You might think you’ve got this Reading, UK quintet figured out from the start when “Can’t Fish,” the opening track on Pete & The Pirates’ sophomore LP One Thousand Pictures, showers you in its theatrical and soaring gush of guitar and percussion. Perhaps you think you hear Band of Horses or even The National somewhere off in the distance of the song, and maybe you do. But when the alternately menacing and supine second track “Cold Black Kitty” mingles the roaring chops of Bloc Party or Interpol with the tender-hearted pop balladry of Ray Davies, the record comes off as a distinctly schizophrenic experience, and the band as one wholly uninterested in settling into any particular mode.
It is only fitting that “Cold Black Kitty” thunders with its driving guitars and pulsing adrenaline. After all, front man Tommy Sanders has just gotten done singing of light bulbs exploding in the streets and people leaping out of their windows on the opening track. Elsewhere, as on standout track “United,” the houses on his block are ugly and “hold meetings in the night time” as they stare him down and laugh. Yes, the houses are laughing. Just go with it.
For a record so replete with hard-bitten themes like violence, suicide and heartbreak, you’d think these tracks are the work of a band that takes themselves entirely too seriously. But then Sanders cracks a joke like “You’re in my heart / you’re in my car as well” or explores such existential quandaries as “Who needs a train when you’ve got a train track and a motorbike with a girl and the back,” and you find enough emotional wiggle room to laugh off the tough stuff and be glad you withstood it in the meantime.
The video for “Winter 1,” which sports the album’s most memorable beat, exudes the kind of low-budget, geeky greatness of those early-’80s new wave videos we took so seriously at the time but giggle at diffidently today. (Be on the look-out for the wholly ridiculous, glow-in-the-dark-orange ski cap around the 1:20 mark. Glorious.) Check it out above.
When Malcom McLaren’s term “New Wave” landed in the lap of Seymour Stein at Sire Records, where the phrase was promptly used to soften the image of the punk songs that would never have found their way to radio otherwise, it’s a safe bet that the last band either man had in mind at the time were The Kinks, a group in their third decade who, by 1983, had already danced themselves into the sunset of their creative peak. Unwilling to be typecast by the dead era they helped define–an era when all you had to do to make it big was grow some bushy hair, sing about holding some girl’s hand, and package the whole thing as “The British Invasion”–The Kinks happily spent the early 80s graffitying its tombstone instead by cranking up the amps and thrashing their way around the globe from one arena to the next, chasing the glories of younger bands that they themselves made possible twenty years prior–Duran Duran, The Smiths, The Jam–and producing that great document of the arena rock era in the process, 1980’s One for the Road.
But even as they thrived amid one of the most unlikely resurgences rock ‘n roll had ever seen, few anticipated that the band would also find themselves on the crest of that “Wave” so many rode into the 1980s, storming MTV with their video for “Come Dancing,” one of a handful of powerful singles to emerge from 1983’s State of Confusion, and marking the last time they would ever crack the top ten (“Come Dancing” shot to #6 in the US while, once again, the album and single bafflingly failed to make a dent in their native UK.) And as more contemporary artists went to such desperate lengths to cash in on the latest momentary fad–streaking their spiked hair with every hue in the rainbow and discovering fashion in the torn and pinned-together clothes that the pioneers of punk wore, not to make a statement but because it was all they could afford–the Kinks stuck to their guns, strapping on the same guitars they’d wailed on for decades and invoking the nostalgia of memories paved for parking lots and bowling allies built where dance halls were. That the recipe worked as well in 1983 as it did in 1963 confirms a certain timeless chord in rock ‘n roll that anyone with the talent and authenticity can strike.
The Kinks: “Come Dancing,” State of Confusion (1983)
Yet someone writes in the Rough Guide to Rock that songs such as “Come Dancing” were “outposts on lackluster albums.” This has to be the opinion of someone who either didn’t listen to the record or wasn’t there to begin with. To be fair, some of the album’s best cuts were either condemned to cassette-only versions (the peculiarly Dylan-esque “Long Distance”) or tardy reissues (“Noise,” “Once A Thief”), but a “lackluster” record it is not. It’s as though the longer The Kinks defied widespread predictions that they wouldn’t even make it into the 70s as a commercially viable act, the more critics insisted on fulfilling their own prophecy with dismissive reviews. For a band that wasn’t supposed to survive the 70s, it sure is no small accomplishment that they cranked out five instant classics in 1983.
What is even more of a wonder is that the most harrowing among them, the divine “Property,” slumped into obscurity amid the album’s other hits. Along with “Better Things,” “Property” is one of the strongest ballads Ray put to paper since “A Long Way From Home” in 1970. The furiously performed title track speaks for itself, and mammoth hits “Come Dancing” and the prom-closing “Don’t Forget to Dance” are the stuff of rock ‘n roll immortality now. State of Confusion did serve up a couple of clunkers in the merely noisy “Young Conservatives” and “Labour of Love,” but what album DIDN’T include filler in those days? In that context, State of Confusion plays like the masterpiece that it is, closing with Dave’s delightfully blistering “Bernadette” and marking the end of Mick Avory’s tenure as the Kinks’ drummer. State of Confusion is every bit a classic now as it was in the 80s, and hardly warrants the dismissal and neglect it increasingly endures.
In 2006 Jack White broke my heart. He released an unsatisfying album with a newly formed side-project of friends and crowned the endeavor “what he has always wanted to do”. It seemed nothing but an abandonment of Meg and a half-hearted attempt at proof of self worth. Jack said himself that he would be nothing musically without Meg, that it was her childlike hammering that made each bluesy chord of his cohesive. So then, why Jack do you wish to dilute your talent with superfluous accompaniments and banal verses?The single “Steady As She Goes” was mildly catchy at most while the album as a whole fell short of the Whitelicious masterpiece we were accustomed to. It pretty much sucked. Just when all hope was surely lost, Icky Thump was born and life was good again.
