album reviews

Hellmouth / Gravestone Skylines
Deerhunter / Halcyon Digest
Jimmy Eat World / Invented
The Sadies / Darker Circles
Dan Sartain / Dan Sartain Lives
Sun Kil Moon / Admiral Fell Promises
Danzig / Deth Red Sabaoth
Melvins / The Bride Screamed Murder
Wolf Parade / Expo 86
Devo / Something for Everybody
We Are Scientists / Barbara
The Black Keys / Brothers
Or, the Whale / Light Poles and Pines
Clap Your Hands Say Yeah / Some Loud Thunder

Hellmouth / Gravestone Skylines
Paper and Plastick

Michigan’s once-vibrant hardcore scene lives on through bands like Hellmouth, the ones comprised of the most dedicated, the most talented, the heaviest and hardest hitting—perhaps the most desperate—of those who are left to speak for it. Powerful and sporadic blast-beats and fist pumping, stage-shaking breakdowns are appropriately executed by seasoned veterans Jay Navarro (The Suicide Machines), Alex Awn (Coalition, Varsity), Jeff Uberti (Left in Ruin, World of Hurt) and Justin Malek (Fordirelifesake), who’ve each in their own way held sway within Detroit’s punk and hardcore scene over the last fifteen years. Memories of Mr. Mugs and the Wired Frog are kept in records like Gravestone Skylines as one of Detroit’s most enthusiastically unruly punk bands breathes fresh life into a scene that largely outgrew itself.

Skylines is tightly wound around themes of personal struggles with social abandonment and accepting the fate of a fallen city. “Funeral Drenched” opens their follow-up to Destroy Everything, Worship Nothing wide with a slow dirge into a chugging call-and-response set of riffs, and picks up speed as vocalist Navarro shows a mastery over his throat with a delivery that seems at times like it could summon an earthquake. “Desperate & Violent” generates momentum before coming to a dead stop into a brief and classic breakdown. “Resist Control” races and explodes into the 21-second “Hands like Spiders” and with it the foundations are set, with the first four songs clocking in at a collective six minutes. “Conceived of Shit” is a personal inner glorification: “god, I love my demons, they’re my only friends,” Navarro growls over gruff and punctuated rhythms. “Tragedy of a City” presents a grim portrayal of a Detroit that many know too well—“abandoned blocks, abandoned factories / abandon hope in collapsed economy… welcome to a hell where no one cares / segregated with fear and hateful stares.” “Exodus” carries on the strong visuals of the inevitable future of a decaying metropolis—“these ruins will be / the monuments / of our demise,” begging for a visit to Michigan Central Station. Gravestone Skylines reminds us of what punk music is capable of, radically shaking us into greater awareness and acceptance of ugly truths.

While Hellmouth is not necessarily breaking new ground, some of the best representatives of Detroit hardcore are keeping the movement strong, keeping the message clear, and keeping the pit moving by screaming in the face of not only authority, but order itself. Their blend of punk, hardcore and metal is fiercely executed with unconditional non-compliance, and Hellmouth almost seems obvious as the end result of the various forms of aggressive music that we’ve seen up to now. They are a punk band perfectly suitable for 2011, with its rudiments purified by the passage of time and the hoarding of grievances. Skylines has an authenticity and familiarity rarely found in new releases and is accessible to a variety of angst-driven, counter-culture enthusiasts, from those brought up on Black Flag and Agnostic Front to Slayer and Pantera. In the nineties the Suicide Machines found their way to MTV by juggling top-down, summertime ska-pop with youthful and vigorous punk. Navarro now seems to be more focused, more attuned, driven by a force that has crept in over the course of Detroit’s tumultuous recent years and has found himself one hell of an outlet for it.

12.29.10 / Real Detroit Weekly

cultovhellmouth.com

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Deerhunter / Halcyon Digest
4AD

Deerhunter’s music has often been described as “ambient punk,” though these words hardly do more than bookend the band’s thematic components. A punk aesthetic and an ever-present, chameleon-like ambience are core components of their work, but it is difficult to boil down what they do to a simple string of musical adjectives. Their fourth LP, Halcyon Digest is a beautiful collection of elemental pop cushioned with soundscapes and orchestral textures that are often made up of indiscernible parts. The band embraces the postmodern decay of genre and continues to dictate the boundaries of independent music.

