I Too Have Sinned
It's a sad, basic tenet of the music industry that every band thinks it's doing something unique, but practically none of them really are. Even on the local scene, there tend to be camps, or factions, of bands that basically sound alike, with only minor differentiation.
With that in mind, I think it can safely be said that there is no local band that sounds remotely like the Hammertoes. This artsy eight-piece ensemble, led by ex-New Yorkers Casey Wade and Bob Jacks, mixes the gypsy jazz of Django Reinhardt and Stephane Grappelli with flamenco, bossa nova, and smatterings of other world rhythms into such a heady elixir that musical categories feel laughably inadequate. You could say that the band approximates what would happen if Tom Waits sat in with the Gipsy Kings, but even that description can't account for the sonic wanderlust that imbues this disc.
On I Too Have Sinned, the follow-up to last year's self-titled debut, the band really hits its stride, fully converting potential into reality. It's a tricky proposition to make room for so many skilled musicians without the whole thing turning into a bloated mess, but after a year and a half together, the Hammertoes have developed an intuitive sense of space and dynamics. The opening track, "On My Way Out," is a cabaret nightmare ode that builds an almost punklike intensity and dramatic tension over the course of each verse.
In live performance, the band's fiery interplay sweeps away all your critical faculties, but on record, Wade's vocals can take some getting used to, if only because they're so jarringly in opposition to the prettiness of the music. Over time, however, his Waitsian death howl starts to make perfect sense. It's the unvarnished truth, the heart of darkness that keeps the band from ever sounding slick, or conventionally pleasant. When, on the frightening "Down to the Bone," he sings, "I've got the devil on my side," you actually believe him, particularly when David Cosme follows with a wicked muted-trumpet break.
Wade also mixes up his approach, with a disembodied, megaphone effect on postmodern bossa nova, "Place the Blame," enlivened by a lovely violin counterpoint on the chorus.
Infatuated with various musical forms, but never constrained by any, the Hammertoes are savvy world travelers in an era of tourists. They may inhabit their own musical universe, but on I Too Have Sinned, they're generous enough to let us visit for a while.
Dislocated Styles is hardly the only Valley band currently finding a common ground between A Tribe Called Quest and Rage Against the Machine. Truth be told, there's a whole school of locals firing up a kind of heavy funk, with equal parts metal, Bootsy Collins-inspired beats, and authentic hip-hop rhymes.
In a way, the Dislocated Styles' aesthetic is the vibe of the moment, if you consider the success that Korn and Limp Bizkit are having with a similar combination of influences.
Unlike those bands, though, Dislocated Styles plays funk grooves with a hard-rock sense of aggression, not the other way around. What makes this sophomore effort (after last year's aptly titled Spanking the Funky) so effective is the way it showcases the band's versatility. "United" sets a soulful piano riff reminiscent of Otis Redding's "Hard to Handle" to a rhyme that pays tribute to the group's MC team of Joe Boogie, Brandon Lawson and Jason Dubree. The song becomes heavier as it goes along, but DS wisely avoids bludgeoning the listener with nonstop volume. Similarly, the jazzy "Sourdough Flow" highlights the group's underrated capacity to kill you softly, with seduction rather than assault.
True to its name, Dislocated Styles is an ongoing war of musical genres, a bomb-squad sound of different radio frequencies furiously clashing for supremacy. As long as the cease-fire never happens, this band will be worth watching.
The best gag on 68 Lo-Fi's debut CD comes at the beginning of the second track, "Sunshine Coming." The song opens with the mellow, descending chord progression of The Beatles' "Dear Prudence," and lead vocalist Kaige actually sings, "Dear Prudence, won't you come out to play?" Before you have time to wonder if they're actually going to pull a Siouxsie and the Banshees, they kick into the light, upbeat "Sunshine Coming."
It's a bit like the effect that Haggis creates when it teases audiences with a taste of something like "Barracuda" before launching into one of their own songs. The difference is that Haggis generally uses kitsch anthems that only make their own tunes sound more substantial, while 68 Lo-Fi dares to take on a genuine classic. It's a ballsy move, but "Sunshine Coming" can't help but come off a bit flimsy by comparison.
Fortunately, there are moments when Gem Needle is the hard-edged pop hook fest that it aspires to be. The opener, "Everything Fades," is an unabashed retro-pop gem, nearly on a par with the Ozark Mountain Daredevils' "Jackie Blue." The more reflective "Goodbye Tomorrow" is a winning cross between one of Pete Ham's Badfinger ballads and Cheap Trick's "Voices."
Kaige's obvious affection for classic rock occasionally leads him to strain too hard for the grittiness of his mentors. Occasionally, as on the goofy "Space Cadet," he slips in and out of focus, a bit bombastic on the verses, but somehow more endearing on the catchy choruses, when the harmonies kick in. The Elvin Bishop-like (or is that Tom Scholz-like?) harmonized guitar solo at the end can't help but bring a smile to anyone who remembers a time before the Sex Pistols rendered such gestures anachronistic. More than any other song, "Space Cadet" epitomizes the tough balancing act that 68 Lo-Fi is working, and it's to the band's credit that it pulls it off more often than not.