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2011 Holiday Gift Return & Gift Certificate Redemption Guide

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Monday, 26 December 2011

Happy Boxing Day – or welcome to the day after the explosion, if you like. How was your holiday? Was it big and grand and bright and shiny and noisy and wonderful? We at Ground Control hope so. Now, the glow of the holidays is beginning to fade right? Well, not quite yet, it isn't.

For some, Boxing Day has become as big or bigger a holiday than Christmas and Black Friday combined; the sales are enormous as retail outlets scramble to unload a bunch of the excess stock they brought in for the holidays. Not only that but, in the case of the average audiophile, Boxing Day is a bit of a Candy Lane of possibility; invariably, a few relatives who are aware some of their kin love music have well-meaningly purchased new records for family members based on a succession of hunches. The downside is that what they've purchased and provided isn't exactly what the intended recipient enjoys; in a word, some people are now in possession of a short stack of shit shingles. In that same vein, some slightly brighter extended family members who know their nephews like music but have no idea what their tastes are have more level-headedly furnished them with record store (or iTunes) gift certificates which now threaten to singe holes in their recipients' pockets. In situations like that, there's only one thing to do! It's time to strap on some brass knuckles and brave the mall – but what to buy?

When presented with the possibility that the world is their oyster and they can have anything they want, some people freeze. There are so many possibilities! Which would be best? We at Ground Control can help. Here, readers will find some records for readers' consideration when trying to sort out what they should try and get for free; call it our Gift Return/Gift Certificate redemption guide.

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OFF!
First Four EPs
CD
(Vice)
Those unfamiliar with OFF! or caught unsuspecting in regards to what they're in for with First Four EPs will be knocked right off their feet in the first second that “Black Thoughts” unceremoniously kicks open the gates of this CD. Right from the beginning, listeners are hit square in the face with everything they can expect from this album: guitarist Dmitri Coats sears eardrums as he soars over the groundwork laid down by bassist Steven McDonald and drummer Mario Rubalcabra, armed with a set of chops that are equal parts Black Sabbath and Black Flag. For the first seven seconds of “Black Thoughts,” Coats just owns every ear the song touches and it is as poetic as it is brutal – until he's bucked back and singer Keith Morris captures the song's foreground with the words, “I can't stop.” Right then, all time vanishes. Morris is old hand at hardcore – having fronted Black Flag from 1976 to 1979 and The Circle Jerks thereafter – but he hasn't sounded this verile, this urgent or this pissed off in well (well) over a decade. Here, the singer ignores every obstacle and just slams shoulder-first into the ears of listeners so hard that it will shake them, all they think they know about punk rock and how much they think it may have changed between 1979 and 2011 to their very foundations.

Morris does that, and he does it in one minute and five seconds flat.

There are no stops or pauses for breath, there is no waiting and the band gives no quarter after “Black Thoughts” lets out. On the CD edition of First Four EPs, listeners are just bombarded with one molten slab of minute-long (longer than that is unusual here) aggression after another, after another, after another until listeners are able to keep up and revel in the blur, rather than being shocked by it. Songs like “I Don't Belong,” “Now I'm Pissed,” “Blast,” “Rat Trap” and “Fuck People” all contain enough aggression to get any pulse racing and get the adrenaline levels of any listener up but, after that shift happens, it becomes possible to really gauge what's going on in First Four EPs; no brand new band of young men could have written these songs because lyrics like “Your high social caste/Privileged friends/you lure me in/but I can't be your friend” (from “I Don't Belong”) and “You wonder why I'm always screaming/You wonder why I talk too loud/You want me in your inner circle/You're turning me inside out” (from “Upside Down”) drip with experience that can only be gained over years of hard work, and the anger could only have been compounded over an equal length of time before being shot forth as it is here. With that knowledge in hand, it becomes obvious that young men could not have made this record, it is the voice of experience making a point and taking the new kids to school.

All of that spiel may sound familiar to some readers, and as well it should; the First Four EPs vinyl box set was my album of the year in 2010, and it has been reissued this year on CD. It is included here because the potency of the music has not faded; if readers haven't purchased this record yet, now is most definitely the time.

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Paul Simon
Legacy Deluxe reissues (One-Trick Pony, Hearts and Bones, Graceland, Rhythm of the Saints, et c.)
(Legacy/Columbia/Sony Music)
For the last four decades, Paul Simon has won fans over with delicate and precise songwriting which also manages to strike a nostalgic, emotional chord within virtually everyone who hears it. In that time too, the songwriter has traversed a tremendous amount of the musical landscape in pursuit of his muses – a fact which is put into relief now in 2011, with Sony/Legacy's deluxe reissues of Simon's catalogue.

