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Christopher O'Riley, True Love Waits: Christopher O'Riley Plays Radiohead (Sony Classical)
Finally, something for music geeks to play while hosting fancy dinner parties. Classical pianist Christopher O'Riley's new album True Love Waits: Christopher O'Riley Plays Radiohead is sure to generate a lot of "Huh?"'s out of Radiohead fans everywhere; after all, it's never a good idea for an artist to perform a hoity-toity rendition of a rock tune. Look what Tori Amos did to Slayer's "Raining Blood", for crying out loud. However, like The Bad Plus did with their jazz version of Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit", O'Riley takes 15 of his favorite Radiohead tracks (he's a huge fan, apparently), and reworks them in a different setting, offering fascinating new glimpses of some supremely sublime music. He makes some very wise song choices, focusing mainly on some of the band's album tracks (although singles like "Knives Out" and "Fake Plastic Trees" do pop up), resulting in a few revelatory moments, such as on the dark "Everything in its Right Place" and "Exit Music (For a Film)", the shimmering "Black Star", and his utterly gorgeous performance of "True Love Waits", arguably Radiohead's finest song from the past three years. The CD goes a bit too far at times, as O'Riley's nearly hour-long tribute gets a bit bombastic and swaggering, but its high points make this all worthwhile, especially his stirring cover of "Karma Police", where he proves how someone who is performing within the constraints of a very formal genre can still try something new and make it work surprisingly well.
Clare Burson, The In-Between (self-released)
This Tennessee native has a previous EP to her credit, but her solo debut, judging by her clear and crisp voice on the first verses of "Where You Are", will keep her in the music loop for a while. With musicians who have worked with Lucinda, Emmylou, Nanci and The Dixie Chicks, Burson is confident from start to finish. "Tonight" brings to mind a Southern Natalie Merchant, mixing a bit of folk with a lot of Americana. Newcomer Kathleen Edwards also comes to mind as Burson sounds a bit weary but forges on. "Another Day Down" is a roots pop tune that has some great lap steel guitar. "Hold On" gives Burson another moment to show why she should be a name to remember. It's a gentle melody with lyrics that are heartfelt. "You Got Me" should definitely get the listener's attention although the backing arrangement is a bit lightweight. If there's a fault to her style, it's probably that Burson too often doesn't veer much from her musical nest. The title track might be the exception as it builds over time. "Don't You Do Me" sounds like an early Parisian track with a slight warble to it and its use of accordion. "Too Much For Me" has her going out of the box and it pays off. There isn't any "in-between" when listening to this very capable newcomer.
Erica Smith, Friend Or Foe (Listen Here!)
Erica Smith has a fragile yet pretty vocal style in the vein of Julie Doiron, Aimee Mann and several other "Lilith" like performers. From the opening folk pop of "31st Avenue", Smith could draw comparisons to Joni Mitchell in her early heyday. The sweet harmonies and strings add texture also. "Thanks Just the Same" has a country blues slow dance quality to it that is an early highlight. "Love You All the Way" falls within this genre also, a '50s high school prom track. Another asset is how she sounds best with minimal backing, particularly during the tender "A War Is On". She shifts gears for the murky Mississippi sounds of "Johnny Comes Down to Hilo", another rather solid tune. "Oh Death", which was brought back to life recently by Ralph Stanley, is a creeping funky folk blues song which never loses its momentum nor its tension. Smith makes the most of each moment simply by knowing what she is capable of doing and doing it best. "Rose in Winter" comes off like classic Cowboy Junkies over its seven minutes. It's a very good and consistent album.
Mariza, Fado Curvo (Times Square)
When Mariza sings, it's hard to imagine anything more achingly beautiful than the Portuguese fado. You needn't speak the language to understand the powerful emotions. While fado means "fate", the mood is saudade; that untranslatable Portuguese word that evokes yearning and longing tinted with sadness and nostalgia. Mariza literally grew up in a fado house, a smoky bohemian spot where people gather for dining, guitars and the living poetry of fado. Entrenched as the music of the working class, fado is gaining quick ascent as a fashionable and elegant music. Not all is melancholy, the bright silvery sound of the Portuguese guitar and a rhythm snappy as castinets launches Mariza's upbeat "Fado Curvo". But nothing can paint a still life of a fado house stunned into subdued silence than just hearing Mariza set sail her "Caravelas". They seem rare now, the great chanteuses of Europe, but one appears every few decades. There is definitely something going on worth paying attention to, as tiny Portugual exports two major fado talents, Cristina Branco and Mariza. While there's room for both, Mariza has just started a lengthy international tour by winning UK audiences. Mariza is poised at the precipice of what may yet become a crossover phenomenon, when Americans reaching for beautiful voice and passion in their music once again embrace the great chanteuses (and fadistas) of Europe.
