Friday, May 15, 2015

Like Some Doll You Thought You Could Throw Away, I Found My Legs

So my favorite girl rockers of the past few years broke up after a single LP. Wild Flag called it off in early 2014 because of difficulties getting Carrie Brownstein, Janet Weiss, Mary Timony, and Rebecca Cole in one place to record a follow-up. Am I sad? A little, but I feel a lot better after the end of last year. That's when I discovered that Brownstein and Weiss got in touch with Corin Tucker and got Sleater-Kinney back together, and Timony formed Ex Hex with Laura Harris and Betsy Wright. Better yet, both bands had albums on the way! Now that they've both finally dropped, we're blogging about them today.

A reunion album by the last, best-known, and possibly most accessible band of the riot grrrl movement? Tch-yeah! This one seems to have taken the hipster music world by surprise. No record leak, no buzz or hype, almost no hint that the girls had gotten back together to make new music. So let's see what we got!

What I Liked: 
Okay, it's official. The Sickest Riff Of 2015 Award is quite likely to go to S-K for 'Bury Our Friends'. The song is an epic allusion to their comeback; and a blistering, aggressive piece of punk rock. And the ladies don't stop there - the whole album is a rockfest of dramatic proportions. Tucker and Brownstein haven't lost their ability to wield a hard-hitting guitar sound, backed by Weiss' tight drumming. I like how they can make atonal licks sound so good at times. They write lyrics that make you think, give you something to chew on mentally. 'Price Tag' starts the disc with its theme of overextension - or buyer's remorse, more likely. 'Surface Envy' and 'No Cities To Love' both put a troubled and slightly gloomy verse together with an upbeat chorus, to good effect - the former being the more dualistic of the two. I like the super upbeat and poppy feel of 'A New Wave' - which I could actually see being on the Ex Hex disc reviewed below! It's such an energetic song, with a neat vocal hook (...but a fit would be more FIT-TING! FIT-TING!) that I keep getting stuck in my head. The irony of a true rock anthem being titled 'No Anthems' is not lost on me, but it's a true face-melter, and prepares you for the sinisterly cathartic 'Gimme Love'. My personal favorite from the album is, as you probably guessed, 'Bury Our Friends'. It's just so heavy and makes such an impact when it hits you - and I dare say it blows AC/DC's 'Back In Black' out of the water as a comeback statement! 'Hey Darling' brings the mood up again with a touch of melancholy. If that wasn't in there, it'd just be too sugary. And 'Fade' sends the album out on a big rock ballad sound. It has a very Doors-like or Wish You Were Here-era Pink Floyd quality, somehow. It's spacey and dark and delightfully transcendent. 

What I Didn't Like: 
Y'know, this may be as close to a perfect album as I can think of. Nothing truly offends me, although I can see how their occasional atonal moment might turn off some people. 

An Observation:
I sprang for the deluxe edition of the vinyl, which is pressed in white, has a really nice slipcover and inner package, and a two-song bonus 12". The bonus disc is the songs 'Heavy When I Need It', a sunny ode to adaptability; and 'The Fog And Filthy Air', a spooky, gnarly rocker that sounds just as it's title indicates. 

In Conclusion:
I think I enjoyed this too much. It's one of the best albums of 2015, at least so far. I don't know how this could be topped.

