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Red Snapper, Red Snapper (Lo)
Pioneering British acid jazz group Red Snapper spent the better part of the past decade revolutionizing the genre, blending electronic music with live instrumentation, creating a jazzy, funked-up, ambient hybrid, with liberal doses of dub, punk, and hip-hop thrown in for good measure. After three quality albums and three EPs, they decided to call it quits; however, on the heels of 2002's remix album It's All Good, Red Snapper has returned, in a sense, with an album consisting of studio leftovers and live and remixed material. That's all well and good for fans of the band, but if they're merely dumping out some excess outtakes, why should anyone but fans of the band even care? What's so surprising about Red Snapper is how good it actually is. The seven new tracks continue in that laid-back, movie soundtrack style Red Snapper was so good at: "Regrettable" has a smoothly swinging beat, with sinister piano, strings, and John Barry style horn accents; drummer/turntable whiz Richard Thair creates a languid mood on "Mountains and Valleys", with his hypnotic trip-hop beats; meanwhile, the more techno-oriented "Ultraviolet" and the Latin-tinged "Heavy Petting" are both driven by Ali G's beautiful double bass. Best of all are the gorgeous Sabres of Paradise mix of "Hot Flush", with its haunting trumpet fills, and especially the two live tracks "Four Dead Monks" and the searing drum-and bass of "The Tunnel". Originally from 1998's Making Bones album, the two live tracks are so slick, so well-performed (especially by Ali G, whose bass playing boggles the mind), that when you hear the cheering at the end of the songs, you can't believe it was pulled off in one live take. A sure-to-be-overlooked gem, Red Snapper is a terrific album for quiet, late nights; that melancholy feeling you get at the end of the record will be due to the realization that we'll never know how much better Red Snapper could have been.
Denison Witmer, Philadelphia Songs (Burnt Toast Vinyl)
With color photos of the city filling the liner notes and references to buildings and neighborhoods scattered about in the songs, Philadelphia plays an obviously central role in the low-key yet emotion-laden folk-pop songs on Denison Witmer's Philadelphia Songs. Yet more than just Philadelphia, the songs reflect people's lives and how they relate to places. The first song sets the hope inherent in a new relationship against the exploration of a new city, while the second reflects the pains of moving from place to place. "Tomorrow I will be/an airplane in the sky/looking down on this place/I romanticize," Witmer sings in a song called "Leaving Philadelphia Arriving in Seattle." Yet more than just romanticize, Philadelphia Songs gets at the role that setting has in our emotional lives: the ways we relate places to memories, to experiences, to feelings.
Jeffrey Osborne, The Millennium Collection (Universal)
Though he is still rated as one of the finest singers in the "Penthouse Soul" mode and despite a very loyal fan-base Jeffrey Osborne's solo work is less well thought of these days than that of the group from which he emerged, LTD. Basically early '80s pop/soul has dated badly whereas the late seventies' sounds seem, if anything, more inventive than they did at the time. Nothing here will change that view. If you are the right age then " The Woo Woo Song" and "On the Wings of Love" and "We're Going All the Way" might stir up a few romantic memories but, to be blunt, this is bland, corporate muzak. If Top Gun is your favourite film and Dynasty your all-time favourite TV programme then rush out and buy this. Otherwise, avoid at all costs. A mixture of over-blown ballads and mid-tempo dancers,no one song manages to fully rise above the scmaltz level. Osborne can surely sing -- but the material and the production are both against him. Even if you are fond of big voiced smoothness then Luther, Peabo and a host of others have left more enduring examples. For true Osborne devotees and the terminally nostalgic only.
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.
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 band’s 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 don’t 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!