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Various Artists, De Tarde, Vendo O Mar: The Sound of Brazil (Evolver)
If nothing else, De Tarde, Vendo O Mar wins points as one of the oddest musical ideas to come to fruition. The album, which was recorded in 1991 but until recently only available in Japan, finds Brazilian bassist Luizćo Maia and his band Banzai playing songs by Japanese singer/songwriter Yumi Matsutoya with Brazilian vocalist Bebel Gilberto (daughter of Joćo) providing vocals in Portuguese. This isn't the only Brazilian/Japanese fusion around -- former Cibo Matto vocalist Miho Hatori performs samba in Portuguese, Japanese, and English with the duo Smokey & Miho -- but this project precedes Hatori's work by a decade, and is more of a musical gamble. Not only did the language of Matsutoya's lyrics have to be translated, but her music had to be translated from a singer/songwriter to a Brazilian jazz style. Whether the emotions behind Matsutoya's words have survived the translation intact is a question that will have to be left to those who speak Japanese and Portuguese. As far as the music, it's made a successful enough stylistic transformation that there aren't any traces of "the jazz-rock of Chicago or Steely Dan" to which the All Music Guide compares Matsutoya's early compositions. Maia and company provide a smooth, modern take on Brazilian jazz that is in fact a little too smooth while Gilberto, who has also worked with her father, David Byrne, Caetano Veloso, and others, provides her usual fantastic vocals. The album is evidence that Gilberto was willing to try unusual musical mixtures a decade before her debut solo album, Tanto Tempo, found her fusing bossa nova and electronics. Here, however, her soothing, carefully controlled voice seems wasted, relegated to second-thought status behind musical arrangements that suffer from a sense of sameness. Ultimately, the songs on De Tarde have to stand on their own merits, not on their pedigree, which is admittedly impeccable. Maia and producer Neil Oda weren't up to the task of making the songs consistently engaging, which leaves the album as a pleasant novelty, but not a necessity for fans of Gilberto, Matsutoya, or Brazilian music in general.
JR Ewing, Ride Paranoia (Gold Standard Laboratories)
A lot of people are going to compare Norway's JR Ewing to Refused or the Blood Brothers because they play off-kilter hardcore and have screamy vocals. However, anyone who listened to hardcore before 1998 may beg to differ. JR Ewing are a true blue, dyed in the wool hardcore punk band, who, ten years ago would be sharing the stage with bands like Black Flag or Burn. From the get go, JR Ewing are on full attack mode, packing as much off kilter thrash as possible into two minutes. "Repetition is Failure" opens the album up with guitars hissing like a cornered snake as the rhythm section buzzes ferociously. JR Ewing have crafted an album perfectly suited for stage dives and walls of death. At times they get a bit groove heavy, reminiscent of early Drive Like Jehu with ADD. The vocals are total screamo, making them an added instrument and rendering the lyrics pointless. In defiance of the current crop of underground bands, JR Ewing seem more intent on getting people to move it on the dancefloor, instead of hugging the back wall.
No. 2, What Does Good Luck Bring? (In Music We Trust)
With the breakup of Portland's Heatmiser, singer-songwriter Neil Gust took a different path than his former band mate Elliott Smith and formed a new group, No. 2. With the release of No. 2's sophomore album, What Does Good Luck Bring, the path diverges even further. Clocking in at about 36 minutes, the new record is nine solid tracks of biting rock music, with Gust's penchant for pop melody and hooks shining throughout. Matthew Sweet's brand of power pop comes to mind here and there, particularly in tracks like "Good Intentions", "For the Last Time", and "More, More". This latter track is a standout, with great guitar and lyrical hooks. As with his past lyrical work, Gust is a fount of angst over love and relationships, but there is still optimism, and the music keeps things out of the realm of sad bastard music. What comes across is some straight-ahead, unpretentious rock music from a songwriter of considerable talent.