What I Liked:
Side One gave me the impression of a punk cover band for Canned Heat. Every track is so upbeat and sunny - sunny! - that it's got this sunshiney hippie vibe, after a fashion. Much of both sides sound very three-chord caffeinated - there's no lack of energy here. It's largely well-done, simple, stripped-down rock, if not strictly punk. Timony can shred like few I've heard - if all those solos and licks are completely off-the-cuff, I'm impressed, and if they're not, they still sound damn good! The slightly slower 'Waste Your Time' has a nice hook that gets better when the vocals join in on it, and opener 'Don't Wanna Lose' features a delightfully fun chorus. While Side Two slows down at first with the stomptastic 'Hot And Cold' - seriously, the song is all epic, big, meaty 70's hard rock - it's just as good. 'Radio On' is another classic, if comparatively low-key rocker, and 'New Kid' is the closest to punk that the ladies get. It's the only song that I could hear the Ramones cover! Most of the lyrics are pretty clever, if about somewhat pedestrian stuff like parties and overdoing it at same and relationships; but 'Everywhere' seems to hide a transcendent double meaning I haven't deciphered yet. 'Outro' is kind of an opulent almost-arena-rocker with a slow beat leading the album out; I like that it's a little dreamy-sounding. Best Songs: 'Don't Wanna Lose', 'Hot And Cold', and 'Waterfall', although the rest of the album is a great second tier.

What I Didn't Like:
The downside to having the greater part of the album be so upbeat and sunny and fast-paced is that the songs are all very similar. It can be hard to tell some of the lesser material apart in memory. There's a lot of what seems to be riffs all in the same key. Timony wrote much more complex and interesting material, musically speaking, with Wild Flag - where has that gone? Next album please, Mary? The lyrics, like I said earlier, could also use a little more depth, but I consider that a nitpick.

In Conclusion:
While I still think Mary Timony had a sonically better deal in Wild Flag, Ex Hex promises to be an awesome act, and I hope they can stay together for even just a little longer than Wild Flag. This has proven to be an eye-opening debut and an unabashedly good rock album.

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

There's Not A Hell Of A Lot You Can Do, It's Lights Out For You

Just before I started my week-long break from work, I dreamt of a power outage there. The worst part is that it was as complete darkness as could be without being completely unrecognizable. As though I could see five feet in front of me in black-and-dark-gray, and the rest was a vast bubble of nothingness. No emergency lights, no natural light from the skylights, no smartphone screens used as flashlights. Just oppressive, inky blackness and a mind-numbing panic.

Am I being sent a message?

Saturday, May 9, 2015

You Can Fly Anything Right

Ray is a friend of mine. He's also a pilot. I've wanted to get some photos from the air of western Pennsylvania, and he's been dying to go flying. So when the opportunity to go this past Friday came, I jumped at the chance and we went up for a really nice flight. We ended up delayed and the air was more turbulent as a result, but I still think everything went well. Below are the awesome results. 

Taking off!

Hey, there's Lernerville Raceway. 

This is a really nice shot of Freeport, with the Route 356 bridge in the background, the Norfolk Southern bridge over the Allegheny River near the center, and the Kiski Junction's bridge over the Kiskiminetas in the lower right corner. 

Here's Leechburg, and across the Kiski is West Leechburg. Both the highway bridge and the footbridge can be seen clearly. 

We flew as far as Avonmore - here's a good shot of the town with the National Roll aluminum mill quite prominent. The railroad bridge at bottom center is one I didn't even know existed. Unfortunately, it's rather inaccessible.

Here's an empty Shelocta coal train waiting to head back to the mines on the recently-constructed branch line. 

A few minutes later, we happened to see this loaded coal train headed east towards the Conemaugh Dam. A large portion of the railroad line was relocated in the 1960's to accommodate the higher waters east of the dam. 

Shot of the day! We had to circle about four times waiting for the train to cross the bridge, but for this, it was worth it. The stone arch bridge beneath the newer railroad bridge is on the line's old alignment which is now a bike trail. 

Heading back, we passed the mothballed West Leechburg plant, once operated by Allegheny Ludlum. 

By contrast, the Baghdad plant still operates - as a matter of fact, we happened to catch Kiski Junction using their new switcher locomotive to work the plant. It's the red object at the center of the photo. 

The last major photo I took was of Schenley. The KJR bridge over the Kiski is at bottom, Lock and Dam No. 5 is at left,  and prominent in the photo are two of the last buildings from the whiskey distillery that once operated here. 

Our intrepid pilot.
Thanks, Ray!