They’ve come far from their 2005 debut Turn It Up Faggot—a They Threw Us All in a Trench Liars-type of dance-punk fused with experimental home recording and sound manipulation techniques. On 2007’s Cryptograms, a calming sound of a creek layered under the abrasive fuzz of dusty electronics both literally describes a movement and metaphorically describes the overall experience as their songwriting began to take shape. A more unifying musical focus started creeping in by the time of the Fluorescent Grey EP and was fully realized by the time of 2008’s impeccable Microcastle and it’s five-star follow-up, the Rainwater Cassette Exchange EP. Frontman Bradford Cox (who also releases music as Atlas Sound) has often described his writing style as stream-of-consciousness, and this free-flowing style of writing coupled with years of bedroom recording and a diverse range of musical inspiration defines the ingenuity that finds its way into Deerhunter’s work.

The moods of Halcyon Digest are less consistent than on their previous works. It begins with “Earthquake,” a 16-bit slow-motion dream sequence of cymbal swells, heavily effected guitars and deeply reverbed vocals. It soon collides into “Don’t Cry,” a mid-tempo oldies-inspired pop jam, which sets up the album’s lead single, “Revival”—a breezy and psychedelic, tense but soft-edged song that is virtually impossible not to tap along to. The minimalistic “Sailing” follows and drags along in a very Cat Power Moon Pix meets Songs: Ohia Ghost Tropic kind of way. Another stand-out track, “Memory Boy” is a blatantly simple 90s-inspired alt-rocker that drives straight into “Desire Lines” sung by guitarist Lockett Pundt, whose “whoa-ohs” become one of Halcyon’s most compelling stand-out moments. With “Basement Scene,” Cox’s love for 50s doo-wop is apparent in this intentional throwback to the Everly Brothers’ “All I Wanna Do is Dream.” “Helicopter” sounds like it was made with 1980s toys and electronics as a two-chord progression with little to compete with underlies a simple melody and contagiously repetitive lines. The romping “Coronado” features a very Springsteen-esque sax solo and seems to both parody and celebrate “dad rock” while somehow fitting in perfectly with its surroundings.

Self-produced along with Ben H. Allen (producer of Animal Collective’s Merriweather Post Pavilion) Halcyon Digest is more of a dream-pop record than one founded on thick layers of heavily pedaled guitars, walls of noise and hyperactive, punctuating rhythms. They’ve transferred their dronier elements into the background to make way for an occasionally straining but self-evident accessibility to shine through. Halcyon Digest reflects a truly unique perspective of the world, and its only fault is that some of its best moments simply don’t last enough. Along with the rest of the band’s discography, Halcyon is a perfect record for October. See how it all translates tonight at the Magic Stick.

10.20.10 / Real Detroit Weekly

deerhuntertheband.blogspot.com

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Jimmy Eat World / Invented
Interscope

Throughout the later 90s, Arizona’s Jimmy Eat World produced truly heartbreaking music, but now they’re self-fulfilling the prophecy spelled out in 2001’s “Your New Aesthetic”—“we’re lowering the standard in a process selective;” and they’ve already told us how they plan to do it—“imitate and water down.” Adkins and co., I’d say “I’ll miss you when you’re just like them,” but that’s long been the case at this point.

Out of juvenile upbringings akin to early Chicago-brand Alkaline Trio/The Honor System emotional punk, JEW soon formed a niche alongside bands like the Promise Ring, Pedro the Lion and Jets to Brazil. They helped craft the emo genre tastefully with 1996’s Static Prevails and commanded it with 1999′s essential Clarity. It was our little Romantic period of punk rock. Even 2001’s Bleed American was, overall, kind of badass. Its hits were highly palatable in a Smashing Pumpkins “1979” kind of way, but you could sense the band evolving. They dipped a toe into the mainstream and were seemingly shoved in, stunting their growth as they’ve tried to keep up with the currents. They’ve yet to break from the confines of the airwaves to show us they’re capable of anything but grasping desperately at the frayed ends of a dying trend.

