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Music CD Recommendations

Spotlight on: The Blow

CDs Reviewed:
The Concussive Caress by The Blow
Paper Television by The Blow

Cover of Paper Television by The Blow The Blow, Paper Television

Previously, the "band" known as The Blow was merely one person and her friends. Khaela Maricich recorded two albums under that name (Bonus Album and The Concussive Caress). An earlier album under the name Get the Hell Out of the Way of the Volcano, Everyday Examples of Humans Facing Straight into the Blow, was recently rereleased under the Blow name. (I can understand why she would want to shorten that moniker -- there's probably a law against shouting it in a crowded theatre.)

In 2004, Khaela added Jona Bechtolt (YACHT) to the band's permanent lineup. Paper Television is only their second recording together (following the limited edition EP Poor Aim: Love Songs) and they've already created a pop masterpiece.

The idea behind Paper Television is fascinating in itself, as stated by the album's liner notes: "In response to these dark times, nationally and internationally, we spent a good part of our time making a pop record." A noble effort, I'd say, from the looks (and definitely from the sound) of it.

Paper Television isn't your average mindless electronic pop album. The mind is in full effect here, which makes these songs hang out in your head long after the disc has stopped spinning. "Pile of Gold" (which is available for download on the K Records site) starts things off by using economics as a metaphor for the struggle between men and women over the latter's goods and services: "All the girls are sitting on a pile of gold, all the girls -- and the boys, you know, they want it." Further advice is given on "fair trade" and avoiding high tariffs, all wrapped in a peppy beat that would certainly have me paying attention in class.

Did the bell ring? English class is next as, on "Parentheses," an embrace is compared to everyone's favorite rounded punctuation marks. From the first listen, this glossy song was my favorite -- likely due to my working professionally as a proofreader -- and while other highlights have introduced themselves throughout subsequent listens, "Parentheses" remains at the top of my list.

"The Big U" finds the singer "a little bit afraid of your relationship with the universe." That's some tough competition, but Khaela seems willing to compromise and be "let in on your threesome." The funky "The Long List of Girls" is a treat, especially for the guy who is the focus of the titular series of "girls who love the shit out of you." Marching drums enhance the strong feeling of one who is afraid to get involved with someone who, upon targeting someone's heart, "all you ever seem to do is break it." "Bonjour Jeune Fille" proves that you don't have to understand a foreign language to recognize juicy electropop goodness. Sung half in French and half in English, with approximately the same meaning across the board, it could even educate you in the process.

The songs on Paper Television follow a discernible trend, with just a few exceptions, from happier, peppier ditties to more melancholy, regretful songs. None could be called truly sad, but the later songs (on what once would have been called side two) offer more complex ranges of emotion. They're all eminently danceable, however, and if you don't feel like being affected by their lyrical content, you certainly don't have to.

The slow groove of "Babay (Eat A Critter, Feel Its Wrath)" -- certainly the most inscrutably titled track on Paper Television -- is a perfect musical accompaniment to the singer's trip through her love's gastrointestinal tract. (All the way through, too.) And then the next song is "Eat Your Heart Up" -- looks like some retribution is on the menu.

"Pardon Me" has to be the sexiest song since The Concussive Caress's opener, "How Naked Are We Gonna Get?" -- but it's more subtle this time around. Khaela, with her sweet, sexy, suede voice accompanied by a forceful beat, calls her lover on the carpet after a particularly steamy lovemaking session:

Pardon me, but wasn't that your heart
That I felt, on the bed, in the bed, in between the sheets?
I might have been confused
By all the sweat (there was a lot of sweat) and I could be mistaken.
Sounds like some deeper communication is in their future. In the meantime, "Fists Up" enriches its eminently danceable groove with a Star Wars reference and the surprising revelation that "I don't want to come to the point of this song because the point of this song would have to be so long."

The album's closer, "True Affection," is, at this writing, my second favorite song off Paper Television (it and "Pardon Me" tend to spar for runner-up status). It culminates everything that came before in a smoothly finger-snapping testament to a relationship that went sour despite the best efforts of its participants: "Just because it's real doesn't mean it's going to work." It ends with an eternal failed-relationship truth expressed in paradox (the form the most important truths often take), making it all the more regrettable:

True affection floats.
True affection sinks like a stone.
I never felt so close.
I never felt so all alone.
Leaving us to ponder the nature of love and all that surrounds it. If you're not interested in pondering at the current moment, however, just start the disc over again. It's only half an hour long, so listening through again won't take too much of your time -- and look what you gain in return. I've listened to Paper Television at least a dozen times through (with selected repeats of favorite songs) and not only have I not even begun to tire of it, but I love it even more now than I did when I was first introduced to its highly accessible pop craftsmanship.

