Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Night of the Living Dead: Atlanta's Carnivores Rise From the Grave

Of Music and the Macabre, (or, "In Which I Try and Fail at Extending a Death Metaphor the Length of a Feature Article"):

Night of the Living Dead
Atlanta’s Carnivores Rise From the Grave

By Julia Reidy

The first time I saw Carnivores play, they were members of a band that is now dead. In early 2008, the four were still playing around Atlanta as Chainestereo, and I had low expectations. But when they opened for The Ruby Suns and Throw Me The Statue (two much more pop-inflected groups) at the Drunken Unicorn, from the first few damaged chords, I was hooked. Keyboardist Caitlin Lang started singing and whipping her hair around – one of my photos from the night shows it frozen in a great cloud around her head, blurred because she was moving too fast in the low light – and suddenly it was one of those rare moments when, having prepared yourself to be unimpressed, you think, “Wow. This band is actually good.

Almost two years later, they’ve killed that identity and re-birthed themselves as Carnivores. “No one could remember the name, spell the name or say the name,” says guitarist Nathaniel Higgins of Chainestereo. “We felt like a name change would help people remember us better.” After a lineup shuffle, the group decided to scrap the old model and begin again, and this new band in a short period of time has already proved itself memorable. Though they perform in basically the same style, new material and a renewed commitment to songwriting have given Carnivores a fresh lease on life.

But the members of Carnivores were always committed. “I kind of did all the bitch work with Chainestereo in town, and then once Carnivores came about, it was all gravy,” bassist Philip Frobos recalls. He remembers years of playing on bills with terrible bands and paying some serious dues. The thing about dues, though, is that they pay off. Over the summer, Georgia State’s radio station WRAS put Carnivores’ undeniably winning single “A Crime” into regular rotation. It played frequently on car stereos and in coffee shops, working itself subtly into the local consciousness. “I’ve only heard it on once” recalls Higgins. “I was ordering a sub at Sensational Subs, and I was like, ‘I know this song. Wait a second. That’s me!’ It freaked me out.” But Higgins wasn’t freaked out enough to take a post-sandwich victory lap; the band’s work in this world is far from done.

Carnivores borrow widely – from tropicalia, doo-wop, pop and punk – and no one I’ve heard sounds just like them. The four don’t let their referencing bury them; weighed-down, derivative slop can stay six feet under, for all they care.

To that end, I think their inclusive tendencies save them from that particular pitfall. The quartet’s debut full-length, All Night Dead USA, which released locally on Atlanta’s quickly-rising imprint Double Phantom in July and which will release nationally Jan. 26, runs the gamut from absolutely adorable, distorted pop to moaning ambient swaths, to angry riffage. Some numbers are raunchy, complete with atonal vocals, while some seem so perfectly and ecstatically orchestrated that each layer over Frobos’ dynamic, moving bass falls exactly where it should. Tracks devolve intermittently into multicolored grooves as the members take turns singing lead or all holler together. For all its sweetness, Carnivores’ compositions wield a sharp edge; Lang’s vocal delivery on “Organ Trail” comes across as completely demented – she switches from comely to psychotic with no warning and the transition is so smooth you can’t help but smile. Likewise, the band’s locally frequent live shows are almost wholly anarchic, which gives listeners of All Night Dead the sense that Carnivores’ sound is being funneled into a 2-liter bottle, shaken up, and sprayed. It bubbles.

Carnivores obviously nurse an obsessive crush on the macabre, as well. The record’s leadoff “For Griffin” mixes mellow surf guitar with ghoulish group vocals, topped off nicely with speaking samples about death that transition the track into the following psychedelic jam “Neon Bone Groove.” All Night Dead avoids heavy-handedness though, probably thanks to the band’s group songwriting efforts. Most numbers are co-written, and performances seem determinedly communal. At their 529 show Nov. 3, Lang ran repeatedly across the stage to shove her mic in front of drummer Tauseef Anam so that he could sing too.

Sitting across a rickety table from me outside Aurora Coffee in Little Five Points in late October, Higgins indicates Frobos. “Usually it starts out with me or Philip having a guitar part or a bass part or a melody or both,” Higgins says. “Then we usually take it to each other and build from it. And then drums and keyboards get added in and we all talk together about how the song should sound. And he writes all the lyrics.”

“He has some lyrics on the new material,” Frobos retorts, pointing at Higgins.

I ask how they decide who gets to sing what.

