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Mr. Dibbs, The 30th Song (Rhymesayers)
If a great break record is something between a tool and a musical creation, then The 30th Song is somewhere between a great break record and an unremarkable instrumental album. Dibbs is flawless as a craftsman, dropping clever vocal samples, sound effects, and complex scratches with alacrity, cutting smoothly between beats, and even doing a few of them new-fangled mash-ups to funkify, for example, Marilyn Manson's "Beautiful People". His beats have an experimental edginess that aligns him with El-P and the Anticon posse, and for that alone the album is worth a spin. But despite that prophetic title, he fails to come up with anything that resembles even at first a song -- this is a DJ set with bells and whistles, but no hooks or real structure, so there's little motivation to stick with it, or to listen to it more than once, unless your interest is more in the technique than the music. I recently heard DJing described as hip-hop's loyal child, always doing what it's told, and despite his heavy-metal vibe and notorious road antics, Dibbs here pretty much comes across as a musical momma's boy.
Cobra High, Sunset in the Eye of the Hurricane (Cold Crush)
Seemingly a reaction to the immaculate and lifeless world of electroclash, Cobra High aim at seeping dirty synthesizers into their pop-rock tunes that retain a jagged punk edge. As Sunset in the Eye of the Hurricane nods to the past with influence extracted from the new romantic movement, it also aims at a propelling punk rock into a lush electronic future. As testament to such a sound, "Awesomology" makes up for its simply awful title with an instrumental take on Cobra High's multifaceted music. Elsewhere on Sunset -- which is the debut offering from these barely-20 years of age youngsters -- synths sparkle and rhythms thump ("Black Boomerang"), Placebo expounds their influence ("A Cut of the Money"), and new wave is translated into the 21st century ("Paper Gods"). Cobra High lacks the experience and maturity to create something new, but after this quartet tuck a few more releases under their belt they should be on their way to creating an album that's more than just danceable fun. But it's sure not a bad way to start.
Eric Johnson, Souvenir (Vortexan Music)
Eric Johnson is the guitar nerd's guitar nerd. He became popular with the avid Guitar World reader set in 1990 with the Grammy-winning record Ah Via Musicom, featuring the single "Cliffs over Dover". Considered by some as one of the world's greatest guitar players, Johnson certainly has a distinct sound. But sometimes being a technically sound, even brilliant, player can't save the day. For all his gifts, Johnson delivers a flat, lifeless record that sounds more like a new soundtrack to the old Miami Vice television series than anything worthy of the high praise heaped on the guitarist. Trying for a spacey rock sound, Johnson falls flat on numbers like "Space of Clouds" and "Paladin", which for all their complexity don't add up to much but Fender masturbation. And his cover of the Beatles' "Paperback Writer" is downright embarrassing. Does the world really need another version of this song? Especially one that sounds like it's been funneled through Rush? The answer, of course, is no. The most hardcore Eric Johnson fans may find even they don't need this souvenir.
Mutiny UK, In the Now (System Recordings/Sunflower)
Dylan Barnes has got to be one of the unluckiest mo-fos in the annals of dance music. First he had the distinct displeasure of watching his former partner-in-crime Simon Ratcliffe rake in unbelievable truckloads of hype and praise for his vastly overrated work with Felix Buxton in Basement Jaxx; now, with his new partner Rob Davy and their Mutiny UK project, he has to endure endless (and mostly unfavorable) comparisons to Basement Jaxx. Fans of the Jaxx and similar studio jesters like Daft Punk will hear echoes of those actsí retro-kitsch obsessions in Mutiny UKís party-friendly palette, but this is more of a pure house record than either Ratcliffe and Buxton or their French counterparts have the attention span to produce. So forget the obvious but ultimately irrelevant comparisons -- except when they invite them, as they do on sillier tracks like the robot-electro anthem "Infectious" and "The Pornstar", whose title says it all. Mutiny UK actually deliver one of the yearís more entertaining collections of four-on-the-floor beats, including at least one great peak-hour dust-up ("Kip da Kik Bounciní"), one masterful slab of disco-diva sass ("Secrets"), and one genuinely beautiful Balearic anthem ("Keep Love"). No, itís not going to stand the dance music world on its ear, but so what? Iíll still join this Mutiny over hanginí in the Basement any day of the week.
Julie Powell, Heart of a Woman (Solponticello)
Julie Powell has been a composer, singer, songwriter and jack of all trades. But this latest venture is perhaps the best thing she has done. Beginning with the earthy overtones on the dark "Intro", Powell takes the listener down a dreary alley before showing them the light. "Over My Head" is a soulful mix of blues, country and gospel. With a powerful yet controlled vocal, Powell seems to shine on this "beautiful" tune. Guitarists Neal Fountain and Colin Bragg add some nice textures, but the song is a bit too repetitive. "In the Garden" is a jazz-oriented affair that has some country sway within. Fans of PJ Harvey and John Parish's Dance Hall at Louse Point would revel in this record, especially during the somber "Dance". As the album states, this is a mix of ballads and spirituals. "Quittin' Time" is probably the album's highlight, a delightful Americana tune in which Powell truly breaks out. The title track is equally stellar, bringing to mind a Nashville-based Norah Jones. If there's one slight disappointment, it's the dirge of "Weepin' Mary", an effort Powell doesn't pull off as strongly as the others. But the moving "Were You There" will give one goose bumps. It's a very solid and powerful performance.
