Music · Music Reviews

Music Review: Northstar – Is This Thing Loaded?

This review was originally posted on absolutepunk.net September 10, 2007. Northstar released their debut album Is This Thing Loaded? twenty years ago. Like Brand New, Northstar always felt a level above other bands in the scene. My writing here is far from my best, but at least I recognized talent. Here’s a good retrospective write-up and interview with Nick Torres.

Every music fan knows of a defunct band that never received the success they rightfully deserved. These bands are close to our hearts, and though we wished them the greatest success, we feel honored to be the few who recognize their talent. Northstar was one of those bands.

It’s difficult to recall the details, but at some time before Is This Thing Loaded? was released, I happened upon a demo of “Broken Parachute.” The two things that struck me most about the song upon subsequent listens were the guitar work and the somewhat odd lyrics. At the time I would listen almost exclusively to pop punk, so it was quite a surprise to hear a band that knew what it meant to rock. It was also interesting to hear lyrics of an ambiguous nature describing the stomping of monsters, running from the heartless, befriending a bottle for its soothing contents, and a woeful narrator on the brink of giving up.

“Broken Parachute” was a fitting introduction to Northstar, but Is This Thing Loaded? offers so much more. For one thing, the album proves that guitarist/vocalist Nick Torres is a songwriter to be appreciated. “Rigged and Ready,” the first song of the album, provides an example of what Torres is capable of. His delivery is drawn out and smooth (‘I’m thinking she needs me / Well do you girl? / I guess we’ll see’), but amplifies with the music while avoiding unnecessary screaming. However, there are moments in every song in which Torres produces short bursts of scratchy singing when he reaches his breaking point. Such a moment can be found on “My Ricochet”, as he repeats ‘I guess it’s that bad’ to the crashing of drummer Gabe Renfroe’s cymbals. These moments exist in every song, usually set to climactic music, and they are always welcome. But even if his voice is commendable, what really makes Torres’ vocals shine are the lyrics he articulates.

As mentioned previously, the lyrics of Northstar go beyond simple writing and implement grammatical tools like metaphors, similes, and symbols, so technically they lean more toward poetry than prose. The result is writing that is deep and satisfying in its vagueness. And like so many poets that came before him, Torres has a female target in mind. On “My Ricochet,” he serenades with the best of them, creating a holy image of his intended lover: ‘Why do you float way up there? / In disguise in dirty air / Why don’t you melt way down here / With heaven so far and hell so near.’ Though he can be smooth, Torres is not always gentle when speaking to the ear of a lover out of grasp. He has something to prove as he pursues his “Cinderella.” She’s shot down every one of his friends, and he is clearly frustrated in his attempts to win her. Still, he falls victim to her disinterest just as his friends before him, and Torres comes to realize the futility of words: ‘Well under razor wrists lie the gorgeous words that will put her under my skin / But I’m alone again.’

By this point the review probably sounds like a personal dedication to Nick Torres, but rest assured the whole band deserves credit for helping make Is This Thing Loaded? sound so damn good. Torres, Renfroe, guitarist Tyler Odem, and bassist Shawn Reagan add complexity to their instruments and provide an almost flawless foundation for Torres’ voice and words. The dual guitar combination of Odem and Torres is serene at times, but has a perfect crunching distortion to match the heightened action of choruses and outros. A fitting example of this can be found on “Taker Not a Giver,” one of the album’s best. Airy guitar sounds accompany Torres as he sings, ‘I’m falling together, alone in wonder… land,’ but as soon as the last word is uttered, the real show starts. Rhythm and lead are wonderfully hectic together as Renfroe inserts drum rolls to heighten the commotion. “Taker Not a Giver” has a great chorus in the traditional sense, but the instrumental work between the band is the real high point of the song. Reagan can be overshadowed by the guitarists at times, but he is anything but a backseat bassist. He controls the tone of verses, setting the mood well, especially on “My Ricochet,” while Torres ruminates on matters of heaven and hell. Renfroe accordingly paces the songs, though he does lash out at moments, leaving the band behind to speed things up and take control. Listen to the abuse he dishes out on the bass pedal at the final moments of “Cinderella” to see what I mean; it’s three seconds of bliss just when it seems all the surprises of the song have been revealed.

Torres’ final lyrics of the album are ‘I’m classic and late / Plastic and fake,’ then only the feedback is left. Is This Thing Loaded? is indeed a classic, though there’s nothing fake about it. This is the real deal. There’s no need to nitpick which exact genre the album falls under, so let’s not. Is This Thing Loaded? will appease anyone stuck merely reminiscing about depth in musicians and lyrical content. If you don’t own this album yet, what are you waiting for?

