“We don’t read the books we write them / With diamond rings / And new lives in the closet / Overdoses, fake deaths / Rehabs in California”
When such highfalutin prose pervades your lyrical grit, there had better be equal, if not pertinent musical validity that justifies this holier-than-thou, snarky attitude. Yet as you progress through A Cynics Nightmare, you are struck more by Tora! Tora! Torrance!’s keen observational capacity rather than the more pretentious nodes that seemingly mars other showy rock bands. And while Nick Koenigs’ voice is trapped somewhere mid spectrum between Julian Casablancas’ nasal flustering and Paul Banks’ darker, monodroned brooding, his emphatic rock wailing fits the glorious garage/noise/punk n’ roll that so savagely reverberates here. If the previously stated lyrical sampling were any more apparent, the striking mélange of guitar toying and pulsating percussions found on “Another Drink to Yr Health” could very well go unnoticed. But this frenzied, almost spastic structural territory is hard to pass up on – derived from what seems to be the exigency for musical assertion and finesse; a combination the band excitably renders well on this effort.
Perhaps the band owes some gratitude to the recent deluge of more garage-influenced, noisy rock affairs; they certainly have emerged in opportune times. In spite of New York’s gargantuan stranglehold on the current gathering of critically acclaimed, much publicized garage/punk bands, Tora! Tora! Torrance! are but a stones throw away in terms of artistic and tuneful abandon. Add to that their certain youthful exuberance and impressive interpretations, and you have a molded rock aesthetic that plays very nicely. Case in point, their slightly humorous but no less truthful account of today’s seemingly misdirected punk scene; in “I Though I Was At a Punk Show”, they adeptly croon over the brash hard rock static, “and at such a young age / and with such a young face / don’t tell me you are that cynical”. A clever jab at what appears to be the lacking trust and school boy attitude that permeates much of today’s punk underground.
The scrupulously lo-fi, somewhat experimental wash of “Bury the Hatchet in Yr Chest” is perhaps one of the flaws found on this release. Something about the murky, grungy bass filling that acts in tedium, a hazed exuberance that lacks bearing and cause. As the backbone wavering fades in on the following “A Cynic’s Nightmare”, it once again reinforces the point that while lyrically proficient, Tora! Tora! Torrance! still boasts some musical weaknesses; this time being the unhurried, peculiar musical wrangling that props Koenigs’ bursting voice. One he uses to denounce love’s less spiritual, bawdier approach that so clearly disseminates in these times of looser moral value; “what happened to the luv song? / I said what happened to the luv? / it’s just the fluid exchange game”, it is by far the song’s more significant quality, the plea of true love rather than lustful thirst, “and I wanna say ‘I luv you’ not only to those hills and valleys”.
While the band never once relies on cheaply constructed melodies, there is nonetheless a feeling of unidentified polish. Never too experimental, not quite avant-garde but not overly harmonious; songs like the essential “Dr Badd” with its well paced choral buzzing and guitar charming replace more tendered mannerisms with engaging, but accessible jagged rock components. And while musically they tread on middle ground between The Hives and garage/punk bands of yore (The Stooges, MC5) with discernibly more mod-punk processes, this none-to-clear straddling of wildly serrated yet noticeably current facets separates these Minneapolis natives from their Big Apple and Scandinavian counterparts.
It is this certain moderate quality that will likely endear them more to suburbanites craving a piece of revivalist rock rather than those more urbane types – an appetizing dose to ears not normally trained for such vitality. Tora! Tora! Torrance! are far from being front runners of the recent rock resuscitation smorgasbord, but they deserve credit for being sharp in a mostly restrained, settled environment.
(The Militia Group)
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.