SPOON, Girls Can Tell (Merge) It isn't always possible to boldly go where no man has gone before. Luckily, rock music isn't rocket science, and it isn't necessary to be absolutely innovative and completely unique each time you step out of the gate. (And don't let some stodgy rock critic tell you different.) No new ground breaks over the course of this Austin, Texas, threesome's first full-length for Merge, but it's so damn good that it just might end up on a few top-10 lists at the end of the year nonetheless. The songs marry cunning lyrics to warm pop instrumentation, and the band march them together down the aisles blazed by the likes of Elvis Costello, Squeeze, the Fall, and Nirvana. It's a well-beaten path, but those are sometimes the best to take. The angular attitude of "Everything Hits at Once" and "Believing in Art" showcase Britt Daniel's shrewd, sprawling lyrics while "1020 AM" and "Take the Fifth" have the band reveling in Southern comfort. And when the album rounds out with "Chicago at Night," the sad pauses, the fade-out refrain ("Never been to the wall"), and the lazily picked-at guitar notes nag at your Pink Floyd memories and insist that reinvention is its own satisfying and viable brand of invention.
Spoon play the Crocodile Tuesday, March 6.
HANGTOWN, Eleven Reasons (Black Dog) Why are advocates of bands like Uncle Tupelo and Whiskeytown and this whole alternative-country brigade so quick to dismiss Lynyrd Skynyrd? Shed "Sweet Home Alabama" off Second Helping and the 1974 album—a perfect meshing of porch-swing blues, swamp boogie, and blistering three-guitar rock and roll—could have served as a benchmark for the genre. Finally, say hello to a band that embraces the heart of Second Helping and combines it with the soul of Neil Young's Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere. From Tampa, Fla.—the home of lap dances at six paces, indoor baseball (blasphemy!), and those other Southern rock trendsetters, the Outlaws—come Hangtown, led by singer-songwriter Ted Lukas (formerly of Tampa rockers Barely Pink). The group's second record recalls the country-pop charm of first-album Wilco with tasty guitar chords ࠬa early '70s Skynyrd (see "Twist of Faith") and mid-'80s Silos ("Shoestring Winter"). Though Hangtown's soulful elements of B-3 organ and harmonica complement the modern-country mandolin, pedal steel, and banjo, their true octane comes courtesy of the twin guitars of Lukas and Finn Walling, as in the hook-heavy "Can't Take It Back" and the raucous "Curbside Blues." Lukas' vocals brandish the sweetness of Parsons on a pair of ballads ("Family Name," "Tracing Steps") and on the country shuffle "Through the Fields," while slipping into a Petty-esque delivery on the more rambunctious numbers. On "Pictures," Lukas even evokes Skynyrd's Ronnie Van Zant. Coincidence? Maybe. Still, it's refreshing to hear a band not afraid to bring on the comparisons.
THE KISS OFFS, Rock Bottom (Peek-A-Boo) For all the face-slapping fun that was the Kiss Offs' Goodbye Private Life—1999's vengeful collection of kiss-and-tell-all tall tales—it's disappointing that the follow-up is about as likely to entertain you as it is to turn you on. And frankly, no one's gonna get laid listening to Rock Bottom—which is surprising because ever since the go-go pogo of their first single hit the streets in '97, the Kiss Offs, five Casio-punk coeds out of Austin, Texas, haven't missed a beat till now. It's even more surprising considering that, at least on paper, there's no reason this album shouldn't continue their winning streak: Like the band's best moments, Rock Bottom is full of B-52's-style handclaps and keys, he-said-she-said vox, and trash-talkin' Southern swagger. Despite all the right elements, however, the album still manages to flatline from the get-go. The opening "Let Me Find the Good in You" features a chanted Make-Up mantra that never quite comes together, and the 7-plus minutes of "Pleather Pantz" degenerate into a droning, groaning Tex wreck that goes nowhere not so fast. In the end, Rock Bottom fails because—simply and sadly enough—its eight songs just aren't as interesting as the turned-on libido bravado of the Kiss Offs' past.
STACKPOLE, Stackpole (First World Music) You can't really get further outside than where Stackpole are planted, on a jazz-ragged landscape strewn with scattered shrapnel, clouds of smoke, eerie shrieks after dark. The first, self-titled disc from this quartet of much-feared Seattle improvisers presents eight "fragments" from a live performance on KCMU's Sonarchy radio hour (plus another cut recorded at the ArtsEdge Festival) and shows a band in full control of their chaos. With guitarist Dennis Rea and saxophone veteran Wally Shoup forging a two-pronged overtone assault, Stackpole come on with an aggressive energy that keeps its musical direction even as it busts through every reasonable boundary. A kind of exploded swing emerges on tracks like "The Crocker Land Expedition." Others, like "Polynya," drift through a more lyrical expanse as Rea lays on mysterious harmonics and Shoup makes intimations of flophouse romance. Then "Impasto" turns underground for a nightmare of burrowing machinery. Bassist Geoffrey Harper, who's better known for more straight-ahead efforts, provides an earthy underpinning to the freak-out sessions, while digging into the madness with his bow. Phenomenal drummer Gregg Keplinger rips through the session like a targeted tornado, powering "Krummholz" and most other tracks with an amazing rumble that speaks louder, and with a deeper pulse, than any time. These free-form improvisers may have no idea where they're headed, but they're bloody determined to get there.
—Mark D. Fefer