“Just what feels right, I guess,” Higgins says. “I feel like me and him and Caitlin all have very different voices. It’s just what’s right for the song.”

“Also, we all have very different vocal ranges and whatnot,” Frobos adds. “So if I write a song that I physically can’t sing…”

Higgins explains that Frobos often brings material to the table that has to have another singer because it’s outside his range.

“The demos are pretty awful,” Frobos admits, smiling.

Speaking of demos, the band has gone back into the studio, this time with producer Mike Wright, who’s worked with the likes of the The Black Lips and The Selmanaires, among others. Over beers in December, Frobos anticipates completing recording in late January, around the same time the group heads out on a Northeast tour and re-releases All Night Dead. This new, as-yet-unnamed full-length stands to evolve Carnivores’ sound and push this growing band into maturity. “I always personally envisioned All Night Dead USA to be a bit of a darker album, originally,” Frobos reflects. “But it came out and it’s not at all a dark album. It’s totally fun and whimsical, kind of. I don’t know. Whatever it is. Tropical. I legitimately think that this new record is a little bit darker and it’s got a little more edge to it. It’s a little lonelier, but it’s more confident.”

The same artists who have worked with Wright in the past, Higgins and Frobos say, have helped them gain that confidence. The Selmanaires, in particular, have been some of their role models in a town that, overall, has proved challenging. “They’ve helped us out a lot,” says Higgins. “They’ve given us a shot, helped us kind of bridge that gap into a scene that was a little bit before us.”

“I think that Atlanta is a really tough town,” Frobos adds. “And that’s what I really like about it, because when you’re from the South, you always have more to prove than anybody else. Everybody thinks that you’re a dumb hick.” Knowing they’ve had to fight for their place in the scene gives the band extra confidence as they go out on the road. “Proving yourself to be worth a damn down here is really hard,” he continues. “It used to be at least. And getting the promoter contacts three years ago, when Deerhunter and The Black Lips were getting huge and still doing big local shows and dominating, it was kind of hard to get on anything cool.

“I definitely feel proud about the grit, and going through all of it to get to where we are here,” says Frobos.

“If we didn’t really like to play shows and music,” Higgins concludes, “we probably would’ve quit a long time ago.”

Equipped with sellable singles like the split 7-inch they shared with fellow Double Phantom artists Abby Go Go, as well as loads of new live material, Carnivores are ready to ride the vinyl grooves of All Night Dead USA into hearts that don’t call Atlanta home. “I kind of take the old coach mindset when it comes to things like success,” says Frobos. “It’s like ‘Alright, you won your first game, but you fucked up a lot. This is what you need to do better. You got a lot of work to do to get to the next level.’ We might’ve gotten a couple of things written about us, and I think that that’s awesome. But I think that there’s a lot of things we can do better, and we need to do better and we need to keep delivering.”

For Carnivores, it’s not time to lay down and die. This music has a lot of living to do.

(A modified version of this article appeared in the January issue of Stomp and Stammer. Reproduced with permission.)

Linkage Wednesday: Surfer Blood, Yeasayer

Time to revive an old FOA feature: Linkage Wednesday!

1. Surfer Blood - "Take It Easy"

I know everybody's tired of stuff that sounds like the '80s...or calypso...or the Beach Boys...but this song sounds like all of that and it's awesome. Surfer Blood will be visiting the Drunken Unicorn Feb. 19 with Turbo Fruits, Carnivores and Holiday Shores.

2. Being that I spent all of last week trying to say what I think about the forthcoming Yeasayer album Odd Blood (difficult because I'm still not quite sure what I think), stumbling across Stereogum's Premature Evaluation of the record today was kind of illuminating:

The toe-tapping "Rome" rattles forward, but in a less interesting way than the earlier tracks: It has rhythm and propulsion, but feels a bit empty. Yeasayer got folks hooked early on with "2080," a song that started floating around long before we even knew what the band looked like, so when those sort of harmonies disappear in favor of pure texture, a bit of the appeal drops-out, too.

Whew! I thought I was the only one that kept picturing this emoticon when I listened to certain parts of Odd Blood: :/

I mean, other parts of it completely rule. I'm sorta obsessed with "Madder Red." But there are bits that, to me, sound like a letdown. I feel like they're capable of more than that record. Dunno.