Needless to say, I was more than skeptical of the newest Raconteurs project. I accept and love that Jack White is a man of many escapades, including plastic camera and speaker manufacture, collaboration with the Gods (Loretta Lynn and Bob Dylan), cell phone protestation, and home movies of snoring band mates (sorry Meg). With the exception of the premier Raconteurs album, he hits all these ventures out of the park. Therefore, I gave him an open, yet highly analytical second chance.
Raconteurs: “Salute Your Solution”
Consolers of the Lonely, HOT DAMN! I’m sorry my lord for ever doubting your ability. I grabble at your feet in repentance! The Kinks got busy with Icky Thump and conceived Consolers of the Lonely, plain and simple. This album delivers Jack White’s signature raw energy viciously burned with blistering horns and riffs to rival Zeppelin. The band let the album speak for itself, doing zero promotion and allowing the content to leak on iTunes and the like. Bravo boys. White and company have created radio-soluble tunes capable of pushing facileness overboard. So long Linkin Park and Flobots! This album is a must for summer and pairs perfectly with open-windowed driving.After all of Jack White’s eccentric pursuits, he again proves his tireless ability to win my applause.
If skipping town in a cross-country skid from Brooklyn to San Fransisco with a mobile photo booth in tow doesn’t sound like fun to you, then you need to get out more. Specifically, you need to get out more with Low Water, the latest band to earn Culturespill’s distinction of “Best Band You’ve Never Heard Of.” Fresh off of filming the video for their new single, “Sister, Leave Me,” for which they dragged a photo booth across the country and implored the nearest bystander to step inside and sing on camera, they’re taking it to the streets with an upcoming third release called Twisting the Neck of the Swan; andjudging from how effortlessly their music stands up to the hype, they just might bank with this one.
Continuing their breezy brand of simple and stripped down pop rock that marries Spoon and The Long Winters in a musical brew they can call their own, “Sister, Leave Me” plays like a reliable follow-through on the trio’s established glories, a back-to-basics rock ‘n roll that awakens you to just how desperate you’ve been for a band that’s not afraid to sound this real. Think Hot Hot Heat without the adolescent frenzy. Cowboy Junkies with balls. A long-overdue musical retort to Wilco’s 1995 debut, AM. In other words, think a really fucking good band you need to hear NOW.
We’re admittedly stretching the rules for these guys, though, because all sorts of people are hearing about them these days. The Pittsburgh Gazette: “Gritty post-Replacements rock with style and substance.” Amplifier Magazine: “Bridging modern Americana with rock ‘n roll out of the garage.” The Davis Enterprise: “Elevated above your average Emo rock . . . tasteful guitar playing, subtle humor, and masterful and clever wordplay.” Origivation Magazine: “Beautiful. Just beautiful.” Hell, they even got their own spot on NPR’s All Songs Considered recently. You don’t get much bigger than that. Er, OK, maybe you do–but they’ll get there too. And in a big damned hurry.
Low Water: “Strange New Element”
For a band that vows to “write . . . solid unpretentious songs that reflect where we’re from,” it’s no wonder some people find nothing more to say other than “beautiful, just beautiful” in futile attempts at putting into words the miracle this band puts to tape, reduced to the inarticulate wonder of a drooling infant (I’m raising my hand.) The flawless pop-rock gem “House in the City,” a tune you can check out on the band’s myspace page, opens with a meaty and irresistible crunch of guitar. By the time Johnny Leitera’s laid-back vocals transport the song to some Sunday afternoon on a backwoods porch with a fatty and a can of moonshine, the song locates an unlikely bridge between punk and alt-country under a hard rain of influence that never obscures the band’s vision. Collapsing into a lo-fidelity jam worthy of the Black Keys–though not quite that low-fi–a syrupy burst of synth sweetens the tune on its way to a sparkling and vaguely grungy close.
Yet no single flourish of the band’s deceptively nuanced sound clutches you by the throat to throng you in their desperate genius; they’re that rare young band that knows how to let the music speak for itself, delighting in an unassuming restraint they ride through every song with the unwavering confidence that drives a great Neil Young album (most of their material offers a composite of Comes A Time and Zuma.) As far as Johnny’s concerned, though, Low Water are “a rock band of the same mold as The Kinks.” While we’re always leery of bands with the balls to boast a resemblance to The Kinks, whom we at Culturespill believe is the greatest band to ever grace a rock ‘n roll stage, the comparison isn’t entirely hyperbolic.
They may not be producing work of such lyrical mastery as “Waterloo Sunset” or “Shangri-La,” but they do write songs of enough quality for one to suspect that these guys have read almost as much as they’ve played. In a musical climate dominated by teeny-bopping Emo-bots who swoon over a Ben Gibbard lyric only out of ignorance of the covering cherubs of songwriting that paved his path forty years ago, that’s a welcome change of pace. And Johnny’s homage to those aging angels of rock is clearly more substantive than boastful, as he acknowledges an ambition not just to return to the sound of The Kinks, but also to embody the literate ethos they brought to rock ‘n roll. “I wanted to convey the blue-collar, working class aspect of the band,” he says of their name, “Low Water is a slang term from the ’40s for not having any money. It’s amazing how that’s proven to be appropriate,” he elaborates. Amazing indeed–both in song and in spirit–how closely this band comes to encompassing the hard-nosed paradox of indifference and empathy that rock ‘n roll was founded on.