Little is discernable between this and their previous two records, Chase This Light and Futures. Invented presents a honing of the techniques they’ve been relying on, and the forced pop elements gunning for that top-40 hit are even more obvious than ever as their studio techniques increasingly take on modern stock characteristics. It opens with a promising track, “Heart Is Hard to Find,” as poignant and minimalistic stomps and claps shake the ground beneath a strumming guitar, strings, piano and xylophone. It is beautiful simplicity with a confident melody, but it quickly shifts to the ultra-formulaic mid-tempo dance-rock “My Best Theory” and from there on out, the record ping-pongs between mildly digestible and wholly unconvincing, only occasionally scoring a point or two along the way. Most of the record consists of songs that would be good to step out for a smoke during. The acoustic, seven-minute title track has the feel of The Get Up Kids’ “I’ll Catch You” and manages to elevate to a Designing a Nervous Breakdown-era Anniversary rocker before settling back down again into its cleverly diminished structure. “Stop,” “Cut,” and the closer “Mixtape” are all appropriately Jimmy, but none of these are as good as songs they’ve already made that sound just like them. The elements are beyond used and abused.

These days JEW are sounding more like Switchfoot than Jejune, less like Joan of Arc than Taking Back Sunday. They once built the bridge between Sunny Day Real Estate and Motion City Soundtrack, and when the youngsters took over they were able to ride the hoodie-strings to grandfatherly headliner status. It’s probably not their fault that little of their greatness has survived the 21st century—it seems as if the entire genre has been bled out and the collective heart has dried up. However watered down, Invented does stir up nostalgic memories, but the band has come a long way from Clarity and have since embraced vagueness. Now it’s as if these guys are simply clocking in and clocking out, only halfheartedly going through the emotions.

10.13.10 / Real Detroit Weekly

jimmyeatworld.com

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The Sadies / Darker Circles
Yep Roc

Toronto’s The Sadies have packed 13 albums into 12 years, many of them collaborations with a diversity of artists including Neko Case and Detroit’s own Andre Williams. Their latest channels an impressive history and wears an array of influences not only on its sleeves, but on its entire garb.

“Growing old is always hardest on the outcast / It’s a dirty, risky game to play and someone always has to come in last.” “Another Year Again” introduces a cynical theme and country swing on Darker Circles. “Cut Corners” follows—a downhearted ballad that shows early hints of optimism: “Here’s to the lucky ones, let’s drink to better days / To you and yours everywhere, this one’s on me for a change.”

“Another Day Again” is a surprising and courageous surf-rocker in a couple of upbeat tempos. It bowls into “Tell Her What I Said,” an honest and apologetic waltz that includes a brief and spacious shoegaze breakdown that funnels into a banjo solo accompanied only by an acoustic guitar. Next up is a 60s-style psychedelic serenade, “The Quiet One.”

The album concludes with the instrumental “10 More Songs,” a collection of excerpts that plays like a four-minute mixtape featuring Ennio Morricone, Dick Dale, The Who and more. (As Darker Circles is a self-described “extension” of 2007’s New Seasons, maybe this is a preview of part three?) Overall the album’s subtleties blend well with the essentials and fearlessness pushes Circles nearly to its limits, though at times not quite far enough.

8.18.10 / Real Detroit Weekly

thesadies.net

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Dan Sartain / Dan Sartain Lives
One Little Indian

This former Swami/Third Man recording artist from Birmingham, Alabama is a pencil-thin amalgamation of Elvis Presley and John Waters—only slightly more devilish. Sartain’s newest release is comprised of unadorned, often hyperactive ’50s inspired garage-a-billy/delta blues, much of which would play out nicely spewing from a jukebox tucked away somewhere within the next Tarantino flick. An unavoidable familiarity of reverb and twang pervades Lives, along with forceful and fetching melodies, cleverly courageous lyrics and appropriately dusty, mud-spattered production.

myspace.com/dansartain

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Sun Kil Moon / Admiral Fell Promises
Caldo Verde

Ex-Red House Painters frontman Mark Kozelek whittles down his craft to its essence. Accompanied by a softly plucked nylon string guitar, Admiral Fell Promises is entirely proverbial and easy to fall into. A classical influence effortlessly blends with the might of his characteristic melodies, and rather than relying on broadly sweeping instrumentation, Kozelek’s latest stands up strictly by the strength of his fingertips. This LP reflects an honest and effective process of reimagination while maintaining his distinctive complexity of arrangements.

