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Ground Control’s 2010 Gift Return/Gift Certificate Redemption Guide

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Saturday, 01 January 2011

By now, the lives of most of those who were swept up in the holiday storm have to be reverting to some semblance of normalcy. “The most wonderful (and wildly stressful) time of the year” is over – and now we're left at the dawn of the new year to survey our new-found wealth. So how'd you make out? Did you get everything you wanted? Whether you did or whether you didn't, there are still a few loose ends left hanging from the Christmastime frenzy that need sewing up. Look at that stack of gift cards, for example. For some people (particularly reputed audiophiles), it's not uncommon to receive a few token 'I don't know your taste these days, so go down to the store yourself and pick out something that will make you happy” gift certificates redeemable at your local chain record store. Some of you may also have a stack of unopened CDs that you received from that well-meaning and very supportive, but unfortunately clueless uncle who thought it might be nice to turn you onto something a little different. In cases like that, the thought was there but, really, it's unlikely that you're ever going to listen to the collected works of John Denver. So what to do with all this stuff? Well, most people will do the obvious: go down to that local record store and try to figure out what to use those gift certificates on, or try to return the CDs you're never going to listen to and put the value against something that will actually get you your fix. But what to choose? We at Ground Control know that question all too well and want to help, so we've gone out of our way to try and help you figure out what might be a good thing to get with some of your new, perfectly disposable income and/or excess paper goods. These are the titles that will either be out very early this year, or those which came out last year, but may not have found their way under your tree for one reason or another.

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OFF!
First Four EPs

(Vice Recordings)

It's almost perfect, somehow, that OFF!'s maiden release came out just close enough to Christmas that those who would have begged for it couldn't because they had already submitted their Christmas list to their families, friends and assorted loved ones. Regardless, now might be the ideal time to go out and get it, because it is so worth it; after so many years and so many bands putting their own different spins on the music, one could only have hoped that someone would drag hardcore punk back to the center at which it began. That is precisely what OFF! does on its' first release, in every possible way. While the four EPs included could easily have fit on a single CD (the songs average about a minute and a half in length, making all sixteen tracks run about eighteen minutes in total), the band elected to use seven-inch vinyl as their medium of choice – just as it was in the old days of SST hardcore – and the album artwork was done by SST alum Raymond Pettibon; and then there is the music itself. Focused on feelings of anxiety and frustration, songs like “Black Thoughts,” “Upside Down,” “Now I'm Pissed,” “Panic Attack” and “Peace In Hermosa” all call to mind the best days of Black Flag (not surprising, given that OFF!'s frontman is none other than Black Flag alumnus Keith Morris) and the finest days of the original wave of SoCal hardcore; at the dawn of the scene in the early Eighties. That overall sound marks a rousing return to basics for hardcore that one can only hope will only be the first shot in a massive re-ignition of old values. The First Four EPs is great; it is not music to buy jeans to, it is music to live by and the first, greatest pick to use that record store gift certificate you go for Christmas on.

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The Decemberists
The King Is Dead
(Capitol)

So have you held off on taking those horrible shit shingles that your perfectly well-meaning, but perfectly clueless uncle laid on you over the holidays? Good for you; your patience (or laziness) could be rewarded if you take them to your local record store and unload them in trade for a copy of The King Is Dead by The Decemberists, which comes out on January 18. Some listeners may balk and say that The Decemberists revisiting old strengths as they are on their sixth studio album implies that the band has run out of ideas. That is not the case at all though; each track on The King Is Dead comes through fresh and new because they also present elements of growth. Here, the band includes the solid, more self-assured writing style that was featured on The Hazards Of Love, thereby making not it exactly like anything the band has done before, but an improved version of the band's original focus. That change is great, but even more engaging is the improved mood reflected in the album; unlike the dark and even dour shadows that The Hazards Of Love often cast, there is a more upbeat and brighter coloring streaked through songs like “Rise To Me,” “Calamity Song,” “January Hymn” and “All Arise” that is absolutely beguiling when it's coupled as it is here with an evocative, Georgia Country-touched backdrop. That said, while The Decemberists have always implied adventure and sights which would be exciting to witness in their songs, The King Is Dead is the most exciting and adventurous release in the group's catalogue to date and it seems to achieve that stature effortlessly. More than The Crane Wife or The Hazards Of Love, it could be said that The King Is Dead is the next big step in The Decemberists' career; here, they prove that they can take the experience they've accrued over their career and apply it to music that is unmistakably in line with sounds immediately associated with themselves and themselves alone. That means the album is a very unique landmark in the band's catalogue.

