PopMatters home | short takes home | archivesPopMatters Music Short Takes
Ima Robot, Public Access (Virgin UK)
With the recent wave of new wave revivalists, including such bands as Hot Hot Heat, Longwave, Interpol, The Rapture, and Elefant, you can be sure to see many, many similar bands come out, as major labels try to milk the trend for all it's worth. Los Angeles band Ima Robot are one of those new bands, but they're one that just might rise up above all the rest. They've got all the goods: an energetic, charismatic singer in Alex Ebert, a couple of seasoned veteran musicians in bassist Justin Meldal-Johnson (Beck, Air) and drummer Joey Waronker (Beck, R.E.M.), and a great sense of adventure. Their debut single, Public Access, hints at some real potential, as they mine the best sounds of the early '80s, from Television to The Cars to OMD. The exuberant "12=3 (Here Come the Doctors)", which also appears on their upcoming debut full-length, has Ima Robot combining electronic tones with a fuzzed-out Cure sound, as Ebert's exuberant, nasal wail makes the song all the more fun. "Black Jettas" has a funked-up Gary Numan, don't-say-electroclash feel (an update of "Cars", perhaps?), and "Sex Symbols on Parade" is more straightforward punk, but the real winner on this little EP is "The Beat Goes On", which does the '80s pop thing so brilliantly (think Joy Division going new romantic), it would be a perfect fit in a John Hughes movie. Whether they can make this sound work for an entire album remains to be seen, but for now, this superb single is a very promising start.
Wow and Flutter, Names (Jealous Butcher)
Mostly uninspired slow and druggy mood pop. Like a lot of other such recordings, Names attempts to win over the audience by trying to pretend that atmosphere is everything and to hell with the enjoyment. Try to stay awake through the likes of "Careful" and see if you want to ever listen to Wow and Flutter again. Some people really enjoy this kind of thing, but to my ears it comes across as nothing more than indie noodling at its worst. Straddling the line between shoe gazing and artier pop, Name fails on both levels and leaves the listener wondering what the hell just happened, but not caring a whit. Something tells me the same thing will happen to you. "Modern Primitives" sums it all up: boring guitars, slow pacing, and nowhere to go. Wow and Flutter seems to have been inappropriately named. "Dull and Uninspired" seems like the more obvious choice.
Soundtrack, Down and Out with the Dolls (White House Productions)
Down and Out with the Dolls -- the movie -- is a glorious piece of schlock filmmaking about an all-grrl punk outfit from Portland, Oregon who hit the big time but can't seem to keep individual rivalries and backstabbing from threatening their success. The film's soundtrack mirrors this rise-and-fall tension and vulnerability with 12 modern pop-punk tracks that bring to mind the fiery likes of X and L7. The film's faux-band, the Paper Dolls, features actors and musicians Zoe Poledouris on vocals, Kinnie Starr on drums, Melody Moore on bass, and Nicole Barrett on lead guitar. The girls fake their next-big-thing sound brilliantly, tearing through song after song with vitality, urgency, and flair. Sharing the bill with the Agoras, Lo-Ball, Bangs, Inger Lorre, and Fonda, these Dolls earn their stripes and then some with this soundtrack that easily doubles as the best party-rock album since Letters to Cleo subbed for Josie and the Pussycats.
X27, Your Neu Favorite Band (Narnack)
It's a shame the hipsters have co-opted post-punk music as another arbitrary and nostalgic signifier of cool, like it was some trucker hat or greasy moppet hairstyle, because they have taken a form once rich with an inherently critical politics and vehement intolerance for crass mediocrity and emptied it of all its meaning, so that now its just another commercially viable style, no different than disco. X27 do the style as well as one would expect -- the incisive guitar work is suitably atonal and angular, the drumming repetitious and aggressive, the vocals full of yelps and snarls: the male lead often sounds whiny and terrified, like someone has stolen his Devo records, and the female lead seems to be channeling Juliette Lewis's character in The Other Sister. Their songs are full of random, vaguely ominous quatrains like this one from "The Piston": "I'm not a reptile / I'm stuck in my skin / Oh, hand me a knife baby / So I can begin the end". It sounds cool in the context of their art-noise, but its ultimately meaningless, mere entertainment (and not in the Gang of Four sense, either).
