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Jeff Keleher

Q&A with Jan Paternoster of Black Box Revelation

One half of the Belgian, garage rock group talks about their bluesy influences, legendary tourmates, and the joy of spending most of your life in a rock n’ roll band.

Mainstream music’s gotten a bit soft lately, hasn’t it? Not to disparage bands of the moment like Mumford & Sons and Fleet Foxes, but it sometimes feels like the snarl’s gone out of rock n’ roll, that the music of right now is more appropriate to be played in coffee shops and boutiques than blasting out of bombed-out dive bars. However, if you like your rock n’ roll with some of the grunge and howl of MC5 and the Stooges’ proto-punk or even last decade’s garage rock revival, you would be wise to give Belgian duo, Black Box Revelation a listen. Built on the one-two punch of Jan Paternoster’s fuzzed out guitar and Dries Van Dijck’s thunderous drum beats, their music brings to mind “White Blood Cells”-era White Stripes, echoing that group’s penchant for shambling tunes and colossal, fist-pumping choruses. Between supporting slots on tours with the Meat Puppets and Beady Eye, Jan was gracious enough to take some time out to answer a few of my questions.

Check out the video for their latest single, “High on a Wire“.

Your music clearly reflects a deep affection for both garage rock and the blues. What specific bands or artists do you count as your major influences?

We always loved the Stones, they’re probably our biggest influence. We love raw, pure music and that’s exactly how we record our music, havin fun playing music, all live in the same room, catch the moment. For our new album Neil Young has been a great influence. The way he plays that guitar is just magic.

What is the significance of your band’s name? It carries an ominous tone, given that the term “black box” is most readily associated with airplane crashes.

This actually is a big mystery to ourselves as well. Our name was there, all of a sudden, and we think it matches great with the sound of our music.

Ostensibly, your first language is Dutch, what influenced your decision to sing in English? Do you have any plans to record a song, if not an entire album in your native tongue?

Haha, if you’re hungry to hear us sing a song in our native language, browse youtube and you’ll find one song, a cover of a famous Belgian singer. We recorded it as a tribute to his career. Now, for our own songs we never thought of singing in Dutch. All of our favorite bands are American or English, or at least they sing in English. And by singing in English we got this great opportunity to play all over the States. We love it!

Jan, your vocals have a very distinctive snarl, kind of Mick Jaeger crossed with Iggy Pop and Billy Corgan. Are there any singers you’ve consciously taken cues from when shaping your own voice?

Oh, not at all. At least not consciously. Mick and Iggy are both one of my favorite singers. I like the tone of their voices and especially their attitude. Wow! My voice is pretty nasal I know, and I just try to give the best performance I can with it. Raw power.

You’ve spent nearly half your lives together in a band, how have the dynamics of the inner workings of the band shifted in that time?

We’ve been playing music together since our childhood. We were 11 and 13 years old. Since then it’s always been a pleasure playing music. Mow that we have more years of experience, we jam and improvise a lot more. So after all these years the two piece thing has always given us more and more freedom.

With your latest album, “My Perception” and its supporting tour, you seem to be making a dedicated effort to break into the U.S. music scene. How have American audiences responded to your music so far? Have you noticed any disparity between American and European audiences at your gigs?

We’re so happy to tour the States, reactions are so positive!! It’s cool to see people at our shows being so excited! There are always a couple of bloggers in the crowd and to be honest .. we only had great reviews so far in the States. Europe is amazing to tour, you get so many different cultures and languages, which is really cool. But the history of blues music lays in the states and that’s what we like about U.S. audiences, they really love music, it’s great to see so many people going wild on our tunes.

Given your music’s hard edge and raucous energy, what’s your take on the mainstream’s increasing interest in softer, folk-inspired rock? 

It’s not always easy to play loud rock music on radio during the day. I bet some people like it a bit more relax when they’re hanging at home or wherever. Energy rich rock music will always be a winner when people go out to have fun. There’s notting better than watching your favorite rock band live on stage right in front of you.

