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Kinski/Paik/Surface of Eceyon, Crickets & Fireflies (Music Fellowship)
This three band compilation is for those who prefer their music to extend beyond three or four minutes of pop bliss and into more textured territory. Kinski, Paik and Surface of Eceyon are united by their love of instrumental music that creates rich sonic landscapes that their listeners can get lost in. Although the three artists recorded their tracks in different locations, the four songs on here come together as if they were meant to be various movements in a larger orchestration. Kinski, a Seattle band who just released the fantastic full-length Airs Above Your Station on Sub Pop, are up first. The wonderfully titled "Keep Clear of Me, I am Maneuvering With Difficulty", starts with a quick piano introduction before unleashing a sonic avalanche. The song is twenty swirling minutes of crashing instruments that will light up your speakers like a violent lightening storm. Kinski's ominous sound serves as the perfect lead in for the Michigan trio Paik. They contribute two songs, "Spanish Holiday" and "Eva". The first begins with an onslaught that is as graceful, and powerful, as a bulldozer. However, Paik are not merely brutal, as the guitar feedback sounds like lost souls crying out in the night proves. On the surface, the second Paik contribution, "Eva", is more melodic, however unsettling tones, courtesy of some very creepy synthesizers, permeate. The result is a song that sounds like an orchestra of ghosts tuning up for a movement that never ends. Both Kinski and Paik serve as a fine warm up for the remarkable Surface of Eceyon. Topping the 20 minute contribution of Kinski, and the 13 minute contribution of Paik, Surface of Eceyon provide nearly half an hour of delight. "Concert of Stars" is a most fitting title for a song that has all the shimmering beauty of a clear night sky. It is the kind of song that should be triggered by whatever higher being may exist every time someone pauses to look up at the stars. Synthesizers brilliantly intermingle with guitars that bring to mind Godspeed You Black Emperor at their most beautiful. After the raucous tidings brought by Kinski and Paik, Surface of Eceyon's gentler hand provide awe-inspiring relief.
Dopo Yume, True Romance (self-released)
Young, pretty, and brimming with self-confidence -- these are the trademarks of the bands of the so-called rock revival. Dopo Yume, a photogenic five-piece from New York led by a singer in his early twenties, are no exception. On True Romance, their self-released debut album, the band even score a couple additional buzz-generating points by getting some help from two bona fide young and pretty second generation rock celebrities, Sean Lennon and Bijou Phillips. But while it may be pleasant enough to listen to while drooling over the band photos on the inside cover, True Romance isn't particularly notable for any other reason. Not for its lyrics, which are mainly low-energy tales of going out and getting with girls, and especially not for its music, as most of the songs employ the same sort of basic keyboard and guitar lines, and the same chugging tempos. Perhaps the most compelling aspect of the album is singer Jordan Galland's rather theatrical delivery, which slightly resembles that of Pulp's Jarvis Cocker with a perpetual cold. That aside, for now it may be better to wait for the obligatory spread in the Rolling Stone "Hot Issue" and hold off on buying any Dopo Yume music until the boys have acquired a few forehead wrinkles and some creative depth.
Christine Di Bella
George Duke, Face the Music (Bizarre Planet)
This is the first George Duke album for many years not to appear on a major label. Those who were hoping for a more experimental set, devoid of smooth and "commercial" trappings will be disappointed. Actual Duke fans, however, will be delighted that Face the Music showcases the many aspects of the pianist/composer/producer's talents as developed over one of the most varied and productive careers in popular music. The album fully demonstrates what has made Duke the in-demand figure he is (and also what has driven the guardians of "real" jazz to distraction). Fittingly, it opens with an updated version of his classic piece for Cannonball Adderley, "The Black Messiah". This is confusingly bracketed with dialogue from a live show from Duke's time with the Adderley band. It's a great tune and a timely reminder of Duke's compositional skills in the West Coast soul-jazz format. The hidebound will have to leave it there. From then on it's cross-generic journey time. 1970s fusion, jazz-funk, jazz rock, funk, smooth, ambient, world and sweet soul flavours all get the classic Duke treatment (helped by some exceptional bass-playing from the superb Christian McBride). Even his brief stint with Frank Zappa receives a passing nod ("Creepin'"). If you can cope with the unashamedly "black popular music" sensibilities, Face the Music is a joy from start to finish. The deeply funky "Chillin" and Duke's vocals on "Close to You" were my choice moments, but from the cool "Guess You're Not the One" to the JB-like "Ain't It Funky Now", this is an album that devotees will devour eagerly and skeptics would be well advised to investigate.