As was the case when each of these albums was first released, listeners wil still be floored by the exacting care put into their composition and production, but Sony has further sweetened the deal now by including a treasure trove of bonus demos, alternate takes and more to both entice long-time fans and win a few new ones. It'll work too; there's nothing here that isn't worth hearing.

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Rammstein
Made In Germany
(Vagrant/Universal)
Since Rammstein first emerged out of the Neue Deutsche Härte scene in Germany seventeen years ago, the band has surprised most critics by managing to maintain a consistent release and touring schedule which has never exactly exploded (though there have been a couple of occasions when the band did brush against mainstream interests), but it hasn't simply faded into obscurity either. In fact, the band has managed to do something even more difficult from a pop stardom standpoint: they've endured regularly changing trends and simply continue, un-distracted. It sounds like an unlikely phenomenon, but it really is true – Rammstein are able to say that they're neither a mainstream institution nor are they an underground commodity, but they have a loyal enough fanbase that they're still able to pay their bills.

How many bands can say they're comfortably lodged in the pop culture framework but are in no danger of becoming a mockery of themselves in spite of the fact that they haven't changed in two decades? Rammstein can, and the best illustration of how they've managed to pull it off exists on Made In Germany – their greatest hits package.

Stomping forth like a neo-Nazi dance party complete with ominous SS boot-clicks and X-Files-esque whistling, “Engel” (released in 1997, the song was Rammstein's third single and the first-ever to chart) gets the goose-stepping party started off right and, from there,  the pace never dips; it just thunders forth ceaselessly, occasionally improving in quality as a new ambient fixture is inserted into the playing (stronger steps and more adventurous instrumental arrangements in “Links 2 3 4,” for example, and apocalyptic synths and hissing vocals in “Mein Teil”). No listener will be able to stop themselves from breaking stride to watch as “Du Hast” (Rammstein's signature song) batters its way through, untarnished by time and positively shimmering with the refreshed remastering applied, nor will they be able to stop themselves from giggling a little at the perfectly blunt and artless deliveries of both “Pussy” and “Amerika.” All of these songs are about as close to junk food for the brain as it's possible to get, but there's a certain forbidden quality to them (this is also true of “Sonne” as well) which makes that junk food taste like the sweetest ambrosia; everyone (including the band) knows that Rammstein is vaudeville at its most mawkish, but it never stops being fun, just like an episode of The Three Stooges.

After “Ohne Dich,” Rammstein throws in a bit of new fodder for the devout (“Mein Land,” which is about on par with all of the other songs here) before calling it a day and leaving listeners to hurriedly start the whole proceeding over again. There's no denying that Made In Germany – like every other best-of record in creation – is a desert-only release but Rammstein somehow manages to turn that into a strength rather than a weakness. Made In Germany is both 'all killer' and 'all filler,' which makes it one hundred percent fun.

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Mother Mother
Eureka
(Last Gang Records)
It's not every day that a band will spontaneously switch tracks and begin charging forth at full speed with a sound they've never really tried before, but that's what Mother Mother has done with Eureka – the band's third album. The group's previous two records saw them perfecting an unusual but infectious brand of quiet and songwriter-ly folk-rock but, on Eureka, Mother Mother plunges headfirst into some shockingly adept pop climes.

Right from the beginning, audiences are hit with a louder, poppier and more instantly exciting Mother Mother on Eureka; keyboards and gang vocals and enormous drum sounds and vocals which owe more to  Fred Schneider and The B-52's than anything else are the norm, but what makes the music great rather than just a great big nostalgia trip is the fact that no one tries to coyly insinuate that the band knows what they're doing – they're just making fine pop rock. Songs like “Baby Don't Dance” and “Original Spin” brim with the promise of pop genius as singer Ryan Guldemond spins himself around in circles with sister Molly and take those listening with them to the brink of ecstasy, but the real pay-off comes with “The Stand” – a chirping, burbling, irresistible pop marvel that mixes vintage pop goofiness with a bit of punky know-it-all messaging (scan the “Everyone's fucked and they don't even know” refrain) and comes out the gold-dripping hit because everyone can see it coming and where it's headed, but that it goes with such great style still makes it feel rewarding.

Even with the greatness of this record on the books, the question of what's to come next from Mother Mother looms. Can the band pull this kind of a surprise off twice, and would they even want to? A record like Eureka makes a booming introduction for a larger audience, but how could the band follow it? There is no way to answer that, so readers are best advised to just heed these words: go buy Eureka – enjoy it. Dance to it. It's the surprise party no one ever expected from Mother Mother and it's great.

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