3. The A.V. Club posted a blurb about Vampire Weekend's Contra topping the Billboard 200 this week. Sure, we could actually discuss the ramifications of their popularity. But I'd rather point out that the article's writer Kyle Ryan captioned some scary video game illustration (which I should probably know about) with the line, "No, THIS guy would look psychotic in a balaclava." Hahahahaha, cheers Kyle.

Monday, January 4, 2010

FOA's Favorite Music of 2009

I know it's 2010. But what better way to reflect on the year past than to wait until it's really over to look back? It seemed like 2009 offered more releases than I could wrap my head around, but what better problem to have? Though there were loads of albums and songs that enhanced our sonic landscape, these are the ones I'll remember for years to come.

FOA's Favorite Albums of 2009:

(These are ranked because I think it's more fun to read that way, not because I think rankings are anything but arbitrary and subjective and silly, by the way.)

10. Wavves - Wavvves
Read: Record Review: Wavves - Wavvves
Live Review: Wavves @ The EARL 10/4/09

9. Kurt Vile - Childish Prodigy
Read: Record Review: Kurt Vile - Childish Prodigy
Live Review: Kurt Vile and the Violators, Lovvers, Carnivores @ 529, November 3

8. Volcano Choir - Unmap
Read: Paste: Getting to Know... Volcano Choir

7. Bear In Heaven - Beast Rest Forth Mouth
Read: Record Review: Bear In Heaven - Beast Rest Forth Mouth

6. Cymbals Eat Guitars - Why There Are Mountains
Go to:

5. The Antlers - Hospice
Read: Record Review: The Antlers - Hospice
Flagpole Feature: The Antlers: Finding the Hope in Hospice

4. Akron/Family - Set 'Em Wild, Set 'Em Free
Read: Live Review: Akron/Family @ The EARL 8/13/09

3. Animal Collective - Merriweather Post Pavillion
Read: Flagpole: Record Reviews: Animal Collective - Merriweather Post Pavillion

2. Here We Go Magic - Here We Go Magic
You'd have to pick up the physical copy of September's Stomp and Stammer, but I got to interview Luke Temple. Instead, go here:

....and the FOA album of the year is:

1. Grizzly Bear - Veckatimest

Read: Record Review: Grizzly Bear - Veckatimest

Honorable Mention:

Slaraffenland - We're On Your Side (Record Review)
Atlas Sound - Logos (Record Review, Live Review)
Circulatory System - Signal Morning (Record Review)
Dirty Projectors - Bitte Orca (Live Review)
Nurses - Apple's Acre (Record Review, Live Review)
Bowerbirds - Upper Air (Record Review, Live Review)
Megafaun - Gather, Form and Fly (Record Review, Live Review)

FOA's Favorite Songs of 2009:

I posted an earlier version of this as a playlist back in September, but here's my updated list. Most of these are tracks from the year's best albums, but some are stand-alone songs from albums that were otherwise disappointing, and deserve to be recognized anyway. Really. This is some amazing music.

Volcano Choir - "Youlagy": Truly a modern spiritual.

Carnivores - "A Crime": About the most infectious thing I've ever heard. Ever. And it's from a local band, which makes me glow with pride. These guys are going somewhere, trust me.

Atlas Sound - "Walkabout (w/ Noah Lennox)": The perfect summer jam, and the promising product of a collaboration between a couple of the most influential people in indie rock right now.

Here We Go Magic - "Fangela": Gauzy and woozy, holding some kind of mystical power I can't explain. Live, it was actually the least impressive of Here We Go Magic's selections, but on the record it envelops you whole.

Akron/Family - "River": Makes you feel like your stomach is soaring, like if you're going over hte top of a hill on a rollercoaster. The line "You are not glassy bay to me" is frequently misunderstood by my friends and me as "You are not classy babe..." which I like a lot. We're not classy babes.

Pontiak - "Wild Knife Night Fight": One of my rare forays into stoner-sludge. The good kind.
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Pontiak - "Seminal Shining": The softest thing on Maker, "Seminal Shining" still proves appropriately dark and mysterious for Pontiak, the happiest sludge band I know.
(Can't post, sorry.)

Slaraffenland - "Away": Awesome all-male a cappella stuff with a great, brassy ending.

The Antlers - "Bear": Turns from a lament to an upbeat dance on a dime. It was beautiful from inside the packed 40 Watt. It's the saddest hopeful song I know.

Wavves - "To The Dregs": Kinetic and barreling and angry and joyful and noisy and pretty.

Bowerbirds - "Crooked Lust": Fun with syncopation meets the Bowerbirds' usual lyrical poignancy and beautifully naturalistic instrumentation.