7.21.10 / Real Detroit Weekly

sunkilmoon.com

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Danzig / Deth Red Sabaoth
Evilive/The End

Former Misfits/Samhain frontman Glenn Danzig is as sovereign as ever, and hasn’t lost any of the range or intensity present throughout the years from “Where Eagles Dare” to the unforgettable anthem “Mother.” Deth Red Sabaoth, Danzig’s ninth, contains some impressive movements and monumental choruses, but often suffers from generic riffing and unsystematic noodling, and may not stand up to the power of his back catalog for anyone but die-harders. Without straying from his comfort zone, Danzig continues to command it with authoritative savagery on this self-produced release.

6.30.10 / Real Detroit Weekly

danzig-verotik.com

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Melvins / The Bride Screamed Murder
Ipecac

The Melvins’ twentieth full-length makes ample use of recent additions Coady Willis and Jared Warren, drummer and bassist of Seattle sludge-metal outfit Big Business. Beginning with the percussive melee “The Water Glass,” the upgraded rhythm section (led by longstanding member Dale Crover) along with Buzz Osborne’s repetitive chants soon carry The Bride Screamed Murder into “Evil New War God”—a dense and cavernous drop-d chugfest accentuated by dual drumming that eventually slows to a swampy dirge. “I’ll Finish You Off” is a continuous and sluggish barrage of call-and-answer rhythms which doze into a relative drizzle reminiscent of machine-gun fire played back at quarter-speed. “Inhumanity and Death” hardly adheres to anything resembling cohesion, and plays out more like a collection of musical bits that could have each been expanded to fill at least an EP’s worth of material.

The seven-plus minute cover of the Who’s “My Generation” easily wins the contest of drudgiest rendition. Several overlaid voices growl and screech while Crover and Willis battle over who can best fill the spaces left wide open while retaining a cooperative crawl. Thickened with its extra layer of skins, The Bride Screamed Murder overall is an ominous appendage to the band’s imposing body of work.

6.23.10 / Real Detroit Weekly

ipecac.com/artists/melvins

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Wolf Parade / Expo 86
Sub Pop

Expo 86 possesses a much greater uniformity than Wolf Parade’s previous LPs, but sometimes its solidarity leaves the impression that these guys aren’t going as far as we know they’re capable of. While the record does contain some of the best work of their career, such as vocalist/keyboardist Spencer Krug’s “Cloud Shadow on the Mountain” and vocalist/guitarist Dan Boeckner’s “Ghost Pressure,” a great bulk of Expo 86 seems a bit too formulaic and desperate for a hook worthy of throwing confidence behind.

The live tracking of the album’s instrumentation breathes a certain life into these songs, and there is an impenetrable and omnipresent thickness that lounges beneath most of Expo 86. Keyboardist Hadji Bakara’s departure and noticeable lack of overdubs removes some of the band’s more interesting layers and places more emphasis on Boeckner and Dante DeCaro’s guitars, which along with Arlen Thompson’s impressive and heavy-handed drumming drive songs like “Little Golden Age” and “Yulia” to depths hardly reached on their previous efforts while often drowning out some of the album’s catchier hidden melodies.

I expect this album to receive as many mixed reviews as 2008’s At Mount Zoomer, depending on which elements of the band are preferred. Fans of more solid and powerful rock records may consider this to be the record that finally brings the band’s various strengths together to their fullest extent, while those who enjoyed being consistently thrown for a loop with 2005’s Apologies to the Queen Mary may find Expo 86 somewhat dry and monotonous.

6.23.10 / Real Detroit Weekly

subpop.com/artists/wolf_parade

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Devo / Something for Everybody
Warner Bros.