!!!, Me and Giuliani Down by the School Yard (A True Story) EP (Warp/Touch & Go)
Clocking in at a hefty nine minutes and thirty seconds, the two-track EP and Giuliani Down by the School Yard (A True Story) is a brilliant wedge of punked-up funk from the Sacramento/New York eight piece !!! (pronounced Chk Chk Chk or, as a droll sticker on the CD cover elaborates, "any other three repetitive sounds Pow Pow Pow, Unh Unh Unh."). Ignore the lyrics (some gubbins about dancing as a political protest against Giuliani's oppressive regime) and concentrate instead on the booty-shaking beats because this baby was built for the dance floor. Sporting Pigbag trumpets, 23 Skidoo rhythms, and a guitar sound nicked directly from the freaky dancing days of Madchester, "Me and Giuliani . . ." builds up an insistent ass-moving groove straight out of the '80s, stops off for a mid-song breakdown suspiciously reminiscent of U2, then returns back to the orgy of funk. The B-side, the equally long "Intensifieder Sunracapellectrohshit Mix 03" (oh my, how arch), attempts to emulate the trick but suffers in comparison -- the bass doesn't kick nearly as hard and the band's use of vocals as part of the rhythm section leaves behind a nasty whiff of Bobby McFerrin. Still, having been exploring the farthest reaches of this punk-funk hybrid since 1996, !!! know that there's more to the genre than slapping down some bongos over a Joy Division knock-off and they can tear the roof off the sucker like the best of them. As such, their ennoblement as this summer's lords of the rave is pretty much assured.
Dubtribe Sound System vs.Chillifunk, Heavyweight Soundclash (Shadow)
This CD is one half of the double set that came out on Chillifunk a year ago and should serve as a perfect introduction (for an American audience) to the West London house sounds of Lofty and Dr. Bob Jones (Chillifunk/Eastwest Connection) that had such a big impact between 1998-2001. Tracks like "The More I Get" and "Love Music" paved the way for the UK soulful house scene in its current form and although, in truth, these versions added little to the originals (by Teddy Pendergrass and Sergio Mendes, respectively), they had real energy and it is hard to listen to them without getting sentimental about Southport Weekenders and various soul nights when Dr. Bob and others first played them. They sounded so fresh and vibrant. Actually, they mostly still do. So, if a mix of Latin, house, and soul grooves is your thing, and if you are acquainted with California's Dubtribe, who have made the most of their remix and sequencing task, then even out of context this is a pretty fine set. The Terry Callier tracks are a bit forced but other than that this is cafe bar/club fare of some style and grace. Smooth and summery, nu-soul dance owes a lot to these tunes -- check them out.
Karate, Some Boots (Southern)
Singer Geoff Farina would probably kill me for saying this, but his voice sounds a lot like Daryl Hall with a whispering Malkmus folded in underneath. The premise of an indie jazz rock group sounds more tantalizing than it actually translates on record. While many of the riffs on tracks like "Original Spies" and "Ice or Ground?" amaze in their ability to zig, lurch, and still manage to cohere in something like a pop song, just as many tracks sound indulgently bloated. Some Boots has worthy moments, but ultimately melts into restaurant muzak.
