To the Center
Duuuuuuude! "Please do not call Nebula 'Stoner Rock,'" begs the press materials for the Los Angeles band's first full-length. There are a few variations on the stoner rock theme, so let's be specific. Among the subgenres, there are the "only sounds good when high" hippie jam bands such as Phish, post-rave come-down electronica, the German import-only albums of David Hasselhoff, and the sounds of the Queens of the Stone Age/Kyuss camp -- where Nebula (all ex-Fu Manchu guys) fits.
The cover of the longhaired power trio's debut album is a fisheye lens shot of the group's gear set up in the cracked earth desert. Musically, Nebula owes much to Sabbath and the Stooges (even covering the latter's "I Need Somebody") and the psychedelic roar of Blue Cheer. They even do a song called "Fields of Psilocybin" on Center. A gong is struck on the opening song. Yep, this is music for and by people who smoked pot in their Camaros before homeroom, clad in jean jackets with Led Zeppelin patches on the back.
That's not to ghettoize or make claims about the lack of intelligence of the group; there is more to them than mere stoner rock. They're a Sub Pop band and know how to work the punk and grunge angles. Mark Arm of the late Mudhoney sings on the Stooges cover, and they occasionally pick up the tempos to near-punk speeds, and Nebula revels in the straightforward power chords of Seattle's finest. But this kind of metal all comes back to the low end. Nebula bassist Mark Abshire has a steady, sludgy bass sound, and he follows the root chords without bogging songs down. Instead, it gives drummer Ruben Romano room to step off the beat, like Animal from the Muppets, bashing away in his own oblivion. The main weapon is guitarist/vocalist Eddie Glass, who provides the most interesting, psychedelic jam moments, particularly when he busts out in a long, winding solo.
Take the mini-epic "Freedom." It's drummer Romano who plays the sitar (yes, some rock bands still play the sitar) and the tribal tattoo opening, but it's Glass who makes the journey mystic. Singing lyrics like "Into the rays of the rising sun, you'll find your freedom," he erupts in a double-tracked, space-rock solo with the wah-wah guitar in one speaker and the quick, bluesy licks coming out of the other. And that's all before the sitar joins in or the drum and bass solo. It's a trip, man.
Like the rise of Nashville Pussy and Monster Magnet -- hell, even Rob Zombie -- groups like Nebula, Fu Manchu, and the Queens of the Stone Age show that there is still plenty of room for bands who appeal to those who never really got rid of the Camaro. Smoking permitted. -- David Simutis
There Is Nothing Left to Lose
It's not hard to imagine that Dave Grohl was happiest recording the Foo Fighters' self-titled 1995 debut, if only because he was allowed to do almost everything himself. Two albums later, he's still trying to do it all, or at least that's how it seems, as members stick around only long enough to leave. The band has already gone through three guitarists and two drummers, and you get the feeling that bassist Nate Mendel continues to hang around because he's the only one who can play his instrument better than Grohl thinks he can. For example, Grohl rerecorded all the drum parts on 1997's The Colour and the Shape before then-drummer William Goldsmith had even left. And more than likely, guitarist Franz Stahl (the second in a series) split for much the same reason, since Grohl handles all the guitars on There Is Nothing Left to Lose.
While it's difficult to argue with Grohl's decision to erase Goldsmith's drums from The Colour and the Shape -- he does, after all, belong among the great rock drummers, a combination of Keith Moon's arms and John Bonham's kick-drum leg -- it's much easier to pick apart his choice to record all of the guitar parts on There Is Nothing Left to Lose. The problem is that he plays guitar like a drummer, rhythmic and precise, which worked when it was paired with Pat Smear's intentionally sloppy chords on The Colour and the Shape, usually the exact opposite of whatever Grohl was playing. Left to his own devices (which include a vocoder that weaves its way through "Generator") here, Grohl proves he can carry the melody by himself, but he needs a second pair of hands to take it anywhere. Only on "Headwires" and "Generator" does he really come close to matching what Smear contributed to the group -- the kind of push and shove that requires a second guitar, instead of merely someone there playing the same riff louder.
Still, Smear's absence isn't as noticeable as the presence of Grohl's record collection. You don't have to listen closely to catch "Headwires" stealing one of Gary Numan's "Cars," or "Gimme Stitches" confirming that Grohl learned how to play guitar when he was keeping Bad Company; There Is Nothing Left to Lose is less influential than influenced. Which doesn't make it any different from The Colour and the Shape, except it gets a different answer from the punk + AOR equation that Grohl learned from Kurt Cobain. But it all adds up on "Generator," which is as close to Peter Frampton in the studio with The Undertones as anyone would ever need to hear. If only Grohl could learn how to subtract as well. -- Zac Crain
The third release from this Portland duo finds them mixing lyrics that mine the depths of despair with a deceptively sweet musical backdrop. Field Studies is split between those tracks, several elongated ballads and a handful of ice-rink pop songs with heavy keyboards, colorful drumming, nice hooks and densely layered harmonies.
While the recording is lush, the lyrics generally strong and the music engaging, the limits of the duo format become fairly obvious on Field Studies. At times the backing is too sparse, relying on high-pitched vocals and moody keyboard sounds, rather than more traditional instrumentation.
Quasi is Janet Weiss of Sleater-Kinney fame and her former husband Sam Coomes. Of late, the two have been backing Elliot Smith on the road, with Weiss playing drums and Coomes handling bass. Smith returns the favor here by playing some much-needed bass on three of the album's 14 songs. The experience playing with Smith has clearly left its mark on this recording, as many of the songs here sound as though they could be outtakes from fellow Portland resident Smith's lost keyboard album.
While Coomes can't really help the fact that he sounds like Smith, the pretty music/depressing lyric quotient is undeniable. That's not to say that it's a bad thing. Pervasive influences aside, Field Studies is a solid record that works best when the songs are upbeat and short. "The Skeleton" might be the best example of the brevity-is-beauty idea, honoring the under-three-minute pop song formula. Its heavy, percussive organ and up-tempo drums trick you into tapping your toe along to a song brimming with lyrical images of abandonment and paranoia.
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Another standout is the blissful, 2/3 time ballad "Empty Words" -- a cut that, minus the gloomy word play, could pass for a sticky-sweet pop confection.
The band does fill in some of the album's open spaces with a number of deft sonic touches: the dreamy, Big Star-sounding guitar and faint drumming on "The Star You Left Behind"; the lush strings on "Smile" and "All the Same"; the massive pipe organ of "Bon Voyage."
Most of the songs on Field Studies play an interesting game of cat and mouse. Luring you in with deceptively innocent ear candy, only to later sting you with the desperation of the words. The album is like Portland on a cloudy day: It's beautiful, but it's raining, and it ain't gonna stop. -- Jonathan Bond