's standout Feast of Wire. This EP is perhaps one of the band's most focused releases, an intriguing introduction to Joey Burns and John Convertino's unique mixture of indie rock and Latino flourishes. While their previous releases contain numerous incidental and/or instrumental tracks scattered among highly structured songs, on Convict Pool, Burns and Convertino emphasize songwriting -- not just their own but others' as well, including Love's "Along Again Or" and the Minutemen's "Corona."
But the best tracks are Calexico originals. The title track, a surprisingly affecting ballad about inhumane prison conditions, sounds like a dark sequel to "Across the Wire" from Feast. "Sirena" spins desert superstitions into a desperately driven ballad full of haunted imagery, ending this strikingly strong EP on a high note, figuratively if not literally. --SD
Calexico performs Wednesday, March 31st, at the Hi-Tone Cafe.
Honey in the Lion's Head, the 18th and latest release from Iowa Åber-folkie and singer-songwriter Greg Brown, is a traditional tour de force. With only one Brown-penned tune on the album, the rest are traditional or neo-traditional songs that resonate as brightly today as they did tens or even hundreds of years ago. Like Bob Dylan, Brown has that rare ability to take a ubiquitous folk tune and infuse it with meaning for the present day. He transforms the often whimsical nursery rhyme "Who Killed Cock Robin?" into a powerful meditation on life and death. And in Brown's able hands, "I Don't Want Your Millions Mister" becomes a direct response to favorite son George Dubya's policies, where the rich get richer and the poor get poorer, as well as his divisive "if you're not for us, you're against us" mentality. Brown sings, "Think me dumb, if you want, mister/Call me green, or blue or red/There's one thing that I know, mister/Hungry children must be fed."
This work is obviously a labor of love as well as a true family affair: One of Brown's daughters designed the album cover, while his other two provide backup vocals, as does his new bride Iris DeMent, who croons behind Brown on "Jacob's Ladder." For the most part, the arrangements are beautifully done but spare and simple, except for Blind Willie Johnson's gospel tune, "Samson," which Brown saddles and rides like a galloping stallion. With his wonderfully rich baritone and impeccable phrasing, Brown takes old chestnuts like "Old Smokey" and uncovers the raw emotion behind the originals. With Honey in the Lion's Head, Brown relishes his roots in a loving celebration of everyday life, land, and folks. -- Lisa Lumb