Don’t judge a book by its cover is a saying that should also be applied to CD covers, but one cannot help forming an opinion when they open their mailbox and find a CD with two girls in school uniforms on the cover, one with a switchblade. A person may begin to wonder if this is some twisted take on Ms. Spears or if there is an actual plausible explanation for this picture.
It turns out that the latter is true. The latest self-titled release from Canadian hardcore rockers Alexisonfire does have a valid reason for the slightly disturbing cover. The answer is found in the song “A Dagger Through the Heart of St.Angeles” which fixates around girls in plaid skirts and switchblades. It is a seemingly consistent theme of the release, with a whole set of pictures revolving around, you guessed it, girls in plaid skirts with switchblades.
An Alexisonfire mystery solved, but many more surface. The second being why screaming is now such a prominent facet of rock music. I found myself nearing a migraine about two minutes into the first song, and wondered what the song was talking about since I could not understand a single word. Good lyrics are the glue to a good band, but when you can’t understand the lyrics it makes sense to assume the band probably isn’t that great either.
It wasn’t until the third song “Adelleda” that I actually found the presence of singing. It was a welcomed relief from the first two songs of straight screaming, but even though there was singing, the screaming also continued. It is unfortunate too, because lead singer Dallas has a voice that fits nicely over the pounding sound of Alexisonfire. The songs would be of a much better quality if more time was given to the lead singer, and not the lead screamer. The screaming, pounding drums, and screeching guitars are far too chaotic to even put a handle on. Every song averages a minute long intro that tends to get extremely monotonous towards the end of the record. It almost makes you miss the screaming, almost.
Alexisonfire’s talent principally lies within their lyrics, which although nearly impossible to comprehend, have shining moments on the record. They burst forth with great metaphors and similes such as in “Counterparts and Number Them” with “I’m softer than a thrift store sweater and twice as worn in.” A line that clearly makes a person wonder if Dashboard Confessional is a secret lyrical influence to this band. They know how to construct imagery that is easy to perceive, as in the song “Little Girls Pointing and Laughing” when they use the line “spill on me your nostalgia like warm water.”
Let’s not forget that a band should be given props for creative song titles, something Taking Back Sunday and Brand New have capitalized on greatly in their relatively short careers. They may have found some competition with Alexisonfire’s latest record which boasts such titles, “Water Wings (And Other Pool Side Fashion Faux Pas)” and “Caliber Love Letter.”
Alexisonfire’s self-titled release is a mix of pain and turmoil that either will drive a person crazy or prove to be a great liberation of anger. The record has the possibility to be good, with lyrical talent and the raw musical force of the band, but the downfalls of it nearly cancel out the positives. I won’t give up hope just yet. I had never been into the Blood Brothers either, but I saw them live and was impressed beyond belief at the stage presence and energy they possess. Unfortunately, I haven’t seen Alexisonfire in concert, but my hope is that they boast some of this energy, because the incessant screaming has got to be good for something.
(Equal Vision Records)
Berwanger – Watching a Garden Die
Josh Berwanger continues to evolve as a songwriter
At the height of Vagrant Records’ early success in the late 90s, the label was buoyed by the incredible draw of their two biggest names- The Get Up Kids and Saves the Day. And while those two bands took a chunk of the notoriety, there were plenty of great bands that called the label home. One of those bands was The Anniversary. The Lawrence, Kansas band shared musical similarities with both TGUK and Saves the Day, but were unafraid to branch off into slightly more synthesised terrain that gave their songs an added element. Coupled with their super easy to digest harmonies and fantastic male/female vocals, songs like “The D in Detroit” still has a place in countless “favorite playlists” all these years later.
Since their initial break-up, guitarist and vocalist Josh Berwanger has been busy writing and recording a bevy of music under the moniker Berwanger. His recent discography is a talented kaleidoscope of songs that traverse genres from folk and indie, to more rock and straight forward singer/songwriter fare. There was plenty to like on his 2016 album Exorcism Rock, an album that delved into a little bit of psychedelia and fuzzed out indie rock. His 2017 album And the Star Invaders saw a gradual move away from the more electrified to the imaginative kind of singer/songwriter we’ve seen from the likes of Devendra Banhart. True to form, Berwanger continues to evolve as a songwriter, and his latest, Watching A Garden Die, is the next chapter in his thriving songwriter cabinet.
The gloomily titled record is mostly upbeat and diverse. While he may have shown a kinship to indie/folk songwriting of the Banharts and Obersts of the world previously, Watching a Garden Die features the kind of seasoned and more classic toned work you’d find on a Crosby, Stills & Nash record, or even a Paul Simon record. Songs like the softly, almost whispered “Even the Darkness Doesn’t Know”, and quietly moody, introspective “Paper Blues” (until that electric guitar solo hits) harks back to a time long ago of unfettered hair and soulful folk music. The album’s best moment is probably a combination of the wistful, pedal-steel toned Americana of “When I Was Young” and the equally effective, spacey indie rock of “The Business of Living”. The latter giving Grandaddy a run for their money in that music department. These two songs in particular showcase an artist fully aware and capable of his abilities to craft music that’s personal but exhibits the kind of draw you want from a record this close to the heart.
The album doesn’t have the more ruckus moments Berwanger exhibited in his earlier work (outside of perhaps, the more upbeat power-pop, new wavy “Bad Vibrations”). At times the album takes just a few listens to grab you. But when you listen to songs like the spritely “Friday Night” and the somber reflection of the twangy “I Keep Telling Myself” a few times more, you find the depth of the record. There are elements that reveal themselves on the second, third, fourth listen, and that’s rewarding.
Berwanger’s songwriting ability was never in doubt, and his new material continues to expand his songwriting reach. Watching a Garden Die, while not a frantic effort, is quiet composure.
Fences – Failure Sculptures
Failure Sculptures is a steady outing
Christopher Mansfield, under his alter-ego, Fences, has made himself well known through the collaborations with Macklemore and Tegan & Sara. It’s set him up with well-deserved excitement for his new album Failure Sculptures. The genre of pop scores a good reputation with artists like Fences. I wouldn’t necessarily categorize this album as pop, but Failure Sculptures has catchy songs that will appeal to a large scale, however it keeps the integrity of accomplished music. Each song provides a story that allows you to drift into your own thoughts. He also uses idioms like there is no tomorrow.
“A Mission” is a lower-toned song that launches the album with an echoing sound of voice and guitar, and it sets an example of the whimsical type of music that is shown throughout the album. Mansfield has a way with words and was definitely listening in English class. A+ for storytelling. OK, you twisted my arm, I’ll point out some idioms: “body sways like trees in a storm” sung in “Paper Route” and “lately I just pass by like a cloud” heard in “Brass Band”. It’s a great way to paint a picture in your listeners head.
“Same Blues” exposes a folk side to Fences. It has a lovely addition of cello in the background. It is enchanting and flows so well, which makes a terrific inclusion to the album. The plucking and acoustic sound of “Wooden Dove” has a powerful effect, and suits the song well. It follows the theme of echoes and storytelling. Although “War Kid” is a song about divorce, it is a pleasant way to end the album, and it features more idioms; “tears falling like bombs“.
This type of music allows you to drift and flow in and out of your own thoughts. It’s a friendly haunting and emotionally driven set of songs (and don’t forget about the idioms), and while it is quite predictable in a pleasant way, Failure Sculptures is a steady outing.