Garage rock has had a rough past few years, with once heralded bands like The Vines, Black Rebel Motorcycle Club, and The Fratellis either splitting up or falling out of favor. Do you see garage rock’s demise in the mainstream as a possible roadblock to Black Box Revelation’s success?  

Not at all! By touring the states so much we play for so many people who all love garage rock music. We think the amount of people liking garage rock is really big, bands just need to come back to the same cities over and over again so the fans can see them live. In this genre of music it’s all about the live scene and the contact with your fans. We’re from belgium which is the other side of the world but we’ve been touring the States more than most American bands do. Here’s an example; we play Minneapolis 4 times in 1 month. That’s how you create a buzz and build a fanbase.

What was it like working with Alain Johannes on “My Perception”?  How did working in Los Angeles affect this album’s recording process in contrast to your previous albums’?

We like recording music somewhere far away from home. This creates a certain vibe where we can focus more on the music only. Nothing else than jamming and recording and having a good time. Working with Alain was so amazing, we recorded the whole album at his home in hollywood. He’s a really inspiring producer with great ideas. The kind of man who knows exactly where to add a certain shout or whatever to make the music even better. He has so many rare and weird instruments at his place which was another extra boost for our inspiration.

Where do you see your music developing from here? Do you have aspirations to experiment with other genres? “New Sun” has a heavy Delta Blues element to it, is that a sound you might be interested in further exploring?

Oh, we love delta blues, I just bought some new (old) records and the way those guys play music is so raw and soulfull. Amazing! New Suns is one of our favorite songs, together with High on a Wire and Sealed with Thorns. It’s hard to say how our music is going to develop, it might get more bluesy or psychedelic. Who knows haha… we’ll see!

You have some impressive supporting slots coming up with the Meat Puppets and Beady Eye, how did these shows come together?

We played with the Meat Puppets in june and had such an amazing time that they asked us to join them again on this fall tour. It’s so much fun to play with them, they’re the godfathers of grunge music and it’s really cool to be their support. Cris Kirkwood actually joined us on stage in Chicago and Minneapolis. The first time ever that a bass player played on one of our tunes. That’s been one of our best experiences while being on tour in the States. We’re really excited for the Beady Eye dates as well, what an opportunity to play so many great venues with such a legend!

Your future touring partner, Liam Gallagher has cultivated a reputation for his hell-raising, rock n’ roll antics, how do you think you guys stack up to him in that regard?

I think we will have a great time. We’ve been playing with so many bands already, and the cool thing is we always get along very well with those other bands. The Beady Eye tour will be amazing, it would be cool to play some tunes together with them. That would be sick !

Interview: Unmasking "Johnny 3 Tears"

Johnny 3 Tears of Hollywood Undead sits down to talk about the band’s new remix album, the effects of music piracy, and why you won’t hear any solo projects from him anytime soon.

These are heady days for Hollywood Undead. Following the departure of original member, Deuce in early 2010, the band enlisted the talent of American Idol veteran, Daniel Murillo and set to recording the follow up to their buzz-generating debut. The ensuing album, “American Tragedy”, a display of the rap-rock dynamic at its finest, combing the raw energy and sneering arrogance of punk with the pulsing beats and indelible melodies of modern club hits, dropped last April. Since then, the band has been touring relentlessly alongside acts such as Avenged Sevenfold. This week, the group is releasing a companion remix album, “American Tragedy REDUX” Before their blistering set at the Riviera in Chicago, deep in the theater’s bowels, Johnny 3 Tears sat down to discuss apocryphal tales about the band, American Tragedy’s surprising influences, and why people need to calm down about the group’s lyrical content.

I know you guys get asked about the masks a lot, with them being the first thing people probably notice. In the past you’ve said you started wearing them mostly as a means to hide your identity on stage, is that still the case?

No, honestly it was never anything like that. A lot of people get that mixed up though because there’s so many old interviews, I don’t know but I think it’s like a game of telephone. Really we just wanted to have a visual aspect to the band outside of just a bunch of guys. You look at a picture of a band and nine times out of ten they look remarkably the same, which I understand. We were creating something new musically in our eyes and we wanted kind of to, because we were in bands before, that was the first time we ever decided to do it so when we started implementing hip hop elements into our music and things we wanted to do, we wanted to make it different in other ways as well so that was kind of the idea behind it. It was never about being anonymous or anything.

