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The Constantines, Nighttime/Anytime (It's Alright) (Sub Pop)
I'm still kicking myself that I didn't hear The Constantines' Modern Sinner/Nervous Man EP in time to include it on my best of 2002 list. The best way I can think of to atone for my oversight is to make sure no one forgets to check out their forthcoming full-length, Shine a Light. If the first two tracks on this single are a sign of things to come, then we're all in for a royal ass-kicking. The Constantines, in case you're unaware, are a Canadian band who weds the black-hearted arrogance of the Afghan Whigs to the most ferocious, incendiary guitar volleys this side of Fugazi. Upholding The Constantines' tradition, the first two songs rumble and thrash with a menace few contemporary bands dare to muster. The following two b-sides, one of which is a cover the Talking Heads' "Thank You For Sending Me an Angel", don't approach the molten fury of the album cuts, but after the initial wallop, you'll be grateful for the breather.
Besh o droM, Can't make me! (nekemtenemmutogato!) (Asphalt Tango/Piranha/Harmonia Mundi)
What happens when an urban wedding collective fuses deep ethnic folk roots with wild jazz improvisation? The Hungarian electro-acoustic band Besh o droM. This Budapest-based ensemble is nearly synonymous with creative. Pumping out their deep mix of Eastern beats, they lock into a heavy rhythmic groove. Their music builds a new place where tradition meets club music on the best possible dance floor. A smoking hot Balkan brass section wails out furious harmonies dripping with Gypsy and Middle Eastern influences, while funky rich Eastern rhythms bubble underneath like flowing lava. If your mental vision of Hungarian music holds only waltzes as somber and stately as the Danube, you're due for a startling surprise and change of world view. Besh o droM powers out a tasty, energetic display of smoldering brass and reeds mixed with Gypsy violin, guitar, cimbalom, accordion (not to forget oud, ney, kaval, bass and percussion). Even water can percussion is poured on to steam things up. Can't Make Me is one of the finest current examples of what world music can be. Performed with incredible drive, this music is also a great way to break free of any remaining winter doldrums and spring into summer.
Ray Brown, Ray Brown, Monty Alexander, Russell Malone (Telarc)
Ray Brown went into a recording studio in New York in March of last year and played with his customary ease, modesty and wisdom. It happened to be his final session and the results are this delightful trio album. Music this polished hardly needs the inevitable added poignancy it now contains to remind us that as an accompanist and provider of that most necessary feature of all sensuous, popular music (the bassline) he was without equal. Others were more dynamic and innovative perhaps, plenty were more self-centred and showy,certainly. None were as consistent and so purely concerned with the task in hand. Happily, his career was long, his plaudits many. The latterday collaboration with Telarc was both highly productive and musically satisfying. In this relaxed trio setting, Brown, along with underrated pianist Monty Alexander and in-demand guitarist Russell Malone, create a worthy finale to a body of work that, most famously, includes the Some of My Best Friends Are. . . series. Made up of classy re-workings of standards ("Django", "Fly Me to the Moon", "Honeysuckle Rose") and originals compositions from each of the players, what you get is unpretentious, firmly in the mainstream and richly rewarding. The playing is superb and elegantly restrained, the moods created are subtle and romantic and the whole ambience is one of superior craftsmanship infused with warmth and humanity. Alexander is the most melodic of pianists and, rightly, has the lead voice on most numbers. Some will find the whole thing a little too unadventurous, a little too supper-club chic . . . their loss. This is music that soothes and seduces, but is in its own way as complex and intricate as many more avant-garde projects. It simply doesn't advertise itself as such. Effortless, in its most positive sense, then, which is no bad way to remember Ray Brown, one of the real elite.
Seville, Take Me Home . . . (Purple Skunk)
With their second release, Take Me Home, Seville prove that there is life in the vast waste land of modern pop. Although bassist Dan Bonebrake contributes to frequent tour mates Dashboard Confessional, Seville manages to eschew their pathetic heart-on-the-sleeve emotional meanderings that send anyone over twenty batty. Instead, the South Floridian quintet smartly sticks to the Elvis Costello/Smoking Popes side of pop-punk. Vocalist and guitarist Chris Drueke helps the band distinguish them with a voice that is vaguely reminiscent of XTC's Andy Partridge, and a penchant for catchy refrains that will stay stuck in your head for days. Getting things started in proper fashion are the first two tracks, "Jessica" and "Take Me Home", both are upbeat, catchy numbers with driving guitars, and pitter-patter rhythms that ensure constant smiling by listeners. Unfortunately the third track "Elise", with its "The good Lord must have brought me to you", shows the bands weaker side. While one could hardly blame a song writer for not being a Bob Dylan or a Blake Schwarzenbacher. One can blame a singer for trite lyrics of love that could only be considered cute if penned by a second grader on their first Valentines Card. Too often Seville strives to be wholesomely appealing, like the Monkees, had they grown up in the Bible belt. Thankfully, the band has the musical chops to overcome their lyrical shortcomings. They branch out on "Disaster", by incorporating some very Love-inspired organ drones to a somewhat alt-country-ish number. The last track, "Jody Girl", is a Bob Seeger cover, a very appropriate choice for these finely scrubbed lads.
Twothirtyeight, You Should Be Living (Tooth & Nail)
Trying to sit through Twothirtyeight's You Should Be Living is akin to having a root canal with nothing to numb the pain. Well, perhaps it's not that painful, but you could at least chalk it up to waiting in the dentist's office while trying not to fall asleep. Some others have labeled this as a Christian rock album. I didn't particularly make that connection, even though there are songs like "Modern Day Prayer" on here. Basically this is just another run of the mill soft emo disc that weeps on your shoulder and drives home alone. Songs like "The Bathroom is A Creepy Place for Pictures of Your Friends" stretches to the point of emo silliness. You want to lock this band up in a soft cell and make sure they never come out again. Especially after listening to "Sad Semester" and "I Pretend To Choke". Awwww. There, there Twothirtyeight. Life's not so bad. But this emo's gotta stop. See, this is what the long-term effects of Ritalin can produce. Sad, ironically.
Various Artists, Carnivals, Cotton Candy and You (Orange Sky)
This album houses a collection of 11 contemporary garage, psych and pop tracks, outfitted in '60s mod renaissance-style. It positively radiates sunshine; from the cheerful orangey-yellow ferris wheel jacket cover to happy California-esque tunes of Florida-based band Honeyrider's "Summer's Almost Gone". With lyrics such as "Brighton's a lot of fun / But California's got the sun", it doesn't get much better (or deeper) than that. The Sights kick off with "If That's What You Want", a slick rah-rah foot-tapping song with an infectious bopping melody. Other notable tracks include The Witch Hazel Sound's "Music Becomes Vibration" that's reminiscent of Burt Bacharach with its pedaling synthesizers, the psychedelic track "Soulbot" by L.A.-based band Moroccan, and The Out Crowd's energizing Stone Roses-flavored "C'Mon Children". All in all, this holds together as a strong compilation fulfilling a niche from some talented and burgeoning bands. It remains to be seen whether any of these bands will enjoy bigger success since this scene has long past and a revival doesn't look like it's on the cards anytime soon. The beauty of this is that this compilation comes without excess hype, without pretension, and without expectation. It's just fun, pure and simple.