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Razorcuts, R is for . . . Razorcuts (Matinee)
This is the release Razorcuts fans have been waiting for. R is for . . . Razorcuts contains almost every recognizable track from the early days of Big Pink Cake when this underground indie-pop outfit, along with the likes of Primal Scream and the Shop Assistants, were working to establish the now time-honored ethics of do-it-yourself punk. This album, though, is a real hodge-podge of musical styles, from punk to '60s psychedelia and '80s rock. It's chock-full of excellent material (the best of which being pop classics "I'll Still Be There" from Big Pink Cake, "Sorry to Embarrass You" from the EP of the same name and "Brighter Now" from Storyteller) that works so very well as a trip down memory lane leading up to the release of yet another retrospective piece for the band, A Is for Alphabet, due later this year. Hardcore fans will appreciate the addition of three bonus tracks on the CD including a demo of "The Horror at Party Beach" and the rare single edit of "I'll Still Be There".
Alexandra Youth Choir, South African Choral (Naxos)
This is a recording worthy of note. Not just because it emphasizes South African choral singing, a style that has become quite familiar to the Western ear over the past 40 years, but because the Alexandra Youth Choir is an especially fine chorus. Singing always in the tight unison that characterizes South African choral music, their unusual arrangements and instrumental accents transform even the most familiar traditional song. There can be soul-stirring moments of recognition when hearing these rich voices and soloists taking off in flight, when the listener can imagine where gospel really came from. There are a surprising number of standout pieces. "Baba Baxolele" is an old well-known folk song about a miner that has been sung to death for decades by every single chorus. In a less inspired setting, this can be tired choral fare, but here the song is refreshed immeasurably and apparently only by honest enthusiasm, though enhanced in a somewhat mysterious and unaccountable manner by only the sparsest instrumental accent of djembe and tinde (talking-drum). Elsewhere, handclaps and stamping are exuberant percussion, while a high-pitched pennywhistle adds an occasional shrill signal. "Kemokete" brings in a bright electric guitar and a single saxophone to great effect. The sparkler is "Saka-Band" which is propelled by the chorus sounding positively jubilant and treated with a lilting highlife accompaniment. The entire song, particularly powerful when so richly textured with choral lines that elevate joyous sound to the next higher level, all translate into the single sentence, "All Africans come and let's have a dance". The enormity of bringing together a chorus with instrumental accents is daunting enough, but this is a large chorus. I counted the names of 34 singers, most of carrying tribal names, but some members are young women named "Precious" or "Pretty." Any serious collection of African music deserves this record, and the Alexandra Youth Choir should rightly be proud of their accomplishment. That Naxos offers this magnificent recording at an attractive price means fewer consumers will be able to resist.
Baculum, My Friends Became Junkies (3 Beads of Sweat)
There is always a place for strange and flat-out weird music -- the Shaggs, anyone? -- but does anyone truly enjoy this kind of listening experience? Great music resonates, entertains and enlightens while music from the fringes is a novelty; listen to it a couple of time, laugh at how wacky it is and then forget about it. That's what Baculum is up against on My Friends Became Junkies, their debut album filled to the brim with 19 songs about rabies, trains and Flipper the Whale. At nearly 50 minutes, one needs plenty of patience and an intense desire to listen to some of-kilter stuff. Sam Goldman is the driving force behind Baculum, and his brand of deadpan speak/singing marks the tracks with vocals, the best of which is "Three Deaths: A Narrative", the aforementioned song about rabies. Goldman plain ol' just talks over a bed of violins and a pleasant guitar hook repeated over and over. But tracks like "Three Deaths" aren't common enough, with too many sonic experiments and "hey look, we're playing crazy toy instruments" cuts in the mix. A little focus would have helped Baculum rise above novelty status, but a good deal of promise in present in their debut.
