J Mascis
Several Shades of Why
Sub Pop

“Fragile” is not a word I’d use to describe most Dinosaur Jr. records. J Mascis’ trademark howl has always had a shrill of uncertainty to it, but usually the crusty, grizzly-swipe jangle of his guitar refocuses attentions on rocking the hell out than any real introspection.

So if Several Shades of Why has any claim to importance, it’s that it highlights the anxious, neurotic and all-together fragile side of a meat-and-potatoes rocker like Mascis. Here, he trades in his amps and distortion for an unadorned loose-stringed guitar, with occasional string, vocal and percussive embellishments. Generally he stays in character as a singer-songwriter, embracing a previously disguised penchant for straightforward country-folk and making reference to depression, doubt and indecision in his wordplay. It’s hard to say if these feelings were born out of a specific incident, as Mascis has always been a debilitated soul, but under the harsh lights of acoustic instrumentation, his internal struggles are given a much wider stage.

This is still just J Mascis playing solemn folk-rock for 40 minutes, with minimal standouts or clarified moments, but anyone invested in his legacy will certainly like to know what he has to say here. Whether that makes for a good record or not, I’m still not sure, but I at least feel his pain.
Luke Winkie

MP3: “Is It Done”

New York Dolls
Dancing Backward in High Heels

If we live in a musical era marked by a striking number of reunions, one could say that the New York Dolls were, perhaps unsurprisingly, way ahead of the curve. The glam-punk forefathers went their separate ways in 1975 after their four-year run laid the seeds for bands as divergent as Kiss, the Ramones, and the Smiths. After reuniting in 2004, the Dolls, which are now down to vocalist David Johansen and guitarist Sylvain Sylvain as the remaining original members, released albums in 2006 and 2009. Dancing Backward in High Heels is remarkable, then, in that it marks the third post-reunion album from a band whose original incarnation only managed to release two studio records before splitting up.

Dancing Backward showcases a New York Dolls that doesn’t immediately sound like the caustic, rollicking Dolls of the ’70s, and in this case, the change to a new, mellow sound actually works. The album’s songs sound like they came straight out of the classic late-50s/early-60s rock era with a little bit of the trademark Dolls edge for seasoning. Opener “Fool For You Baby” sets the tone for the album with a relaxed backing track that relies more heavily on an organ than guitars to evoke an almost breezy feel beneath borderline doo-wop back-up vocals. Meanwhile, “Streetcake” delves into the grimy New York subject matter that the band has always loved, and features a tough, killer hook. These gems, along with swinging rockers like “Talk to Me Baby” and “I Sold My Heart to the Junkman” (a cover of the Patti LaBelle & the Blue Bells hit) help to round out an album that defies the conventional wisdom that reunion records are merely substandard nostalgia trips.
Ron Wadlinger

Rise Against

The first time I ever heard Rise Against, it was their cover of Black Flag’s “Fix Me” on Tony Hawk’s American Wasteland Soundtrack in 2005. (Current bands’ mostly good takes on punk classics make this one of my favorite compilations.) Still, the Chicago group remained lumped in my consciousness along with the Warped Tour/Alternative Press blur of nouveau punk bands, a limbo of bad haircuts and even worse music. But the release of Appeal to Reason in 2008 garnered some commercial successful and favorable reviews for a collection of songs that were catchy, if, in several cases, a little flat.

The follow-up, Endgame, finds the band contemplating the end of the world—or at least its current dismal state. Yet as the record takes on the issues of today—from the environment to teen bullying—there’s an optimistic twist. In fact, “Make It Stop (September’s Children)” contains the line that best summarizes the theme of the entire album: “It's always darkest just before the dawn. So stay awake with me, and let’s prove them wrong.” Though the children’s chorus seems a little cliche, the names of recent bullying-related deaths make the issue very real.

