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Marjorie Fair – Self Help Serenade

Capitol is without a doubt trying to piggyback Marjorie Fair onto the success of like-minded labelmates Coldplay, but there is little that even a major label can do to combat the obligatory effects of inexperience.

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The summer sun is certainly making a hearty go of it these days, burning a hole in the country’s wearily parched midsection (I was always a cloudy day man to begin with, but it has gotten to the point now where the sight of cloudless skies actually depresses me). The bludgeoning rays have wreaked havoc on more than just the brown lawns and the now-dormant flowering bulbs, but also the psyches of those who have had to adjust in light of Mother Nature’s distinct lack of precipital assistance. Those on the periphery have also had their share of meteorological misgivings, with hurricanes in the Gulf region, soaring mercuries in the southwest and upper Plains, and the occasional rampaging Tigers relief pitcher in the general Detroit Metro area. As for the genteel fellows in Los Angelinos Marjorie Fair, however, the heart of the matter lies not in the extremes represented by the reds and whites of the weatherman’s Chroma key, but in a perpetually pleasant, comfortable state of affairs where the pace is deliberate, the spirit melancholy and the sun partner to a picturesque backdrop rather than an oppressive seasonal guest. 

In all fairness, artists like the Beatles and Neil Young have become a superfluous reference point for all guitar-based pop bands that have come since them, and Marjorie Fair is no exception. Some bands may sound more like the Beatles, and some may sound less like them, but somehow it always inevitably comes back to the Fab Four, whether you hear it right away or not. In the case of Marjorie Fair, the end result falls on the “more” side. The guitars jangle, the harmonies are silky smooth, and lead Marjorie Evan Slamka writes tunes that uncannily evoke the lovey, languorous vibe of late-1960’s pop. Toss that into a blender with the album’s amazing A-list pedigree (producer Rob Schnapf, whose resume includes Beck, Foo Fighters and Jimmy Eat World, though his work with Richard Thompson and Elliott Smith would seem most pertinent here; Jon Brion and Joey Waronker also play a big part, while Jim Keltner, Billy Preston, Luis Conte, Roger Manning and mixer extraordinaire Tom Lord-Alge each pop in for a track), and the sky would seem to be the limit for this bunch. 

On occasion, everything does coagulate, and those moments are readily apparent when put up against the rest of the album, but it isn’t all strawberry fields here.

Lead single “Empty Room” is a dynamite piece of music, a gorgeous midtempo number with an appropriately bleak chorus (“I don’t want to go, but if I die young / Fill my empty room with the sun…”). It’s the closest thing to early vintage Coldplay since Snow Patrol put out “Run.” The chorus will likely linger in your head for long periods of time. “Waves” is the record’s lone uptempo track, “uptempo” used in a relative sense, as the rest of the album is decidedly uniform in its elegiac tendencies. Slamka is blessed with a very soothing voice, which serves the gentle nature of the material well, though in the event of the occasional sweeping chorus (as in “Empty Room”) he proves quite capable.

While Self Help Serenade may not sound like a risky proposition on first listen (it may even sound almost excessively trepidant and introverted), what may be its defining upside for some may be its primary shortcoming for others. The band’s emphasis on texture and atmospherics comes at the price of pacing and momentum, as the unhurried, sleepy tempos begin to pile up without much variation. “Empty Room” and “Waves” are the only songs that break with the rest of the record, though the odd waltz or two does appear in “Cracks in the Wall” and “Silver Gun,” even if they don’t dare to step out of line. For a pop record, it’s a challenging listen, though that is something that would hypothetically play into their favor in the long run.

Self Help Serenade is best consumed as a whole, which may prove to be more or less of a challenge, depending on whether you possess the time and/or the patience to consume what turns out to be less an album of notable moments than one of a distinct timbre and tone. In an era where album success is driven by a series of catchy radio singles, this may be more difficult than usual for a band like Marjorie Fair. Most of the notable contributors are used only sparingly, which leaves the young band to take care of business mostly on their own. They do have their moments in the sun, showing heaps of promise, but more often than not the end result winds up exposing the group’s rough edges, which is unavoidable, even more so in the case of a skilled collective such as this.

Capitol is without a doubt trying to piggyback Marjorie Fair onto the success of like-minded labelmates Coldplay, but there is little that even a major label can do to combat the obligatory effects of inexperience. An auspicious opening salvo like “Empty Room” may duly send them on their way, but as with the rest of the album itself, time can only serve as an aide.

(Capitol Records)

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Good Riddance – Thoughts and Prayers

The fire still burns brightly for Good Riddance

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It would seem that the current US administration has proven to be fertile fields for political punks. If there is a positive to have come out of the past few years, it is in the form of angry punk rock records. The aptly titled Thoughts and Prayers, the new record by Good Riddance, could very well be the best of them. For many like myself, Good Riddance was the gateway to a world of punk rock socio-political commentary; wrapped in aggressive, melodic hardcore that opened your mind as much as it punched a hole in the wall. 1996’s A Comprehensive Guide to Moderne Rebellion and the really terrific 1998 record Ballads from the Revolution, were eye-opening propositions for a wide-eyed kid. Good Riddance resonated because their songs were hard-hitting commentary that sounded like broken-hearted punk rock songs. They sang intelligently about inequality, human despair, and the sometimes broken system in which we live in. And when their broken-hearted punk rock songs weren’t about society and politics, they were broken-hearted punk rock songs about broken hearts (don’t think there have been love songs as good in the genre as “Jeannie” and “Not With Him”).