The Fiery Furnaces - "Charmaine Champagne": Eleanor Friedberger's vocal delivery on this is as smoky as always, meeting Matt's this time more traditional instrumentals. Live, they played this twice as fast. I giggled through it.
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Kurt Vile - "Blackberry Song": Achingly beautiful. Aching. BEAUTIFUL.

Kurt Vile - "Heart Attack": I love how his voice echos. My heart wants to explode when I crank this song all the way up. Vile didn't play this when we saw him live, despite our yelling for it. He heard us. He acknowledged it. Then decided not to play it anyway. At least we didn't yell "FREEBIRD!"

White Rabbits - "Percussion Gun": They made a really cool video to go with this song, which is all percussion and saloon piano. I was otherwise underwhelmed by this album, but "Percussion Gun" always makes me smile.

Lord Cut-Glass - "Holy Fuck!": So freakin' cute. Listen to it for the Scottish accent, if nothing else.

Harlem Shakes - "Strictly Game": The video for this also makes me giggle aloud. "Strictly Game" reminds me of something I can't put my finger

Megafaun - "Kaufman's Ballad": Megafaun is soooo much more than initially meats the ears. "Kaufman's Ballad" demonstrates the framework in which they operate, but it's really hearing the whole album that makes you understand what they're capable of.

The National - "So Far Around The Bend": In my opinion the best track off this year's Red Hot compilation Dark Was The Night, "So Far Around The Bend" is another gorgeous nostalgic nugget from these kings of sweet sorrow.

Deleted Scenes - "Get Your Shit Together For The Holidays": This song sounds like Third Eye Blind to me, and I mean that in the best way possible. Off Blue. I don't know if these guys ever listened to that, but they must at least have a common influence, because the phrases is, like, exactly the same. The end of the song is key!

Animal Collective - "My Girls": Overexposure to this song early in the year made me almost hate it by the middle, but after a few months' respite, I've come back around again. The perfect dance anthem from an often inaccessible band, "My Girls" marks AC's transition, once and for all, to a group dedicated to pop structure without sacrificing creativity. Listen to it loud and try not to dance.

Animal Collective - "Brother Sport": Telescopic and layered, I love the almost incongruous layers this song uses. There's always something new to hear.

Circulatory System - "Signal Morning": The final track to an album that's as varied as it is unified, this song sounds the most like '90s rock, and optimistically ends an art piece that's also sometimes topically dark. I could listen to it again and again.

Nurses - "Caterpillar Playground": WHISTLING! Like a mini-Animal Collective, these guys use tribal percussion and thundering beats to drive their compositions. But unlike AC, Nurses rely on winning keys and irresistible hooks to catch their audience. And knitted doilies. I love this song.

Bon Iver - "Brackett, WI": After the Blood Bank EP, I worried about the direction Bon Iver might take. It's a full band now, after all, and the next full-length won't be a bedroom record like For Emma, Forever Ago. It's not that I didn't like Blood Bank. It's just that it didn't speak to me like For Emma did. It did hold the same emotional impact, the same ocean of sound, of voices. For Dark Was The Night, though, the band recorded this. And it's perfect, and exactly where I want them to go. Though to be fair, I'll follow them anywhere.

Dirty Projectors - "No Intention": Absolutely my favorite song off the staggering Bitte Orca, Dave Longstreth's vocal line gives me chills every time.

Grizzly Bear - "While You Wait For The Others": Just the most beautiful second half of a song I can think of.
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Grizzly Bear - "Two Weeks": Posting this MP3 is why my FileDen account got suspended earlier this year. Needless to say, it's a popular song. Grizzly Bear's version of this at Bonnaroo, even without Victoria LeGrand, was absolutely incredible. Drummer Chris Bear just went to TOWN, playing double-time, putting in superfluous grooves, letting himself go crazy.
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Bear In Heaven - "Ultimate Satisfaction": Retro and dark and barreling and glorious!

Bear In Heaven - "Beast In Peace": One of the two best opening tracks of an album I've heard in a long time, with a long B-section of nothing but percussion!

Cymbals Eat Guitars - "...And The Hazy Sea": The other best opening track of the year, it begins with a scream! This band is still constantly impressing me with its '90s rock throwback aesthetic combined with pop sensibility. There's another layer to hear each time. It just keeps delivering.

So that's it! 2009 was a great year. What did I miss? What did I get wrong? What did I get right?