Can I drive you home?

Engine Kid are interesting to me by virtue of the fact that people pass them over so completely. Considering singer/guitarist Greg Anderson's formidable stoner-rock resume--he's been in Goatsnake, Sunn 0))), and Thorr's Hammer, among quite a few others--you'd think that people would be interested in checking out his earlier bands, especially when they are as musically interesting and tough to pin down as Engine Kid were. Maybe that's the whole problem; unlike anything Anderson is involved in currently, Engine Kid were by no means stoner rock. In fact, though they spent a good bit of time being heavy, their sound was kind of all over the place, as we will discuss shortly. They're a bit of an acquired taste, and that's probably true even for those whose tastes are esoteric enough to draw them to Sunn 0))). Despite all of that, I generally think of Engine Kid as the best band Greg Anderson has ever been a part of. And their final, double-length LP, Angel Wings, is their true masterpiece.

For whatever reason, the vinyl version of Angel Wings features a very different running order than the cassette and CD versions. The tendency among collectors is always to regard the vinyl version as the definitive one, and any deviation from the state of the vinyl to be ersatz. I have this tendency myself, but this once I'm going to go against my usual feeling and take a stand for the cassette/CD running order as the correct one. It might help that I owned the cassette first, and therefore had a chance to get used to it, but I feel sure that even if I'd first acquired the vinyl, I would have understood that the order that placed "Windshield" as the album's opening track is the superior one.

Engine Kid spend a lot of time on Angel Wings being heavy, in intricate and fascinating ways. However, "Windshield" is quite different from anything else here, and plays a somewhat cruel trick on the listener and his/her expectations. It starts out very quietly, with guitar and bass playing a soft, undistorted melody, over which Anderson sings. "In the back of my car, I spent the night," he tells us, and the extreme quiet of the music mirrors the feeling of a groggy early morning, waking up to rays of sunshine in your eyes. He ends the verse by singing, "Sunshine stung my eyes, coming through the windshield," and then the drums come in, slightly increasing the volume of the track as they play along with the guitars and bass. After a brief instrumental passage, there's another quiet verse, and when this one ends, the volume suddenly increases. It's not just that all of the musicians start playing loudly--Anderson singing overtop of the music about being "wakened by a passing train"--but that the track was mixed to get significantly louder at this point. You've been turning up your stereo to hear the quiet verses, and now you get knocked over by a sudden, seemingly intentional volume increase. As soon as it's started, though, the whole loud chorus stops, and there's the briefest second of silence, after which the guitar and bass start playing quietly again. There's one more brief quiet verse, but as soon as you've adjusted to the volume dropping out, it comes back in, even louder and heavier than before. Musically speaking, the band is now playing with about the volume, distortion and heaviness they will use throughout the album, but with Anderson singing rather than screaming overtop of it, repeating, "Can I drive you home?" over and over, the part doesn't sound heavy but rather emotionally intense, with the loud guitars emphasizing the pleading emotional tone of the vocals. It's almost like something Sunny Day Real Estate would do, and I'm sure it's a total surprise to someone who would buy this record expecting stoner rock. At least when it begins the album, it fits as a sort of introduction, bringing you in slowly rather than flinging you right off the deep end. Placed inbetween two other songs on the record, as it is on the vinyl, I'm sure the contrast is even more jarring.

The next nine songs are more in line with the typical Engine Kid sound, which is somewhere between Black Sabbath, Don Caballero, and Rodan. There's still plenty of space for exploration within that sound, though, and the gamut of tracks on Angel Wings makes that abundantly clear. Engine Kid shift from short, heavy instrumental tracks like "Nailgun," "Herbie Hancock," and "A Quinn Martin Production" (the latter of which is an unlisted hidden track on the cassette and CD, and only given a title on the vinyl); to epic explorations that move through multiple moods and time signatures and often stretch to 7 and 8 minute lengths. "Lies Like Knives" is one of these latter epics, and is a dark, ferocious beast with the power of a nighttime electrical storm. As the rhythm section switches between different pounding breakdown riffs, Greg Anderson screams the song's title over and over, wrenching brutal chugging chord sequences from his guitar, which sometimes sounds like a churning piece of heavy machinery and other times falls apart into feedback. This song is probably heavier than anything I've heard on a Goatsnake record, and approaches Sunn 0))) territory at its wildest.