Music · Treasured Tracks

Treasured Track: At the Drive-In – “Rolodex Propaganda”

Our favorite songs are timeless. Even with years separating us from the last time we heard them, these songs call us back to a bygone era in our lives. Some of them helped us through heart wrenching breakups while others remind us of late nights spent with best friends. In this feature I reflect on the tracks that I’ve obsessed over in the past and always welcome back to my headphones in the present.

I’ll admit, I don’t know what the hell “Rolodex Propaganda” is about. I’ve never cared. There’s talk about half eaten beards and scarecrow plots. Is it about a battlefield? Government censorship? Both? Again, don’t really care. All I know is the song fucking rocks.

There are plenty of At the Drive-In songs I could have chosen to highlight here. I thought hard about “Invalid Litter Dept.” and “Enfilade,” but I stuck with “Rolodex Propaganda” for a few reasons. Iggy Pop’s spastic vocals combine so well with Cedric Bixler-Zavala’s manic energy you’d think Iggy had always been a part of the band. It’s also a fairly light song, considering it’s violent imagery. It’s pop as hell, short and easily repeatable. I’ll bet there are At the Drive-In fans that hate how fun this song sounds. Screw ‘em.

Relationship of Command can be a heavy listen, considering its dark themes and Texan aggression. So a track like “Rolodex Propaganda” is a welcome break – an invitation to dance to keyboard sounds and melodic gurgling. I also dig that during live performances Cedric, Omar Rodríguez-López, and Jim Ward all got in on the vocals. Still, nothing beats Iggy delivering that “Manuscript replicaaaaa” line.

Music · Music Reviews

Music Review: Kanye West – My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy

I looked through my last.fm top albums of all time and noticed My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy at number 16. I’m surprised it’s not higher. I played the hell out of this album in 2010 and on into 2011. My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy is peak Kanye West. It’s the closest we can come to peeling back the celebrity layer to party with the man underneath. All the pomp, the debauchery, the ego, the vulnerabilities, the unbridled aggression, the rap royalty. It’s all here, and it’s all for us.

Feeling feral? Transform into a “Monster” that Frankenstein would flee from.

Feeling disheartened? “Runaway” is one for the scumbags.

Feeling yourself? Embrace “Power” and don your superhero cape.

Want a banger? Take your pick.

For as low as Kanye’s reputation can sink – remember, President Obama once called him a “jackass” – this album is proof he can play well with others. With My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy Kanye brought together many voices and various genres to blend together some of the best rap music of the past couple decades. The album fizzles out a bit at the end with “Lost in the World” and “Who Will Survive in America,” but let’s forgive that because “Blame Game” is great and so is Chris Rock’s spoken word contribution. Today My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy remains legendary while Kanye continues to flirt with infamy. What more can we expect from a man obsessed?

Music · Treasured Tracks

Treasured Track: Run the Jewels – “Oh My Darling Don’t Cry”

Our favorite songs are timeless. Even with years separating us from the last time we heard them, these songs call us back to a bygone era in our lives. Some of them helped us through heart wrenching breakups while others remind us of late nights spent with best friends. In this feature I reflect on the tracks that I’ve obsessed over in the past and always welcome back to my headphones in the present.

Initially I planned to write about a song off the first Run the Jewels album. It’s a favorite of mine, and it reminds me of when a buddy and I would gush about RTJ while hanging out in Austin, TX. I suppose “Oh My Darling Don’t Cry,” off of Run the Jewels 2, is such a banger it refuses to be denied.

The heavy bass sets a serious tone for the flurry of words Killer Mike and El-P unleash upon the world. The dynamic duo are professional wordsmiths, and they go together like peanut butter and jamming rhymes down your throat. Like many of RTJ’s songs, “Oh My Darling Don’t Cry” is aggressive as a curb stomping. Killer Mike and El-P are anti-establishment, anti-fuckboy, and pro-second amendment.

It’s impractical to quote the entire song, so I’ll round up some of my favorite lines from these poets of vulgarity. “I read the books, did the math. / Don’t need a preacher preachin’ on my behalf. / No teacher can teach my arrogant ass.” You can’t shut up the educated, and don’t try to speak for them. “I’m not from Earth, from far away. / I bust through chests like baby greys.” Science fiction pop culture coming through. And “You can all run naked backwards through a field of dicks” is an elegantly verbose way of telling someone to go fuck themselves.

The beat changes up at the end and it’s a sprint to the last second, but try not to cry. Hit the replay button and class is once again in session with professors El-P and Killer Mike. Damn, these guys are good.