The Blackstone Valley Sinners, It's a Sin (Valley)
The self-proclaimed "Number One country band in all of Rhode Island", The Blackstone Valley Sinners get going with a brief instrumental intro that is leisurely and pleasing to the ear. Lead singer Slim Cessna has a rather smooth sound that is rough around the edges. The warble as he yodels on the traditional "Angel" is a highlight. Mixing a bit of barroom country with fifties era country in the vein of Roy Orbison or Marty Robbins, "It's a Sin to Tell a Lie" also features vocals from Judithann. Fans of quirky country acts like The Handsome Family will grasp onto this record, especially on the Johnny Cash sounds of "Slater Mill". Murder, whores and the bible-thumping themes appear more tongue-in-cheek, but the passion Cessna delivers them with makes you think twice. "Fraulein" is another gem that ambles along at a relaxing pace. The galloping "Lethal Injection" is a perfect rockabilly meets punkabilly effort that flies off the album. A few tracks marginally miss the mark like "Knightsville", but overall songs such as "Saturday Satan Sunday Saint" and the murky rock texture of "Pawtucket Pickup" make you yearn for the days when the "western" was still part of "country".
Various Artists, No Wave (Kickin)
Not my area of dance at all, but great fun nonetheless. Not "No Wave" in the post-punk sense but still very eighties in sound and feel. Man Parrish, Mantronix, Depeche Mode, and Kraftwerk-influenced pop all come to mind when listening to the likes of Fischerspooner, Notwist, Death in Vegas, Radio 4, Morgan Geist, and the rest of the nouveau-retro stars on show. Incorporating acid house, electro, indie and alternative dance, and compiled by the always enterprising Aloha Pussycats, this should find a ready audience amongst the hipper rock fans as well as the slightly more demented ends of the club scene. Obviously a reaction to the rigid categories that have dominated recent dance styles,No Wave attempts to muddy as many generic waters as it can. Electronic pop in all its many guises and with a strong dash of humour best sums up the project. Worth buying for Louie Austen's "Hoping" and the female voice saying "Jack me, jack me, jack me, jack me. Jack me till I scream". Now, if that doesn't take you back, you have missed out. Odd but strangely compelling.
Brad Byrd, The Ever Changing Picture (Brad Byrd Music)
Brad Byrd is one of the most intriguing new independent artists I've had the pleasure to hear in ages. A fusion of alt. country and left-of centre rock with a real contemporary feel, The Ever Changing Picture is an undiscovered gem. Byrd provides a fresh alternative to typical singer-songwriters and although acoustic rhythms form the backbone of his music, producer Evan Frankfort's studio genius provides a lush, diverse sonic landscape, and Byrd's superb voice, with its semi-country twang gives an unorthodox flavour to his strangely addictive songs. "Better Days" emphatically introduces Byrd's sound, and is a dark, yet melodic opener complete with a dirty riff and real atmospheric edge. "Factory Burn" makes similar use of modern production touches while stand-out songs "Weird Enough" and the pop-infused "You're Good" impressively add to the overall quality. The rousing chorus of "I Swear You're Out There" showcases another facet to Byrd's songwriting, while "Earth and Feathers" and "Never Came Back" have an almost Americana feel. Not only a talented singer and musician, Byrd is also a canny businessman, releasing The Ever Changing Picture through his own Rockport Publishing venture, but given the current popularity of Ryan Adams and Pete Yorn, there's no reason why Byrd couldn't soon match their success on a suitable label such as Lost Highway.
10 Heads High, From Here to Tupelo (Pile On)
Sometimes new talent can be right under the nose of a major record label. Take New York based rockers 10 Heads High for example. The band's bassist Michael Borenstein has a day job in IT at Sony Music, and if the label's A&R reps are looking for a new modern rock band with a real commercial viability and songwriting flair, they could do no worse than put a call in to Borenstein's department. Any label exec with a pair of ears -- from Sony or elsewhere -- can't fail to be impressed by the sheer ferocity, melody and power of opening track "Evolution Queen", which could be a huge hit if given the right opportunity. "Stepchild of a Genius" possesses a similar level of energy thanks to Marc Lombardo's passionate vocal delivery, and "Arms of December" and "My Summertime" are two more promising tunes from a band combining the contemporary swagger of American Hi-Fi, with the melodic bombast of Cheap Trick. The only negative point is that the emergence of bands like White Stripes could render 10 Heads High's brand of polished modern rock redundant, but the promise evident on "From Here To Tupelo" could still yet be exploited by Sony's A&R scouts, who won't have far to go to get a demo.
Frederic Galliano and the African Divas, Frederic Galliano and the African Divas (PIAS)
Many of the recent world music-meets-house outpourings -- jazz-laced and chilled-out as they are -- have smacked not a little of exoticism and, in the case of some (i.e., the appalling DJ Gregory's Africanism project), the nasty whiff of neo-colonial exploitation. Thankfully, this collection of African vocals over digital rhythms and mellow electronica is not so obviously tainted. In fact, it is rather impressive and appears to be a genuine labour of love and discovery. Hardly "dance", in any of its more obvious forms, this set is an aural tribute to a four-year journey through Africa by the respected DJ/producer. It does vaguely resemble a well-written travel diary. Erudite and entertaining as it is, the meeting of European and African sensibilities seems a little too weighted to the North. Subjectivity seems to reside largely with Galliano, but the respect is there, while the interplay of styles and the variety of tones make this, unusually, a club-oriented album that you can just stick on and leave running. Maybe it's my residual unease at even this worthy attempt at cross-cultural collaboration, but I found that the stand-out numbers were actually the instrumental ones. Tracks such as "Afo Idon" and "Bko-Dkr" are both impressionistic gems and fine pieces of music in their own right. For the less skeptical though, the mix of live instrumentation, sensuous rhythms and a tangible spirit of adventure should provide over an hour of exploration that is far superior to the average "DJ Journey". If African Divas is merely a fashion statement, then it is, at least, a very well-tailored one.