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Further Seems Forever, How to Start a Fire (Tooth & Nail)
Prior to the release of the latest Further Seems Forever record, How to Start a Fire, one burning question remained unanswered. How will the band rebound from the departure of vocalist Chris Carrabba? In all honesty, both parties have fared extremely well. Carrabba's own Dashboard Confessional project has enjoyed loads of exposure via MTV, while Further Seems Forever secured the services of vocalist Jason Gleason who is more than up to the task making sure that fans forget about his predecessor. With Gleason, Further Seems Forever gets a powerful, yet emotive voice to drive their progressive brand of emocore. As for How to Start a Fire, it has a more harder-edged feel than the bandís debut, The Moon Is Down. Here, the listener is treated to 10 wonderfully-crafted tunes coupled with unpredictable song structures that recall the likes of Black-Eyed Sceva/Model Engine. Standout moments include "Pride War", "On Legendary", "Against My Better Judgement" and the bombastic title track. The only knock against the record is that it clocks in at a scant 35 minutes, which means that just as you're starting to really get into it, it's over. But donít fret, How to Start a Fire ages gracefully, so you can spin it to your hearts desire . . . it only gets better and better.
Dredg, El Cielo (Interscope)
The most hauntingly beautiful concept album since Poe's Haunted, Dredg's latest CD, El Cielo, has confidently assured the band a spot atop the modern prog-rock heap. The Los Gatos, California quartet have created an extraordinary album that's loaded with soaring melodies, multi-layered production (done partly at George Lucas's Skywalker Sound), and experimental, yet very accessible experiments in song structure. Sounding at times like a cross between Radiohead and Tool, with hints of techno, strings, and Middle eastern harmonies, El Cielo's central theme is the subject of sleep paralysis, about the experience of being caught in a dream and being completely incapable of waking up (instead of lyrics in the CD booklet, each song is represented by a separate, frightening journal entry by someone who has gone through sleep paralysis). Singer Gavin Hayes's lyrics are expectedly surreal, as hallucinatory as a scary dream ("Sitting sideways, something deep/Wading water, pants at my knees/Fading with growth-lie awake/Buried stones all alone"), as his own soothingly somnambulistic tenor voice weaves in and out of each song. El Cielo is gorgeous from beginning to end, with songs like "Same Ol' Road", "Sanzen", "Triangle", and "Eighteen People Living in Harmony" possessing the intricate, complex musicianship you'd expect from a progressive rock band, but always with instantly memorable melodies that reach euphoric heights at times. The album comes to an enthralling climax, peaking with the darkly beautiful "Of the Room" (the most Tool-like song on the album), the Latin jazz-infused strains of "Whoa is Me", and the majestic "The Canyon Behind Her", whose screaming guitars bears a remarkable resemblance to Sigur Ros and early Radiohead. This could very well be the best album that nobody heard in 2002, but with songs this good, and with a cult following that continues to grow, that shouldn't be the case for very much longer.
Lenora Zenzalai Helm, Precipice (Baoule Music)
I can never understand why certain female jazz singers get the full pop-marketing treatment while others are consigned to the margins. Lenora Zenzalai Helm has delivered, with Precipice, the best vocal-jazz set of 2002 -- but who is going to hear it? My advice is to get on to CD Baby this instant and be one of the lucky few. Some standards ("Every Time We Say Goodbye","Three Little Words", "Cheek to Cheek" some brave modernistic choices (Andrew Hill's "Out of Ashes" and Coltrane's "Wise One") and plenty of her own lyrics and melodies make this an album with plenty of appeal for traditionalists but one that contains more imagination and experimentation than is usual these days. Stanley Cowell (piano),Nasheed Waits (drums), Tarus Mateen (bass) and Duane Eubanks (trumpet) provide very superior accompaniment and Helm's rich, sophisticated vocals never falter -- even on some difficult tunes and at some very demanding tempos and time-signatures. The title track (segued with "Wise Ones") exemplifies this but the technique is so assured that it is the haunting and emotive qualities that stay with the listener rather than the complexity of the piece. Intelligent and seductive in equal measure, Helm is a worthy inheritor of a proud African-American female lineage. Sarah and Ella would have recognised a sister artist.Yes, Lenora Zenzalai Helm is really that good.
Donal Hinely, We Built a Fire (Scuffletown)
With the assistance of drummer Ken Coomer (Wilco) guitarist Will Kimbrough, Texas singer-songwriter Donal Hinely has made one freakin' good Americana record. Having all the nuances of performers like Steve Earle, Kevin Welch and Townes Van Zandt, Hinely begins with "Gasoline" and is on fire from there on. "All a dreamer really needs is a Buick, and some money for gasoline," he memorably sings. Whether it's the slow brushes of "Drunkard Moon" or the under-the-radar pop sensibilities of "These Are the Days", Hinely has a good handle on what works. A few songs such as "4225 Wellington Arms" resort to a country format, but the old time country of Willie and Waylon, not the current contemporary radio manure. But mainly it's the quality songwriting that makes this album soar so naturally. "Cynthianna" would fit nicely on Gold by Ryan Adams while "Easier" is probably the highlight of the record, a tune about being addicted, either to booze, music or both. Then again "Long Way Home" is hard not to praise also; a song you hate to see end. Of course travel is a big part of these songs, including "Henry Ford", a nice down-home ditty. If there's one negative here, it's that there are no negatives here. Simply great!