Music · Music Reviews

Music Review: Sloppy Meateaters – Forbidden Meat

This review was originally posted on absolutepunk.net July 25, 2007. The album is still good, “So Long” remains great, and the female voice at the start of that song comes from John Carpenter’s horror film Christine.

If you dislike nasal vocalists like Tom DeLonge of blink 182 and Jordan Pundik of New Found Glory, stop reading right now, because you probably won’t appreciate Josh Chambers. Chambers is the vocalist/guitarist of the Sloppy Meateaters, a band out of Rome, GA that has flown quietly under mainstream radar and organized multiple DIY tours since its formation back in 1999. Chambers, along with bassist John Elwell and drummer Kevin Highfield, originally released Forbidden Meat in 2001. Now, more than five years later, the album holds strong as a treat for unabashed pop punk fans who prefer their singers complete with falsetto.

To re-establish how high Chambers’ vocals can get, one must look no further than the album’s second track, “Impossible.” He absolutely lets his voice fly during choruses, and it’s a fitting song to test whether or not the band will go over well with the listener. The following track, “Lonely Day,” is the catchiest of the album. With better production and more creative lyrics during choruses, “Lonely Day” sounds like a single that would click with high school kids across the country.

One of the most welcome surprises of Forbidden Meat is found on the track “Suddenly Forget”: Sloppy Meateaters have a bassist who actually does something besides stand on the sidelines with simple backing bass lines. Elwell picks up the slack from the lack of a second guitarist by controlling the rhythm alongside Highfield and even providing some solos. On that note, the band compliment each other very well as a three piece, and serve as a nostalgic reminder of blink 182’s early years.

Slowing things down to describe an inner struggle against apathy is “Give Me Something.” The song meanders until it finds direction in its interlude, and Chambers finds a simple, yet perfect way to describe his callousness – ‘Can life feel any better? / Can life feel any better? / I can’t feel anything.’ He quickly finds emotion again though with the bitter track “Things Are Gonna Change.” Chambers is full of hostility and comes out swinging as he sings, ‘Suppose you were half human and you thought with a brain / Suppose you heard the news that things are gonna change.’ He also expresses his frustration with religion on “Talkin About Jesus,” though it’s less a valid argument and more an adolescent rebellion against established power.

Though the songs leading up to it are good, even great, “So Long” trounces anything else on the album. A soft female voice claiming, “God, I hate rock and roll” begins the song, a ballad that could only have been crafted by a complicated young man. “So Long” is a letter of loving assurance to the unnamed female, and when that route fails, Chambers retorts, ‘Face it, you’re stuck with me / And all thirty / Personalities.’ It may be sappy, but it sounds sincere enough to be wonderful.

A central theme of Forbidden Meat is hopeful dreaming. Chambers passionately denies the trappings of a normal life and chooses to live by his lofty ambitions instead. At one point he seems to be pleading directly to the listener as he sings the lyric, ‘Can you see my face in lights?’ Sloppy Meateaters may not have received the success Josh Chambers always dreamed about, but Forbidden Meat is the kind of angst-filled, emotionally complex, and all together endearing album any up and coming band can take pride in.

Music · Treasured Tracks

Treasured Track: blink-182 – “What’s My Age Again?”

Our favorite songs are timeless. Even with years separating us from the last time we heard them, these songs call us back to a bygone era in our lives. Some of them helped us through heart wrenching breakups while others remind us of late nights spent with best friends. In this feature I reflect on the tracks that I’ve obsessed over in the past and always welcome back to my headphones in the present.

What’s My Age Again?” changed my life, and I don’t mean that in a hyperbolic way. I’d enjoyed plenty of music before blink-182, but true music infatuation didn’t exist for me until I first heard “What’s My Age Again?” on the radio. Mark Hoppus’s song about a self-sabotaging man-child is such an easy story for a teenage boy to relate to, and the song is catchy as all hell. It sounds like pop music with an edge and rock music that hits with quick jabs. It’s pop punk, and blink-182 introduced me to it.

The song bubbles up with Tom DeLonge’s clean guitar picking, but it isn’t long until the distortion kicks in while Mark shows us what a bad boyfriend he is. The chorus is easy to sing along to, and it’s made better by Tom emphasizing the back half of lyrics. It’s also nice how Mark changes the chorus up depending on the preceding verse (making a simple song a bit more complex) as the story continues. I have a preference for the third chorus though, probably because of my grade level when I first heard it:

“And that’s about the time she walked away from me.
Nobody likes you when you’re 23
And you still act like you’re in freshman year.
What the hell is wrong with me?
My friends say I should act my age,
What’s my age again?
What’s my age again?”