You guys create your own masks, is there anything significant about the designs?

Yeah, each person has their own thing, like mine, I have the “3” on it, the three tears. “3 Tears” was the name of our first band we ever started. And then the butterflies, I’ve got them tattooed everywhere, which is a whole different thing, but they’re two important things to me.

For the new album, “American Tragedy”, were there any bands or specific albums you looked to for inspiration when recording it?

You know, no. When we’re recording, I try not to listen to other bands, because when you listen to too much of one band you start to use their progessions because it’s kind of subconscious. It’s like getting a song stuck in your head. When we record the only band I’ll ever really listen to is like the Beatles or something like that, just because melodically they’re so driven and they’re the best that there ever was at doing that. It’s so different from ours that I don’t need to take anything from it, but it gives you melodic aspects that you might not think of on your own. I honestly rarely listen to music when we’re recording just because of that. I mean, I don’t listen to music actually at all really, because when you do it for a living all the time, some of these guys walk around with their I-Pods after a show, and I’m like, “Didn’t you just listen to that?” But that’s the way I’ve always been. I enjoy peace and quiet when we’re not doing music.

In that vein, with the Beatles and the importance of melody, this new album does feel a little more melodic, a little more sonically compatible with mainstream sensibilities. Was that something you consciously did or was it kind of just a happy accident?

I would say kind of a mixture of both. We didn’t try to make songs more melodic necessarily, but we stripped songs a lot more than we were used to. We wanted more of a rock n’ roll feel, and maybe bring up the synths but take out the programmed beats and just juggle the whole process differently and use more things than what we were used to. I think that’s where that came about. As far as the mainstream aspect, I think we just didn’t want to make “Swan Songs” again. It’s tough in a band like ours, you can’t just move in a completely new direction, so we really just messed with the simplified elements of songs and I think that’s just how it came about.We just wanted to make a different type of record without making something that Hollywood Undead fans would be like, “this isn’t Hollywood Undead”.

Even though it seems a bit more melodic, it has, lyrically some darker stuff to it.  Specifically, there’s a pervading theme of despair brought on by unfulfilled dreams and promises, was that something you set out to do when you started recording it?

I think that’s just where you’re at in life when you’re writing songs. Not that we’re all in a state of despair but, you know, your life’s changing and you’re getting older It’s three years since “Swan Songs” and a lot had happened.  So there’s a lot of elements in people’s individual lives that you can’t help bring as part of the music. I don’t think we did that on purpose, but it is what it is. If everyone is as happy as can be the next time we’re recording I’m sure that’ll come out too.

As far as the lyrics go, I know you’ve had issues in the past with record companies trying to, maybe, censor what you can say, is that something you still struggle with today?

No, I don’t think so. We’ve never had that issue with our label now. I never understood that. I think because we’re a rock band, and I consider ourselves a rock band, we’re saying some things that most rock bands don’t say. There’s this big issue but if you look at any rapper they say ten times worse. That’s why I never understood the juxtaposition, it’s not like we’re saying something that no one said before. In fact, people have said it ten times worse, but because we’re in the rock world I think that’s why it was kind of an issue for people. But that was a long time ago when we finished “Swan Songs” and that’s why it took so long to get it out, we had some issues with the record label but that’s one of the reasons we ended up with this label is they were cool to release it as is which was a big thing to us.

Because you never really pull any punches with your lyrics, do you ever have moments where you guys might write a line or even an entire song that you look at and are like, “maybe that’s going a little too far”?

Honestly, I’ve never felt that way but then again, we don’t write stuff for the sake of saying it. So, if we’re saying it, it’s probably not that bad because we’re not completely nuts or anything. I think also when you use certain terms people take it literally, like if you say ‘bitch’ or something, a)half the time when you say it you’re applying it to a guy, but people take it so literally. If you call someone an asshole, you’re not literally calling them an asshole, it’s just a term. I think you run into issues with that with people who look, they almost want to take it seriously so they have something to bitch about. But we’re not homophobes and we don’t hate women, I just think there are people out there who want it to mean that so they have someone to complain about.

