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Accounting for Taste: Exo, Say Hello to the Master Siege Control

Four TMN writers get their paws on something and give their reviews. This time it’s an album from Chicago band Exo, selected by Kevin Guilfoile.

We humans have a strange compulsion, unique among animals, to try to get others (but not too many others) to like the same bands we like. Of course, sometimes people say they love a band only because they think they’re supposed to. It would take some research to identify the exact day, but there was almost certainly a time last fall when The White Stripes, The Strokes, and The Hives each had more fans than there were people who could possibly have heard even one of their songs. In fact, it might still be true. A few weeks ago, waiting at a restaurant bar, we overheard a man trying to convince his date that she would ‘really dig The White Strokes.’ We don’t doubt she would.

Occasionally, a Morning News contributor will pass around a CD or an MP3 from a relatively unknown artist and try to bully other TMN staffers into liking it. Today is the first in an occasional series where three of our writers, chosen at random, will pass judgment on one of those records. Their decisions will be swift, concise, but not final.

There is, after all, no accounting for taste.

Album: Exo, Say Hello to the Master Siege Control

[ band site ]

Kevin Guilfoile
Recommended: Yes

I’ve known Scott Tallarida a long time, since before his days with a brash and cocky funk-fusion large band. In the mid-nineties they were not only one of Chicago’s best live acts, but they also dubbed themselves Cassius Clay, one of the most fitting rock-and-roll names I’ve ever known.

The boxing metaphor applies as well to his latest group, Exo, whose debut CD, Say Hello to the Master Siege Control, boasts rope-a-dope tempo changes, mad hooks, and, by my scorecard, at least half-a-dozen punches in the face.

I first heard this record (or a version of it) when Tallarida asked me to listen to the tracks ahead of their release as the starting point for a related, written project. Over the next few weeks, I listened to that Sharpie-labeled CD-R dozens and dozens of times as it found its way, boxless and finger-smudged, back and forth between my home and my office.

Since then, more than one reviewer has compared Exo to late-period Beatles (that debt is most evident in the psychedelic verses of ‘Mr. Butterfly’), but between choruses you can also hear enthusiastic nods to seventies prog-rock (Bowie and Pink Floyd, mostly), nineties grunge, and turn-of-this-century radio pop (Weezer, with more sophisticated arrangements and less sophisticated production), never at the same time but frequently in the same song. It’s a brilliant mix on a CD obsessed with contradictions, and not at all out of place in a time when, Tallarida sings, ‘GI Joes and gin/Make a great combination/’ (‘Lollipop Pornstars’).

Like all great rock, the album’s twin engines are the guitar chord and the pop hook—loud as you can stand it and catchy as you’d want it—but you’ll hear in Jim Dinou’s quirky keyboard lines the record’s looping signature. If Tallarida’s vocals and guitar (with Jason Lee) are the mind and heart of Exo, then Dinou’s atmospheric playing is its moody personality: sarcastic and sincere, retro and mod, angry and exuberant.

Every week or so I pick a handful of CDs to ride with me in the car, and every day the fingers of my left hand host a battle of the bands as I fumble through the pocket in the driver’s side door, choosing one of the records to play over the others. Two years after I first heard the shuffled tracks that would eventually be Master Siege Control, Exo still makes the weekly cut. More and more, it seems Exo ends up in the dashboard player while once-favored CDs are forgotten, and just-purchased discs become tired.

Track 12, ‘Belly Buttoned,’ opens with the anguished words, ‘She talks with guns/But I dig the run in her stockings/My fate is sewn/Into the hem of her failings.’ Just as that line ends, Exo lets it all out, loud and fast and scalpel-edged. It’s a terrific moment—probably my favorite on the whole record, one of my favorites on any record—music and lyrics harmonizing to dramatize frustration and release, a theme that has been the axis of American rock-and-roll since Jerry Lee Lewis began pounding out piano chords with the heel of his boot.

Let it out, man. Let it all out.