New York Dolls, The Best of New York Dolls (20th Century Masters: The Millennium Collection) (Mercury/Universal)
Just how influential were the New York Dolls? Considering that the band's fingerprints can be seen on bands ranging from The Sex Pistols to Guns N' Roses to The Strokes since its early 1970s flash-and-burn existence, the scope of its influence rivals the Velvet Underground's in terms of sheer pervasiveness. But where the Velvets at least managed to put a whole four LPs together before imploding into legend, the Dolls only made it through two -- which is exactly why this compilation seems so unnecessary. Boasting 11 tracks and clocking in at a paltry 40 minutes, this is a case of vault-plundering at its most extreme. The disc collects five tracks apiece from New York Dolls and Too Much Too Soon, throwing in the outtake "Lone Star Queen" (from the post-dissipation Rock 'N' Roll compilation) for good measure. While it's a fine superficial overview of the Dolls' short career, between glaring omissions (where's "Human Being"?) and the fact that both original albums are readily available on CD at the budget price tier, there's not an awful lot here to recommend.
Ty Cobb, 7y Co66 EP (Abstract Dragon)
For those who liked B.R.M.C. in theory, but couldn't quite get on board with their polished sound and mainstream concessions, well, here's the group for you. In addition to the band's formal connection to the Bay-area natives (they are presently signed to B.R.M.C.'s Abstract Dragon imprint), Ty Cobb also shares its penchant for bluesy, shoegaze-indebted riffs. However, where B.R.M.C. smoothes their early 90s haze with sophisticated production, Ty Cobb take a decidedly no-frills approach, preferring to leave the songs as rough sketches. When it works, such as on the lead track, "Wheel," Ty Cobb manage to explore the muddy chaos of the Jesus and Mary Chain while still retaining a uniquely American, indie sensibility. Sometimes their lo-fi aesthetic runs contrary to their British pop songwriting, but it's easy to forgive the band when they're attempting to bridge such disparate traditions. Call it B.R.M.C. for the Guided by Voices set.
Various Artists - Indie Choice 2002 (ModMusic)
ModMusic is a New York company founded in 1999 who are on the crusade to help nourish local bands. The Indie Choice 2002 disc is a compilation of that company's Indie Band Search competition. The judges in the panel include "major and independent label A&R scouts, publishers, radio DJs, music press, music attorneys, television and film music supervisors, celebrities, and industry professionals". Sounds kind of like American Idol on speed. Disastorus? For the most part, yes. It seems once again that "indie" here means nothing and that there were far too many people with their hands in the proverbial pie. But this stuff is pure gold for those A&R troops. Envelope's "Stay" sounds tailor made for an episode of Gilmore Girls. Telepopmusik's favorite chanteuse Angela McClusky weighs in with "It's Been Done", a rather ironic title that could fit easily into any sorts of car commercials. Lava Baby's "Sex Junkie" sounds like a really bad leftover from 1993 or an outtake from say the Josie and the Pussycats soundtrack. On the other side of the fence, you have stuff that sounds like it's desperately trying ot sound "indie", such as Champagne Francis' insipid "Waterskis", NYC Smoke's we-wish-we-were-Ryan Adams "Empire of Doubt", Kathleen Edwards' flaccid alt-country "Six O'Clock News", and Golden Green's phony alt rock-cum-"punk" "Incomplete". Basically this is the kind of stuff one could most likely find on mp3.com without much trouble. Should you be looking for any of these talents to be breaking out any time soon? Probably not. All the reps have made safe choices once again. Oh yeah, this stuff would sound great on the radio, but that's homogenization for you.
