CD Reviews

LIFE WITHOUT BUILDINGS

Any Other City

(DC/Baltimore 2012)

Motor-mouthed Glaswegian chick and her art-school chums stop making sense.

Talkin' nonsense is nothing new. From Mark E. Smith to Steve Malkmus and back again, post-punkers and indie rockers have been rewriting the rules of grammar and refashioning eloquence into gorgeous gibberish that would make old man Shakespeare green with envy. Enter Sue Tompkins, whose loose-lipped howling snakes around Unrest-esque snappy drumbeats and rolling guitar lines. The flash-and-burn of Life Without Buildings' debut release starts off with "PS Exclusive," and damn it if you can pinpoint what Tompkins is going on about; but damn it if you keep your head from bobbing around in musical agreement, either. From there, the songs continue their brilliant evasiveness. Every once in a while a discernable phrase pulls forward, gets punctuated by the bright thunder of a quick drum fill, and then falls into the curling wave of a elliptical guitar change-up. "The Leanover" works harder than any other track to confound. Tompkins teases with the quiet whisper of the words, "If I lose you/If I lose you/If I lose you" before sliding into a scatlike string of gobbledygook unparalleled by any preschooler. Like Patti Smith (an obvious LWB influence) singing, "I haven't fucked much with the past/But I've fucked plenty with the future," these Scots mix the Slits with the Sugarcubes, the Feelies with Frente, the old millennium with the new one, and arrive triumphantly at the apex of modern English and postmodern rock. Laura Learmonth

BLACK-EYED SNAKES

It's the Black-Eyed Snakes

(Chair-Kickers' Music)

Alan Sparhawk is differently able—sorta.

Low's Alan Sparhawk—here incarnated as "Chicken-Bone" George—has found himself the ideal side project in the Black-Eyed Snakes. He gets to break free from the precision crawl of his primary band—the top speeds here are easily twice those of the fastest Low number and infinitely sloppier. He also gets to indulge in some reverence for his old-timey dirty blues favorites—there are Willie Dixon and Howlin' Wolf covers, but their spirits and those of their forebears linger throughout. Mostly, though, he gets to have himself a real lark—he must know he sounds a bit ridiculous moaning about adultery and murder in "8-inch Knife," especially when it's followed a few songs later with a ditty to his baby daughter about spilled Cheerios. The most exciting thing about this record, however, may not be the escapes it offers Sparhawk; it may be the not-so-divergent take on the very same minimalist principles that he and Low champion so masterfully. The cover of the Fall's "My New House," for instance, takes the base element of the original's prickly guitar riff and obsesses over it for nearly eight minutes. Meanwhile, the cover of Moby's (via Bessie Jones) "Honey" might be intended as a friendly nod, but it serves even better as a rebuke of the electronic manipulator: the beautiful one-beat bass-drum thud that anchors the track is as good an argument for keeping things simple as you're likely to hear. Paul Fontana

LOST SOUNDS

Black-Wave

(Empty Records)

Bat-cave synth-punk freak-outs and old-school new wave smackdowns.

Try this at your next new wave dance party: A Josie Cotton gem from the Valley Girl soundtrack, "Poor Poor Girl" by X, the Epoxies 7", a crazed Nina Hagen track, and then "Worked Up So Sexual" by the Faint. Next, hit them with "Do You Want to Kill Me" and "1620 Echles St." off this, the Lost Sounds' third release, and if your friends don't work themselves into a frenzy, get some new friends. This Memphis, Tenn., outfit matches up chaotic keyboard crashes with sludgy punk-rock clashes and hangs the trade-off vocals of Alicia Trout and Jay Reatard over the whole mess like a skinny pink leather necktie. By turns aggressive, demented, noisy, and bored, the Lost Sounds couldn't fit themselves into just one of the '80s subgenres if you had a gun at their collective head. The opening notes of "Ocelet Rising" invite a less creepy Echo and the Bunnymen vibe, while the contemplative refrain ("I hope you'll notice me/On the train") invokes Berlin's "Masquerade" or Human League's "Tell Me When." As the track goes from merely moody to darkly brooding, the pound of the drums and the hard drone of the keys/guitar mess is heavier than any MTV synth-pop moment ever dreamed of being. To paraphrase an American Bandstand adage, Black-Wave maintains an electrifying beat—and hell yeah, you can dance to it. Laura Learmonth

ZAP MAMA

Push It to the Max

(Luaka Bop)

Afro-pop divas get the beat treatment, which takes them from gorgeous to merely pretty.

Too many cooks don't necessarily guarantee a spoiled meal, but some things do taste sweeter straight off the vine—think of it as the difference between a messy, mouth-watering roadside taco (Zap Mama straight-up) and a faultless, yet oddly unsatisfying, nouvelle cuisine spread (Zap Mama remixed). Or, the regrettable marketing misstep of New Coke—trying to fix what ain't broken. Fans of ZM's joyfully free-ranging Afro-European rhythms and a cappella harmonies already know the all- female sextet is drawn to sonic textures far outside their homeland's traditional range: hip-hop, jazz, and even drum 'n' bass have reared their colorful heads with increasing regularity on the intercontinentalists' previous four albums. Here, dance music royals like King Britt and DJ Wally, along with Spearhead leader and previous Zap collaborator Michael Franti, steer the group's rhythms away from the organic, and meet with varying results—attempts to trip the light electronic fantastic occasionally fly, but for the most part remain far more earthbound than the originals. The arresting beat-free harmonies of "Bottom" become, in its remixer's hands, one more in a long line of vaguely tribal club mixes. On its own, the EP makes for an admirable addition to the average beat-monger's collection—but when the ladies are left to their own remarkable devices, there's no need to damn with faint praise. Leah Greenblatt

 
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