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Stroke 9, Rip It Off (Universal)
Following my rather uncomplimentary review of New Found Glory's latest album, Sticks and Stones, in which I recognised the band's melodic strengths yet complained that melody alone wasn't enough to make it an interesting rock record, I received a strongly-worded feedback e-mail from a fan of the band accusing me of being a fat, balding 40-year-old who didn't even like the type of music I was reviewing. Well, last time I looked, I still had all my hair, my waistline was in good shape and what's more, I am still just about eligible to apply for under-25 discounts on travel tickets. To further disappoint my anonymous e-mail correspondent, I do also have a real passion for rock music and still reach the point of genuine excitement when I hear an album that makes me sit up and take notice. Rip It Off by Stroke 9 is one of those records. On the face of it, there might not be much to differentiate between hook-laden modern rock bands like New Found Glory and Stroke 9. However, whereas New Found Glory adopts a kind of punk-lite, dumb ass approach to the genre, Stroke 9 is almost the thinking man's modern rock band. Almost. They are as guilty as bands like Blink 182 for writing songs obsessed with girls and casual relationships, and as the raucous, "100 Girls" proves, you could almost mistake the song for any off the New Found Glory disc. Thankfully, instead of repeating this high-energy approach ad infinitum until the songs all start to sound the same, Stroke 9 follow the lead of Butch Walker by filling Rip It Off with lyrically smart and diverse songs. To confirm the link between Stroke 9 and the former Marvelous 3 frontman, Walker handles production duties on the sassy, acoustic-based "Do It Again" and in tandem with tunes like the cleverly written and punchy opener "Latest Disaster" and the witty "We Were Wrong", the result is surprisingly enjoyable. The unexpected wordplay and wry sense of humour evident on these songs breathes new life into the genre, and provide a refreshing twist to the tried and tested modern rock formula. Time after time, Stroke 9 demonstrate their multi-faceted approach, ranging from the likes of "Kick Some Ass", a fun and tongue-in-cheek take on the nu-metal scene, to the dark, moody and powerful stand-out "Reject". In between these two poles, unashamed and bouncy rockers like "Just Can't Wait" and "Don't Worry" are pure melodic sunshine. A further dimension to the band's songwriting is displayed on the endearing and thoughtful "Vacuum Bag", which reveals a sensitive side to guitarist/vocalist Luke Esterkyn, This manifests itself again on the edgy epic "Anywhere" and the closing track, "California". Stroke 9 enjoyed a minor hit in 2000 with "Little Black Backpack", and Rip It Off deserves to considerably increase their profile. Whether the band's left-of-centre songs manage to drag some modern rock fans away from their New Found Glory comfort zone though, is another matter.
Ella Fitzgerald, The Millennium Collection (UMG/Verve)
The Millennium Collection. It certainly has a granduer ring to it, doesn't it? As if Universal (another grandiose name, eh?) Music Group has been putting out music for that length of time. Oh wait, they did put out Hildegard Von Bingen's first medieval single, right? And Bach's "Air", they definitely brought that gem into the world. Though I'm sure a few of their execs might have us believe Universal's eternal reach, one thing is certain: Ella Fitzgerald's voice is of timeless beauty. Hundreds of albums exist from Ella's 60-year-long career. And, save for any undiscovered masters collecting dust in the vaults of Decca, Capitol, Verve, Reprise, Pablo or some nephew's shoebox, why would we need another? We don't, really. But if you don't have any Ella Fitzgerald in your music collection, or you know someone who is in need of a quick Ella dose -- and if you can get this on sale -- then this collection would suffice. The 12-song, 45-minute disc briefly spans her Decca and Verve years of the late '30s to the early '60s. Huge hits, such as her "Dream a Little Dream of Me" duet with Louie Armstrong, comprise the pickings, as well as collaborations with the mighty Duke Ellington and Chick Webb orchestras. But don't stop here. So much of Ella Fitzgerald's work (and info about her) is available. If you can afford her Gershwin or Porter Songbooks, grab them. Ella's magical voice is millennial; and well worth it.