Dennis Mahoney
Recommended: No

Describing Exo’s Say Hello to the Master Siege Control is like scaling a wall—there isn’t much to grab onto. Modern rock often borders on static, its songs either too simple or too complex to have an impact. ‘Too simple’ is a couple of unexceptional sounds thrown together without really gelling. ‘Too complex’ is the opposite: lots of sounds gelling so completely that none of them stand out. This is Exo’s problem. Nothing pops.

A trickle-down effect occurs whenever a watershed artist hits the scene. In the heavy-metal era, Led Zeppelin led to Mötley Crüe, who led to Poison, who led to Warrant, who led to Trickster. The same thing happened after Nirvana showed up—in less than half a decade, we were already suffering from Collective Soul. It’s hard to say what Exo’s lineage is, not because they sound original, but because they sound like too many disparate elements, and therefore like nothing in particular.

They don’t even sound like Exo. Most good bands aren’t virtuosos when they start out, but they almost all have a distinct sonic personality. Musicians citing the Ramones as inspirational usually tell a similar story: Here were four dudes who didn’t know how to play music, but did it with such gusto and originality that they’re still one-of-a-kind twenty years later. Most bands can’t be—and shouldn’t have to be—genuine originals, but a stamp of individuality is crucial. Take Oasis. No matter how much they imitate the Beatles, they’re definitely ‘Oasis Imitating the Beatles.’ Like ‘em or not, you probably know an Oasis song when you hear one.

After repeated listens to Exo’s Say Hello to the Master Siege Control, I’m not entirely confident I’d recognize them on the radio a month from now. The superfluous intro track, ‘<…—….- / ..-.—. ..>,’ sounds like it reads. Then ‘Starstruck Chemistry’ lays in with squealing guitars and big rhythm, an interesting song for offering an Oasis-style chorus cut with slices of the riff from Nirvana’s ‘In Bloom’ and a ‘hoo-woo-ooo’ that’s so Weezer you’d swear it was Weezer. None of it clicks.

Unpronounceable song titles (track #9 is called ‘<.-.. .-. ..—->‘) mean we’re probably dealing with a band that has Artistic Motivations. There’s a hint of pretension throughout the whole album, right down to the liner notes, where the vocals aren’t listed as ‘vocals,’ but as ‘vox.’ Like totally high-school art project, dude. ‘Lollipop Pornstars’ sounds desperately hardcore with lyrics about, you know, lollipops and porn stars. Then ‘Sugar-Coated’ comes along with what can only be described as a flurry of magical electric flutes. The album can’t decide what it wants to be: loud or melodic, gritty or poetic, dark or bright. The variety of styles and song structures is laudable; Exo is clearly trying to go the extra mile. The overall result, unfortunately, is babel.

Exo is sort of rocking, sort of sophisticated. They’re kind of tough, kind of arty. The combinations are promising, but promises are all we get on Say Hello to the Master Siege Control. Exo’s musical experiments never lead to eurekas. The album’s diverse musical palette could have resulted in tension or vitality. Instead, all the colors blended, leaving Exo with a gray, unremarkable bunch of songs.

Rosecrans Baldwin
Recommended: No

I never got into grunge. In high school I nurtured a Beatles obsession I picked up when I was thirteen or so, a taste I inherited from my father, a reformed hippie who kept an Abbey Road poster in the basement. Call it a natural pre-disposition; I wasn’t a rebel-child and the Beatles, with their cheeky sweetness that now seems implausible to have offended anyone’s parents, were a perfect fit. Nirvana, Pearl Jam: they were too current, too loud, too popular, and dumb. Who wore an unbuttoned plaid shirt and then tied another around their waist? I was a total snob.

Listening to Exo, I went straight back to high school. Say Hello to the Master Siege Control is late-nineties pop grown from early-nineties anxieties: Same power-crunch chords as Weezer, close vocal harmonies like Alice in Chains. Nothing offensive in the first five minutes (except the first track, a too-long wank of blips and drums), nothing unique. Fine, I thought, all bands at some point sound like other bands. Still optimistic, I waited for Exo to start sounding like themselves.