New wave synth-punk pioneers Devo’s first release in twenty years is as energetic and quirky as their groundbreaking earlier efforts, upgraded with the latest digital advancements and delivered at a distinctly higher BPM rate. Song-studied and panel-tested by the corporate entity DEVO Inc., Something for Everybody is as socially and culturally critical as the band has ever been, yet comes dangerously close to overreaching into the realm of the kitsch in their attempt to tangle their roots with pop modernity.

6.16.10 / Real Detroit Weekly

clubdevo.com

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We Are Scientists / Barbara
PIAS

With Barbara, former major label big-box dance-punkers We Are Scientists adventure only slightly beyond the boundaries established by their previous two releases. Spread thick over its barrages of household chord progressions and by-the-book pop structures, the record’s hooks are blatant and overwhelmingly conventional. Packed with megahits that are desperate for top-down summertime shoutalongs, Barbara is both wholly accessible and tremendously predictable, and while probably delivering their most solid record to date, WAS manage to remain a less-interesting Killers at best.

6.08.10 / Real Detroit Weekly

wearescientists.com

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The Black Keys / Brothers
Nonesuch

For their latest release, Akron, Ohio’s The Black Keys cautiously experiment with their traditionally minimalist blues-rock and implement little more than presence into the grime and fuzz of their collected works. Rather than shedding the conventions they’ve established for themselves throughout their career, the duo draws largely on the experiences of their more recent years of collaboration to showcase a great degree of tasteful maturation while retaining what places them among the more honest revivalists of our day.

“Everlasting Light” opens Brothers and begs for accompanying stomps and claps before vocalist/guitarist Dan Auerbach’s falsetto enters the mix. The album’s first single “Tighten Up” (produced by Danger Mouse) begins with the catchiest whistle-blown melody since Peter Bjorn and John’s “Young Folks” and is soon taken over by Patrick Carney’s tumbling percussion as it trips over itself before surrendering into a classic, arm-pumping breakdown beat. For hit-seekers, the album’s soulful and weighty middle section, punctuated by psychedelic organ swoons and instrumental jams may be largely forgettable but hides some of the best songwriting of the duo’s nine year career, notably the sluggish and hypnotic “Ten Cent Pistol” and “I’m Not the One.”

Unlike certain pockets of 2008’s Attack & Release, Brothers rarely feels oversaturated. The album’s classically polished self-production accurately displays the band’s clarity of purpose, and the result is only slightly polarizing for the most demanding of purists while perhaps powerful enough to welcome back a few of those craving a return to the simplicity and modesty of their earlier work.

5.26.10 / Real Detroit Weekly

theblackkeys.com

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Or, the Whale / Light Poles and Pines
Self-released

Straight from their ten-gallon hearts, San Francisco’s Or, the Whale have set themselves apart from typical indie folk/country with their first release, Light Poles and Pines. Simple, old-timey song structures with modern tones and feels reflect an age of dry, sweltering sunlight and of basking on a bale of hay with a mason jar of moonshine. The music sounds as if it was performed by a gang of dirt-covered, sweat-soaked ranch-hands in overalls; the band saddles up with serenity, honesty, and uncompromisable brilliance.

With “Call and Response,” Or, the Whale swiftly kicks open the saloon doors of Light Poles and Pines and immediately, with authority, demands a drink. Barstools are shoved aside as they stake their claim on this land, with a half-dozen mouths stuffed full of crooked teeth and strands of grass they methodically stomp, clap and hustle their way through its introduction. With painstaking accuracy, they transport us to another world, one that’s best viewed through a filter of sepia. Or, the Whale have somehow managed to capture a feel of pure, unadulterated country music, the kind that should only be accompanied by the pops of an old gramophone, yet freshly updated and merged with clean, crisp indie rock tones and harmonies.

The next track “Saint Bernard” is a sad little song with the feel of an old shed out back, each member softly plucking, strumming, tapping, humming little tones, clicking their heels on the rotting wooden floor as the rain pounds the roof, and there’s nothing the band would rather be doing on a night such as this. As the record plays, they stagger back and forth between listlessness and lethargy, occasionally punctuating the feel with upbeat and playful rollicking.

