Smile Politely

Emergency Rock Geek record reviews

Since becoming rock genre directors at WEFT 90.1 FM, we have been showered with abundant new music to apprehend, process, catalog, spin, think about, and quietly evaluate. Certain recent releases have triggered in us a wave of new album, and new band, enthusiasm that is purely adolescent in its urgency. Here is what we have to tell you about our childish infatuations with new adult music.


Madness. The Liberty of Norton Folgate. Yep Roc.

The Liberty of Norton Folgate, the first album from Madness in ten years, is masterful, and may prove to be an outright masterpiece. The songs are lush and playful, robust with instrumentation and musical consonance. The band has matured since their youth of One Step Beyond in the best way: the bratty ska energy has ripened into a tuneful musical wisdom. A friendlier new album I seldom hear these days. Bouncy piano, sweet vocals, and classy, understated horn arrangements propel this full band through a dense, accessible work of generous music that crafts its own genre. That the album ends with a ten-minute pop operetta adds to the earnestness of the project. This title track and several other songs concern themselves with the city of London, and the album is steeped in nostalgia and sweet reflection. This is not your typical tired new wave band reunion; this is one step beyond.


Generationals. Con Law. Park the Van.

I LOVE THIS ALBUM! Every week, I have to listen to tons of CDs, pick out the good ones, and sift out the crap. (Believe me, there’s a lot of crap.) Rarely do I come across an album that I can listen to every single song, all the way through. So in the rare instance that a stellar record pops up, it’s like finding the Hope Diamond buried in your backyard. And that gem? New Orleans-based Generationals’ debut, Con Law. It’s clever like ’70s new wave, a la Squeeze (“Angry Charlie”), hooky like ’80s indie (“These Habits”), and juicy like ’60s soul (“When They Fight They Fight”). Generationals is going to be at the Courtyard Cafe November 5, so check ’em out. (I’ll be the swooning girl in the front.)


They Might Be Giants. Here Comes Science. Disney Sound.

“Don’t write down to the kids,” says jazz cat Bob Dorough in remembering his work as Musical Director of the groundbreaking Schoolhouse Rock. And it’s true that, while there is a lot of children’s music available, the genre of children’s music that doesn’t suck is still a small, but, thanks to They Might Be Giants, growing, field. Sure, you’d make kids listen to it, but would you put it on for yourself?

Here Comes Science has clearly stated lyrics given interesting twists, precise arrangements, and a variety of instrumental textures. Cute and nerdy. But nerdy enough? For example, the song “What is a Shooting Star?” explains that a shooting star is a meteor, not a star, but it doesn’t explain that a meteor is a fleck of hurtling cosmic debris, generally a pebble no larger than a mustard seed. And is it cute enough? Even the most disappointing They Might Be Giants albums tend to have a song or two that leap out of the speakers and wrap themselves around my neck. But I walked away from my first listening of Here Comes Science without, unusually, wanting to play any of the songs again immediately.

Let me explain where I’m coming from. Beyond their three earlier children’s albums, They Might Be Giants has always had the curious habit of including great educational songs on their albums — really good songs with impeccably honed and informative lyrics. (Strangely, an earlier They Might Be Giants educational song “Why Does the Sun Shine?” is here presented in a new arrangement, and then refuted by the next song. Apparently, the sun is less a mass of incandescent gas than it is a miasma of plasma. Who knew? And how many bands have issued a musical erratum to clarify a scientific error in one of their previous songs?)

Meaning that if I review this as They Might Be Giant’s anticipated science album, I am going to hold it to some awfully high standards — those met by “Mammals” off Apollo 18, or “James K. Polk” (the original B-side on the Istanbul (Not Constantinople) EP, not the corrupted, later album version).

Yet, if I consider this a children’s album, and lump it in with the works of Barney et al., well, it’s off-the-charts classy.

They might not be trying hard enough, but I know the Giants will come back and surprise me with some other offbeat project. They always have. For now, I’d like to see them make even better kids’ albums or drop the contract with Disney before they have bled away any indie cred they still retain. After three Disney productions, they now ought to be able to afford to send their own kids to college.

