I like instant gratification as much as the next guy, but not necessarily when it comes to music. I like to compartmentalize my listening, so the bands who come heavy with descriptors like “ethno-Cajun slamgrass” usually do more to vex me than make me breathless to hear their gee-whiz admixtures of sound. Ignoring the semantic clang of a banner like “ethno-Cajun slamgrass,” I’d rather have the ethno, the Cajun, the slam and the ‘grass in four different slots on my five-disc changer. It’s just a matter of personal preference.
That said, I’m a sucker for bands that can completely overhaul their sound from album to album and always make it seem like a natural progression, a candid snapshot of six months in the life of an evolving organism, instead of a calculated change in direction. Golden is a good example. The band’s output is irregular, but every time a new LP comes out, it’s the sound of four guys who have molted out of their collective skin in the interval since the last one.
Sounding different from record to record is one thing; the downside is that previously Golden hasn’t sounded definitive about anything. There have been spacey jams and lofty themes, extended drones and flashes of compositional brilliance, but never anything that really glued it all together.
Apollo Stars, however, the DC-based quartet’s new long-player on Thrill Jockey Records, is the musical equivalent of automatic writing: four dudes staring into the flame and expressing (in the squeezing sense of the word) eight songs’ worth of captive juices that have been sloshing around in their collective glands since their self-titled 1998 debut. Each song seems formed from a sac of fermenting enzymes that have been waiting for just the right duct or membrane to pass through back into the organism, and for half of the eight songs on Apollo Stars (a pretty good ratio by Golden standards) the catalytic element is Afropop. It’s a sound the band has toyed with on previous releases, but whereas before it’s been one more side dish for these musical omnivores, on Apollo Stars it’s the whack of a giant tuning fork. Can’t wait to see it live.
Speaking of evolving bands, there’s another band on the same Jay’s bill that has also been steadily evolving over the past several years. Depending on your tastes, you might even say devolving. Rye Coalition might never again approach the dizzying heights it reached on one side of a punishing split 12-inch with Olympia, Wash.’s late, great KARP, but, to the band’s dubious credit, they no longer seem interested in trying. If anything, their new Steve Albini-recorded LP, On Top (Tiger Style Records), often sounds more like the band that emerged from the tailings of the KARP breakup, the Tight Bros from Way Back When, only heavy on the classic rock irony in a way the Tight Bros weren’t.
Never the most cerebral lyricist in the world, once upon a time Rye singer Ralph Cuseglio could nonetheless be counted on for a couple of wonderfully leftfield lines like “Kittycat, where’s the money at?” and “It’s like a cable-knit sweater that you keep knitting and knitting.” The smirking song titles are still there (“Stop Eating While I’m Smoking,” “Heart of Gold, Jacket of Leather”), but the lyrical contents have mostly been replaced with tiresome parodies of dumb-as-dirt rock innuendo. Take this example, from the tellingly-titled “Stairway to the Free Bird on the Way to the Smokey Water”: “All the times you left, I’ve been looking for another one/The way you pull the trigger on my love gun.” Or, from “One Daughter Hotter than One Thousand Suns”: “Here she comes burnin’ down the street/Like some hot oven baked sweet treat/She’ll slide down your pole/Let you spray the hose on such a hot day/Wanna play, wanna play?”
It’s all one big dumb send-up of mined-out hard rock, and as far as that goes it’s a pretty good time. “Honky Please” comes pretty close to the old magic, but for the most part, I’d rather have my vintage Rye (“Romancing the Italian Horn,” “Baby Puts Out Old Flames,”) in one slot and fill the other four up with Led Zeppelin albums. But what can you do?