The Prom, Under the Same Stars (Barsuk)
When you start a band these days with piano, drums, and bass as your core instruments, and you play pop, a comparison to the Ben Folds Five will inevitably follow. And for good reason. The piano had been relegated to background duty in pop for a long time, and it was Folds that put it front and centre again. Seattle's the Prom, therefore, will be subject to the same comparison. But there are few similarities beyond the makeup of the band and occasional vocal harmonies. Folds, whether with the Five or solo, always seems to feel the need to be clever for the sake of being clever (which is rarely clever at all), eschewing true emotion for forgettable lyrical puns. Maybe not always, but far too often. On their sophomore album Under The Same Stars, the Prom avoid the fun for the pain. But first, the piano. The thing about pianos is that they sound grand (no pun intended). Everything sounds more emotional when framed with the sound of a piano; whether it is the softer tone of lightly played notes or the bombast of pounded out chords. Singer and pianist James Mendenhall is acutely aware of the power of the instrument, and his arrangements take full advantage of it. Sure, things can slide out into the realm of Journey-like schmaltz (the ending of "Brighter than the Moon" or the intro to "Guarantees Aren't Easy"), but the piano can also drive the poppiest of tracks, such as "The Same Complaints". Mendenhall plays in and out of these varying kinds of melodies with ease. The instrument also adds depth not only to the lyrics but also to the emotional weight of a song. James Mendenhall's lyrics bring to mind the lamentations of Elliott Smith and Dashboard Confessional, the pining voice of the brokenhearted. Mendenhall wrote the album almost exclusively about his ex-girlfriend, and his self-exploration is obvious in his words. Most songs on the record are structured without repeating choruses (and sometimes, without an obvious chorus at all). It leaves the form more like poetic prose, small autobiographical snippets to tell parts of a larger story. In "Living in the Past", he identifies his fear: "I wake up so tired and alone / Scared of the outside and conversations / 'Is she well?' / 'How are you?' / 'Are you feeling alright?'" and confides "I lie to everyone and say I'm just fine / 'Cause I don't want to talk / I just want to sleep / I can see her in my dreams". There is no more fitting words to describe the post break-up frame of mind. With Under The Same Stars, the Prom fit nicely into the Pacific Northwest pop scene, already made strong by groups like Death Cab for Cutie and Young & Sexy. This is gorgeous, melancholy music, staying inside alone music. The record is a rollercoaster of passions and emotions, sadness and loss. Not that it's all sad bastard music, mind you. Drummer/vocalist Joel Brown and bassist/vocalist David Broecker help Mendenhall elevate the material to a sort of celebration of heartache, from slow downbeat ballads to upbeat pop. The intricate arrangements and use of horns and strings give all the material a sort of baroque dreaminess, a Brian Wilson afterworld. God only knows how far a piano-based band can go, but the Prom have passed the test of the sophomore slump and are striving to graduating to pop perfection.
Blue Sandcastle, If You Only Knew... (Blue Sandcastle)
Blue Sandcastle's new album is their first full-length release. The band, consisting of New York musicians Jean-Paul Vest and Erik Schuman, have polished up their act significantly here, giving the rasp and bucked guitar of their ripping five-track debut, Paradise Misplaced, a rest in order to make way for skilled melodies and a far more relaxed vocal. The album, If You Only Knew... is a more than worthy follow-up to the EP, with 14 tracks of tightly woven roots-rock tunes. Vest and Schuman have taken their Replacements-esque style and given it more of a pop edge reminiscent of Husker Du, Matthew Sweet and early Toad the Wet Sprocket. A definite winner, these songs are beautifully written (especially "All for Nothing" and "Sooner") and similarly produced. And, just to be different, there's even a punk-ed up version of "Crazy" featuring Willie Nelson himself.
Various Artists, Paramount Pictures' 90th Anniversary: Memorable Songs (Columbia/Legacy/Sony Music)
Soundtrack records are a strange animal. On one hand, they are an aural document of either the score or individual songs used within a film. Such albums have in recent years become an increasingly easy way to add to the film company's profit margin, to the point where the song's job is no longer intended to compliment a scene of a film, but is there to sell the soundtrack album. On Paramount Pictures' 90th Anniversary: Memorable Songs, it's not clear which audience this is aimed at: 21 songs spanning the years 1938 to 2001, from Bob Hope and Doris Day to U2 and Celine Dion. It is telling that a great number of the songs are from 1980 to 1990, the decade that gave rise to the soundtrack as we know it today. The only link between any of these songs is they are all from Paramount films. The track selection run is in reverse chronological order (not by song, but by film, of course), and the string of tunes from Blondie to Johnny Lee to the Bee Gees to Dionne Warwick is nothing if not jarring and unnatural.