Friday, February 9, 2007

2006 In Review, Part 2

The Prids, "...Until The World Is Beautiful"
It would be easy to lament that a band as long-standing, as tight, and as potentially life-changing as The Prids released what is only their second full-length last year. Those of us who can't see them rock out almost once a month in Portland may be tempted to bemoan how lineup changes, label problems, and a gut-wrenching touring schedule have kept them out of the studio and fresh Prids product out of our grubby hands. "But," as the band (or anyone not myopically lost in their own self-interest) might counter, "would The Prids be The Prids without those factors? Would you still listen to 'Love Zero' whenever you go walking while it's snowing at night if you had six LPs and four rarities comps to choose from, if millions of screaming teenagers kept Mistina and David on the cover of Teen People every other month?" "Well," you stammeringly attempt, "if that meant that a percentage of those teenagers went vegan and bought Chameleons records..." But 'what-if?' is a rube's game when it comes to rock, you'll just end up with Keith Moon alive and officiating Ian Curtis' fourth marriage (to Amy Winehouse), so tell yourself to quit playing it, and just deal with the matter at hand: a fresh fucking Prids record.

And what a beast it is. Critics worth their salt should be well past the cop-out of name-dropping The Prids' influences (which they've never made any bones about) as short-hand for describing them. Whether it's a matter of them coming into their own or just the perspective that a second record provides listeners (that they never really sounded too much like various earlier bands - a position I maintain), "...Until The World" is a record by a band confident in what they are doing and capable of bringing fresh vitality to every track they lay. They refine their talent for lively dynamics between bass and guitar, keeping the listener aware of the tension and movement within the songs' very structures. When they care to, they can exploit this to devastating ends, maintaining a frenetic anxious anticipation throughout "All That You Want," or constructing epic columns of noise in "Infection" which hearken back to their earliest material. Most impressively, though, they deliver two songs any band would give their eyeteeth to be able to drop on unsuspecting crowds seeing them for the first time, at the end of a hazy Thursday night show rife with lager, hope and beauty: both "Like Hearts" and "Before We Are" evoke the blurry nostalgia of high school drama, Very Important Things being discussed walking through rain and streetlights, the reclamation of an inner essence of love of live, now impossible to distinguish reality from false memory. Bare tree branches layer winter twilight. Put more lucidly and bluntly: they're gorgeous fucking songs that'll stop your heart.

So raise your glasses to The Prids: we're luckier than they know to have them, and "...Until The World Is Beautiful" is the strongest proof of that yet.

The Dresden Dolls, "Yes Virginia"
This sophomore release may not have the immediate kidney-punch impact of their eponymous debut, but knowing how to listen to the Boston Weimar freaks this time around yields new levels of enjoyment. Oh sure, they can still establish teen angst tension instantaneously with a quick minor trill, but we know what to listen for now: the songs. And a good batch this is: honest, funny, driving, and not married to their aesthetic to a fault.

Once your ear's trained to pick up on Amanda Palmer's double-entendres and general dirty wordplay, the cabaret shtick becomes merely a feint for pragmatic, domestic tales of alcoholism, masturbation, and e-mail checking, rather than the actual substance of what the Dolls are doing. In this way, "Yes, Virginia" has much more in common with Geoff Berner's klezmer-krazed front for beer-hall wrist-tippers than, say, the oblique pantomime symbolism of Cinema Strange. Bukowski, not Baudelaire. This isn't to sell the theatrical elements of the Dresden Dolls short: while it's not on the album proper, one has to give credit to any band that appends a bonus track called "Lonesome Organist Rapes Page Turner" for the import market.

The last time the Dolls came through town tickets were in the $70 range as they were in the opening slot for the downright execrable Panic At The Disco (no, I'm not gonna play their punctuation reindeer games). While I was pissed at having to miss them, the chance that at least some of the kids at the shows would hear something different, something the radio wasn't giving them, was heartening. As I write a girl or boy with smudgy makeup and misapplied nail polish is no doubt strumming their way through a post-Cobain anthem like "Sing" at a suburban coffee shop for an audience made up of kids from the smoke pit.

Welle: Erdball, "Chaos Total"
I read an interview with W:E around the time of the release of "Die Wunderwelt der Technik" in which they stated that their only plans for the future were to "sound more like Welle: Erdball." Might've been an inaccurate translation, but it's a sentiment uniquely suitable for the German retro-synth-poppers. They've always had their style and shtick down to perfection: decked out in swank 1950's duds, they present themselves as a radio station broadcasting songs about technology (hydrogen, the pros and cons of various modes of transport, and why Nintendo and Microsoft's resistance to open source projects is evil) across the world. The issue of their sound, however, proves a tad thornier.

Both "Wunderwelt der Technik" and its predecessor, "Der Sinn des Lebens," were coherent packets of synthpop perfection, delivering the full range of their themes and moods within unified structures of sound. Since then, things have become a tad muddied: an EP which grew to LP length ("Nur Tote frauen sind schön") and mixed new tracks with various side and solo material, contemporary and historical challenged the going wisdom about W:E (that you can identify them within the first five seconds of a song) for the first time. A Speak-N-Spell themed EP ("Horizonterweiterungen") was deliberately obtuse: vinyl-only, 45RPM on one side, 33RPM on the other, their technological archaism becoming increasingly obscure as they began to work more prominently in the demoscene. As their first full LP in four years, then, "Chaos Total" is faced with the challenge of making a unified statement about what Welle: Erdball is now, or at least what they are about.

Ironically, the album starts by bailing on the traditional test by which a W:E album's sound can be gaged. Their eponymous "station identification" song which has opened every single one of their LPs, always retooled to fit their current sonic palette, is cut to nothing more than a brief recording of its lyrics delivered in computerized monotone. The album continues their recent trend of experimenting with an ever-increasing slew of song structures with varied results: "Das Souvenir" opts for bare-bones surf-rock chord progressions, which amuses for a moment, but isn't anything lasting. Inexplicably, one track lifts the instrumental track from an earlier song, slows it down slightly, and adds new lyrics. Even more redundantly, another old song, "Bill Gates, Komm F... Mit Mir" is imported wholesale: that the vocal track of the now-departed female vocalist have been replaced by the current one does nothing to lessen the irritation of this.

But "Chaos Total" isn't all fracture and failed experimentation: "Mathematique" delivers the goods by laying their trademark fluctuating bleeps overtop an inescapably club-styled beat, putting it in the tradition of tracks like "1000 Weisse Lilien" and "Super 8." "Graf Krolok" offers the same sheer melodic bliss as "VW Kafer," with hints of the melancholy of their earliest material. Other cuts ("Grusse Von Der Orion," "Das Sternenkind") are far more difficult to pigeonhole, but point to exciting new directions while staying true to their classic aesthetic.

So: not their best, not their worst, not the "classic return to form," not the best introduction for newcomers, not too schizophrenic to function. For long-time fans, "Chaos Total" throws more heat than smoke, and offers enough callbacks to the glory of the past and tastes of good things to come to remind us of why we love them, and why Welle: Erdball remain the only band who could ever be Welle: Erdball.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Bruce, I went to the Dolls in November in Seattle. Tickets were $14 I believe. Well worth the trip. Best show I'd seen in a while.
Yes, Virginia is actually one of my favourite albums at the moment. Just like McDonalds wishes I would, "I'm lovin' it!"
- Sam