As “Threads” shuffles on, I can almost feel the sting in my eyes from all the dust Or, The Whale is kicking up from their boots. The rickety chair rocks in perfect rhythm as the banjo strums on so fast, making my fingers ache just listening to it.The fifth track, “Death of Me,” portrays an apparently forlorn barista named Stephanie, its distant organ subtly nudges you forward into their well-deserved intermission track, “Crack a Smile.” They soon pick things right back up again with the contradictory “feel-good” track of the album, “Fixin’ to Leave,” and into the draggy, moonlit sonata that is “Rope Don’t Break.”

This is true Americana. Or, The Whale somehow gets away with the amount of layers they wrap it in while keeping it from becoming as watered-down as its compatriots. Each layer as crucial as the rest in portraying the history captured in Light Poles and Pines, and in succeeding in blowing the barn doors off of contemporary country and western.

The clever and charismatic opening of the accidentally mis-titled “Bound to Go Home” begins a drunken romp around the stable yard. Each member seems to be intertwined at the arm, spinning around in circles, smiling, shouting, stomping their feet while beer-soaked fingers sloppily twinkle the piano keys against a fierce barrage of dueling acoustic guitar and banjo strums. This is a three-minute peek into a world where nothing else matters, only this song that could have very well been composed at that very moment. What follows is “Prayer for the Road,” a campfire anthem which perfectly celebrates the sun setting behind a southern plateau. The album’s final tracks round everything out, ending with “Fight Song,” a veritable cleanser of the palate, one that slowly and gently brings us back to our modern time.

This impressive debut from Or, the Whale declares a promise and brands themselves, with a hot iron, as representatives of the true revival of modern Americana. These guys have clearly been sifting and have apparently found gold. Lucky for us, they’re willing to share the wealth.

8.27.07 / Delusions of Adequacy

orthewhale.com

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Clap Your Hands Say Yeah / Some Loud Thunder
Self-released

Brooklyn’s Clap Your Hands Say Yeah produced not only one of my favorite albums of 2005, but one on a short list of records that made me rediscover my love of music, ultimately pulling me away from my short-term loyalty to the AM talk radio dial. Saying that I had high expectations for this record is beyond understatement, the thought of them exceeding the originality and brilliance of their first self-titled album is something that I couldn’t imagine possible, and unfortunately, they wrote and recorded the exact record that I had presumed they would.

Some Loud Thunder maintains CYHSY’s carnivalesque indie feel they established with their debut to a T, but doesn’t travel much further beyond it. The songs aren’t nearly as captivating as their first effort, yet the self-production maintains the strength in their choice of instrumentation and accentuates vocalist Alec Ounsworth’s trademark whine.

A few of the tracks do stand out, namely “Emily Jean Stock,” “Yankee Go Home,” and “Mama, Won’t You Keep Those Castles in the Air & Burning?” (Some Loud Thunder’s version of the power ballad), but none half as much as the better half of their debut. The opening title track was intentionally produced to sound as if it was copied over and over again on cassette tape then run over by a monster truck, leaving it two dubs shy of unlistenable. The remaining songs are composed of mostly filler, heavily reliant on the tambourine and distant, distorted drum effects.

“Satan Said Dance,” marking the closure of the album’s first act, was the first song I had previewed via the band’s myspace page. It left me confused, but fortunately is not an accurate representation of the rest of the album, the song sounding as if the monkey had hopped off of Ounsworth’s organ grinding shoulder and not only produced the track itself, but also played xylophone on it.

I am anticipating heavy rotation of this record on the old iPod to last no more than a month or so before I retreat back to their first record, which I already consider to be one of the essential albums of the decade. Clap Your Hands may have pigeonholed themselves as an inspiring DIY outfit, settling themselves into a lifetime of self-production and being one of America’s all-time best unsigned bands, for all-time.

I don’t expect to be hearing anything off of this record next time I’m shopping for a sweater at the Gap this winter. The bolt of lightning that I had hoped would accompany Some Loud Thunder turned out to be merely a spark, a fizzle, and a puff of smoke.

1.31.07 / Real Detroit Weekly

clapyourhandssayyeah.com

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