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The Turn-ons, Love Ruined Us EP (Bop Tart)
These Seattle kids sound like a retro-glam dream, they've got Peter Buck hyping them in the British press, and they put Sol Lewitt sculptures on their website. Make of it what you will, but this five-song EP is a groovy evocation of T. Rex and Bowie and well worth seeking out. Travis DeVries (the band's founder, songwriter, and all-around pathfinder) wraps his voicebox around some excellent Anglophile-androgyny moments here, and every song is a carefully crafted gem. No haphazard experiments for these guys. The title track is actually two songs in one: it begins with two delicious fuzzy chords and a propulsive beat underpinning some curious words ("I'm maybe five years behind I'll shuttle lyrics by"), then shifts imperceptibly into a dreamy mellow coda about angry young men, leather jackets, and torn jeans. Next comes a Gary Glitter drum-tumble that explodes into the brilliant "So Damn Queen", which sounds like the Fall's "What You Need" crossed with "Bang a Gong", all underpinning a great queer lyric ("got me so damn queen be my sweet young thing"). Guest vocals from Tyson Meade don't hurt either. "Losing My Mind" is another love song, this time with a beautiful MOR melody and vocals that sound exactly like a young David Bowie. The final two tracks are markedly mellower than the openers, but I love 'em anyway. "Humanunkind" begins with an unpromising dreamy atmosphere, but then shifts into a beautiful addictive power-ballad chorus ("can't hold on", he sings, over and over as the guitars get louder around him). Finally comes "Success": with draggy tempos and weird anti-prophetic words ("we gave the go the UN staged the final blow"), this is probably my least favorite track, though it works well as a closer. A great glam EP from a talented Seattle band: definitely check it out.
Steffen Basho-Junghans, Rivers and Bridges (Strange Attractors Audio House)
German guitarist Steffen Basho-Junghans goes much more for feeling and flow on his latest album of intricate instrumental delights. Alternating between a 6-steelstring guitar and a 12-steelstring guitar, Basho-Junghans uses a great amount of effort to convey a sound that is neither steeped in world or folk music. The opening opus, "The River Suite" is very soothing and relaxing, never faltering over its mind-boggling twenty-two minutes. Although it may sound like he is layering guitars, the dexterity within proves it's not the case. If you could imagine British guitarist Adrian Legg on high-speed dubbing, this is what it could amount to. "Hear the Winds Coming" follows along a similar path, but has ample punch and vitality to it. The listener never knows exactly where he's heading, which makes it all the more enjoyable. "The Takoma Bridge Incident" is more melodic and downbeat, allowing Basho-Junghans to weave another lengthy and elaborate arrangement. He also gives his best performance here, mindful of the brief but special Jimmy Page acoustic intros to Zeppelin songs. The prettiest of the six comes in the form of "Rainbow Dancing", a very attractive performance that has classical and Celtic tinges to it. This album will put you to sleep, which is perhaps its greatest complement.
Skylab, Side Effects (ColourSound)
When I asked for this, I thought it was the ambient trip-hop group, Skylab, so this was a bit like reaching for water and drinking molten lead instead. Even once my sea legs returned, I had no idea what to do with this record. Picture Brit pop with hair band aspirations. Roger Gisborne's vocals mine the reedy Thom Yorke reservoir, from time to time kiting off into an ill-fated falsetto. Side Effects suffers from straddling the edges of well-worn genres (hard rock and British moping) without pulling out their own sound from the muddle of side-swiping thievery. Don't get me wrong, there are people out there waiting for this and a teen love scene on the WB just dying to be backgrounded by "Monster We Made", but for anyone else this is a limey Jovi floater.
Eyes of Autumn, Hello (54 40' or Fight!)
Hot Dawg! This is some super angular math/ emo stuff, in the vein of Roadside Monument, Faraquet, Fugazi, and Meringue. The guitars are weird, yet melodic, the drums are big, and feature all manner of weird time changes and hard hitting, and the vocals are warm and welcoming, with actual singing being accomplished! Hello is not the kind of album a typical punk will enjoy; this is an album of the thinking man's punk rock. I remember once being in a record store in Florida, looking for a June of '44 record, and the guy (Pat, from Gainesville) told me that he doesn't like music that takes a calculator to enjoy. Eyes of Autumn plays music that would be best enjoyed with calculator firmly in hand. I think it's nice to see bands that stick to this somewhat forgotten genre of quality 1990's math punk; People that are in bands will really enjoy this, as the musicians in Eyes of Autumn are quite talented, and do some really fantastic maneuvering around their instruments. Gutter punks, Political punks, and Pop punks, keep your distance from this one; those of you with taste, pick Hello up.
Portable, Only If You Look Up (TVT)
A bit of a strange album, this one. Upon first listen, the alternative rock on Only If You Look Up sounds solid, yet unspectacular and certainly nothing out of the ordinary. Yet secondary listens reveal a hidden depth and appeal that was strangely lacking initially. This LA quartet won't blow you away, yet are certainly worth persevering with, especially for tracks such as the delicate and heartfelt "Come in From the Cold", the crunchy, haphazard, yet anthemic "Bright" and piano-led "Given". Citing influences as wide as U2, Foo Fighters and Radiohead, it's clear that Portable's music is anything but formulaic and although massive commercial success doesn't seem on the horizon for a band who have chosen to avoid the temptation to record radio-ready material, they demonstrate a welcome urgency and integrity to their music. This commitment to thoughtful material, such as the intense commentary of "A Man Destroys", is demonstrated further on closing track "Last Song", a dreary, atmospheric song which apes Radiohead and reinforces the picture of a band intent on making interesting music on their terms. Then, out of nowhere, comes a teasing glimpse of what could be, with a quite brilliant power-pop hidden song called "Freaks", which lifts the general tone of melancholy, and begs the bemusing question, why bury this gem at the end of the album? More like this tune next time, and who knows what could happen for Portable?
Ed Johnson, Over That Wave (Cumulus)
Ed Johnson is a fine guitarist who combines Latin and smooth jazz melodies with a a somewhat folky sensibility. His nylon-strung guitar will impress you most -- his wispy singing will deter the more jazz and soul-inclined. The best tunes are the the ones with Spanish lyrics ("Toda Mi Vida", "Vuelveme Esperanza"). The rest are fine but a little too deliberately inoffensive and MOR for my tastes. Certain radio stations will love them, though. The backing vocalists could have been given more lead duties and I would like to hear tracks such as "Over That Wave" handled by a jazzier singer. As compensation,that track does boast some nifty Toots Thielemans-type harmonica, a delightful solo from Johnson and a Latino rhythm of much grace and charm. Johnson makes pleasant, well-executed music which is ideal for anyone coming to smooth jazz from a soft-rock direction. However, in the absence of a Phil Perry or Will Downing type-lead, I think an instrumental set might allow his compositional and playing talents truer expression.