Independent Clauses | n. —unusual words about underappreciated music

Dumpster Diving with A Billion Ernies

July 16, 2009

Dumpster Generation by A Billion Ernies is a hard-hitting album that rarely lets up from start to finish. If you’re not familiar with the band, their sound is a mix of ska and hard rock. Think Emery or Chevelle meets Streetlight Manifesto. It’s standard rock instrumentation, plus trumpet, trombone, and a vocalist prone to bouts of screaming. A Billion Ernies maintain a relatively raw sound – not quite garage rock, but not all that far from it, either.

The album opens with “Two Kings” and “Used Up.” They’re actually a little softer than other songs on the album, with more of an emphasis on the ska influence. “Two Kings” is a little heavy on the bass, and almost anthemic at points, then transitions into a much harder rock tonality about 2:00 in. “Used Up” has a little more of the same, with powerful vocals and backup vocal hits. There’s a driving, upbeat tempo, with periodic screaming and brass (trumpet and trombone, if you’re curious; typical ska instrumentation, though I definitely hear saxophone as well, which is a little less common).

Also good are “The Existentialist’s Apprentice” and “Idea12,” which display a broader range and more versatility than other songs on the album. “The Existentialist’s Apprentice” starts off with a cool guitar lick and drums; it’s less metal or hard rock and more light ska. That’s all relative, of course – everything on the album is harder than most ska groups, like Streetlight Manifesto or Suburban Legends. “Idea12” has a cool beginning with some Latin influence. Lyrics start with, “Another day / another dollar / another eight hours of feeling used/ This is not where I’m supposed to be” and add great tone. This is one of the better examples of their sound, with broad style and energy that varies from a quiet opening to a loud, bombastic chorus, with great use of all of their instrumentation. At around 2:00, it breaks down into hard rock that’s strangely reminiscent of early Blindside (certainly not a bad thing to remind me of).

Unfortunately, A Billion Ernies sometimes goes a bit far into the hard rock territory, losing the ska edge that makes their sound unique. Songs like “Point-Click” default to generic hard rock and screamo, which I found a little disappointing. It feels more like rock that just happens to have a few brass musicians hanging around. The album also drooped a little at the end, with songs like “Athiest” and “Addict” failing to impress me. It is worth noting that it ends on a positive note; “Thanks” is an acoustic piece, borderline singer-songwriter business. It’s got a very raw, back-room unpolished feel to it, with strong lyrics that proclaim, “Count your blessings / You’re still alive, who knows / Your mother could have killed you / Before you arrived / What a world.” I found it an interesting and welcome way to end the album.

Dumpster Generation is a solid release, though not everyone will find it appealing – hard ska-rock is definitely a niche genre. I found much of it to be enjoyable, but a wider range and more exploration of alternative sounds would have been welcome. Too often a song would devolve into mindless screaming. I’m all for hard stuff, but without reason it becomes a little self-indulgent.

I realize this is all a little muddled. Frankly, that’s because I’ve got mixed feelings. Consider this a “yes, but…” recommendation. It’s a good album, but I would like to see more variation and innovation from A Billion Ernies in the future.

This Fair City decided to throw a viola into the power-pop blender

April 1, 2009

What happens when pop-rock in the heritage of Sunny Day Real Estate collides with an oft-haunting viola? Portland-based This Fair City is one place to begin looking for an answer. The edge of their sound falters between hard and soft, as a large part of their sound plays off contrasting elements: clean guitar obligattos versus thickly distorted power chords; lower-register sneers versus long-drawn falsetto; electric instruments versus a stray chamber orchestra voice. That is not to say that those pairs are irreconcilable, and thus the question becomes, “Can This Fair City pull that off?” At times, yes, they do. Although at other times, potential overshadows execution.

The opening track, “what comes our way,” opens with a dark, legato viola line from Brandi “Charlotte” Grahek, followed by tight, melodic interaction between two guitars–a la Emery–to add texture. Jason Charles Franklin’s vocals choose a surprising moment in which to quietly enter, giving a first taste of the intriguing interplay between viola and vocals that inhabits the rest of the album. One wonders exactly who the primary melodic voice is. Such contrasts in timbre between the traditional rock instruments and the viola weaves the entire album together. The effect rewards attentive listening, as the conflict and ambiguity between voices enhances the listening experience.

The most impressive element of the opening track is its density: for better or worse, each instrument is heavily involved in the piece. Franklin’s scream (he averages about one per song) near the end of the piece sounds slightly too forced and, at worst, dishonest, as can some of his lyrics. Franklin’s upper register, to which he easily ascends, resounds with varieties of emotional texture. His falsetto, of which he is in superb control, is incredibly impressive and moving. The piece finishes with a net gain in energy. What comes the listener’s way in the opening track is an honest preview of the general “sound” of This Fair City.

The next track–“tonight we’re running back”–follows right on the heels of its precedent, but brings us starkly (and effectively) down into a mellow mood. Here, This Fair City exhibits its penchant for creating moments of complex texture, interweaving multiple guitar lines (played by Franklin and Travis Schultz), viola obligattos, and vocal harmonies while the rhythm section provides a dependable point of reference. (See also the bridge and last ninety seconds of “thank you mr. king,” the rhythm section on “always,” and the layering of instruments that begins “associated press.”)

Stephen Burnett plays a richly solid bass guitar throughout the album. He avoids the common problems of rock bassists and excels at playing primarily rhythmic bass lines without being overbearing and, what is more, without sacrificing tonality and expression. His rhythmic partner, drummer Robin Marshall, exhibits consistency. Yet at times that consistency and reliability bleeds into repetition and an over-reliance on particular patterns and fills. However, Marshall’s playing is nothing short of tasteful on “associated press” and what I consider to be their best composition, the closing track, “in transit.”

Their last presentation to the listener exceeds the rest. “in transit” departs from the standard verse/chorus structure and the composition shows that, although This Fair City can hammer out measures in distorted and energetic unison, the band has an awareness of the power of nuance. A pluralism of voices slides deftly in and out of perception. The members draw a wide variety of tones and moods from their instruments, challenging the straightforwardness of previous tracks. The mood of the piece is at once impenetrable and self-evident. It moves fluently within its subdued nature. The title is apt; the song feels transitive. In fact, “in transit” is a fitting metonymy for This Fair City: it goes places, but is fittingly cyclical…and the viola gets the final word. –Max Thorn

Stephen Carradini and friends write reviews of bands that are trying to make the next step in their careers.

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