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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.
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.