If you actually sit down and listen to it, it’s clear that a lot of whatever people might find offensive is clearly-

It’s satire. You know what I mean? But you have to have a sense of humor to understand satire and I think those people who do look for that, that’s what they’re lacking most is a sense of humor.

You’ve got the remix album coming out soon, “American Tragedy REDUX”.What inspired you to do a remix album?

We got approached on it, and we’ve always liked that kind of stuff. Some of the guys on that like KMFDM and those dudes, and I’ve always liked Andrew W.K. At first I was kind of objecting to it because I was like “what’s the point?” but then when we brought in some of the names that wanted to work on it, then I got excited because I was a fan of some of these people. And I think just bringing a new take to any song, and a new life to it is a fun thing to do. One of the things is it’s completely optional for fans, it’s not like “hey we’re coming out with a new record, you should really go get it” it’s like if you’re into this stuff it’s available but if not there’s no pressure for us to be like “go buy this”. It’s a lot more fun than when you’re record’s actually coming out and you’re so focused on chart position and radio and all this bullshit that I really wish I didn’t have to think about and with this it really isn’t like that. So for fans, if they’re into remixes and those people doing them, check it out. If not, cool. It’s a lot less pressure than a record release. So, for the band, it was more of a fun thing to do as opposed to the pressure of the business aspects of it, we don’t have to pay any attention to that stuff, so it’s kind of nice. And they’re cool remixes, we took a lot of parts to them and did certain things with these guys so they’re all remixes we really liked.

In that vein, are there any other side projects that you would like to possibly explore in terms of trying out other genres of music that maybe wouldn’t gel with Hollywood Undead’s format?

No, I’ve always thought about that, writing and stuff like that. No matter what kind of band you’re in, you’re kind of stuck in that. But the idea of starting another band and going through that process again, I don’t think so. No thank you (laughs). Other guys do and I’ll always be into that stuff. Even just remixing other bands that’s something I think would be really cool. But as far as starting a band from scratch and doing that all over again, I don’t think I’m ready for that yet or even to think about.

Or even like a solo project, like a one-off?

Maybe at some point. I guess I’m so focused still on this, where it’s going and what we’re doing that the idea of it, you know when I go home the last thing I want to do, I mean I’ll write music, but it’s much more just for fun. Maybe if we took a break or something, I’d be more into that.

So you have a new member, Danny and that’s obviously going to change up the dynamics and sound of the band, how has that addition altered it?

Well, like you said, on “American Tragedy” there are those different sensibilities, it was much more available to us. One of the issues we were having was certain people were moving in certain different directions, it happens countless times. We wanted someone who was more open-minded to what we wanted to do, that was kind of the whole reason behind the thing. It’s really a new found freedom. Actually, I remember when we started how fun it was, you’re writing good songs but at the same time, there was a purity to it and I think that kind of got lost after “Swan Songs”. We wanted to get that feeling back where it wasn’t like, “fuck, I have to go to the studio”, it’s “I can’t wait to go to the studio” and get there an hour early now as opposed to before it’s just like I was always pretending to be sick and shit like that (laughs). That is back, that vibe of commraderie and it’s just a much more free feeling and there are a lot more directions we can go in, in the situation we’re in now.

As a band that’s still on the rise, what’s your take on the demise of traditional media formats like bands don’t really need to be beholden to radio-play necessarily or getting on Mtv in order to get to a large audience? Is there a freedom in that?