Endgame finds a slightly more mature Rise Against, but not more sedate. On “Architects,” the first track, vocalist Tim McIlrath asks, “Do you remember when we were young and we wanted to set the world on fire? ’Cause I am, and I still do.” Musically, the album is at its most potent when the band sticks to its punk guns, as on the “Disparity by Design,” while the weakest tracks come when they venture into rock and ballad territory as on “Midnight Hands” and “Wait for Me,” respectively. While this collection of catchy songs might not set the world ablaze, it at least could keep the pilot light of social awareness burning, with tracks such as “Help Is On the Way” dealing with the delayed government response to Hurricane Katrina. Just as every generation believes that we’re living at the end of the world, so too does every generation staunchly believe they will provide a more eloquent soundtrack for it. Endgame may not be what you want to hear when that time comes, but for now, it provides adequate optimism for the future.
Josie Rubio

Hype Williams
One Nation
Hippos in Tanks

With One Nation, Hype Williams appear to be on infinite cruise, at least for the present. This, their fourth release within a year, is certainly not going to prick the ears of anyone who wasn’t listening previously. It is not an evolution, but rather a further meditation on the hypnotic skull-drudgery the “band” produces with submerged electronic doodles and dub-drenched lo-fi beats. Don’t mistake the prolific with what is very likely a daily operation for Hype Williams. It’s coming to light that they don’t necessarily write songs as much as they set the mood and glide upon intriguing accidents found amidst jamming. And with those reels, they simply cut where needed or drag it out to intoxicating depths, throwing long edits of sampled speech and spectral come-ons.

Whether you’re in on the “hoax” or not, Hype Williams are best in moderation. As noted, this isn’t Hype Williams progressing. But like a potent opiate, it’s hard not to pass up the druggy bliss of what they do and get lost in songs like “Buisnessline,” which refines the mystical synth explorations of their recent past. One Nation is subversively enthralling, even when it sounds blatantly aloof. “Warlord” singlehandedly puts toe-tag on dubstep, burying that genre’s ubiquitous beat under a post-hypnagogic dusting of squiggly Casiotones and ethereal breathing exercises. “Break4Love” defies the quiet storm remake/remodel of How to Dress Well by turning that soulful misery inside out, showing those grooves glow instead of cinder. Its best not to hold Hype Williams to expectations; were One Nation sampled in MP3s and 20-second snippets, it wouldn’t have the same effect as a basement drag with the whole LP. As much as one may want them to continue ghostwriting thrift-store RZA instrumentals, they’ll joke back with “Jah,” a three-minute round with live drums, humming recorders and drones of organ—like Sunburned Hand of Man squatting in a London flat. For all of the pranks, there’s plenty of awe in staring into on One Nation. It just takes a little patience (or something much stronger).
Kevin J. Elliott

Exene Cervenka
The Excitment of Maybe

I guess I knew that X squealer Exene Cervenka hasn’t really been playing punk music for a while, and the title of the album should have tipped me off that I would be delving into an original punk wordsmith’s lighter, lovelier side. Leadoff track “Already In Love” sets a sweet, happy tone, with Cervenka’s somewhat twangy voice describing fun things like “girl groups and drugs” and the “front porch in the sun,” punctuated by peppy horns and a swaying rhythm section. None of this indicates anything wrong, but the lyric betraying her problem—that it’s already “too late” for her because she’s “already in love”—ends up being one of those “good” problems. The fast acoustic guitar and soft, skittery drums are reminiscent of Lois’ bittersweet “Transatlantic Telephone Call.” An underlying theme of time pervades The Excitement of Maybe: how it’s “too late” on the first track, while “time is racing” and the “hourglass is upside down” on “Brand New Memory.” There’s a “lovely ray of sunshine, for a little while” on “Someday I’ll Forget,” then later on in the album it’s “the twelfth of never” on “Half Past Forever,” and the album ends with “Long Time Ago.” Interesting that most of these lyrics are about time running out or the instant that already passed, because the title of the album implies the fragility of the moment. That “excitement of maybe” doesn’t last very long at all, so you have to live in the now to be excited about it. I was excited about getting my hands on a punk record, but alas, that moment passed when I heard the first song.

Sure, I guess X always had some country flavor. Maybe it never really was proper capital P punk music; they were just in the right scene with the right people at the right time. And LA is in the wild west, technically. So this is pretty much country music, the way that some Concrete Blonde has that dusty cowboy boot tinge to it. And I’m really setting myself up for disappointment when I go around expecting things from artists. If I had a career spanning three decades, I sure would get sick of playing the same crap. Hell, I’d probably have a completely different set of standards to go by now than those I started out with. Maybe it’s really not that far of a stretch from ’70s iconic punk goddess to ultra professional, commercially viable singer. I guess X was never really out there smashing capitalism anyhow. Exene still has, thankfully, an even more developed lyrical skill than most songwriters out there. This is a sweet, sincere country pop album, even if that’s not necessarily what I was looking for.
Michael P. O’Shaughnessy

MP3: “Already in Love”