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(The Record Machine)
In 2010, Soft Reeds frontman Ben Grimes told The Pitch that the origin of his band's name was a sort of mash-up of the Soft Boys and Lou Reed. "I always go back to '77 Berlin," Grimes said. "Brian Eno, David Bowie, Lou Reed, Iggy Pop." You can hear those influences on Soft Reeds' glammy debut, Soft Reeds Are Bastards. They're less pronounced on the recently released follow-up, Blank City. A more appropriate name for the band at this point might be something like "Talking Gang of Four." Or maybe just "Talking Headz"?
It is not a development about which I am complaining. On Blank City, Grimes and his band do well by David Byrne and company, locking into groove after groove, all staccato bass, scraping guitars and nervy drums. Atop it all is Grimes' quavering, occasionally too-affected wail. "Moving in Time" is probably the Byrniest of the bunch. In addition to just sounding like the title of a Talking Heads song, it apes the bass-driven chord change in the "Psycho Killer" chorus. With its short, stuttering bass line, "Supper and Knives" comes on like "Crosseyed and Painless." (Bassist Beckie Trost does a pretty great Tina Weymouth impression.) You could seriously plug "Supper and Knives" into a Remain in Light playlist and nobody would blink an eye. That's meant to be a compliment.
As an album, Blank City is smartly constructed — Grimes has good ideas about where to put each song. It eases in with "17," more or less an instrumental track that goes on for a couple of minutes, with Grimes' vocals humming in the distance. Fade-out closer "A Hysterical Woman" executes a bit of mystery, grabbing at some world-music touchstones and hinting at strange new directions. What you'd name a version of Soft Reeds' playing a bunch of songs like "A Hysterical Woman," I don't know — but, more, please.
Cowboy Indian Bear
Live Old, Die Young
(The Record Machine)
If Cowboy Indian Bear isn't the hardest-working band in the area, then it's at least in contention. The three-year wait for the Lawrence quartet's new album, Live Old, Die Young, is not owing to idleness; the members have been touring their asses off, grinding it out at rock clubs up and down the United States. The nice thing about that level of commitment is that a band can really dial into its sound and refine it, and it's clear from Cowboy Indian Bear's recent live shows that the group has done just that. With Live Old, Die Young, Cowboy Indian Bear has tastefully translated its aesthetic to a recording.
There are some hazards to taking your band really seriously. One is that your music can start to sound a little too, you know, serious. Live Old, Die Young is chockablock with adventurous song structures; confident songwriting; and progressive, textured production. It's powerful — 13 tracks of epic, layered art rock. But it's not exactly exploding with joy. There's not a lot in the way of hooks, and the pace is generally unhurried. It's in many ways a beautiful record, but it asks you to commit to it a little. If you don't, the first two tracks, both of which clock in at around six minutes, might seem to drag on for about a hundred years.
If you're primed for some sober, sweeping indie rock, though, Live Old, Die Young delivers it in spades. Opener "Washing" kicks off with some militant percussion; Beau Bruns' busy, gently dissonant drumming is a recurring motif. Second track "Does Anybody See You Out?" is a standout, an engaging balance of melody and momentum with Cowboy Indian Bear's artier ambitions. Elsewhere, the echoes of popular indie-rock acts from the past decade are detectable: Radiohead's dizzy mood pieces, the cold soar of Broken Social Scene, the grandeur of Arcade Fire. "I Want a Stranger's Heart" has some tones I associate with Cass McCombs. "Seventeen" — another highlight — features a Bon Iver–like falsetto. And yet despite these clear influences, Live Old, Die Young sounds like nothing other than Cowboy Indian Bear. I can't think of very many bands from around these parts that have carved out such a distinct identity.