There are a lot of good things about it and a lot of bad things about it. I think it’s really great for new bands, because you don’t need to worry about getting signed or any of this crap. You can record music at home, you don’t have to save up fifty grand to go do a demo, you know what I mean? It’s great for new bands, for old bands or people who have been around awhile it’s makes it more difficult because everybody and their mother has a band. So the competition level is so much higher, not even necessarily that music’s getting better, it’s just there’s so much available that it makes it difficult for some bands because as opposed to the fact that there were six tours in the summer, now there’s sixty tours in the summer. It makes it more difficult but I think it’s great in the sense that you don’t have to go through the, via going through the label, especially in the sense that kids that haven’t been signed, without a ton of money can get music out, which is what a lot of people want to do.  So, I think it’s great for that, and I think it’s great that if you’re getting music out that way, it hasn’t been tampered with or commercialized. So there’s good things about it and bad things about it, but it is what it is. Social media, I have way bigger issues with social media than the music aspect of it. I think it’s weird that my friends are on their phones all the time. I don’t have a Facebook profile or do any of that stuff, solely because I see what it does to people’s lives, but that’s people’s own business. I guess it’s good for certain things and bad for others.

What’s your take on the rise of musical piracy in terms of, do you think there’s kind of a silver lining to it that people might be stealing music, at the same there’s the possibility that people are hearing music they might not otherwise listen to?

Absolutely, it’s in the same vein where it’s good for bands because they don’t have to go through the traditional route to get their music heard. But in the end it’s bad for the bands because most bands can’t make a living anymore. I think it’s partly the record companies’ fault themselves because they rip people off for so long that now that they’re getting ripped off, they’re up in arms about it, but they’re charging twenty dollars for a CD, it’s a joke, you know? So now they’re trying to retrace their steps and figure out a way, I think if as a kid, a young kid who wasn’t around for those days, if you like a band, go buy their CD. I still agree with that, but if you just want to just check something out and find out if you like it, I don’t see anything wrong with that. But, I think kids in general have to understand they’re stealing just as much from the band-it’s not stealing per se-but people rely on these sales, some of these guys, to feed their kids, these older bands. There are two ways to it. It’s great to check stuff out and see if you like it, but if you do like something, go buy the CD. Because that’s someone’s bread you’re taking out of their mouth, you know what I mean? There’s the other side where it’s kind of hypocritical, you take a band like Metallica or something where these guys are worth a hundred million dollars each, do I give a shit? No, I don’t, I’m sorry, you know what I mean? But the up and coming bands, it’s already tough enough without it. But I’m not objecting, which is hypocritical, to doing to the same thing to a band that are ga-billionaires, who cares? I guess there are sides to everything and I think people just have to use their own moral judgment and what they feel right and wrong about.

Hollywood Undead is on tour now.  “American Tragedy REDUX” is on sale now at iTunes: American Tragedy REDUX

Hollywood Undead wins "World War III"

The L.A. rap-rock outfit buzzsaws through the tour stop’s closing set, salvaging an otherwise lackluster display of music.

It would have been easy to just keep the masks on, to let the spectacle sell the music.  After the comical bravado of co-headliners Asking Alexandria and the bizarre DJ set from Borgore spinning records while two scantily clad women faux-stripped on stage next to him, Hollywood Undead could have easily closed out the World War III Chicago tour stop by simply going through the motions and they still would have wowed a by then under-whelmed audience ravenous for something, anything to cheer for.  Thankfully, however, the rap-rock group discarded the masks after one song and pummeled their way through the rest of a blistering set with all the force of a sledgehammer, letting the energy and urgency of their music provide all the spectacle the crowd would need.

While the Riviera had to make do as a last minute replacement for original venue the Aragon Ballroom, the sextet made themselves right at home, utilizing the smaller though still cavernous theater to put on a thunderous performance that still allowed for some intimacy.  Songs like “Undead” and “Been to Hell” pulsed and boomed, elating the fans whom arrived in makeshift Hollywood Undead masks.  As Charlie Scene, Johnny 3 Tears and company stalked the stage belting out lyrics that were alternately infected by righteous fury and tongue in cheek irreverence, the crowd ate it up, working themselves into a frenzy, screaming the band’s over the top lyrics in unison.

The setlist was made up of nearly wall to wall rockers, a showcase of buzzing rap-rock anthems bursting with angst and scattershot rage, but the group did allow for a lighter moment with “Bullet”, a tune so immediate and agreeably melodic it could easily be bulldozing through the Top 40 right now if it were not for its frank portrayal of suicide; even when Hollywood Undead goes soft, they keep a biting edge.