"Expressionists" starts with a strange sequence of riffs that stop and start, propelled by a drum part that fills the empty spaces with rolls that seem unplanned and barely held together, but always fit perfectly into the underlying rhythm. Said underlying rhythm becomes clear after about 45 seconds, when the band finally starts playing together as a unit, with bassist Brian Kraft taking his only lead vocal on the album. His voice is much softer and quieter than Anderson's typically is, but doesn't reach the melodic heights Anderson hits on "Windshield," either. His vocals mix with the chaotic music in a fashion most reminiscent of intricate hardcore bands like Unwound or Drive Like Jehu, a sound that was at its peak in 1994, when Angel Wings was recorded.

"Jumper Cables" is another song that is less heavy than mathematically complex, beginning with a long, ominous section in which Greg Anderson talks rather than sings, narrating a story in the fashion of Slint vocalist Brian MacMahan before beginning to scream when the song gets much heavier around the two-minute mark. Its abrupt transitions from loud to quiet are nothing new for heavy, metallic post-hardcore bands, but the way Engine Kid fit the parts of "Jumper Cables" together makes the whole thing work, achieving the integration of Slint and Rodan's epic horror movie narratives and the pounding, noisy crescendoes that those bands rarely bothered to write.

"Anchor" begins with bagpipes, which soon give way to another quiet, foreboding riff, over which Anderson mumbles bizarre, disconnected imagery. Once this song gets heavy, though, it very rarely returns to the quiet moments, instead locking into a tremendously complicated series of interconnected heavy riffs that fit together in ways not immediately obvious to the listener. This is pure math-rock at its heaviest, with Engine Kid using stops and starts to make the whole thing that much more tortured. By halfway through the song, Greg Anderson is struggling to spit out lyrics like "Dog brain--take the A train," as the instruments--including, one must assume, his own--bark out disconnected chords, chopping his lyrics apart at seemingly random but obviously planned-out intervals. Each of these choppy verses ends with Anderson screaming over silence, "...and never come..." On the word "BACK!" the whole band is suddenly playing again, sweeping his vocals away on a powerful tide of heavy noise.

The album ends with a 13 minute cover of John Coltrane's "Ole," which is the spiritual opposite of its opening track, "Windshield." Where that song was Engine Kid at their most accessible, presenting a melodic, emotional indie rock song not that far removed from the sound of, say, Sunny Day Real Estate [Random trivia: Greg Anderson and SDRE bassist Nate Mendel were both in a straight edge hardcore band called Brotherhood in the late 80s, when both were teenagers], "Ole" is Engine Kid at their farthest out, taking their mathematically inclined metallic post-hardcore aesthetic to its logical conclusion: dark, pounding, free jazz. Earlier in 1994, Engine Kid had released a split LP with Iceburn, and Iceburn's contribution had been two 15-minute tracks in which they explored different variations on a theme from Stravinsky's "The Rite Of Spring." While Engine Kid were not anywhere near as far-out as Iceburn tended to get, it's not hard to imagine how hearing those Iceburn tracks might have influenced the decision to record "Ole." The trio of full-time Engine Kid members basically relegate themselves to the rhythm section during the song, bringing in Bill Herzog [still a Sunn 0))) collaborator] to hold down the groove on upright bass, and John Phelps and Tim Midgett of the band Silkworm to play alto sax and trumpet, respectively. Phelps and Midgett are all over the place, soloing throughout the track, but they are strangely sidelined by Engine Kid themselves, who stick to the basic chords of the song but slowly play them more and more heavily, until their rhythmic pounding has made you forget all about the horns. Using distortion pedals and the unrelenting style that they've learned from hardcore and metal, they create a powerful rhythmic pulse of a variety rarely, if ever, heard in straight-up jazz music. They don't turn "Ole" into a hardcore or metal song, though; they preserve the feel and structure of the Coltrane original, honoring it with a new, updated take on it even as they make clear, by virtue of the energy and emotion they pour into it, how much respect they have for the original version. It could be said that they breathe some much-needed life into a mostly dead genre here. That is, one could say that if it were clear that it had an effect on jazz as a whole. Fifteen years after its release, just the opposite is true: it's clear that it had no effect at all.