Various Artists, Salsa Creole (Tinder)
You don't have to know salsa to fall in love with the fast drumbeats and pulsating pianos showcased on Salsa Creole, the fourth release in Tinder Records' salsa series. The Spanish Caribbean rhythms are infectious throughout this compilation and feature the best in vocalists and latin jazz piano maestros. The historical significance of the genre, which has survived colonial slavery in the Caribbean and Africa and bloodied political and economic upheavals- only adds a haunting context to the complex Latin ballads on Salsa Creole and exemplifies the importance of beauty transcending danger throughout time. French Antillean Ralph Thamar, also known as the Crooner of the Caribbean whose voice is as smooth as cornsilk, offers two stunning songs on Salsa Creole; the first, "La Nueva Era" is a swinging, upbeat number that sets the shimmering tone for the rest of the album with it's intense wail. Thamar's influence in felt throughout this album, and his tribute to the Guadeloupean composer and bandleader Gerard la Viny is a sweet, subtle foray into merengue. Mario Canonge's "Adelante" is a dramatic and powerful lesson in the potential of piano to carry the spirit of salsa into the next century. The seductive Bolero solo by Edith Lefel, "La Foule" is as enchanting as it is catchy, though it is strange that the only female vocalist on the compilation was named after a devastating cyclone. No matter, whether you know the languages represented in this collection (Spanish, French, Creole) or you simply dig the beats, this is an excellent way to gain an lifelong appreciation for the diversity of the salsa genre, as all the all-stars properly showcase their talents here.
Amber Asylum, Frozen in Amber (Neurot)
Conjuring images of stricken women posing in ornate high-ceilinged rooms, the music of Amber Asylum could at first glance be written off as elevated gothic pretension. Certainly, there's a preciousness to this neo-classical ambient (post) rock, but a refreshing emphasis on sonic discovery and unpredictability militates against such temptingly shallow dismissals. Before the music, however, the facts: Amber Asylum are a San Francisco-based collective revolving around composer, multi-instrumentalist and soprano singer Kris Force and regular collaborator (since 1997) Jackie Perez-Gratz, and Frozen in Amber is a reissue of a 1996 record, with the addition of three bonus tracks. Dark and compelling, the music flirts with so many styles (impressionistic, romantic, cinematic, electronic, post-rock) that it manages to (safely) avoid swooning pre-Raphaelite clichés while (dangerously) skirting the other extreme of avant-garde self-indulgence. Ranging from the passionate dark chamber sounds of "Volcano Suite" (moody, labyrinthine, fraught) through the slightly imbalanced gothic waltz of (what else?) "Black Waltz" to the truly inspired full-blown sonic psychosis of "Heckle and Jeckle" (a twisted rope of muted calliope-like organ, ominous electronic bassline, discordant clarinet yelps and brays, processed fuzz, distortion), Frozen in Amber is a madcap über feminine dance through the ages. Nothing illustrates this better than the astonishing rendition of "Ave Maria" found here. The barely whispered vocal is more phantom than traditional soprano. Until close to the end, that is, when "chilling banshee" would better describe it. A relentless backdrop (Bach drop?) of crackles and hisses leaves the impression of an overplayed record being given one last unearthly spin by its own hopeless ghosts.
Boy George, A Night in With Boy George: A Chillout Mix (Moonshine/Trust the DJ)
Here's my problem with chillout mixes: Any idiot can do one. It's not like a club mix where you.re actually expected to match beats, layer tracks and add your own sonic effects to tease maximum impact out of every build-up and breakdown. All you're doing is selecting and sequencing tracks -- easier said than done, granted, but still a far cry from brain surgery. So if you're going to put out a chillout mix CD, every single track had damn well better blow my socks off. Such is not the case on this scattershot collection from Boy George, who has lately been riding his retro-hip cachet to DJ superstardom on the scantest evidence of talent. I count four pieces of genuine, worthwhile downtempo/chillout music here, and two of them -- "So Easy" from Norway's electronica darlings Royksopp and "Burning Up" from the Manchester duo Alpinestars -- are probably already familiar to most fans of the genre. The other two are paired up nicely toward the mix's end -- Benchplayer's "We Can Walk It Out" and Bonobo's gorgeously sitar-soaked "Terrapin" -- but they don't redeem an album that's mostly made up not of chillout, but of overproduced, highbrow pop like Marden Hill's torchy "Bardot" or El Hula's "Augustine", which sounds like Bowie in one his more embarrassing art-rock moments. Maybe the former lead singer of Culture Club finds this kind of stuff relaxing, but I find it grating, no matter how slow the tempo is.
