Like most premature debuts, Comfort captures Failure, a young trio, learning how to make cool sounds together without benefit of worthwhile songs or an established personality. Veteran engineer Steve Albini opens the doors to a crisp, cloudless sky, which Los Angeles singer/guitarist Ken Andrews, bassist Greg Edwards and the first of several drummers wisely don’t attempt to fill. “Submission” and “Swallow” do play follow the leader with Big Black and their acidly antagonistic ilk, but “Something” and “Muffled Snaps” allow an alluring melodicism and whispery vocals to temper the skeletal aggression. Comfort contains some worthwhile lessons, but the band’s term paper on the subject surely didn’t need to be published.
Against booming bass and snappy drumming, the self-produced Magnified is a major improvement, but not a thorough success. The mature Failure paints senseless coats of alternative guitar (a stylistic trademark, not a cultural valuation) over tuneful material that might actually be enticing if not for the underbrush. In a voice that, at times, sounds like John Linnell of They Might Be Giants, Andrews sings about “frogs…leaping off my brainstem” and “warm winds calling me a coward.” The rocking title track and the mainstreamed epic “Wonderful Life” get the balance close, but this giant step toward a viable, worthwhile identity doesn’t get there.
The Replicants side-project compounds Failure (Andrews singing and playing bass and guitar; Edwards on drums, guitar and keyboards) with a Tool (guitarist Paul D’Amour) and keyboardist Chris Pitman. The album’s ingenious concept was to record, y’know, other people’s old songs — I guess you could call ’em covers — in a modern idiom. (Of course, the idea of forming a group to do this pushes Replicants closer to K-Tel vapidity than the usual bigtimer we-do-’em-our-way processing plant.) Punching up the jukebox for new wave nuggets (Missing Persons’ “Destination Unknown,” Gary Numan’s “Are Friends Electric?”), classic rock tracks (Neil Young’s “Cinnamon Girl,” John Lennon’s “How Do You Sleep”) and others from T. Rex, David Bowie, Steely Dan and Syd Barrett, the ad hoc wedding band evinces a few bright ideas — slowing Paul McCartney’s “Silly Love Songs” (sung by guest star Maynard Keenan of Tool) to a tuneless crawl, de-gearing the Cars’ “Just What I Needed” into a constantly downshifting modulation joke — but most of the renditions are more faithful, reconfiguring the instrumentation and pounding the oldies into currency without expending much creative effort.