Five Way Friday, Wrecked (Red Eye)
Five Way Friday is something of a big fish in a small pond in South Carolina. Having released two previous full length albums, Wrecked is the band's chance to break out of the local scene they are such a huge part of and attempt national success. With the production assistance of Mark Bryan (Hootie and the Blowfish) and the distribution muscle of Red Eye, Five Way Friday certainly look set up for the opportunity they crave. The only problem is (and it could be quite a major one), the band fail to deliver on their part of the deal. The band lists its influences as Silkworm and Willie Nelson, but you'd be hard pushed to hear either of those artists in any of the songs on Wrecked. Instead, from the opening bars of "Lapsed Catholic", Five Way Friday continues where it left off on previous album Run Like This with a batch of tunes cloning Sister Hazel while aspiring to be any jangle-rock band you care to name. That's fine if you are already a fan, but where this album ultimately falls short is due to a chronic lack of innovation or adventure. In the four-year period between Wrecked and Run Like This, Five Way Friday parted company with key member and songwriter Michael Helmly, yet there is little difference in style on the two albums. The chance to update their sound has been lost and although there are a number of good songs on Wrecked, there are none which will propel them to national level. Like opener "Lapsed Catholic", "Western Folk" is a driving, rhythmic rocker, ditto the similar-sounding "Everybody's Angel", and while it sounds pleasant enough, unfortunately it's all been done before, and not just by Five Way Friday. "Return to Me" wanders into heartfelt ballad territory with a limited amount of success; the blues-tinged "Good Girls Don't Lie" is a tad more adventurous but lacks conviction, and "Hard To Believe" plods along as if wearing concrete shoes. "A Vision in White" at least ups the tempo significantly and delivers enough energy to sustain a second listen, but like too many other songs on Wrecked, it suffers from some very dodgy lyrics. The standard hardly rises above "She's gone away / She ain't gonna come back / She has hit the road Jack" in "Lapsed Catholic", which speaks for itself, really. Salvation appears in the form of closing acoustic track "Whiskey Dick" which with the liquor-soaked vocals of vocalist Randy Helmly sounds completely unlike anything else on the album and is all the better for it. It doesn't hide the fact that Wrecked is a missed opportunity for Five Way Friday. No doubt its formulaic contents will bolster the band's local appeal and fan base, but on this evidence it will be a while before they are troubling the Top 40.
July For Kings, Swim (MCA)
On the surface, July For Kings do not appear to be doing anything new. The CD booklet reveals the obligatory plethora of tough-looking 'rock band' photographs and the music itself at first listen appears to be a variation on material by bands such as Nickelback, Creed and Fuel. Yet all is not as it appears. Whereas other modern rock acts are big on image and small on substance, July For Kings' aggressive, energetic and powerful songs positively buckle under the weight of the hooks and melodies that dominate them and together with a real lyrical thoughtfulness and sophistication, the result is one of the most exciting rock records of recent months. Of course, bands like The White Stripes are quickly edging out bands like July For Kings in the popularity stakes, but valued on its own terms Swim is a wonderful example of how new rock bands are capable of recording superb albums. Previously known as Swim, July For Kings gained a significant following in the upper Midwest and released two albums that drew the attention of MCA. The band is musically tight and appears to have a great chemistry, but the jewel in the crown is undoubtedly lead singer/songwriter Joe Hedges. His intelligent lyrics, ear for melody and powerful voice are a central part of the band's strengths, and right from the dramatic intro of the intense opening track "Believe", it's clear July For Kings is not another identikit, derivative modern rock band. The track explodes into life in sensational style and Hedges' fascination with religious imagery and references is clear immediately. He screams, "I want to believe in something, but God closed her eyes." with such heartfelt passion and conviction, it's difficult not to be captivated. "Believe" could easily have been the band's first single, but "Normal Life", an examination of everything mundane we take for granted, is the single choice instead. Initially it's unclear if Hedges' lyrics are biting with sarcasm as he sings of wanting a house, a car and paying the phone bill, but it soon becomes apparent that in an uncertain world these simple things should not be undervalued. The mid-paced "Girlfriend" and the excellent "Champagne" showcase the band's solid rhythm section and an undeniable ability to vary their approach, while "Bed of Ashes" and "Start Again" both boast some blistering riffs and soaring vocals, but still retain the incredible sense of melody which runs through virtually every song. The beautiful, acoustic-based "Meteor Flower" slows things down impressively, before "And Gomorra", the most powerful and affecting song of the album confirms July For Kings' longevity and extraordinary talent. It may not be an entirely original sound in today's rock scene, but when the songs on Swim are this good, even the hardest reviewer can be forgiving. July For Kings are definitely one to watch.