Tsurubami, Gekkyukekkaichi (Strange Attractors Audio House)
For all intents and purposes, Tsurubami is another Kawabata Makoto offshoot. The man has had numerous collaborations, spin-offs, and side-projects, but undoubtedly the most notable is the experimental Japanese psychedelic freak-out unit, the Acid Mothers Temple. Makoto, founder, guitarist, and leader of the collective (which is known for its tripped spacey improvisations that are in direct homage to the early German experimentalists like Can, Neu, and Amon Düül), finds himself on this project working with drummer Emi Nobuko and Mothers bassist Higashi Hiroshi. With the first track, "Gekkyukekkaichi," running almost 24 minutes and the second and final one almost hitting 37 minutes, Gekkyukekkaichi does not meet its quota for a full-length in terms of song quantity, but, instead, in song length. This album is really for adventurers looking to stretch even farther the cord of post-rock experimentation, as all of the music was improvised and none of it was overdubbed; bass, drums, and guitar work together and create a dramatic, if not heady, version of Cerberus Shoal or Sonic Youth's SYR Series purveying an instrumental landscape with clear roots in the Asian music-art aesthetic.
Opera Babes, Beyond Imagination (Sony Classical)
This mezzo-soprano/ soprano duo began as street buskers duetting on operatic material and the like near London's Royal Opera House, with whose variously discerning queues they were a hit. Their CD would have been better for more things like the song based on a theme from Grieg's piano concerto, but this is umpteen classic(al) vocal chestnuts adapted and tarted up (most better than the grand march from Aida which ends this CD on its nadir). Why, with hundreds of alternatives at hand, rehash as "Granny-pop" material which sounds hackneyed unless played seriously straight? Well, apparently it sells. It's inoffensive, easy, but when the CD plays little listening is required or rewarded. Surely the duo never sounded like this when busking, voices insufficiently bright or clear, as if subdued by a general notion of packaging over style. This is not the most musical of marketing exercises, with two pretty faces on the front, musically-spiritually on a par with the 2002 London Proms concert on "Music-Theatre", which revelled in Richard Rodgers but in respect of Richard Wagner (whose work shared the programme) had Bryn Terfel pasteurisedly singing the notes and words of Wotan's farewell with about as little character or meaning as the mere notes and words allow. The same sort of treatment that operatic items get here was poured over blues and R&B more years ago than the Babes could remember. Quite possibly, the Opera Babes sound great in concert, but they've been done no musical favours by Sony Classical, touting not the wide appeal of good tunes but the planned potential of programmed product. Judged as pap, it's on the soft side too.
Robert R. Calder
The Layaways, More Than Happy (Mystery Farm)
For those seeking respite in the thoughtful songwriting and pop sensibilities from days gone by, search no further than the Layaways new CD. Tapping into a diverse pool of musical influences, these 12 tracks evoke the spirit of early Beatles, R.E.M., and the best of the Cure. Simple yet sophisticated vocals are deftly woven with intricate instrumentals throughout, creating an enjoyable aural journey in the process. Founding Layaway David Harrell has succeeded in blending the perfect mix of '60s, '80s, and '90s rock, then stamping it with his band's distinctive signature. The album has an interesting elliptical structure: opening with a ringing guitar sequence that melts into a drone of backwards feedback, the tracks encompass 35 minutes of melodic pleasure. Songs like "Touch the Sky" and "Ocean Blue" hearken back to a time when lyrical content was something artists actually paid attention to, evidence that the Layaways are aware of -- and true -- to their musical lineage. The album concludes where it began, with backwards feedback flowing into the same chiming guitar riff. More Than Happy is the answer to much of the soulless mass marketed dreck that currently fills the airwaves, proof that some musicians still get it. A fine effort that is to be enjoyed by discerning fans looking for something a cut above.
