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DJ Deep, Deep Sessions 01 (Distance)
For soulful house that is both deep and danceable, the French label Distance is still as reliable as any in the field. Ditto the aptly named Parisian DJ who has compiled and mixed their latest warm and winning selection of tasty tunes. With names like MAW, Kenny Bobien, Erro, Arnold Jarvis, and Big Moses among the featured artists, Deep Sessions can hardly go wrong and duly delivers a varied diet of gospel vocals, jazzy arrangements, and subtle funkiness. Erro's "Rock Wit U", Peven Everett's "I Can't Believe I Loved Her", USG/African Blues' "Odu Jazz", Moses/Bobien's "Brighter Days", Arnold Jarvis's "Music Is My Friend" are just some of the better known highlights, but it's all top-drawer material. Dance music that is still recognisably "Black" music is surviving, if not exactly thriving, and DJ Deep knows where to look for it. Mellow in mood but rhythmically uptempo, this is a perfect example of the sort of music that has broken down the barriers between modern soul and house scenes in the UK and should appeal to discerning clubbers everywhere. And, as it closes with MAW's "Nothing", one of their few unqualified gems of late, all househeads need this collection.
Barbez, Barbez (Black Freighter)
The whole is not always greater than the sum of its parts. Barbez are a case in point. Brooklyn, Wisconsin, and (hell, even) Russia are among the geographic reference points for individual members. Brecht/Weill, the Residents, Argentine tango, klezmer, and Slavic folk music are some of the band's musical/cultural touchpoints. "Post-cabaret avant-punk chamber ensemble" is but one fairly hopeless attempt to define their niche. Guitar, bass, violin, drums, theremin, marimba, vibraphone, accordion, toy piano, music box, miscellaneous percussion and Palm Pilot (uh-huh) indicate the bewildering array of instrumentation present on this, their self-titled sophomore release. Not only that, but the whole shebang is produced and mixed by the same Martin Bisi whose resume includes work with acts as disparate as Herbie Hancock, Swans, Cibo Matto, and Bootsy Collins. Given these damn near white noise kitchen-sink component parts, Barbez is not quite the high concept artsy eclectic disaster it might initially suggest. Sure, there are moments of faux operatic flamboyance that are either intensely irritating (St. Petersburg-born Ksenia Vidyaykina's refrain "that's interesting" from "The Relationship Between Man and Bird" springs to mind) or winsomely endearing ("Pirate Jenny"?), depending on your perspective. And despite a nagging feeling that this is all some off-kilter soundtrack to a larger and more visual work (theatrical, operatic, perhaps even cinematic) to which we are denied access, shafts of musical beauty do occasionally lance through the dusty backstage bustle of stage sets, rehearsals, prompts and props. It is perhaps this visceral rolled-sleeves graft that (at least partially) redeems it; the plain russets and browns of actual life framing something flintily gorgeous - alleyways concealing flashing gems -- from highlights like "West Rogers Park", "Tango Ballade", "The Red Urchins" and the frankly disturbing mini-epic "The Ultimate Disaster". Still, file under: "not for everyone" (okay?).
Headstrong, Headstrong (RCA)
Combining rap and metal in the same way as Linkin Park and Limp Bizkit, Headstrong is a Canadian band hoping to replicate the worldwide success of fellow Canadians Nickelback and Sum 41. Headstrong is certainly a good effort, packing all the right punches in places, but I'm not convinced if Headstrong can make a serious impact on a scene already over-populated with rap-rock bands. Mixed by Jack Joseph Puig -- more noted for his work with pop-punk bands -- the album sounds great sonically, but the production values aren't matched by the overall quality of the material. First single "Ariana" certainly provides a bit of hope, sounding very original and melodic with the infectiously repeated refrain "If I put my mind to it I can figure it out", but after that, the material begins to sound quite derivative and stale. As demonstrated on the thumping "I Am For Real", Headstrong have a vibe that's as aggressive as Rage Against the Machine, yet despite the odd flourish and the best efforts of explosive vocalist Matt Kinna, the band never quite escape from a sound that's already been effectively trademarked by the likes of Linkin Park.
Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes, Wake Up Everybody [reissue] (Epic/Legacy)
"The world won't get no better / If we just let it be / The world won't get no better / We've gotta change it, yeah / Just you and me." There's no need to struggle to find contemporary parallels. Teach the children and heal the sick. Stop war. But nobody can do it alone. This crowning sermon by Teddy Pendergrass was unfortunately his valedictory address with Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes. Despite his success as a solo performer, "Wake up Everybody" will remain his most memorable song, and it's hard to find a more soul-stirring cry for reshaping the world into a better image. But Wake Up Everybody was more than that single. Pendergrass preached about love with the same fire as he did about bringing about social change. Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff's sweeping Philly Sound provided the perfect heavenly hosts to back up the uplifting messages. The doo-wop harmonies, lush strings, and detailed instrumental elements of tracks like "Keep on Lovin' You" and "Tell the World How I Feel about 'Cha Baby" typified the best of mid-'70s disco, much like the work of Barry White and Isaac Hayes. Today, would-be soul crooners like Jaheim and Dave Hollister are working overtime trying to lead a ghetto revival to match the fervor of this old school wake up call. Unfortunately, contemporary performers have gotten caught up in keeping it real when a concerted effort to affect real change should be the call of these new days. Pendergrass and his compatriots in the group found love in trying times. Sometimes it feels like there's no love in modern R&B, only programmed beats and basslines and bumping uglies. That's why we need human reminders that there's still some beauty in the world. This reissue, which includes an additional mix of the disco anthem "Don't Leave Me This Way", is a fitting reminder that Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes featuring Teddy Pendergrass didn't leave audiences without hope.
Small Brown Bike and the Casket Lottery, Small Brown Bike and the Casket Lottery (Second Nature)
On the indie label circuit, EPs split between similar (and dissimilar) groups are a common occurrence. Oft-times these releases tend to highlight one very good band over another, or merely clear out a number of weaker tracks from both groups that weren't issued on a proper full-length release. Small Brown Bike and the Casket Lottery's release here is a bit different in the split EP domain because this time around the bands collaborated together rather than issued separate recordings on their own. In the liner notes for the EP, Small Brown Biker Ben Reed explains that the two bands were originally planning on doing a standard split EP, but then while touring together, they decided to go the collaborative route. Truly, these groups have created a big, generic sound here that doesn't really challenge the musicians or the listeners. One would think that a six song effort like this that took more than two years to produce would yield something interesting, but this is not the case. It may be obvious, but sadly the best thing here is the note for note cover of the Queen and David Bowie hit "Under Pressure". There is nothing cheeky about it, no muffled giggles or hints of irony. Of course, that's the way it should be, and perhaps these guys felt like reclaiming something back to the song that Vanilla Ice may have stolen from it long ago with his "Ice Ice Baby". But the problem is that the cover is so spot-on that you don't need to hear it. If you have the original, then this take doesn't offer anything new. You're likely to sit there and marvel at how close they came to the original and then forget all about it. So that actually leaves a mere five original songs for the two bands to work through together. As stated, the music here is nothing frightfully exciting nor original. Small Brown Bike and the Casket Lottery pound out a semi-rocking, emotionally filled pop sound that a hundred other faceless or otherwise indie groups are churning out these days. But this is exactly the kind of tepid, homogenized rock that gets those other bands signed to the majors. Harmless fluff that might sound good on a future Vans tour or something of the sort. The second track, "Now I'm a Shadow", doesn't even quite reach those semi-commercial heights. It goes by in a wash. A boring blur of two minutes and eight seconds. Small Brown Bike is responsible for this track. Would I put my money on them? Not at all. The mix is far too dry and the sound has been eked out by two tons of other emo groups out there, though I have a feeling these guys don't want to be labeled "emo". Oh well. The brand fits. The Casket Lottery's "Composing Myself" isn't any better. Starting off with the typical sweetly sung opening lines backed with obvious bass lines which then explode into shouted vocals and loud guitars -- the trademark formula of so many groups trying to get into the pockets of the likes of Sum 41 while at the same time dissing said groups and doing their best to maintain their indie cred -- has gotten so incredibly predictable and flat out boring by this point that it makes one wonder why someone doesn't come up with a new formula that everyone can beat into the ground. No money placed on this band, either. Yet, because the two groups sound so well together, this EP can be considered nothing but a success. When they dish out the co-written tunes "Wrong Hometown" and "Boardinghouse", their sounds mix together so perfectly that you'd swear it was the product of just one uninspired band, and well, you'd be right. The groups' sounds are as interchangeable as a stack of Legos. The colors and shapes might appear to be different at first, but once they lock together, they become one and the same. Suffice it to say that the time and effort put into this release was not worth it. Avoid at all costs.
