Post Marked Stamps
Sometime in early 1996, a young man in Chicago named Ken Shipley conceptualized a series of two-song, seven-inch singles to release on his label, Tree. The series was called Post Marked Stamps, and the songs were built around the concept of long-distance lovers. Each seven-inch featured two bands and was packaged in a carefully constructed sleeve adorned with an historical used stamp (the first being "The Brooklyn Bridge" stamp, others including "Project Mercury" and "Seattle World's Fair"). Tree has now released a CD with all of the tracks from the nine records, frustrating collectors who've struggled to keep up with the quick-to-disappear singles but placating those who missed parts of the series.
On the CD the tracks are not presented in the order they were released. Shipley rearranged them in a way that he "thought would be more soothing to the listener." The tack works, as the chronological order is beside the point. Not every song included here is extraordinary, but there are enough exceedingly brilliant standouts to compensate for the low points. Most bands hail from the Midwest school of emo/post-hardcore/post-emo melodicore -- or whatever the hell the kids call it these days -- which translates to a lot of heart-wrenching lyrics, quiet/loud dynamics, and the occasional math-rock track.
Braid's track, "Forever Got Shorter," is the first rocker on the comp, a song both touching and slightly agonized, with the dual-guitar dynamism that's omnipresent in Braid's work. However, the flip side of the original seven-inch, the Get Up Kids' "I'm a Loner Dottie, a Rebel...," makes Braid's track pale in comparison. The youngsters in the Get Up Kids, most of whom are too young to drink alcohol legally, lay out a rollicking but depressing "leaving your lover" song -- "If I go, it's not impossible/But possible is probably wrong.../ Shut your eyes,/When you wake up I'll be gone."
Rainer Maria and Jen Wood contribute the female perspective on the long-distance-lovers theme, Rainer Maria slowly and painfully rocking through a waterfall of guitars and Wood softly strumming through her acoustic track "Sheltering Arms For the Birds." Also acoustic, and surprisingly so, is Still Life's "Looks Like Tomorrow." Still Life is ordinarily an extremely abrasive band, part of the screaming, flailing brand of emo pioneered in San Diego, yet this track is both gentle and haunting, with pensive lines like "God knows I try to see the beauty in everything."
The record ends with Joan of Arc frontman Tim Kinsella's solo version of the Promise Ring's "A Picture Postcard," which Kinsella laughingly writes in the liner notes he would have named "Forget the Fuck Away From Me." The disjointed and offbeat version he offers, especially his falsettos and the additional phrase he injects at the song's end, is both endearing and slightly laughable. It's a fitting end to a series that captivated indie-rock kids across the nation for a good two and a half years. The CD version just makes one wish it had never come to an end.
-- Brendan Kelley
The Ego Has Landed
It's very hard at first to take Robbie Williams seriously: He was a member of Take That (the U.K.'s answer to the New Kids on the Block), he's been in rehab and romantically linked to a member of the All Saints, and his first two solo records (not released in the U.S.) have sold five million copies in Europe. But since he traffics in pop, sincerity isn't the first order of business; getting tunes to stick in the head is. In that sense he succeeds like few others. Sharing writing duties with Guy Chambers (the Waterboys, World Party), Williams has become a huge star in England, thanks to the weepy, Elton John-style ballad "Angels." Ego compiles tracks from his two records in an attempt to break Williams in the U.S. For Williams to succeed commercially stateside, Americans will have to embrace the self-effacing, dry British humor and diverging styles that soak this release.
The record has a little something for everyone, but like a meal of hors d'oeuvres, it's not substantial enough to be filling. At times Williams sounds like a mainstream rock act, other tracks are a bit dancy, and still others have a glam tinge. There isn't a consistent "Robbie Williams sound," which makes his American debut uneven. His main strength is as a charismatic performer, and the energetic, bombastic, piano-fueled sing-along "Let Me Entertain You" channels this as almost a manifesto. It's the kind of Vegas anthem best left to Tom Jones (of whom Williams does a wicked impersonation), though Williams seems quite comfortable in the overdramatic role at center stage. Elsewhere on the record, Williams is more delicate, as with the classic pop-rock of "Strong," in which he admits weakness while surrounded by acoustic guitars and a thick wall of falsetto backing vocals. And his signature track, "Angels," seethes with the melodrama (think Cheap Trick's "The Flame" or Guns N' Roses' "November Rain") that made it a major hit internationally.
Even though he has his roots in a cheesy boy-band, Williams is more mature musically than one would expect. The shuffling drums, minor-key piano, and falsetto vocals on "Killing Me" straddle a fine line between George Michael and Badfinger. It's a minor triumph, a quiet little gem of understatement that shows Williams has more to him than just singles and filler. Ego is a mixed bag, lacking the energy and charm of Williams' live show but delivering a handful of solid tunes.
-- David Simutis