Michael Haaga
ieo! records

It would have been easier to write this review a month ago, right after listening to the record the first 17 times. Thirty spins later the effort is complicated by abject fandom.

It’s just big smart rock. Not brainiac stuff, just great melodies, tight arrangements, bold dynamics, compelling lyrics, crack backup, rock-god-caliber vocals and an uninterrupted flow of 11 progressively indelible rock songs that aren’t scared of sounding like anything.

Bits sound like Elliot Smith and bits sound like Stone Temple Pilots and bits sound like Elvis Costello fronting Def Leppard and other bits sound like James Hetfield if Metallica were just Tori Amos. There’s a little Jonathan Richman in there; Beatles and Pink Floyd and XTC in a single serving—always a neat trick. And if you like(ed) Pearl Jam for Mike McCready’s big rock guitar heroics, you won’t walk away from Haaga unhappy; you won’t walk away at all.

The reference-pointing sounds scattered. The record doesn’t. It sounds like Michael Haaga—you just haven’t heard him before.

This oughta be mainstream rock. It probably isn’t anymore, but I’d buy an adult diaper from a Big Mattress Show advertiser just for the chance to hear anything off this record on Z-100 one morning.

Oh well. You can buy it at (Brad Tyer)

The Fucking AM
Drag City

It’s been so long since the last Champs record (though that’s not too surprising, since founding member Josh Smith split after the last one, leaving brothers-in-Teuton-rock Tim Green and Tim Soete to reshuffle the lineup), how could one’s expectations for a new Champs project not be pitched too high for one’s own good?

This is the Champs’ second collaboration with Trans Am, and it’s just okay. Opening track “Bad Leg” is all Champs in the guitar, all Trans Am in the percussion. Track two, on the other hand, “The Gauntlet,” has dumb vocals about pizza or something over an antithetically (for the Champs) dumb riff; basically, it demonstrates that it’s possible for two smart bands to come up with something way dumber together than either could have done individually. It’s one thing to “vocabularize” smart instrumental songs with punny titles (something both bands do a lot) but quite another to actually sing this kind of nonsense. “Taking Liberties” is similarly lunkheaded, though in an knowing cock-rock way. Yet the Champs claim not to be ironic?

There are high points, but on the whole Gold is kind of a letdown. The next proper Champs record is bound to be much better. Just hope it happens soon. (Andy Smetanka)

Augie March
Strange Bird

And a strange bird it is, too. Normally, you can’t tell very much from a few lyrics quoted in a record review (what’s the point, really?), but take a gander at this line from “This Train Will Be Taking No Passengers”: “We will adjust to this new condition of living/Like a man with his entrails now out him not in/After certain techniques of torture accustoms himself to a new condition of living.”

Yep, pretty much in one breath, too—and phrasing is important. The same song makes mention of “pods of wealthy blonde gobbets with rind-red eyes” and “lady Time minc[ing] man-meat with her contract claws for a barbecue with the veterans of the talkback wars.” “There’s Something at the Bottom of the Black Pool,” with its goopy gobs of yellow-submarine psychedelia, declares itself “a song to enquire whither went the milk money/While the darling babes of Toorak were a’yowling for their honey.”

Toorak? Must be an Australian thing, but clearly this exquisitely melancholic Melbourne five-piece carry their literature degrees around in their wallets (they’re even named for a Saul Bellow novel). Without the lyric booklet (which, charmingly, includes an index of first lines!), you could listen to Strange Bird a dozen times and not have the foggiest idea what the hell songwriter Glenn Richards is talking about. Every song is weirdly, hermetically beautiful unto itself, making the album like a roomful of gorgeously mismatched Regency and Gustav Stickley furniture. Hours of repeat listening here. (Andy Smetanka)

Pharaoh Overlord
The Battle of Axehammer
Last Visible Dog

This band is highly recommended to fans of non-Orc, non-muscle car stoner rock as well as Krautrock a la Can and Faust: long songs, minimalist riffs, spacey keyboard sounds and no vocals. Do not, however, start with this album, which was recorded live—and from the sound of it, through a tin-can telephone with one of the cans behind the club where the show was actually held.

Pharaoh Overlord is an offshoot of Circle, a revolving-door collective of musicians who play and record in a variety of styles under the unifying banner of repetitiveness; a Circle song might be a single butt-rock riff played endlessly, or a 10-minute sheet of grinding guitar with a piano plinking the same three notes somewhere in the mix, or a hypnotic drone in 5/4 time with the singer chanting in a made-up language.

Pharaoh Overlord, by contrast, takes one riff and pounds it all the way to enlightenment. The copy of Battle Of Axehammer I bought in Portland came with a handwritten sticker—helpfully supplied by record store staff—that says “think ‘Stranglehold,’” as in the Ted Nugent song, which isn’t too far off the mark but implies way too many changes.

There are two otherwise-unreleased tracks on the album, but since the sound quality is so ghastly, save your ducats for Pharaoh Overlord I or Pharaoh Overlord II instead. (Andy Smetanka)

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