The Trembling, Seduce the Government EP
The Birthday Machine, Direction and Destination 7"
The Patty Duke Fanzine #4, Patty's Favorite "Boy Bands"
(Top Quality Rock & Roll)
This CD is a three-for-one deal of forthcoming releases from the tiny Top Quality Rock & Roll label - an EP from Detroit's the Trembling, a "7" single" (in CD format) from Vancouver's the Birthday Machine, and a 6-song various artists sampler from Detroit-area zine The Patty Duke Fanzine. The Trembling provide short, sharp bursts of high-energy pop punk with strident (mainly) female vocals. "Dilapidate", a scathing but hopeful indictment of Detroit, is perhaps the most enjoyable track, but the whole thing is pretty solid stuff for this genre. The Birthday Machine's slow, dreampop songs fall at the softer end of the D.I.Y. spectrum. For three tracks, the female and male singers alternate plaintive vocals, while the band provide shimmery accompaniment that emulates Galaxie 500 with a fair degree of success. Unfortunately, "Closet Superhero", the fourth track, is a hollow-sounding dance remix that does them no favors. Patty's Favorite "Boy Bands" continues a tradition of the Patty Duke Fanzine: getting various indie artists to cover Patty Duke songs (or covers of covers Patty Duke did). It's a cute gimmick, and actually provides some intriguing tracks. The most well-known artist featured this time is Mark Robinson of Unrest, Air Miami, and Teenbeat Records moguldom fame. Robinson's mournful, minimalist cover of "Come Live With Me" lends the paper-thin source material gravitas that makes it unexpectedly compelling. The other tracks go the electronica route, generally interpreting musical arrangements as series of pops, whistles and static, making for amusing, if not particularly recognizable results. All in all, the three releases packed onto this CD don't have much in common besides their record label, but they do show that Top Quality Rock & Roll is up to some interesting things these days.
Christine Di Bella
Various Artists, Aware Greatest Hits (Aware/Columbia)
Believe it or not, the likes of Matchbox Twenty, Train, Shawn Mullins, and John Mayer were not always the multi-platinum artists we all know and (some of us) love. Once upon a time they were all given a helping hand by indie label Aware and Aware Greatest Hits tells the story of how a bored accountant turned his daydream -- and the dreams of countless unsigned bands -- into reality. But despite the quality of artists on the album, the story doesn't necessarily have a happy ending, even for fans like me of Aware's brand of melodic US college rock. For the uninitiated, Aware Records was founded in 1993 by Gregg Latterman, then working as a CPA with Coopers and Lybrand, who found solace from the tedious world of number crunching by establishing an independent record label in his apartment that attempted to give a leg-up to the types of bands he liked and believed in. Latterman gathered together various unsigned bands and released his first compilation album -- which sold a healthy 20,000 copies -- before featuring artists such as Hootie and the Blowfish, Vertical Horizon, and Edwin McCain on his second record. The success of this record and its follow-up led Latterman to abandon both accountancy and a talent for ski instructing to pursue a music industry career full-time. Despite featuring a number of average and fairly forgettable bands during its history, Aware has, to say the least, had a pretty good hit rate. Five of the 14 artists on this greatest hits package were featured on the second Aware compilation while Aware's third release featured Tabitha's Secret's "3am", a song that eventually made Matchbox Twenty's career and is duly included here. Splendid acoustic versions of "Meet Virginia" and "My Stupid Mouth" by the Grammy-winning duo of Train and John Mayer are also featured as well as early tunes by more moderately successful bands Vertical Horizon and the Verve Pipe. Lesser-known acts such as Shannon Worrell, the Gufs, Cary Pierce, and Guster are also represented. All in all, it's a pretty good exercise in self-congratulation that becomes even more pronounced once the tracklisting reveals the massive radio hits "Lullaby" by Shawn Mullins, "Old Man and Me" by Hootie and the Blowfish and "Easy Tonight" by Five For Fighting.
The irony is, that for a venture originally set up to feature unsigned bands from "outside the vacuum of major label marketing and commercial radio play", these songs became so commercially exposed that even deaf grandmothers had trouble avoiding hearing them. Aware's artist development deal with Columbia Records catapulted the aforementioned acts to stardom and became such a part of that commercial/major-label vacuum that Latterman no doubt had to brush up on his accountancy skills to count all the dough that was rolling in. Although some music fans might not see cause for celebration in putting artists like Mullins, Mayer, and Train on the map, Latterman undoubtedly deserves credit for his efforts. For fans of the genre, there's no arguing with the quality of the bands he has gathered together and Aware Greatest Hits makes for an excellent listen. But part of me is disappointed that a record label set up as an antidote to the corporate machine of the music industry eventually became part of it. Then again, in a fiercely competitive business where the dollar is the bottom line, there are very few fairytale endings where everyone lives happily ever after.