Still, Hollywood Undead are at their most effective when their songs roar with the din of a thunderclap, the band perched at the front of the stage basking in the crowd’s adoration while effusing an impenetrable and deserved arrogance.

Hollywood Undead operates within a musical paradigm that, frankly, I never really connected with as a teenager, never having the undirected rage begging for an outlet nor being drawn in by visual spectacles.  But when the band is functioning at their peak, they provide that outlet for the innumerable disenfranchised and disgruntled.  At their core, the band functions on some of the bedrock tenets of rock n’ roll: outsiders needing to express the angst and rage that inevitably comes from being dismissed by the support structure that is ostensibly intended to build them up.  Charlie Scene probably expressed this sentiment best when introducing, “Lights Out”: 

“I’m going to dedicate this fucking song  to someone who told me I would never amount to shit.  Do you guys have someone like that in your fucking life?”

When that alienation and fury is firing, Hollywood Undead can inspire a legion of fans to brave a cold, rainy Chicago night, don their masks, and come together to take solace in the fact that perhaps no one else cares, but that doesn’t necessarily invalidate their anger.

Hollywood Undead’s latest release, “American Tragedy” and its accompanying remix album “American Tragedy REDUX” are out now.

Hymn For Her bring the noise in the studio and on the stage

The Americana duo’s sophmore album and subsequent tour succesfully meld diverging styles into one indelible, raucous package

“Stomp Grass” is the term Lucy Tight and Wayne Waxing of “Hymn For Her” have used to describe their unique fusion of bluegrass, punk and Southern rock. The phrase is quite apt. Their new album, “Lucy & Wayne and the Amairican Stream” is about as raucous and gloriously grimy as bluegrass gets. In retrospect, adding fuzzed-out guitars and unbridled, punk energy to the Americana aesthetic seems obvious, but it is to the duo’s credit that the songwriting is strong enough to keep the whole ramshackle affair shuffling along.

It wasn’t always this way: the group had its genesis as a strictly folk duo. “Everything was stripped down,” Lucy says, “we shared one mic…we wouldn’t even look at the audience”. That all changed one fateful night in Maine when they decided to dig out an old cigar box guitar for that evening’s show. “We were doing the folky thing,” she explains, “and everybody was, ‘oh that’s nice’, but we pulled that out and everybody got up and started dancing, and just, like, whooping and hollering”. 

“Lucy & Wayne and the Amairican Stream” likewise elicits such a response. The album’s best moments come with a head-down, surging energy, such as with the first track, “Slips,” where a furious banjo intro heralds an infectious, sing-along chorus before culminating in a thumping breakdown. “Sea” is a tremendous indie-pop number at its core, but it ultimately sets itself apart with an ominous, dirgelike rumble. The band barrels through the album with reckless glee, whether yelping through the poppy chorus on “C’mon” or working the bluegrass template to perfection on “Fiddlestix”. 

It would be easy for “Hymn For Her” to get too caught up in their own shtick, for “Amairican Stream” to become an exercise in style over substance, burying itself in its cloying trappings. Thankfully, the duo provides moments of melancholic beauty to stand alongside their ripping rockers. “Not” is a lovely number punctuated by breathless vocals and haunting xylophone that showcases a heartbreakingly sincere portrayal of loneliness and self-doubt lying just beneath the sheen of bravado.