Engine Kid are a band of extreme shifts in genre, mood, and tempo, and no matter what feel they are exploring on a particular song, they always create a challenging piece of music. Considering Greg Anderson's more recent rise to fame, perhaps it would be most correct to say that Engine Kid were ahead of their time. Or maybe the problem is that they haven't been packaged correctly, or put in front of the right group of people, to find their natural audience. Whatever the explanation, though, it remains true to say that Engine Kid deserve much more credit than they get, if not for being influential, then at least for being a creative and consistently excellent band.

Engine Kid - "Windshield," "Anchor," "Expressionists"

ENGINE KID - "Windshield" from Revelation Records on Vimeo.



Nick And Norah's Mediocre Playlist.

I think it was with "Nick And Norah's Infinite Playlist" that the prevailing tide of opinion, at least in indie and alt-rock circles, turned against Michael Cera. Sure, there had been some complaints about his characters in "Superbad" and "Juno," that he was just recycling Arrested Development's George Michael character over and over. But you could still find some people to defend both of those movies, and plenty of people willing to defend the earlier "Garden State," in which the Michael Cera role is played by proto-Michael Cera Zach Braff. "Nick And Norah's Infinite Playlist," though, was greeted with derision in every place I read or heard people talking about it. Maybe the film found its audience in a younger cross-section of wide-eyed teenagers, or maybe it was just a flop; I haven't seen the numbers, so I don't know. But in the demographic group that was its target market, it seemed to be universally hated.

I didn't rush out and see it, so I didn't know the exact reason for all the hatred. But I could make an educated guess. These kind of accelerated nostalgia movies have been pretty popular lately, and the thing they do--selling a romanticized portrayal of who you are right now back to you--is a risky move. It's easy to go too precious (or maybe too silly) and make everyone want to barf ("Juno"'s mistake according to those who didn't like it). It's easy to go too mawkish and make everyone hate themselves for seeing themselves in the characters ("Garden State"'s tragic error). Walking the tightrope between the two, striking the right notes without overdoing it, is tough, and it doesn't seem like anyone from the indie-rock generation has quite done it yet.

The accusation I heard about "Nick And Norah" was that the characters were such dorky, wussy little indie rockers that everyone watching the film just wanted to shake them. Particularly Michael Cera--I kept hearing about how his character needed to "man up." Maybe this was what activated the masochistic streak in my brain, or maybe it was just that I had to see what it was about this movie that made everyone who saw it hate it so much. Regardless, the more I heard bad things about this movie, the more curious about it I got.

I wasn't going to go out of my way to see it, but I'm unemployed right now, and my Netflix account is still working, so I took advantage of the Watch Instantly feature and booted it up on my laptop tonight. And I was expecting downright horrible trash, which is probably why I found myself at least somewhat pleasantly surprised. It's really rare that movies, or any works of art, that people condemn as godawful are actually as bad as everyone says. Usually they're only mediocre, and when you're expecting awfulness, mediocrity can be a pleasant surprise. I'm not saying "Nick And Norah" was mediocre either, by the way. I didn't love it, or even like it all the way through, but my analysis of it is more complicated than that.

Let me warn you right off that I'm going to get spoilerific from here on in; I really have to if I want to make my points. There are a few twists in the movie's plot that I'm glad I didn't know about in advance, so if you want to watch this movie at some point, you might want to skip this review until you've done so.

