As contemporary music has become more and more commercialized and sanitized, the pendulum was bound to eventually swing the other way.
It’s no wonder that straightforward, unadorned string bands and loose-hipped rock bands are starting to worm their way back into the public
consciousness. There seems to be an instinctual desire, at least in some folks, for music to sound like it was made by humans – as imperfect as humans tend to be.
Nuclear Bootz was already there a decade ago, perfecting the art of sounding imperfect.
They’ve also got a way of reminding people that music needn’t be particularly serious. Sometimes, loud, silly, and obnoxious is damn charming.
On their third full-length, “Green Velvet” – which they’ll celebrate with a show at Sun Tiki on Dec. 22 – there is a song called “Steven” with a chorus that goes: “Got a friend named Steven/Steven, Steven, Steven, Steven,” pairing a Screaming Trees repeating guitar lick with an AC/DC
solo. The lurching “TP Blues” is literally about not being friends with someone because they keep using up all the toilet paper. The closing “Zep Tune,” which doesn’t sound particularly like a Led Zeppelin tune, features lead singer Zeke Comparetto (brother Miles used to play bass, now it’s Justin Gerard) repeatedly yelling, “I hate your face.”
Part of their appeal comes from their clear adoration for classic punk.
There are echoes of Joey Ramone’s love of melody in the delightful “Cheeseburger Girl,” which also features a truly shambolic mid-song breakdown by drummer Bruce Merson that may or may not have been a
mistake they just kept anyway. Sometimes, when they’re sounding like the Clash, you could swear Zeke is doing an English accent. “Never Change” has that surf punk vibe in the guitar, like the Cramps.
If you’ve had a punk stage, the whole record is warmly familiar, especially if you also had a DIY hardcore stage, as Zeke will move into screamo from time to time, as on “Between the Sheets,” where there is a mid-song segue so the band can feature – I think – a monologue from Merson
about how the moon cycle can make people horny. There are crows squawking, and some mumbling, but that seems to be the gist. Because why not?
Maybe my favorite track is “Waterfall,” which opens – naturally – with the sound of flowing water and then moves into a warbling pop rock song, which sort of seems to be trolling Oasis. Which I heartily endorse. There’s a background synth to cheese it up and an anthemic chorus to sing along with.
Because sing along you must. It’s too fun not to. And sometimes that’s plenty.
Sam Pfeifle can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Heart of a Dragon
Travis Cyr releases another beautiful little thing
One of the things peculiar to Maine is that we are somehow more likely to pay attention to something happening in Caribou than something happening in Boston, despite the former being roughly three hours farther away by car. Maine, as an identity, has a powerful gravity.
But something else explains the fact that some of Portland’s most popular musicians – Luke Mallett of the Mallett Brothers Band, Dan Capaldi and his Sea Level project, Dominic Lavoie – will play a gig New Year’s Eve not at one of Portland’s many venues, but rather at Eureka Hall in at town called Stockholm, not far (naturally) from New Sweden, 300 miles to the north.
Travis Cyr has a gravity all his own, built on relentless playing across the state, a genuine and quiet charisma and kindness, and a string of nine heart-felt and elegantly executed albums. How else to explain how he’s gotten scores of Portland bands (and beyond) to travel each summer up to New Sweden for his Arootsakoustic Festival, where there sometimes seems to be as many musicians as attendees?
His latest release, “Dragon Heart Blues,” dropped just before Thanksgiving, a five-song EP of rambling indie rock tunes posing as folk songs. They stretch and meander, generally devoid of choruses, sometimes turning back upon themselves for emphasis.
The opening “Diplomat” employs a trope that used to be much more popular, entering with a wisp of wind blowing across a barren landscape, light vocals over a fingerstyle acoustic guitar, before ramping up to a full-band feel a full three minutes in, with drums (Mike Chasse) and electric guitar from Lavoie, who also engineered the record at his Shabbey Load studio. Nowadays, everyone is encouraged to set the hook in the first 20 seconds, or get skipped on Spotify, but Cyr ain’t on Spotify and never feels like he’s trying to be contemporary or keep up with anyone.
“I remember Cleopatra,” he offers. “She had the whole world in her hands.” And then Frank Hopkins swells in with a flugelhorn.
There’s a bit of the world-weariness of Magnolia Electric Company throughout – “Yeah, I’m bleeding out/ Won’t you pass me my whiskey/ Grab the gun up off the shelf?” – but Cyr is largely more metaphorical and ethereal. And where Jason Molina could get boozy and melancholy, Cyr is muscular and crisp with his fingerpicking and delivery. You can always make out every note, every word, and they’re worth listening to for their wit and connectivity, but it never comes across as put-on poetry or peacockery.
“Anthracite” – the most energy dense coal (who knew?) – features any number of great couplets, but ultimately rests on a simple dilemma: “Maybe you’ll die from a broken heart/Maybe so, maybe not.” With a touch of Hopkins piano in the backing, the question is almost whimsical. As is the up-beat “Great Big Beautiful Thing,” with a shuffling backbeat, electric guitar, and some distortion on the vocals to add some grit. “Gonna build up a great big beautiful thing,” he repeats in the finish, like he’s trying to convince himself.
Ultimately, the songs rest on a push and pull of optimism and despair, but the closing lets us know that, for Cyr, hope wins out in the end. “We Will Remain” is ghostly in its prettiness, a church choir, “true to faith, and full of grace.”
Like the rest of the album, it’s over far too quickly.
See Cyr, with his band ThunderHeart Lion, plus Curtis Russet, Steve Hartley, Luke Mallett, Dominic Lavoie, and Dan Capaldi, at Eureka Hall, in Stockholm, Dec. 31.
— Sam Pfeifle