I must have listened to this song thousands of times. During those formative years of my life I was more of a Mark fan (though I loved Tom too), and I wonder if that’s due to my first favorite blink song. “What’s My Age Again?” and Enema of the State helped me through the rough times of high school, and I’ll always appreciate blink-182 for that. I have a prediction that I’ll be writing another Treasured Track article about blink, because there are so many that had an impact on me. Alright, time to watch some naked men running.

Music · Music Reviews

Music Review: Bright Eyes and Neva Dinova – One Jug of Wine, Two Vessels

I’m not surprised One Jug of Wine, Two Vessels was my most played album of 2019. Conor Oberst is extremely talented, and Bright Eyes is one of my favorite musical acts. What does surprise me is I’m pretty sure I replayed Neva Dinova’s songs more than Conor’s. Neva Dinova is a band based out of Omaha, Nebraska (same as Conor), and even though they can’t turn a phrase quite like Conor, they more than hold their own on the album.

One Jug of Wine, Two Vessels is good folk music made better by supplemental instruments (saxophone, trumpet, keys) and a small-town issues sort of vibe. The songs cover the usual subjects of depression, looking for love, cocaine, and hanging onto someone who’s clearly looking for an escape route. I can’t say I’ve really connected with the songs emotionally, and I wouldn’t rank any of the Bright Eyes songs among Conor’s best creations. But Conor has gone on record saying being in studio with Neva Dinova has been his favorite album recording experience. That must shine through on the album, because I just like hanging out with the songs. I don’t get tired of Neva Dinova sympathizing with a bar patron (“You just want someone’s love to take you down”) or asking what the fuck is the point of destroying yourself.

Remember when I said Neva Dinova still has something to learn from Conor about lyrics writing? I’ll end by quoting one of my favorite parts of the album with imagery that only Bright Eyes could bring to life:

“And you talk when you’re drunk
Like you’re standing in front of a microphone.
And each night it repeats, and you fall into me
Like a domino.

And you talk when you’re drunk
Like you’re writing it up for an article.
And you think that I lie when I tell you, ‘Goodbye,
And I’ve got to go,’
‘Cause I’ve got to go…”

Music · Treasured Tracks

Treasured Track: Del Shannon – “Runaway”

Our favorite songs are timeless. Even with years separating us from the last time we heard them, these songs call us back to a bygone era in our lives. Some of them helped us through heart wrenching breakups while others remind us of late nights spent with best friends. In this feature I reflect on the tracks that I’ve obsessed over in the past and always welcome back to my headphones in the present.

Just like with movies, some songs simply age better than others. Watching American Graffiti right now will trigger memories of your own high school experience, even though it was released in 1973. And “Runaway” by Del Shannon will still help heal a breakup 59 years after its original release.

The term “ghosted” is fairly recent, but Shannon may as well have written “Runaway” specifically for the experience of being dumped by someone and being given no rhyme or reason for it. The song begins with a snappy guitar introduction and Shannon singing: “As I walk along, I wonder / What went wrong with our love, / A love that was so strong.” There aren’t many more lyrics to the song, so Shannon stretches them out in a creative way. The chorus is memorable because of the way Shannon wavers his tone like a wah pedal.

“And I wonder…
I wah-wah-wah-wah-wonder
Why
A-wah-wah-wah-wah-why
She ran awaaay,”
And I wonder where she will stay-yay,
My little runaway.”

Lack of closure is what “Runaway” is all about. There’s the pain of missing someone, surely, but not knowing what went wrong and where your loved one is staying now (and who they’re staying with) is worse. I always liked “Runaway,” but it wasn’t until I was unceremoniously ghosted (this was years ago, thankfully) that I thought, “Man, this song is perfect.” It still is, and a big part of that is the keyboard solo before the final chorus. Keyboardist Max Crook feeds off of Shannon’s urgency, dancing across the keys and hitting an erratic high tone that sounds like it was pulled from a horror B-movie set in a theme park. The sound mirrors the narrator’s bouncing, dejected thoughts, and it adds so much flavor to the song. Like many popular songs of the era, “Runaway” is a shorty; it clocks in at less than two and a half minutes. It’s short enough that if you’re going to hear it once, you may as well play it twice.

Sadly, Shannon was unable to overcome his demons later in life and died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound in 1990. In his honor you should watch Del Shannon play “Runaway” on Letterman. He’s clearly enjoying himself during the performance, and he sounds as good as ever.