OK, now that that's out of the way: "Nick And Norah's Infinite Playlist" begins with separate introductions to our two titular characters. Nick (Michael Cera) plays in a band, currently called the Jerkoffs, in which he is the only non-gay member. He's been broken up with his last girlfriend for over a month and is still desperately pining for her. The ex-girlfriend, Tris, goes to school with Norah, and Norah has developed the habit of grabbing the mix CDs Nick makes for Tris out of the trash when Tris throws them away. This has made her curious about Nick, whose musical taste she really likes.

That evening, Nick's band has a gig opening for Bishop Allen. This is where my first big problem with this movie comes in. The setup for Nick, Nick's band, Norah, Norah's drunken best friend Caroline, and Tris to all end up at the club together is that the enigmatic but popular local band Where's Fluffy are playing a secret show somewhere in town that night, and they're all looking for the gig's location. The Where's Fluffy plot thread runs throughout the movie, and it's totally lame. This is supposed to be a somewhat realistic movie about indie kids, right? I guess that's questionable, since about 25% of it deviates dramatically from that template, but whatever, that's what it is most of the time. The Where's Fluffy thing, though, is a plot device out of some completely unrealistic 80s movie. It makes me think of "Empire Records" or "Ferris Bueller's Day Off," and as much as I love both of those movies, "Nick And Norah" sets itself up as a different sort of movie, and the sort of plot threads that work well in 80s movies just seem unnatural and shoehorned in.

But whatever, everyone's at the club together, Norah and Nick meet and hit it off, and Tris gets jealous (even though she's there with a new boyfriend). This sets up the intrinsic conflict of the entire movie--the decision to move towards a new and interesting but uncertain possibility, or to try and stick with a previous love interest for a while longer even though it's not really working out. I think this is a great idea around which to structure a movie about teenagers/early-twentysomethings, and a lot of the things that happen in "Nick and Norah" could have happened in a really great movie about this exact concept. The problem here is that the execution is all wrong. I find myself liking most of the characters in the movie--though, truth to tell, Nick's passivity is a bit problematic and probably explains a lot of the grief Michael Cera got about this movie. I can't deny that the frustratingly weak-willed indie boy stereotype has a grain of truth in it, and even that some of the passive things Nick does in the movie ring true (though others definitely don't), but it's a frustrating experience to watch it go down. In a way, I feel like there's a perverse streak running through "Nick And Norah"; like the writers and director intended to create a certain amount of frustration with the characters in their audience. There's a lot more honesty in watching Nick and Norah be passive, refuse to take risks and act on their feelings, and visibly give up (as both characters do multiple times over the course of the movie) than there is in typical romantic comedies, where characters say and do the things that you only wish you would say or do in the same situations.

Again, the problem is execution. Every tiny little moment in which this movie extracts a grain of uncomfortable truth from a human interaction is immediately overwhelmed by half a dozen awkward, overdone bits that all pile overtop of the honest moment and drown it out. Sometimes this happens due to the filmmakers' attempts to throw jokes and comic relief into the film, which never works, and sometimes it's because they force some indie cliche or another and just end up with yet another out-of-place "Empire Records" moment. By the way, I was uncomfortable with how little distinction there seemed to be between the indie scene that was being portrayed and the totally mainstream attitudes and behaviors of many of the characters. I admit that I might just be showing my age, because it does seem like the indie scene circa 2009 is a lot more business-oriented and mainstream than it was when I first got involved. My feeling, though, was that the filmmakers got it wrong, and that made it hard for me to suspend my disbelief at points.

