Guitar sounds often define a band, and three of my favorite new releases that we received this past week are from bands that revamped their guitar sound to one degree or another.
The one on top is surprisingly the one whose guitar sound changed the least, considering the change in personnel. We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank is the remarkable new album from Modest Mouse. Yes, the band now includes former Smiths guitarist Johnny Marr, but while Marrâ€™s light, atmospheric chime adds a sweet touch to a few new Modest Mouse songs, overall he seamlessly blends into his new bandâ€™s more ramshackle sound, dishing out a number of jagged riffs that wouldâ€™ve fit right in on earlier Mouse albums.
Thereâ€™s no question when listening to the new album that Modest Mouse is still Isaac Brockâ€™s band. The production is a bit bigger this time, the hooks often brighter, but the songs are as solid a batch as heâ€™s ever delivered, often indulging in nautical themes to express Isaacâ€™s fatalism and frustration with the way things are. Many of the songs come off as deranged sea chanteys, with Isaac barking, ranting or even sweetly crooning. Sure, heâ€™s technically a limited vocalist, but no one else could make his songs signify as well as he does, though Marr does occasionally add some nice frosting on the cake.
Chicago band the Ponys also reworked their guitar sound for their 3rd album Turn the Lights Out. While theyâ€™ve always experimented with guitar sounds, they do so with even more gusto this time around. The songs are their most expansive to date, and theyâ€™re fleshed out with a variety of atmospheric guitar tones and effects that often bring a prominent Sonic Youth influence to their noisy jangle, and those guitars are brought more to the forefront thanks to the albumâ€™s bolder production.
The most dramatic change in guitar sound comes from Nick Cave. Nick’s new Grinderman project is a slimmed-down version of his long-time band the Bad Seeds. Nick plays lead guitar for the first time, and his primitive, noisy leads combined with some vicious electric bouzouki and violin from Warren Ellis set fire to some of the most brutal recordings Cave has made since he was in the Birthday Party. His raw guitar squall evokes the Stoogesâ€™ Ron Asheton more than anyone else, and Grindermanâ€™s self-titled debut album sounds at times like the best Stooges album of the year (sadly, the less said about the actual Stoogesâ€™ new album, the better).
Still, itâ€™s not all raw power and unhinged cacophony â€“ Nick also contributes some dark, unsettling ballads to the proceedings. And while at the albumâ€™s heart is primitive, bluesy rock â€˜nâ€™ roll laced with menace and seething lust, Cave also understands thereâ€™s something just a little bit absurd about being a demonic middle-aged rock beast, so he throws in some self-deprecating humor that brings a welcome self-awareness to it all. While not for the faint of heart, Grinderman is an often fascinating, highly entertaining thrill ride.
One quick footnote: Cave also has another noteworthy new release out. Itâ€™s a 2-CD/2-DVD set featuring concert recordings from Cave and the Bad Seedsâ€™ 2002-2204 European tour surrounding the release of his excellent previous album, the 2-CD set Abattoir Blues/The Lyre of Orpheus. Most of the songs are from that album, but some older Cave favorites are also included. The sound is wonderful for a live recording, and many of the performances are well worth hearing and watching.