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The Figg Thrills

The Gentlemen
Blondes Prefer the Gentlemen (Gentlemen/Soda Pop)

If you’ve seen Mike Gent’s other band, the Gentlemen, which matches the Figgs front man with three-quarters of Boston’s Gravel Pit, you know that this is more than just a side project—for few bands bring the rock like the Gents. Imagine, if you will, Elvis Costello at his nastiest (late-’70s model) fronting Thin Lizzy or Bon Scott-era AC/DC.

In the past year or so, I’ve seen two rock concerts I’ll never forget. One is the Who at Madison Square Garden. The other is the Gentlemen at New York City’s Brownies last winter. A slashing, ice-cream-headache-inducing rain kept most folks indoors, but the Gentlemen played to the half-dozen or so assembled as if their lives depended on it, with chest-thumping guitars swinging from barroom squalor to arena-ready crunch.

More time went into the production of this sophomore effort, Blondes Prefer the Gentlemen, and sonically it’s a better representation of the Gents than the group’s debut. Bassist Ed Valauskis and Lucky Jackson also played a larger role, contributing some fine tracks to back up Gent’s tunes. This is a world where a subtle sleight of hand can turn a rock cliché into something grander, and the opener, “Let Us Know,” throws down the gauntlet, starting with a bone-crunching riff before Gent spews “Are you coming? I thought I heard you mooaann.” Other highlights on this outstanding effort include “He Is Risen” and “It’s Phony Rock and Roll.”

—Erik Hage

VPN
For Nearby Stars (Evil Teen)

Let’s start at the surface and dig our way in. A name that’s three initials: VPN. The initials stand for Very Pleasant Neighbor, which is an espionage code from the Second World War that meant “friends of the Communist Party.” The core of this New York City quartet is a trio of siblings, two of whom are twin sisters (both of whom are registered nurses). As raw data goes, that’s nice, chewy stuff indeed. This is all worth noting because VPN’s recently released second album (recorded in a defunct 1920s silent movie theater) is sympathetically layered with songs that reveal surprises and contradictions, all within a landscape of smartly written and arranged music. On the surface, there is such bracing variety that VPN seem like a couple bands rolled into one. However, further listening offers the rewards of a group whose diversity is a healthy and honest aspect of their true character—no affectation can be found here.

VPN create pop songs with a dark sort of gusto. The lush harmony vocals make all manner of oblique texts sail past like a summer breeze (“Turning all your passion into golden teeth/Hide them in your pocket/Instead of using them to eat/There goes your flame”). The baroque pop arrangement flourishes of the opening “Flypaper” are darkly alluring, with a mesmerizing coda that has all of the tightening drama of the Beatles’ “I Want You (She’s So Heavy).” “Ten Years From Tomorrow” could be from the first couple records by the dBs. Elsewhere, overlapping vocal parts create swirls of hypnotic power, while the core of guitars, bass and drums fearlessly moves between brilliant foundation and inventive fury.

—David Greenberger

Dolly Varden
Forgiven Now (Undertow Music)

Dolly Varden can be roughly lumped into the alt-country camp—such is the increasingly Catholic reach of that label—but like fellow iconoclasts Richard Buckner and Varnaline, Dolly Varden work the fringes of the genre, creating their own rules and following their own muse. There’s a great songwriting balance between the husband-and-wife team of Stephen Dawson and Diane Christiansen. Dawson’s earnest, cosmopolitan roots-pop recalls Freedy Johnston at times, while Christiansen hangs back in the haze, crafting some of the most hauntingly sweet tunes since Mazzy Star stumbled into “Fade Into You” or the Sundays covered “Wild Horses.” Forgiven Now is the Chicago group’s strikingly strong fourth album.

There’s a forthrightness to Dolly Varden’s songs that quietly demands your attention, like snatches of a fascinating conversation in another room. And just as you relax your vigilance, a thorny little phrase pulls you back in. “A red steak and a Canadian Club/America loves a lighthearted drunk,” croons Dawson in “Trying to Live Up.” “You’ve never had a fat girl before,” sings Christiansen in the smoky, gorgeous “1000 Men Like Cigarettes.” “Time For You to Leave” features the riposte “I think the time has come for me to leave you here among your boxes and your stacks of quarters/Leave you here with the filthy jokes about your daughter.” It helps that the music is equally as alluring, swinging from glib, country-tinged rock to dreamy, atmospheric pop. This is a well-produced, well-written and well-performed effort from top to bottom.

—E.H.

Spinecar
Autophile (Spaceboy Entertainment)

Boy, other than to say “this is a really, really good record” or “these guys rock hard,” it’s pretty darn tough to get your hands far enough around Autophile to be able to stylistically summarize it. I mean, just listen to the first three songs: “Home” grinds along in a disturbing aural groove similar to that etched by Korn on their influential “Ball Tongue”; “Stay” wouldn’t feel out of place when pressed up against some great stoner-rock classic from Kyuss; and “Soul Patch” could almost be a (great) lost Soundgarden track. Ain’t too many metalheads who can evoke that many stylistic touch points over the course of 13 minutes of music. . . . And when you note that there’s another 36 minutes to go after those first three songs, well, you can imagine the dilemma that a 250-word review poses.

So let’s just boil it down to those basic introductory points again, shall we? Autophile is a really, really good record, and Spinecar rock hard—not to mention smart, and that’s worth a lot in a world of dumb Korn, Kyuss and Soundgarden imitators. Singer-guitarist Eric Braymer, bassist-vocalist Larry Gagliardi and drummer Art Bernstein deserve rich credit for thoughtfully mapping the point where those bands—and dozens of others—intersect, creating a unique and impressive sound of their own in the process. And the nicest thing about the musical place where they end up is that it’s radio-ready as all get-out, proving that you don’t have to dive for the lowest common denominator in order to create art with broad popular appeal. That makes Spinecar a band worth pulling for. Go!

—J. Eric Smith


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