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Jon Spencer Blues Explosion
Now I Got Worry (Deluxe Reissue)
(Shout Factory)

Fourteen years after JSBX first smashed listeners over the head with Now I Got Worry, Jon Spencer has revisited the album and, with the benefit of hindsight, has remixed and remastered the album and appended some extra tracks thought to be lost to the bulk tape eraser. Now, while, still filthy and potent as fuck, the singer has altered the fabric of the songs ever so slightly so that every part of them punches through a little harder, and listeners are able to differentiate each part cleanly; in effect, while the mire is still evident, listeners are able to pick out every edge and corner but the overall differences, while very subtle, do improve the overall flow and aesthetic of the record. That, in and of itself, is very cool  and longtime fans will find value in it, but they'll rush to check out the dozen bonus tracks appended to the run-time as well as the four radio ads recorded to promote the album's original release. In listening to the extra tracks, it becomes apparent that JSBX had more irons in the fire in '96 that may not have made it onto the album, but would get further exploration on future releases. While the aborted dance craze “Let's Smurf” and the very brief instrumental “Buscemi” understandably arrived on the cutting room floor, both “Cool Vee” (a tribute to Tesco perhaps?) and the instrumental “Fish Sauce” foreshadow the more experimental soul of Acme while both “Yellow Eyes,” “Get With It” and “Turn Up Greene” play like long-forgotten test runs for what would eventually become the base for Heavy Trash.


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Dana Kurtz/My Brightest Diamond
“Gone Away” b/w “Postcards From Downtown” (Split 7”)
(Kismet/Slope/Hungry Hill/Domino)

In spite of just how different both artists' styles normally are, they end up coming together with a surprisingly uniform and balanced performance here; the A-side belongs to Kurtz with a cover of My Brightest Diamond's “Gone Away” that strips the normally trip hop-py patterning that MBD singer Shara Worden usually employs in her songs and focuses on the lugubrious and draughty heart of the song. With nothing more than a banjo for accompaniment, Kurtz rifles through the months spent alone and the heartbreak that is the only thing the song's protagonist has to keep her warm at night. It's sadly beautiful in a Billie Holiday, “Strange Fruit” or Tom Waits, “Broken Bicycles” sort of way, and listeners will feel their hearts begin to weep when that banjo begins to thud through the chorus and the singer nearly spits lines like “You've gone away/Where there isn't a telephone wire/Still I wait by the phone/why don't you write?” in anguish before all those hearts break in the end as the singer bids that horrible man a tearful goodbye. In just three minutes and with no lead-up, Kurtz captures and holds listeners in the palm of her hand with just a hook of raw emotion and heartbreak and it's knee-buckling.

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Luke Doucet and The White Falcon
Steel City Trawler
(Six Shooter)

There's no doubt that an argument could be made about Steel City Trawler not being able to exist without genre-shaping records like Exile On Main Street, Love It To Death, Harvest Moon and (maybe) even Raw Power, but what makes all the difference here is the sense and sensibilities of the conduit through which it's all passing and that's Luke Doucet. On Steel City Trawler, impressions of some of the greatest sounds in rock history are filtered through one guitarist and delivered to listeners with love and heart. While keeping his eye on the greats, Luke Doucet has made his one classic, defining record.

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Blacklist Royals
Semper Liberi
(Paper + Plastick)

It sounds contrary to contend this, but some musical mixtures are more easily imagined than executed and, most often, the simplest and most straightforward combinations are the most troublesome to successfully carry off. A perfect example of an idea that seems simple in theory but proves not to be so simple in practice is the mixture of rock, punk and soul. Sure – lots of bands have tried to make such a mix work, and occasionally they're able to pull it off – Rancid has lucked into a sublime crossbreed a few times, and The Gaslight Anthem gets it right once in a while – but the ratio of successfully orchestrated hybrids of those three genres to sketchy-at-best attempts is about one in thirteen; which is to say, for every band that gets it right, there are twelve that miss the mark because they focus too much on one facet of the combination. With that in mind, it could be contended that most bands trying to make the aforementioned mix work are mired in a career-long attempt to find the perfect balance – which makes the Blacklist Royals' Semper Liberi all the more special because, on this debut, the band nails their mark right out of the gate.

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Wooden Wand
Death Seat
(Young God)

From the opening of “Sleep Walking After Midnight,” fans will excitedly note the marked difference that Death Seat represents in the context of Wooden Wand's sound to date. Strikingly clear and tidy (many of the band's other releases have been dogged by muddled or tinny sounding production), “Sleepwalking After Midnight” positively shimmers  as Toth (joined on the mic by his backing players) seems to come back into himself singing of arms wide open and tattered, terrycloth dreams. The delivery is methodical in tempo and romantic at heart, and easy to fall under the spell of – an effect Wooden Wand fans are accustomed to but haven't felt so easily or quickly in a while. The procession begun by “Sleepwalking After Midnight” continues through the trepidation and oddly swirling acoustic movements of “The Mountain” (instruments appear and vanish suddenly – it's unsettling) and the sadly beautiful soul of “Servant To Blues.” Each of those songs (this becomes a reoccurring design through the rest of the record too) begins with simple and stark guitars and Toth's own voice almost as an introduction before the song is built up and filled out with additional vocals and instruments which creates a dramatic progression twelve times over through this run-time. Because of that, listeners find their hearts and souls being fed so well that, as each song ends, they'll feel just that much warmer.

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