Things started to improve over the last quarter or so of the movie. There was about a 20 minute period in which Nick and Norah interacted by themselves instead of in a crowd, and for the first time in the entire movie, I got drawn in. I stopped wondering when the next stupid thing that would strain my suspension of disbelief was going to happen, and instead found myself caring about and relating to the characters. If the whole movie had been as well-done as this section was, it would have been quite good. Even this section was sort of invaded by the movie's regular detours into corniness, though. There was some sexual contact between Nick and Norah, and while I appreciated the directorial decision to focus on the musical equipment in the room rather than showing the sex scene, there were still hints back to obnoxious earlier dialogue about Norah's never having had an orgasm, which tarnished the scene a bit.

Based on talk I heard before seeing the movie, I had expected the whole thing to end without Nick and Norah getting together, and for the lack of connection between the two of them to be specifically Michael Cera's fault. There were points where it seemed like that's where things were going, and I wasn't happy about that, but in the end, Nick and Norah did hook up, and it seemed like the characters would start dating. Both of them took the risk and ditched their not-quite-exes, rather than staying locked into the cycle of someone not liking them but not wanting them to move on, either. Falling into that cycle is a common problem, more common than people like to admit, and it's good to see a movie at least trying to tackle these issues. A different movie, a better movie, would have done so a lot more successfully than "Nick And Norah's Infinite Playlist" did. As it is, "Nick And Norah" is a film in which two likeable characters, both of whom are uncomfortably lifelike at times, do their best to wade through a surfeit of implausible plot points. Their success is intermittent, at best. The same could be said for the entire movie.



The nuggets of the future?

I've got a new car, for the first time in almost a year. It's been a strange adjustment, because only now, after having it for a few weeks, am I starting to realize that I can go to places in 5 minutes that took me half an hour to reach on my bike, which makes me a lot more likely to actually go to those places. As a result of that realization, tonight I decided to go to Sheetz and score some food from the automated touch-screen menu thing, which I love.

Here's what this post has to do with music: I have a cassette player in my car. When I say it's new, I really just mean it's new to me--it's from 1996, a year back when it didn't yet seem that weird to put a cassette player in a car. These days I imagine that most of the ones that are still in use are just being used to run adapters plugged into Ipods, but I'm old enough and enough of a packrat that I still have the huge collection of cassettes that I built up starting in my childhood (the mid-80s) and continuing until about 2005, when even used cassettes started disappearing from record stores. Since I got this car less than two weeks before becoming unemployed, I couldn't spare the cash to buy an adapter for my Ipod, so right now I'm driving around listening to tapes. These days I mostly listen to music on my computer (for better or for worse), so a lot of the tapes I've pulled out in the last couple of weeks for driving music are things I haven't heard in years.

Tonight I was listening to a mix tape I made in 2003 or thereabouts, close to the end of the era in which I listened to cassettes on the regular. I was just starting to burn CDs regularly, and when I got a car in spring 2004 that had a CD player in it, I started listening to those burned CDs whenever I was away from my computer. My walkman started gathering dust, as did my cassette collection in general. The mix tape I was listening to tonight might be the last mix tape I ever made, and if it's not, it's close to it. Anyway, I was listening to the tape in the dark, and couldn't really check the tracklist, so it was fun trying to figure out what I was hearing as each new song came on. Some of them were immediately recognizable tunes that I still listen to today, but others were things I hadn't heard since not long after making the tape. The track listing spoke well for my tastes six years ago, because none of the songs I'd forgotten about made me think, "What was I thinking with this song?" Instead I kept thinking, "I forgot how good this song was!"

The song that blew my mind the most tonight was one I heard as I was getting home. I recognized it immediately despite having not heard it in years, because it was very distinctive. The song was "Til The End" by Haven, from their album "Between The Senses." I'd bought this album from Tower Records, back when they were still around. I used to like going into Tower and listening to all of the CDs they had on the listening stations. They used to have one particular listening station that was all CDs priced at $9.99 or less, and I found a lot of awesome albums by random bands that I'd never heard of on that station. Haven came from there, but so did the first Ours album, The Coral's "The Invisible Invasion," and "Interventions And Lullabies" by The Format. Some of these are still remembered now, but that Haven CD isn't one of them. It may have been issued by a major label, but it wasn't a success, even on a cult level. The band released one more album on their British label, which wasn't picked up in America, and then broke up. Their website is a dead link these days, and as I listened to "Til The End," I had the passing thought that I'm probably the only person who still remembers it.

