Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Album Review--Made out of Babies' Coward

It’s been a long time since I’ve been so excited about the release of a rock band’s new album, since sometime in college when I was really digging Godflesh and The Jesus Lizard. But here I was with baited breath watching for the mailman to deliver Made out of Babies’ sophomore effort, Coward. Generally, this kind of anticipation breeds disappointment, and I inevitably pop the album in with some trepidation, fearing the worst and hoping for the best. I’d seen the cover art, a striking and cringe-inducing photo of a boy whose face is half angelic and half beaten to a pulp (the contrast of which gives a good sense of the band behind the cover), and heard two songs that appeared on the previously (sort of) reviewed Triad split EP, both of which gave me more hope than fear. Turns out, luckily, that I am far from disappointed in this second installment of the Made out of Babies odyssey that I wish would continue indefinitely.

The album opens with a series of blood-curdling screams that nobody I’ve ever heard can belt out like front-woman Julie Christmas, setting up a barrage of sound reminiscent of bands like the aforementioned Jesus Lizard or Big Black (not necessarily surprising, given that the album was produced by Steve Albini, who produced the former’s albums and fronted the latter) that barely relents for a second of the album’s 37 minutes. Christmas’ surreal, often improvised, lyrics run the gambit of catharsis and emotion through screams, whispers, and inhuman yelps and the band behind her, if not quite as skilled, provide an appropriately menacing backdrop. Take this example of the lyrical strangeness from “Death in April”:

Small body on the road
Coat still sheened with spring
Its eyes still black and soft and warm and clean
Its legendary quickness of feet
Too slow for the truck’s wheels or teeth
Matter of minutes and hours all gone
Picked up for someone else’s feast
And again and again and again and again

I love roadkill, don’t you? Nothing like waking up from a long winter’s hibernation to get smashed crossing the street. Most of the songs are much more difficult to decipher that this, but the power and conviction contained in each track is something to behold. The album really feels complete, unlike their debut, Trophy, which finished on a very sour note with the opening of a song that did not finish (it is performed as an entire song on Coward, and is the most interesting song on the album), and is quite good; much better than could be expected, and is very highly recommended. It may be the best new rock album in two years.

One thing that does disturb me though, and this is no fault of the album, is the way the band is presented in print. Why is it that a band, just because it is fronted by a woman, must be compared exclusively to other female-fronted bands? I’ve read things about Julie Christmas as absurd as Bjork meets Wendy O (Plasmatics) and Kate Bjelland (Babes in Toyland) in a dark alley on a bad day. This is complete, utter bullshit. She has been compared to every female rock artist ever (save Vixen, I have not heard that one yet), and rarely, if ever, compared to a man. Is music not music, regardless of gender? She is an artist of rare power and intelligence and the music comes off as such. I recommend this interview for a sense of who she is and what she represents as an artist. Unfortunately, the opening presents a comparison as I mention above that is so stupid it’s crippling, but the interview is pretty good.