(Find us at the Giants’ all-ages show at the Chicago Vic Theater on October 10.)


Vivian Girls. Everything Goes Wrong. In the Red.

Admittedly, I haven’t yet heard Vivian Girls’ fiery self-titled debut. But I’m making up for lost time by repeatedly spinning their followup, Everything Goes Wrong. Brooklyn chicks Cassie Ramone, Kickball Katy, and Ali Koehler kick out the jams with 13 echoey, low-fi tunes. The album cover introduces you to the sparse, dark mood of songs like “Survival,” “Double Vision,” and “Walking Alone at Night.” It’s like driving down a lonely desert road after a breakup. I could see how the album could grow tiresome. In true punk tradition, the songs are two-minute blasts that sound the same. (Ramones, Buzzcocks: I’m talkin’ about you.) Still, the ghostly, dissonant harmonies on songs like “Tension” are something new. Now I’m compelled to get their first record.


Mayer Hawthorne, Strange Arrangement. Stones Throw.

This impeccable, nerdy, 29-year-old white soul singer from Ann Arbor creates music that comprises decades of sadness. The orchestration and emotion is chillingly winning in this fun, fun record. He has achieved what I thought only Amy Winehouse could do — synthesize a soul so perfectly in the shadows of Motown that it is freed of decade, race, and class, and achieves pure fluency in that rich commercial musical language that, while pretending to be purely introspective, slyly seeks to embrace us all. Hawthorne is an angel from the Motor Planet come to earth to make us lean into our dance partner and let all worries except his slide away. I am in awe of the gentle coolness of this rekkid.

Further, there’s something inspiring about a D.I.Y. album that so closely replicates the sound of the Motown assembly line in which hundreds of often unnamed arrangers, producers, and musicians lent extraordinary talent to fantastic records that set so many standards for recorded music. As history shows, many bearers of that great unnamed Motown talent were cast off as the label grew from a mom-and-pop organization to an international empire, finally abandoning Detroit altogether (see Standing in the Shadows of Motown, or read What’s Going On). So, there is something redemptive to me about the gesture of a musician recreating that sound on his own terms.

Kudos to Peanut Butter Wolf and his Stones Throw label for bringing us Mayer Hawthorne, Stark Reality, and who knows what’s next. Go to their website and pick up that juicy red heart-shaped 45 before it’s sold out. Mayer Hawthorne, we love you.


Turbo Fruits. Echo Kid. Fat Possum Records.

Jonas Stein, former Be Your Own Pet guitarist/drummer, continues to spread the garage rock love with Turbo Fruits. The band’s second full-length, Echo Kid, is good and feisty, albeit uneven. Taken together, the songs are like scattered puzzle pieces. Some of the album is raw-power rock (“Trouble!”, “Mama’s Mad Cos I Fried My Brain”); some of it’s cute college pop (“Naked With You”). I didn’t connect with this record like I did with the Generationals’ and Vivian Girls’ efforts. Fun, but doesn’t live up to the buzz.


The Apples in Stereo. #1 Hits Explosion. Yep Roc.

I consider it generally an inappropriate breach of rock scholarship to review a greatest hits album, as the proper album or EP is the art form that is the building block of rock history. But wow, what a sweet basket of synthetic fruit this shiny, shiny disc is! For those who have heard of the Apples in Stereo but, like I, weren’t quite convinced you would love them, consider your ears in a state of medical emergency to which this disc is an urgently needed injection of prescription candy. The title #1 Hits Explosion must be ironic, or is it? Because how is it possible that pop music so juicy and pleasing, dripping the sweetest nectar of the Beatles and Brian Jones, could be anything but instantly recognizable and world-famous? There is so much rock music that bores me, so I have to assume that crafting a perfectly seductive and catchy song is either difficult or unfashionable. But The Apples in Stereo make it look cool and easy.


Cristy and William can be heard on Rock Geek FM, Saturday mornings at the laughably early hour of 8 a.m., on WEFT 90.1 FM. Also on our heavy rotation: look out for the new Yo La Tengo, the Plasticines, the Bats, You and Yourn, and the Orphins…

Related Articles