Lab Partners, Daystar (Big Beef)
If Dayton, Ohio's Lab Partners prove anything with their first long-player, Daystar, it's that injecting some power-pop sensibilities into space-rock produces some very fine results. Despite their stratospheric inclinations, they are at their core great pop writers who share a surprising amount in common with Fountains of Wayne, pulling one lush nugget after another from what seems like an inexhaustible supply. Cross this with Coldplay's grounded sonic experimentalism and Brian Eno's ambience and you have a pretty fair idea of what Lab Partners sound like. Over the course of Daystar, they fall just short of being truly distinctive, and it would be nice if their harmonic and rhythmic capacities came closer to their gift for finely-sculpted melodies, but other bands have succeeded wildly with much less than is on display here. Besides, it's hard to complain too much with such a fine collection of ingratiating songs. Not everyone who buys Daystar will rush out and form a band, certainly, but only the most fossilized snob could resist extending their thumb skyward when it starts radiating from their speakers.
Stage, Stage (Maverick)
In 1993, the teenage members of New York's Stage assembled to rehearse some Screaming Trees and Soundgarden tunes for a one-off performance at their high school talent show. Little did they know that those rehearsals would serve as the impetus for their musical awakening, and they commenced to writing and recording almost immediately. As 15 year olds, they were landing gigs at CBGB's. A year later, they released their independent effort, Historical Underdosing and opened for Bon Jovi at the Jones Beach Amphitheater. While their friends were taking their SATs, they were opening for KISS at a stadium show in Prague. Ten years and several roadblocks later, Stage finally gets the opportunity to release their music to the masses. Their stunning, self-titled debut runs the gamut of emotions, and all within the cozy confines their hard rock lair. From the haunting opener, "The World Has Come Between Us", the angst-ridden "An Angel Screams From Outer Space" and "I Will Be Something", to the melancholy shading of "I Don't Know" and "I Know Where You Are", listeners will find the album as thought-provoking lyrically, as it is compelling musically. The band may be tough to pin down comparatively speaking, but vocally you'll definitely find a similarity between Ryan Stahr's raspy pipes and that of Bush's Gavin Rossdale. Rounding out this great effort are songs like "Perfect", "Country Bleeding", "Live Happy, Live Anorexia" and the ominous acoustic number, "The Scientist's Canvas". While Stage's brand of rock should serve as a template for the modern hard-rock genre as an album to be "listened to", they'll undoubtedly be universally pigeon-holed with the likes of Three Doors Down, Our Lady Peace and Jimmy Eat World. And with the 10 years it took to get here, that would be a shame.
Woodbox Gang, Wormwood (WBG Music)
This Illinois quarter which mixes hillbilly with traditional "mountain" music wastes no time getting your foot pounding the floor. Bringing to mind The Pogues on "God Box Wagon", the band performs each song with a great deal of warmth and ability. Lead singer Hugh DeNeal sounds a cross between Townes Van Zandt and Violent Femmes singer Gordon Gano, particularly during the humorous "Dot Com Machine". Perfecting what has been coined "trashcan Americana", the group nail song such as "Devil Blues" with a distinct "boogie" quality. "Oh Woman" is a perfect example of the niche Woodbox Gang has carved for themselves - a melodic song that is quirky yet harks back to Celtic folk bands of yesteryear or early Bob Dylan. "Skyclad" veers slightly from this format but is still very good as is the social commentary on "Soap in My Mouth". "Scarecrow" packs little of the same punch, resembling Tom Waits in places. Thankfully the pace is picked up again with the barroom vibe on "Annie Dyhdde". Fans of O Brother Where Art Thou will soak this up and rightfully so. "Panther Song" begins the homestretch to this sparkling "jug-punk" album. All this and a Marquis de Sade-like "If I Had My Druthers". Brilliant and bizarre.