On the second listen of the album, I remembered my friend Brian Twardy from high school who wore a trench coat and ripped jeans tucked inside his laceless pair of black military boots. Brian was a music snob like myself, but with a serious crush on Rush. I saw a lot of Brian: for a while, he was my only ride home from school if I didn’t want to take the bus. Brian worshiped Geddy Lee and would sing along to Rush songs on our drives, torturing his voice to reach Lee’s falsetto. I liked Brian and never laughed, but I can still hear him, screaming out the window like a cat on fire.

Scott Tallarida, Exo’s lead singer, sounds exactly like this.

Exo isn’t exactly grunge; it’s grunge, plus everything that came after. The band’s more well-known contemporaries (again, Weezer, early Radiohead, Built to Spill) stand out so prominently in the songs, it’s hard not to think of them as influences. But to start on that road is to wish for the original article, not the cover band. Sadly, Exo doesn’t have its own sound for me.

I did enjoy some of the songs: ‘Mr. Butterfly’ is good, sweet pop with tight harmonies that give a nice emotional lift to the song; ‘The Last of the Super Radicals’ could stand with many of Weezer’s power ballads; ‘Sugar-coated’ reminds me of the few Green Day songs I will admit to liking; ‘Resume’ makes my head nod.

But one week and three complete listens later, nothing has stuck. Good pop albums, like good novels, in some way take possession of the time you spend together. They make an imprint that’s easy to see later on—it’s why a lot of my memories of adolescence are tied to music and books. The Beatles and JD Salinger were introduced to me at just the right time when I could feel I was the first person to ever really understand them, that they were mine and belonged to no one else.

Say Hello to the Master Siege Control is an album that someone else understands, but not me. Maybe it’s the soundtrack to Brian Twardy’s memoir, a book I’d read because I had a connection to the author but wouldn’t recommend to friends.

Margaret Berry
Recommended: No

This CD arrived with a note from the band that read, in part:

‘I’ve known Kevin Guilfoile for many years, and now he’s willfully subjected my music to your pens. Have at it! Hope you enjoy. Scott’

Ulp. How can I say anything bad about a CD that comes with a note like that? I just can’t bring myself to do it. Scott seems like a nice guy, and I don’t want Kevin to hate me for thinking his friend’s album is bland, say, or ‘vaguely irritating,’ like a pebble caught in your boot, for example. Kevin is bigger than me, and he barely knows me. He’s known Scott for years.

I could skirt the issue. ‘This band defies labels,’ or ‘These guys obviously had some fun putting the album together!’ Maybe, ‘The album is pregnant with latent promise.’ But that reads kind of weird.

Instead, let’s get hypothetical. Pretend you’re in your favorite local bar, and some band you’ve never heard of is playing. Let’s call it something random, like Flexo.

Imagine there’s a gaggle of healthy coeds nodding in front of the stage. These coeds are gyrating in tight clothing, and you’re feeling just fine. This is mostly because you’ve had five beers.

You’re flirting with everyone, and they’re flirting back at you. Look over. Look away. Move closer, sway a little, smile. Tonight is an excellent night, and the band’s not bad either. In fact, the band is pretty good.

You order a sixth beer. The band is pretty damn good. You purchase the album, in part to impress an obvious fan, who you hope will be returning home with you this evening.

The next day, you pop the CD in while you’re doing the dishes. The album is sort of pop-y, sort of loud, with a few little discordant guitar noises, and so on. It’s certainly not offensive in any way.

Then a song starts annoying you, the one with the ooo-ooos in the background. You hate that song, so you flip around looking for the song you liked, the one about the Lollipop Pornstars. It doesn’t sound the way you remember it.

Pushing from track to track, you realize that the lead singer has a Cockney accent. The line ‘She talks with guns’ comes out ‘Sheh tawks wi guhhhns.’ Aren’t these guys from Chicago? They are. So that kinda bugs.

Oh well. Looks like you’re the proud owner of another beer-goggle album, the one you buy because the ambience is right, not because you’re actually listening to the band. Which is to say, the album is nice. You’ll never listen to it again, but you own it. And now I do too.

TMN’s Contributing Writers know where to find the purple couch. Long live the pan flute, mini mafia, and Michael Jackson. More by The Writers