Styx, Cyclorama (Sanctuary)
Discounting their record sales, Styx's biggest accomplishment is not their turgid music but their episode of VH1's Behind the Music, the funniest in the series' history. Guitarists James "JY" Young and Tommy Shaw were memorable enough with their disgust at their band's laughable vision, but better still was show-tunes-loving frontman Dennis DeYoung, perhaps the most blithely idiotic rock star ever concocted. When he was ousted from reunion plans because of his disabling light sensitivity (an illness as lame as DeYoung himself), Styx began cashing in on his legacy on the oldies circuit without his dictatorship. It comes as some surprise, then, to see a new studio album, the mysteriously titledCyclorama. The questions mount: Can Young and Shaw carry the load? Can replacement Larry Gowan fill DeYoung's shoes? Will anyone care? Perhaps the only people curious enough to fork over the dough needed to find out are Styx maniacs who deserve the oppressive blandness of Cyclorama, and kitsch fans eager to see some old dorks hit rock bottom. This inoffensive mush never gets hilariously bad, even with silly guest spots by Tenacious D, Billy Bob Thornton, and Brian Wilson(!). Styx has played it safe, and what's the point in that?
Chris Wall, Just Another Place (Cold Spring)
Chris Wall has a folk country mixture seeping on the very good "The Poet Is Not in Today". Bringing to mind a cross between Chris Isaak, Kevin Welch and Hal Ketchum, Wall thankfully isn't as country as Nashville's "Music Row". Instead he moves more into his adopted Austin lineage of great craftsmen. "Old Broken Record" has an Americana feel and evokes images of long lost highways. Culled from four different studio sessions, the album doesn't sound as choppy or spliced as one might assume. "An Outlaw's Blues" is an early honky-tonk favorite without sounding too glossy. Bringing to mind Lionel Cartwright with "Hank Williams' Cadillac", Wall name-drops Joe Ely and Robert Mitchum in other tracks like "Just Another Place". But there are some tired, run-of-the mill songs, especially "Five Piece Band", which talks about Texas, Merle Haggard and the late Waylon Jennings. When Wall drifts from the traditional pedal steel arrangements, he is better off. "I Just Got Used to Lovin' You" gets things back on track with a bit of pedal steel but more of an urgency not found in other songs. Another strong tune is "The Jagged Edge", a mid-tempo affair in the vein of The Bellamy Brothers. The same could be said for "Somewhere Between Forty and Fallin' Apart", a relaxing folk-oriented song about growing old though staying young.
The Windmills, Walking Around the World EP (Matinee Recordings)
The Windmills' latest effort, Walking Around the World EP, is more akin to a single than a full-fledged EP. But when the title track is as good as this, it's worth paying EP prices. "Walking Around the World" is as close to The Bends-era Radiohead as the world is going to get these days (not a complaint, but an out-and-out fact). The song begins with Roy Thirlwall's dulcet voice mixing with his equally as sweet chiming guitar floating over a brisk beat, and builds to an explosive climax during the chorus that recalls "(nice dream)" in the best possible way. Swirling guitars, bass, and drums create an arena-sized rush not seen since the mid-'90s days of Thom Yorke and co., and Anglophiles everywhere will cherish the chance to relive those halcyon days. The remaining two songs on Walking Around The World are high quality as well, but don't reach the same peaks. "What Was It For?" is a Smiths-y delight, while "Amelia" shows off the quiet side of the Windmills and exudes a White Album Beatles aura (think "Julia"). All in all, a delightful way to spend 11 minutes.
Various Artists, Carnivals, Cotton Candy and You (Orange Sky)
This album houses a collection of 11 contemporary garage, psych and pop tracks, outfitted in '60s mod renaissance-style. It positively radiates sunshine; from the cheerful orangey-yellow ferris wheel jacket cover to happy California-esque tunes of Florida-based band Honeyrider's "Summer's Almost Gone". With lyrics such as "Brighton's a lot of fun / But California's got the sun", it doesn't get much better (or deeper) than that. The Sights kick off with "If That's What You Want", a slick rah-rah foot-tapping song with an infectious bopping melody. Other notable tracks include The Witch Hazel Sound's "Music Becomes Vibration" that's reminiscent of Bacharach with its pedaling synthesizers, the psychedelic track "Soulbot" by LA-based band Moroccan, and The Out Crowd's energizing Stone Roses-flavored "C'Mon Children". All in all, this holds together as a strong compilation fulfilling a niche from some talented and burgeoning bands. It remains to be seen whether any of these bands will enjoy bigger success since this scene has long past and a revival doesn't look like it's on the cards anytime soon. The beauty of this is that this compilation comes without excess hype, without pretension, and without expectation. It's just fun, pure and simple.