There Were Wires, There Were Wires (Iodine Recordings)
Based out of the Boston region and knee deep in blood curdling wails, this hardcore band describes itself as being rooted in the "DIY punk community". Given the opening ferocity of "Lukewarm Happy" though, the band come off as a cross between GWAR and At The Drive-In. Lead singer Jaime Mason tones it down a tad on the punk sounding "Prepare For Collapse", but not before diving into a nu metal, System Of A Down bridge. At times Mason's vocals are indecipherable at best. Titles such as "The Physics of Air Hockey" have often have nothing in common with the lyrics, yet the aforementioned track is the first instant the group sounds melodic and loose. "Stop Motion Asthetic" is probably the best track here and "Fat With Glasses" being a distant fifth or sixth. The last five songs are taken from a live radio recording, three of which are already performed here. On the whole though, despite some decent arrangements, there isn't much to e-mail, er, write home about.
Mike Stinson, Jack of All Heartaches (Big Ol')
This half-hour of straightforward honky-tonk showcases a rather whiskey-soaked vocal delivery from Mike Stinson. Assisted by Kip Boardman with appearances from Charlie McGovern and Ramsay Midwood, the title track brings to mind Marah lead singer Dave Bielanko fronting a group at the Ryman Auditorium. "I Can't Call Virginia" has a Latin feeling to it but Stinson doesn't give the album much color. His vocals are heartfelt but tend to be an acquired taste. "Are we rolling oh bearded one," someone asks prior to the upbeat, pleasing "Late Great Golden State". It's definitely the shining moment on this record. Stinson nestles nicely into a relaxing backporch sway during "The Desert Of My Heart", a tune that mixes a bit of Dylan with Westerberg. "When My Angel Gets High" has Stinson alone for the most part but it runs out of steam two-thirds in. "Fighting Off A Memory" is the loudest and rowdiest tune here, but nonetheless tame otherwise.
The Sound of Urchin, You Are The Best (RCA)
It would be easy to dismiss The Sound of Urchin as a silly band. Let's face it, any band consisting of members named Tomato 11, Doo Doo Brown, The Reverend B II and Hollywood Scotty Choc, has a lot of work to do to convince anyone of their musical credentials. Despite such initial misgivings, it doesn't take long for The Sound of Urchin to banish any notion of the band being merely eccentric jokers. Although with song titles like "The Millipede/Who'll Stop the Beggar" and "Laying On Your Zeets", you will either get the band and the music or you won't. Off-kilter doesn't do these guys justice, but there's a glorious diversity and variety on You Are the Best which is instantly refreshing. Absurd opener "Zen Magic Marker", with its nonsensical stream of consciousness lyrics and hypnotic rhythm, is an indicator of the bizarre, yet mostly irresistible music that's to come. Like the funk-tinged "Scary Skull Eyes", it's too weird to even classify, yet somehow The Sound of Urchin make it seem perfectly normal. The mid-paced "Let It Rain" works well, yet the guitars are cranked up heavily on the aptly titled "Rock 'n' Roll Jubilee" and "Cross the Cloud" to give the band another dimension. Special mention must go to "Space Station on the 4, 5 & 6", a weird tale of Joe Perry and Steven Tyler working at a rather undesirable motel. The goofy lyrics and conceits sometimes get a little tiresome, but on You Are the Best, The Sound of Urchin prove that the line between genius and madness is particularly fine.
Take 6, Beautiful World (Warner Bros.)
Products of the Church and Oakwood College in Alabama, gospel/jazz sextet Take 6 have released Beautiful World, their 9th album in 154 years. This collection boasts 12 tracks (and one interlude), and is a collection of secular and gospel cover songs, all given the traditional Take 6 doo-wop swing. The band covers a wide range of artists, from Sting ("Fragile"), to Stevie Wonder ("Love's in Need of Love Today"), to Donald Fagen who's classic "I.G.Y. (What a Beautiful World)" gives the disc its title. Beautiful World has an extremely uplifting overtone (as though you would expect anything less from Take 6), and will be a welcome addition to any CD collection, from the church, to the low-rider, and all points in between. The bottom line is, with all of the turmoil going on all over the planet right now, a listen to this album may make it seem like a beautiful world, at least for a little while.