(Timber Carnival Records)
[NEWGRASS] The idea of mixing acoustic instruments with electronic flourishes is not a new one. For years, artists like Four Tet, the Books and the Notwist took a knife to sounds normally associated with folk-music tradition—sparsely picked guitar; chiming banjos; found sound—and cut them into shifting arrangements that were both futuristic and old-fashioned at the same time. But to my knowledge, local quintet the Ascetic Junkies are one of the first bands to reinterpret bluegrass, a genre known for complacency, into something new and totally exciting.
On the band's sophomore album, The Cage Has No Bottom, the Junkies use genres like a game of four square, jumping from more traditional bluegrass to straight pop and more experimental flair, sometimes in the middle of the same song. The effect is initially a bit disorienting—imagine spending an afternoon in a museum after drinking a few too many glasses of red wine—but it creates some arresting pop moments. The best numbers are the ones like "(Don't) Panic" that showcase the smooth, sultry voice of co-vocalist Kali Giaritta and Graham Houser's delicate banjo pickin'. The record is filled with country hootenannies ("Get What You Want, Get What You Need") somber ballads ("Water From Wine") and layer after layer of sparkling, boy-girl harmonies. It's hard to turn off.
Giaritta, in particular, has a voice that I could listen to for hours. Seriously, play "The Eyeball" and tell me why this couldn't be some sort of crossover hit on the local country station. Unfortunately, it makes some of the cringe-inducing lyrics ("And I'll be bumping hips with all the dirty hipster kids/ 'Cause godliness ain't always clean") even more forgettable. The Ascetic Junkies are onto something here, with a sound that's both more fun and inventive than many of their bearded-folk peers. Let's just hope they don't forget that all good folk tunes have something of a backbone. MICHAEL MANNHEIMER
[SPAZZ ROCK] These days, the only surefire way for a rock band to find a unique sound is to adopt a really weird sound. And weirdness is something the Wax Fingers have in spades. Part avant-noise post-rock outfit and part acid-trip jam band, the Portland trio is wading into musical waters that no lifeguards patrol—there's just no neat genre tag to stick on this stuff.
Yet the Fingers are not beyond comparison: Battles' Mirrored and Fugazi's Instrument soundtrack both come to mind, and there are a handful of parallels between the band's full-length, self-titled debut and Menomena's first disc, I Am the Fun Blame Monster. Both substitute lively experimentation for clean-cut human emotion, but arrive at an emotional place nonetheless. And Pete Bosack's voice—on vocal songs like "Sticky Bees" and "Skeleton Key"—remind of Menomena's Brent Knopf: inscrutable, technically on-point and a little distant.
And like Menomena, the Wax Fingers know not to venture into uncharted territory without arming themselves with an arsenal of melodic weapons. They may play with strange time signatures on "Fasten the Hook," but they know when to lock into some gorgeous Afropop guitarplay. They know that after a formless, echo-laden space-out like "Pierre Fauchard," their listeners are ready for a hyperactive, XTC-meets-Jawbox cut like "Abacus." So Wax Fingers are on a dangerous expedition, but the trio isn't stupid. From the band's biggest risks—the tweaker island beat of "20/20"; the barreling, slightly nuts "Skeleton Key"—it is yielding big rewards. This untamed music is a balancing act, and right now everything is in balance for Wax Fingers. CASEY JARMAN
Ascetic Junkies play Music Millennium on Thursday, Oct. 14, at 6 pm. Free. All ages. They play again on Friday, Oct. 15, at Doug Fir Lounge. 9 pm. $10. 21+. Wax Fingers play on Friday, Oct. 15, at the Knife Shop. 10 pm. $5. 21+.