As good as the album is, it ultimately serves as a setup for the live show, a blistering, high-energy showcase of multi-instrumental wizardry and down and dirty Americana. Sure, “Amairican Stream” is raw, but there is a fullness and crispness to the playing that belies the band’s claims of its piecemeal creation in the back of a trailer as they toured the country. One could be understandably dubious towards any effort to recreate these tracks live with only two musicians, believing that surely there must be some unsung third member to pick up the slack. Even if one took them at their word that the duo alone provided the instrumentation, it would be a difficult feat to properly conceptualize the marvel that is Wayne Waxing powering down on his acoustic guitar and expelling a screeching harmonica solo while he stomps out a pulsing beat on the bass drum and hi-hat. All the while, Lucy Tight is laying down a supercharged, Wah-laden riff via that cigar box guitar of hers. This can all be heard on the album, of course, but the musicianship is so tight that it sounds like the work of a quintet. Only under the dim lights, amid the boozy, whooping crowd does the band’s magic become plainly evident. “Hymn For Her” shook Martyr’s to its core last Friday night, blowing away spectators with a hurricane of frenzied, joyous rock. Operating on a level of primal force, they are tailor-made for the road, for the dank bars and the stiflingly humid summer festivals. Although Lucy insists they are still learning to navigate life as a constantly touring band, claiming “we’re just getting our feet on the ground. Where are we at here? What are we doing?” the duo carries themselves both on stage and off like seasoned road warriors, rolling with the ebb and flow of their fortunes, able to win over a crowd full of strangers with their raw energy and tuneful songs.

As the band’s tour rolls on, bigger and better venues and crowds seem inevitable. Their sound’s too infectious and vibrant to not find a larger audience. Will they consider expanding the band’s membership to face the growing masses? “Let’s keep it a duo,” Lucy says, “it’s cool to be a duo. It’s working.”

Damn right it’s working.

“Hymn For Her” play the Melody Inn in Indianapolis on Friday, October 7th. View their full tour schedule and purchase “Lucy & Wayne and The Amairican Stream” on their official site.

The Drums stay pat on "Portamento"

The ’80s were so great, The Drums decided to relive them for a third time

Successfully pulling off an effective sophomore album is a tricky business. Does a band continue on with the music that garnered it praise, perhaps refining things a bit but mostly carrying on with what worked; or does it expand that sound, making radical alterations, going for broke and possibly alienating its fans and critical backers? Landmark albums such as “The Bends,” “Astral Weeks” and “Paul’s Boutique” were created when artists took a chance on elevating their musical aspirations. The Drums have opted for the former and, it must be noted, safer route. After pretty thoroughly scavenging the musical landscape of the post-punk era on their self-titled debut, Jonathan Pierce and company have gone back for seconds with their follow up, “Portamento.” To their credit, the boys have somewhat toned down the on-the-nose homages and self-aware posturing; everything’s a bit less precious this time out. Ultimately, however, one’s enjoyment of this album is going to be dictated by the listener’s level of tolerance for four Gen-Y, Brooklyn boys who sing and play music like Englishmen from 1983.

The term “Portamento” refers to a gradual slide from one note to another. By christening their sophomore album as such, The Drums are ostensibly heralding it as the next, transitional leg in a musical journey; however, the differences between the musical sensibilities of this album and its predecessor are negligible. The band hit all the same musical landmarks from The Cure to the Smiths to New Order with mixed results. Album opener, “Book of Revelation” succeeds on the basis of Jonathan Pierce’s Morrissey-channeling vocals and morbidly romantic lyrics:  And I believe/that when we die, we die/so let me lay here tonight/let me lay here tonight. “I Need a Doctor” features a splendidly spastic drum rhythm that recalls Closer-era Joy Division. On the other end of the spectrum is “Searching for Heaven,” a solemn low point for the album which finds Pierce philosophically musing in a pathetic whine over a synthesizer melody that sounds like it was almost directly lifted from “Trans-Europe Express.”

Having said that, the melodies do at times rise above the fray of 80’s nostalgia. Such is the case with standout track and first single, “Money,” an infectious pop gem where a simple, surf-rock guitar and Pierce’s loopy vocals marry quite nicely over a rollicking bass line. “I Don’t Know How to Love” is another fine moment where the band drop any pretense of aping a specific artist and seem dedicated to simply creating good pop music.

Still, the vast majority of songs land inertly, coming and going like an agreeable house guest: he doesn’t show up drunk at 3 a.m. hitting on your teenage daughter, but he doesn’t make much of a charming impression either. Songs like “What You Were” and “Hard to Love” sound like interchangeable, innocuous New Order knockoffs with Pierce lamenting the loss of a relationship. The musical pillaging is just too pervasive and obvious to take Pierce’s wounded lover act at face value. It feels more like tortured artist dress up.