That's when I had the epiphany that I referenced in the title. On some level, I thought, isn't Haven comparable to the bands that took part in the garage/psych explosion of the 60s? Haven's sound mixes the leftovers of 90s alternative rock with a strong shoegaze influence and a wide-ranging vocalist who obviously took some cues from Jeff Buckley. In the wake of the success of bands like Coldplay and Travis, a lot of bands that sounded exactly like this were probably getting signed. Ours, who I mentioned earlier, were along the same lines, though with more of a Smashing Pumpkins influence. There are plenty of others I could cite, too, going back to the post-Nirvana grunge gold rush and moving forward up to right now, with the current attempt to find the new My Chemical Romance and Fall Out Boy in full swing. A lot of these bands are completely forgotten within 5 to 10 years of their first release, and while many of them make albums that are inconsistent at best, most of them will have at least one really good song buried somewhere in their discography.

Take Haven, for example. "Til The End" is the third track on "Between The Senses," and other than the opener, "Let It Live," it's the only track that really stands out. If I'd chosen to listen to tracks 5 and 7 instead of tracks 1 and 3 when this CD was on Tower's listening station, I probably wouldn't have bought it. But considering the joy I still get out of "Til The End," I feel like it was a worthwhile purchase. The song starts with a quiet single-note guitar intro, over which vocalist Gary Briggs croons the first verse. The lyrics aren't too great, and he mostly repeats the same verse and chorus throughout the song, but when the rest of the band joins with the lead guitar halfway through the verse, the mixture of the simple minor-chord riffing with the melodic lead guitar and Briggs's high, crooning vocals creates an understated yet catchy feel. As the song moves into its pre-chorus, the drums become more powerful, and push things towards a stronger, more driving chorus. However, Gary Briggs never sings any more forcefully. Instead, he goes higher, adding to the passion of the chorus by hitting surprising soprano notes. My favorite part of the entire song is when, on the chorus, he sings the line "Lately I'm sure, words won't implore you to stay," emphasizing the internal rhyme on the words "sure" and "implore" by hitting an impossibly high falsetto note on the first word, then moving to an even higher harmony on the second word. These kinds of vocal tricks won't be for everyone--if you can't handle a bit of fey grandiosity, you're better off with a Husker Du record--but if you can get on their wavelength, Haven have a lot to offer. At least on this song.

And that's the kind of story that I've discovered most of the time when I've gone digging deeper into the careers of garage/psych bands from the 60s who have one or two songs that I fucking love. Take the Count Five, for example, whose "Psychotic Reaction" is one of the most famous Nuggets of all time. Lester Bangs, in his "Psychotic Reactions And Carburetor Dung" essay, promised me an entire album of garage awesomeness where that first single came from, but when I hunted down the Count Five's other recorded work, I mostly got embarrassingly inept crap (though I will give credit to "Double Decker Bus"). I should have known not to trust Bangs on this one, though, considering that the rest of the essay discussed four other Count Five albums that unfortunately never existed. Anyway, the point is that, like Haven, Count Five's career didn't have much depth to it. They're remembered for one song, and that's probably all they should be remembered for. So who's to say that, in 20 more years or so, there won't be a similar movement to preserve fondly the memories of all the lesser alt/pop/rock bands from our own time? I sure hope there is, at least. I'd love to hear a four-CD box set of post-grunge pseudo-Jeff Buckley shoegazers, each playing their one good song. Of course, by the time all of this happens, the box set won't be CD, but whatever format comes two steps after blu-ray, and I'll be experiencing a four-dimensional virtual reality immersion that makes me feel like I'm playing bass for whatever band I'm listening to. Which sounds pretty cool, come to think of it.

Haven - "Til The End" and "Let It Live"