Anne Harris, Open Your Doors (Rugged Road Music)
This Chicago area musician and singer has created another eclectic mix of pop, acoustic soul, funk, gospel and generally upbeat, uplifting music. From the handclaps and backing harmonies of "In My Dream" to the tribal meets Celtic "Vauban", Harris isn't constrained by any one idea, taking the best of what each style has to offer and fusing them rather easily a la Paul Simon. Showing her classical side with "Prelude" and the rousing "Searching", Harris finds a fine balance between the highbrow and the toe-tapper. "Love Song" tends to move into the funky acoustic coffeehouse folk but has some fine fiddling in its background. Throughout the album though, Harris never misses a moment to tell the listener the cup is more than half-full if not brimming over. And it never sounds forced, which only adds to its luster. "Never The Same" is probably the only down-tempo track, but has a lovely melody and narrative. And if there was ever something that could be termed "flamenco hillbilly", then the opening of "Falling Off The Page" might come close to it. Perhaps the high point comes on "Love Is the Light", a song which could draw comparisons to Dave Matthews in some respects. "I Believe" and its relaxing reggae groove is another breath of fresh air which winds a pleasing road. "I know Oprah well enough to know she wouldn't lie/And I've been doing random acts of kindness," she sings. The album may not be an easy finder, but it's certainly a keeper!
High or Hellwater, Living the Good Lie (Cooked in Greasor)
Add Los Angeles musos High or Hellwater to the growing list of alt.country bands deserved of far more than the relative obscurity they currently exist in. With a positively gorgeous leading man (Dan Coakley) whose colorful vocals drench this album in a rare kind of beauty -- at once careful (on "Ghostly Stories" and the excellent "Stone Line, Stone Hook"), judgmental and caustic (on "The Good Lie" and "Downer Days") and deeply sympathetic (on "John Cale" and "Puddle Love"), this, along with recent releases from Big Silver and the X-Rated Cowboys, is roots rock at its finest, melding rock, country, blues and pop to create simple and honest songs. There's rarely a dull moment on Living the Good Lie with some of Nashville's finest adding their talents to what is essentially a well-written, expertly (but not overly) produced album.
Low Technicians, Remembrance (Diffusion)
With music as hyper-categorized as it is today, it's refreshing to see bands attempt to rough up some of the boundaries which stifle the way we hear records. Though they might not achieve the status of bona fide revolutionaries, Low Technicians do manage to mix things up somewhat, combining keyboardist/knob twiddler Brad MacAllister's industrial leanings with guitarist/bassist/keyboardist Brian Pearson's Britpop grounding. It's an intriguing premise, and any attempt to integrate technological advances into more humanistic music should be saluted, but Low Technicians wind up sounding more retroactive than futuristic. Coming across like an updated Flock of Seagulls album, Remembrance suffers primarily from the fact that electro-Brit-pop was already done in similar fashion with New Wave, and no one except the most execrable nostalgists want to see that come back. Hearkening back to Remembrance's embarrassing predecessors might not be entirely fair to Low Technicians, and some of their songs ("A Dream" and "Lifetime," for instance) transcend regrettable comparisons, but the ones that don't offer hefty reminders why pop music saw fit to move on from this stuff the first time.
