erasing clouds

5 Music Reviews

by john wenzel, dave heaton

Casaverde, Looking God in the Eye (Radioactive Bodega)

The opening track on Casaverde’s Looking God in the Eye could be Bachman Turner Overdrive covering TV on the Radio, with tinnier production and a goofier sense of humor. Ken Greenhouse, the one-man band that is Casaverde, writes lyrics that sound like they’ve been sung a million times before, and his thin vocals often get lost in the crunchy mix of things. Still, Looking God in the Eye exudes a confidence and underlying intelligence that’s hard to completely dismiss. “If You Know Me You’ll Know” boasts an instantly appealing guitar line and an airtight structure, but the strained vocals sabotage all the momentum. Stabs at retro-pop and cheeky rock yield similarly mixed results. Sometimes it’s akin to hearing a great high school band cover horrible pop songs. Other times it’s just a train wreck of half-realized melodies and over-ambitious production. Greenhouse might try his hand as a backing band to a more talented vocalist, or even as a producer and songwriter for others. But his current incarnation as Casaverde splits the difference and comes up with little more than a self-indulgent, home-recorded diary. -- john wenzel

The Icicles, A Hundred Patterns (Microindie)

In 2002 the Grand Rapids-based pop group The Icicles released a bouncy dose of pure energy called Pure Sugar. The EP was filled with sunny-hooks but also an iota of sadness to keep things somewhat grounded. Two years later, with a half-different lineup, The Icicles sound a lot more grounded in the pains and pressures of life, yet their heart is still in writing pretty sings you can sing in the shower to. Their full-length debut is titled A Hundred Patterns and contains nearly as many instantly memorable melodies. A lot of those hooks are given over to lyrics that at first might seem insubstantial - lyrics about crushes or playing in the snow or designing your own dresses. But all of these songs have real weight beneath the surface. You try to play in the snow to forget how cold life is, but still you can't: "The only thing I can think about is snow reflecting in your eyes." On "Pretty," vocalist/guitarist Gretchen DeVault sings, "I'm hoping to make a pretty dress/one that will make me feel the best/but I know that it's not real." 'Cute' will no doubt be the dominant description in most reviews for this matching-clothes-wearing, goofy-smile-having pop quartet. But there's a yearning in their hooks and harmonies - listen to "Porch Swing" or - that's serious. A Hundred Patterns isn't just about style, it's about the human heart, about everyday lives, everyday moments of joy and fear and hurt and anticipation. - dave heaton

Bill Santen, In the Night Kitchen with Bill Santen (Sweatin’ Betty Records)

Singer/songwriter Bill Santen is a dour fellow, dabbling in dark folk and but never really throwing off either genres’ lethargic shackles. His warbling voice – a weirdly satisfying mix of Elliott Smith’s thin pipes and Devendra Banhart’s quirkiness (sans the omnipresent vibrato) – is probably the biggest draw of his music, though his soft acoustic strumming isn’t too hard on the ears either. In the Night Kitchen… marks Santen’s first solo foray, taking a few ginger steps away from his longtime collaborative project Birddog, (which has previously featured contributions from the likes of Elliott Smith and the Oldham brothers) towards a more spare, haunted sound. Santen seems right at home on these eight short tunes, most of which are as concise as a razor-tipped haiku. Some sport subtly intimate lyrics like, “Settled right into a very soft Sunday / spent most of the night worryin’ about Monday.” The proceedings occasionally drone on, and tend to follow circular melodic paths, but Santen’s accomplished playing and clever lyrics make those issues seem like a minor concession, especially after repeated listens reward so completely. Like Santen’s well-regarded but equally rough-around-edges artwork, In the Night Kitchen… is another solid expression of one man’s singular, lonely and irrefutably American imagination. This is your soundtrack for tripping in the pool, running drunkenly from animals, or gently chewing your way out of a pair of duct tape handcuffs. -john wenzel

Singapore Sling, Life Is Killing My Rock N' Roll (Stinky Records)

They're the living dead, electric zombies, blazing through alleyways and streets at 3 a.m., looking for trouble. Singapore Sling are on a Rebel Without a Cause, Cruel Story of Youth vibe - "we go nowhere/and we don't care," they proclaim at one point on their new album Life Is Kiling My Rock N' Roll. They've got their guitars, and they're turning them up loud. But the musical reference points here aren't garage rock, aren't Elvis, aren't Chuck least not directly. Singapore Sling aren't from the U.S. of A, they're crusing the streets of Reykjavik. They don't sound like the Cramps, they sound like a slowed-down Jesus & Mary Chain or a less hyperbolic Spiritualized. Their vocals are slow-motion but down-and-dirty cool, their guitars are layered and prepped to take you to some kind of urban dreamland. Or urban nightmare, maybe. Singapore Sling give off a spooky vibe but yet they don't. "Rockit" is all car crashes and darkness, but there's also a bubblegum pop feeling about it. It isn't going to scare the beejesus out of you, it's going to make you shuffle about the dance floor. "Nightlife" pours surrealism into city club life ("my drink is on fire") but it's also lush enough to feel comforting, like a pillow. Life Is Killing My Rock N' Roll is both eerie and menacing, and an ageless Friday night rock n' roll party. They can space out with the best of them, but there's something fun and harmless here too, something as elemental as your blue suede shoes. - dave heaton

Water School, Break Up With Water School (Self-released)

Take the ballsy, sequined confidence away from Sloan, or the burning spliffs from Lou and Jason of Sebadoh, and you might have Water School. This Baltimore quartet tepidly continues the long tradition of dual singer-songwriter, male-fronted indie rock bands with a retro-melodic fixation and a bit too much self-obsession. Some songs go down easily but leave little impression (opener “Talkin’ ‘Bout Us”), while others scratch your ear canals all the way down (the awkward, over-earnest “Forgive Me Robert”). Really, this stuff isn’t horrible. The songs are coherent, the production is appropriate, and all the members find comfortable orbits around the guitars and vocals. And certainly, no one would mistake this for punk rock. So why fault the guys for being wimpy? Because their none-too-subtle reference to John Lennon’s “Oh Yoko” on “The Home We Never Had” is disconcerting and borderline insulting, and because three quarters of the songs sound weirdly familiar, but not in a positive, Bob Pollard-at-the-broken-jukebox kind of way. There’s promise poking through (“Firefly,” “Andy”) but it’s mostly buried under repetitive, ill-advised riffs, limp-wristed performances and inane lyrics. I’d love to hear Water School’s next album, if only to set my mind at ease that these guys either descended into total crap or actually improved. Until then, they’re stuck in a frustrating No Man’s Land. – john wenzel

Issue 28, November 2004

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