“Portamento” is a fleeting work that never tries to rise above its self-imposed trappings. It’s pleasant enough, but most definitely slight. It is the sound of a band that’s not so much comfortable in its own skin as in Robert Smith’s. When they first hit the scene, The Drums were caught in the unfortunate position of arriving way too late to the 80s cannibalization feast while also being perhaps the most shamelessly derivative group of the whole bunch. There’s a brazen and nearly admirable stubbornness to the way The Drums seem intent on riding this wave well past its crest, refusing to budge even when it’s bottoming out and harmlessly lapping at the shoreline. That may be the album’s only real chance for notoriety: by going down as the death knell of the new-wave revival. Perhaps then we can all get on with the inevitable era of the grunge throwback, when bands furiously toil to rewrite long-forgotten Candlebox songs.

Review: Noel Gallagher's High Flying Birds "If I Had a Gun"

Noel Gallagher goes back to the well for his second solo single

Well, there had to be one, right? There was just no way that the man who made millions off of syrupy ballads like “Wonderwall” and “Stop Crying Your Heart Out” with former band Oasis could resist releasing one on his debut solo album. Ostensibly more radio friendly than U.K. lead-off single, “The Death of You and Me,” “If I Had a Gun” became American listeners’ first taste of Noel Gallagher’s High Flying Birds when it debuted last Tuesday on KROQ in Los Angeles alongside a schedule of ensuing U.S. tour dates. (Chicago was noticeably absent, much to this reviewer’s chagrin.) The new tune, despite its title sounding like some early-aughts, faux-repressed rage drool-fest from the likes of Puddle of Mudd or Staind, is an unabashed love song. It starts out humbly enough; accompanied by an acoustic guitar, the elder Gallagher croons sweetly to his intended, but the lyrics immediately take a bizarre turn: If I had a gun/I’d shoot a hole into the sun/and love would burn this city down with you. It takes an odd sense of humor to juxtapose feelings of unbridled love with the desire to wildly fire bullets into the sun, which will subsequently and, quite naturally I might add, burst and rain fire down upon the earth, but keep in mind this is the same man who liked to have a laugh by peppering in bits of Coca-Cola jingles and Gary Glitter lyrics into his songs during Oasis’s heyday. 

Following the release of the New Orleans brass-laden “The Death of You and Me”, there was hope that Noel Gallagher was taking a more unorthodox approach to his solo music, but “If I Had a Gun” sounds like it would feel right at home nestled between the gooey pop songs of Oasis’s 2005 effort, “Don’t Believe the Truth.” Indeed, the song has the fingerprints of that session’s returning producer, Dave Sardy, all over it, with its tinny drums and nondescript guitar tone. The song is partially redeemed by the sincerity with which Gallagher approaches the material. It would take a heart of Mr. Freeze-level gelidity to not at least be somewhat moved by the songwriter’s longing from afar act: excuse me if I spoke to soon/my eyes have always followed you around the room/because you’re the only god that I would ever need.

The song also provides a nice stage for Gallagher to flex his increasingly improving vocals as his intoning, lilting falsetto takes the place of a typical chorus. The accompanying melodic guitar line is a nice touch, as well. Still, the song creeps a little too closely to “Oasis by numbers” territory, dutifully filling its role as the acoustic ballad that some doofus will breakout on his out of tune Yamaha FX 355 in order to get laid. It’s hard not to feel just a little bit disappointed by the song’s rote quality and the apparent cynicism in the choice to selectively target it to American audiences. “If I Had a Gun” is a good tune, but given the mind behind it, better than good is expected.

With “The Death of You and Me,” its crystalline B-Side “The Good Rebel” and now “If I Had a Gun,” Noel Gallagher has so far chalked up three straight solid songs from his solo effort. Not bad, old man, not bad at all. Now get your ass to Chicago.

“Noel Gallagher’s High Flying Birds” will be released on November 8th in the United States and Canada. Mexico too, for what it’s worth.