Mars Arizona, Love Songs from the Apocalypse (Big Barn)
Mars Arizona falls somewhere between that "alt.country" moniker that means little today and roots rock groups like Jayhawks and Wilco. Led primarily by singer Nicole Storto, songs such as "Promise Me Nothing" and the soulful yet winding "Voyeur" seem to fly off the disc, bringing Natalie Merchant and Liz Phair immediately to mind. What is most interesting is how they straddle the line between contemporary rock and an Americana sound. Paul Knowles adds a different and welcoming vocal on "Railroad Song", a delightful track that never works on all cylinders. "Widows Dream" is another beer-soaked Gram Parsons-like gem that is the album's shining moment. "How Did I Get Sane?" is a relatively average moody Sheryl Crow but with a decent chorus. Thankfully the Petty-esque "Old Hotel" picks things up a notch or six, instantly infectious and lovable. The cover of "Alabama Song/Whiskey Bar" seems a bit spacey and weak at times. Storto gives a credible effort on "All Heaven" despite the structure being not as tight as it could be. The traditional "Farther Along" has a "O Brother Where Art Thou" quality to it, making it a lovely conclusion to a rather lovely album.
James Talley, Touchstones (Cimarron)
Sounding like a dead-ringer for Willie Nelson, James Talley was a real contender in country music during the 1970s -- he recorded several albums for Atlantic and Capitol Records and performed with the legendary B.B. King, yet Nelson and Talley could not have taken different paths. After label politics convinced him to prematurely leave his deal with Capitol Records, Talley became one of the forgotten men of country and western and drifted into selling real estate. Touchstones is a re-recorded collection of the songs which gave him his fleeting moment in the Nashville sun, and although Talley certainly looks more like a real estate agent than a country cowboy on the album cover, it's easy to see why his music is still respected in country circles. As "Forty Hours" suggests, his songs lament the troubles of working class country folk and the 16 tracks on offer make for an honest and affecting collection of traditional Americana. Unless you're a Talley fan, most of the material here will be alien, but songs like "Tryin' Like the Devil" have stood the test of the time with surprising endurance and on "W. Lee O'Daniel and the Light Crust Dough Boys", Talley performs with all the gusto and passion of a man playing as if an escape from selling real estate depended on it. To Talley's fans unable to buy his long-since-deleted albums, Touchstones will be a welcome treat although a Phoenix-like return to the mainstream probably won't happen anytime soon.
Fields of the Nephilim, Fields of the Nephilim [DVD] (Beggars Banquet)
This is going to make gothic types the world over smile with glee. Fields Of The Nephilim is a DVD collection of their old and out of print VHS releases from yesteryear. Featured here are the long lost, complete films Revelations, Forever Remain, and Visionary Heads. Also included are a couple of extra goodies, clocking this baby in at 190 minutes of glory! To be frankly honest, though, to watch these video clips now is kind of amusing, more than anything else. I used to think these guys were pretty dark and spooky back in my teenage years of the early '90s; the sad fact is that their music, for the most part, comes off very dated and not too intimidating. I must admit that I was disappointed while watching this. I was hoping to remember how weird and mysterious their early stuff was, but listening to it, against the backdrop of some really corny cinematography just made me bored. The highlight of this set is probably the live set from 1990, Visionary Heads. On this, the band is much tighter (as compared to the other live set, Forever Remain, recorded in 1988), and there's much more aggression in their performance. The audio and visual quality is far better in Visionary Heads, the audio being helped not only by better recording equipment, but the addition of an extra keyboard player. This set, too, marks the gruffest and spookiest utterances to come from the lead singer's mouth on the entire disc. The Forever Remain is pretty decent, too, for it has a large selection of early Nephilim stuff that fans will have rarely seen played live. Overall, this DVD is a must for fans without the original videos; it's very convenient to have them all in one place. In addition to the F.O.T.N. stuff, there are a few songs from various side projects, and there's a weird press kit thing. I thought the videos were pretty silly and dated, but I'm sure fans of the band will disagree and proclaim them "lo-fi art". Nevertheless, fans of F.O.T.N. should not pass this one up. Goths who have never heard them might be interested in this as a small history lesson of the early '90s gothic culture.