Paper Television belongs in the collection of every pop music fan. After all, how many pop musicians reference Jules Verne when talking about incompatibility ("I was out of your league, and you were 20,000 underneath the sea")? At a time when it didn't seem possible, The Blow have really outdone themselves this time around.

Cover of The Concussive Caress by The Blow The Blow, The Concussive Caress
(or, Casey Caught Her Mom Singing Along with the Vacuum)

It's an audacious album that begins with the musical question "How Naked Are We Gonna Get?" and The Concussive Caress by The Blow (the newest manifestation of Khaela Maricich after Get the Hell Out of the Way of the Volcano) is audacious indeed. But no one is more surprised at the fact that I am reviewing this album positively than myself, considering that my first introduction to Maricich as a solo artist (sidestepping her vocal appearances on various Microphones recordings) in The Blow was via the Invisible Shield compilation, on which her "The Democracy of Small Things" (originally from the Bonus Album EP) appears. It quickly became one of the few songs I would invariably skip and Maricich became known around my household as "the girl who talks to her molecules." Luckily, I had an open enough mind to approach The Concussive Caress on its own merits--once I determined that "The Democracy of Small Things" was not featured.

The Concussive Caress isn't your average electronic pop album. It requires a little attention be paid and does not hold with common song titling conventions. Track 3 isn't titled at all and two songs--"'Sweetheart'" and "Gravity (Pauline's Response to Amy)"--expand over two consecutive tracks each. Timing isn't a consideration, either, with four of the fifteen tracks coming in at considerably less than one minute and Track 15 figuring at over ten minutes (if you include the hidden track at the end of the album). However, as with many K artists, once I got over the sheer oddity of the album, I was able to settle back and enjoy it as music.

"How Naked Are We Going to Get?" is bold in any form, with lyrics that touch on unspoken thoughts, including the idea that one can "remember the route to her heart from her thighs." It's as forceful and attention-grabbing as anything on Exile in Guyville. All this is backed by a droning undertone and the occasional high-pitched accompaniment to Maricich's sweetly alluring voice that shows itself to be malleable to any situation. This groove is broken by "Chase Dream," with knocks its way in with the side of a drum and the staccato delivery of "I get it, got it, get it get it, got it" for 26 seconds, followed quickly by an untitled track featuring a barely tuneful guitar and drums for 22 seconds. Strangely enough, these interludes add to the narrative flow somehow that I understand but can't explain.

Pop craftsmanship comes to the fore in "A Night Full of Open Eyes," with a sound that is quite familiar with the necessities of top 40 radio. The second part of "Sweetheart" is another standout, almost purely due to its conciseness and lyrics:

He called me Doll Eyes
He called me Sunrise
He called me Hearty Thighs
He called me Super Size
He called me Heat Lamp
He called me Summer Camp
He called me...just that once and then he never called again.
Khaela's courageous (and, I must add, almost entirely successful) experimentation with different genres on The Concussive Caress is epitomized by the slow, groovy rap goodness of "What Tom Said about Girls." It is easily my favorite track on the album, not least because she really gets into the mind of this mostly unlikable character and shows his cockiness truly and satirically, making him sympathetic in the process. "Nothing" didn't strike me as very memorable at first, but eventually worked its way into the folds of my brain and emerges at unconventional times--strange for a track without a chorus to speak of.

Throughout the album, we are introduced to snippets from the Karicich's recent narrative opera, Blue Sky vs. Night Sky and if these songs are any indication, a full recording of this opera would be an event, indeed. As it is, we are merely teased with snippets of the whole storyline. "Come On Pauline (Amy's Cassette for Pauline)," "Gravity (Pauline's Response to Amy)," and "What Amy Heard in Her Mother's Voice Played Backwards" are only the most obviously titled ones of this selection. Based on their lyrical content, I'm assuming that "What Tom Said About Girls," "'Sweetheart,'" "Where I Love You," and "A Night Full of Open Eyes" are also part of this cycle and these are some of the highest points on The Concussive Caress. But even so, this album as it is could well be the crowning glory (so far, of course) in the career of The Blow.

The final track ("The Warrior's Hearts") is grandly reminiscent of the music from The 7th Guest but also sounds like something that would play under closing credits, making it the perfect closer to this disc. The entirety of The Concussive Caress runs only about thirty minutes (not including the hidden track at the end of 15), which is just enough time to take the dog for a long walk (or the ferret, depending on your pet predilections), but not so long that you have to stay the night over at a friend's house the finish the thing, unlike some bands that seem to thrive on filler just to take up the whole running time of a compact disc. It's a truly great album that leaves me wanting more.

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