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Count the Stars, Never Be Taken Alive (Victory)
Count The Stars play punk/emo pop in the same style as label mates Taking Back Sunday; the songs are powerful, guitar-driven, and singable. This type of formula is what got bands like New Found Glory and the aforementioned Taking Back Sunday so popular. Count The Stars is a much better band that TBS or NFG, and the songs on Never Be Taken Alive are incredibly consistent. From start to finish, the tracks on never be taken alive pummel and pounce, making for a fabulous album of edgey melodic pop punk goodness. Never Be Taken Alive is the kind of album that's great for driving, hanging around with friends, playing video games, or just about anything. I can honestly say that I felt invigorated after listening to the infectious "On the Way Home;" the melodic guitars and fantastic vocals got me feeling quite peppy! "Taking it All Back" is a kind of Weezer-esque romp of distorted guitars and big drums. It, too made me smile with glee. Never Be Taken Alive is great; these guys aren't reinventing the wheel or anything, but neither was Weezer, and we all love them, right? Take equal parts of Blink 182, older Get Up Kids, add a dash of TBS and a smidge of NFG and you have the basic approximation of what these guys are about. Sadly, my feeble words don't do this album justice, but I can tell you this one is totally worth buying.
Hayseed Dixie, Kiss My Grass (Dualtone)
In 2001, a cute album of bluegrass covers of classic AC/DC songs by the brilliantly punny Nashville band Hayseed Dixie, caused a bit of a stir among Internet file-swappers. The countrified songs not only provided some well-earned laughs (the "oinks" in their version of "TNT" were a stroke of genius), but they also showed how good a group these guys actually are, with the crazed fiddle, banjo, and mandolin sounding just as insane as Angus Young's solos. Well, on the heels of their 2002 album of classic '70s rock covers, Hayseed Dixie has turned to the cheesiest of all classic rockers: Kiss. Kiss My Grass tries hard to live up to the band's fun debut, but here it only works in fits and starts. "Calling Dr. Love" is sped up considerably, while the surprisingly effective "Cold Gin" is almost elegiac in its tone. However, for pure laughs, nothing beats the hilarious rendition of Kiss's 1983 cornball classic "Lick It Up", and the wickedly nasty "Christine Sixteen", which takes on a hilariously disturbing quality when you hear it sung by a bunch of rednecks. However, the album misfires more often than not, especially on tracks like "Detroit Rock City", "I Love it Loud", and "Heaven's On Fire". One of the reasons that the Kiss covers don't work as well is primarily due to the fact that Kiss's songs just aren't very good, compared to the more timeless quality of those of AC/DC. Plus, the song selection could have been better; something tells me that bluegrass performances of "Deuce" and "Hard Luck Woman" would have worked really well.
Teena Marie, It Must Be Magic (Motown/Universal Chronicles)
Probably best known as the "white girl with the black girl's voice", Teena Marie was quite a revolutionary figure back in the day. Writing and producing her own songs in a milieu where such talent was scarce regardless of gender, Lady Tee established herself as an artist on par with male peers like Prince and Rick James. Motown's expanded reissue of Marie's fourth LP, It Must Be Magic, won't necessarily inspire a trade-in of her solid compilations, but offers a more well-rounded glimpse at her skills than those dance-heavy best-ofs for those willing to embark upon a deeper exploration of her back catalog. However, since the ballads sound rather dated and the bonus live tracks are way too heavy on the crowdworking, it's the funk that still satisfies the most -- the title cut and "Square Biz" will fill a dancefloor faster than you can ignite a glowstick.
Drew Isleib, Through the Wall (Ernest Jenning Recording Company)
Every once in awhile, Drew Isleib's voice would break the surface of my boredom and sound a little bit like Davey VonBohlen from the Promise Ring, that perfection combination of soot and sugar. For the most part though, this is an album of bland singer-songwriter indistinction, with few things that would differentiate this record from any of the thousands of self-released acoustic strummers plucking away for free chai and operating under the mistaken notion that every break up needs a song. To be fair, Isleib manages to vary the instrumentation enough to be occasionally interesting, a little vocal distortion here, a bigger backing band sound there. If I loved a song here, it would be "Trunk" where the disgruntled singer suggests that his girlfriend might be in the trunk of his car. Nothing breaks through the singer-songwriter malaise like the suggestion that the person with the guitar might be a closet sociopath.
Burning Spear, The Millenium Collection (Universal)
Though a respected artist and Rastafarian preacher in his native Jamaica, Burning Spear (a.k.a. Winston Rodney) still is a relative unknown in the United States, where Bob Marley continues the be-all end-all of reggae music. Sharing a hometown (St. Ann's Bay) and a commitment to issues political and spiritual with Marley, Burning Spear released a series of important roots records in the '70s, a time when reggae was arguably at its most vital artistically. There are certainly Burning Spear retrospectives that are more comprehensive than The Millenium Collection, which like other installments in the series clocks in at only 12 tracks. (The two-disc Chant Down Babylon: The Island Anthology from 1996 is an obvious alternative.) But this budget-priced best-of still is a readily accessible primer for an overlooked artist. (I should know, since I knew very little about this guy before the CD ended up in my mail box.) Along with the usual deep grooves and island music. Burning Spear also dips deep into the soul and dub realms, with "Social Living (12" mix)" being a particularly stunning example of the latter. The Millenium Collection might not be the last word on Burning Spear, but it's a decent first one.
Cameo, Anthology (Mercury)
New York/Atlanta based funk/soul collective, best known for the quickly over-played '80s song "Word Up!" have released Anthology, a two-disc, 30-track collection that spans 11 years of hits and singles. The band, which started out as a 13-piece outfit and dwindled down to a three man core group, have been together since 1977 and have developed something of a cult following. Fans have continued to hunger for their bass-heavy dance grooves, their hauntingly melodic ballads, and bandleader Larry Blackmon's signature "oww" growl. Anthology should satisfy the cravings of the most hardcore fan, with tracks like "Rigor Mortis", "Why Have I Lost You", and the ultra-political "Talkin' Out The Side of Your Neck". Even the casual Cameo listener will be pleased with pop chart friendly tracks like "Candy", "Single Life", and the afore-mentioned "Word Up!". So for a funky dose of original R&B, journey to a state of Cameosis and pick up Anthology.
Cory Morrow, Outside the Lines (Write On)
With the rise to prominence of so-called new country, the rootsy, good old-fashioned kind of country music has in recent years, become the alternative. Well, if the success of new artists such as Nickel Creek and the renaissance of legends such as Willie Nelson is any barometer, it seems the alternative could well be making a comeback. If that does happen, then Cory Morrow deserves to be hogging some of the limelight as well, such is the strength of the Texas-based singer-songwriter's fourth album. *Outside the Lines* displays leanings to contemporary movements and traditional influences with songs like the delicately beautiful "(Love Me) Like You Used to Do" and the mandolin-infused "In Spite of Spite" giving the album a real rootsy feel sadly lacking in other modern acts. The excellent covers of the Grateful Dead's "Friend of the Devil" and Drivin n' Cryin's "Straight to Hell" further emphasise Morrow's versatility and willingness to push country, as the album title suggests, to new parameters. Although "Drinkin' Alone" is an unnecessary bottom-of-bottle song, such clichés are avoided with the wonderful Tex-Mex flavours of "Dance By the Rio Grande". He may be outside the lines, but with his success and touring schedule in his home state, Morrow is clearly on the right track, alternative or otherwise.