Four years since their comeback record, Peace In Our Time, we get the much more furious Thoughts and Prayers. 12 songs of trademark breakneck melodic hardcore that talks about the divisive current political climate without going as far as saying things like “Trump sucks”. But that’s never been the Good Riddance way. Vocalist and chief lyricist Russ Rankin has always found a way to express his anger and disappointment with poise and intelligence- sounding more like a well-read poet than a man yelling on a street corner.

In the track “Don’t Have Time”, he sings about the futility of repeating history to trumpet nationalism; “And those same old fears arise / With eyes too drawn to counteract / The ghost in you comes rushing back / Too caustic to subside / Just what have we done? / We killed a mother’s only son / Just to remain at number one“. And lyrically, much of takes a similar route of well-written stanzas that question a lot of what is going on in the world at the present time. Songs like the opening “Edmund Pettus Bridge” (let’s hope everyone knows the significance of this landmark), replete with Michael Douglas Wall Street sound byte, sings of social inequality but does it with a trace of hope. While songs like “The Great Divide” are an example of melodic hardcore’s finest moments; unrelenting sonic pummeling that is as melodic as it is potent. “Wish You Well” takes cues from Good Riddance’s “softer” tones of catchy choruses and mid-tempo verses; akin to the track “Saccharine” (from 2003’s Bound by Ties of Blood and Affection). Perhaps the best thing about the 12 songs here is that they are all very succinct, potent, with rarely a moment of filler. The album is consistently good, and while it rarely deviates from the Good Riddance sound, it never lacks in the fire and fury we’ve come to expect.

The album itself SOUNDS fantastic, credit again to Bill Stevenson and Jason Livermore at The Blasting Room for their production. The guitars rip at the right levels while the percussion work hits just right. The mixing levels are as close to perfect as you can get without any one element dominating over another- a constant the band have found since 1999’s Operation Phoenix (no surprise, the first of their albums to have been produced at the Blasting Room).

The appeal of Good Riddance has always been two-fold. Firstly, their music has shown steadfast quality, and the albums have found longevity due to the way Rankin and company write their songs. With lyrics referring to and talking about a multitude of humanist issues without having to directly reference them, they remain political, timely, writing music as urgent as it was through the 90s as it is today. That may be a sad indictment of society itself, but it doesn’t take away from their effectiveness and influence. Rankin himself has said that their music may not have changed the world per se, they continue to open eyes and minds. This writer can attest to the latter- and the importance of that can’t be underlined enough. Their early discography spoke to my generation about life, self, and the interconnected reality of the world we live- no matter how hard to try not to believe it. Thoughts and Prayers is a furious, timely, and potent slab of hard-hitting melodic hardcore and shows that the fire clearly still burns as passionately for Good Riddance as it did all those years ago. And perhaps it’ll be what A Comprehensive Guide to Moderne Rebellion and Ballads From the Revolution was to me for a whole new generation.

(Fat Wreck Chords)

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Hatriot – From Days Unto Darkness

From Days Unto Darkness is a relentless pummeling of thrash metal’s best qualities

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When it comes to Bay Area thrash metal, there are two bands that sit atop the mountain forever entwined to its history; Metallica and Exodus. Both bands linked together by Kirk Hammett, both bands crucial to the Bay Area’s most destructive form of music. Exodus may not have their name in lights as Metallica does, but Exodus’ influence cannot be mistaken- and many point to them as being the one true progenitor of Bay Area thrash. Hatriot, a band that was started by Exodus vocalist Steve Souza in 2011, are a real chip off the ol’ block. Surprisingly, it isn’t just musically that Hatriot follows suit from Exodus, its a family thing too. While Steve Souza left Hatriot in 2015, his sons Nick and Cody continue on percussions and guitars with the latter taking on vocal duties once the older Souza returned to Exodus.

Hatriot does more than just follow on the Exodus path; they’ve loudly carved their own slice of the thrash pie. Led by Kosta Varvatakis shredding guitar work and Cody Souza’s blistering (sometimes ominous) vocal work, Hatriot may have found their Fabulous Disaster, ironically, also three albums in.

From Days Unto Darkness is a relentless pummeling of thrash metal’s best qualities; machine gun percussion work (I’m a sucker for some great double bass drums), shredding guitars, soaring solos, and vocals that does the growling well, and the screaming even better. Tracks like “Organic Remains” and the blistering “Carnival of Execution” showcase the band’s ability to craft songs that are equal parts urgency and solid musicianship. Thematically, From Days Unto Darkness covers the usual thrash metal spread; the end times, death, destruction, and humanity’s failing graces- all done with equal breakneck, ear piercing destruction sonically. “World, Flesh & Devil” is perhaps the album’s best outing- a raging beast of a song, that if carnage could be written in music form, this is it incarnate. At 4:26, it is one of the shorter tracks of the release, but much of the album features in at the 6-7 minute mark- a trademark of thrash metal’s desire to not only showcase talent but to do it over extended periods.

What the album lacks perhaps is that one magnum opus of a track. Sure, it’s not easy for any band to write “Master of Puppets”, but From Days Unto Darkness rarely takes a breather. It’s mostly positive, but while Master had at times, slow interludes to let you catch your breath, Hatriot takes absolutely no prisoners- staying true to their thrash metal heritage. If you’re not quite up for it, this album will hammer you into a stupor.

The halcyon days of Bay Area thrash metal may be long resigned to nostalgic documentaries, but Hatriot are not interested in just being a throwback to their roots. From Days Unto Darkness is not for the weak and if this is the sign that thrash metal is alive and kicking, then the future and present are in damn good hands.

(Massacre Records)

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