Marty Lloyd, Marigold (Razor & Tie)
Marty Lloyd was part of the Freddy Jones Band, a jam band that had opened for Dave Matthews Band and Blues Traveler. Now venturing out on his own and moving to sunny California, Lloyd has crafted a polished yet original piece of work that is mix of Bryan Adams's vocals in front of the music of bands like the Rembrandts and John Mayer on "Justified". It's the rootsy pop sound that is very strong without coming off as mass-produced. Influenced by the Stones and Dylan along with others, Lloyd continues with "American Dream", a slow-builder in which the listener will see Tom Petty throughout. Fans of Neil Finn will enjoy the bouncy pop nature of "We'll Get By", especially Lloyd's manner of finishing off each lyric. "I'm not a saint about to fall, maybe the only way out of here is written on the wall", he sings over sweet harmonies and some catchy riffs. "Where We Started From" is a similar effort.
"Sinkin' Like a Stone" is the highlight of the record, again a Finn-ish track that fits Lloyd to a tee. The only slight flaw is the bland back-beat that sounds pre-packaged. The song is also quite hypnotic, especially its lullaby-like last minute. "Blackbird" doesn't fare quite as well as Lloyd gives more of an Americana flavor to the track as he talks about the train still rolling. "Josephine" has the singer on his solid sonic footing, something that he seems to shine on time and time again. Unfortunately, "Fall from Grace" comes off as being too forced and here Lloyd recalls Kelly Jones of the Stereophonics. Fortunately, he atones on the title track -- a mid-tempo and infectious tune recalling Springsteen in certain instances. This is an extremely strong album that singer-songwriters should use as a blue print.
Fine China, You Make Me Hate Music (Tooth and Nail)
Some bands don't just wear their musical influences on their sleeve; they practically have them face-painted on. Fine China is one of those bands, and from the first bar of You Make Me Hate Music it's a safe bet that the various band members have one or two Smiths albums and maybe a couple of Cure records in their collections. Listening to the album eerily recalls pop music's greatest pessimist, Morrissey and with song titles like "The World Wants Me Dead", the Arizona four-piece imitate their idol with consummate ease. However, amongst the strangely familiar melancholic tones and drab atmosphere of songs like "Your Heart Was Made of Gold" it's difficult to shake the feeling that Fine China's music and talent are somewhat hindered by the omnipresent influence of their record collections.
Mt. St. Helens, You Are a Ghostly Presence (Divot)
These Chicago-based, psychedalic-tinged punk rockers do a lot of rumbling and spewing, but the eruption you're waiting for (sorry, but it's too easy) never really comes on Ghostly. The vision here is of a sort of post-punk outfit, turning the genre on its head by incorporating some keyboard tinkering and samples, but the Notwist they are not. This is still very much a hard-charging record and very much a record with Midwest cowpunk lyrical sensibilities. Songs like "Texas Jailbreak" offer up some interesting insights but don't really go anywhere. But Quinn Goodwillie's lyrics aren't the culprit that drags Ghostly down to the ranks of mediocrity. The sonic landscape here is incoherent. The keyboards and sampling are a step in the right direction it seems, but for some reason the band couldn't quite go all of the way with it. The aim is proper. The result, however, is a bit off center.
Jaga Jazzist, Animal Chin EP (Gold Standard Labs)
The Norwegian jazz collective are getting plenty of good press at the moment for their strange amalgam of big band jazz, '70s jazz-rock, post-millennial digitalism, and a vaguely anarchic "spirit of '68" avant-gardism. I'm not wholly convinced, but there's no doubt that Jaga Jazzist are another name to be added to the growing list of worthy and adventurous projects emerging from Scandinavia. Inventive soloists, an ear for a hook line, and a definite energy are the band's most positive features. There is also the packed, densely-layered nature of the arrangements. These are sometimes a bit too "everything but the kitchen sink" and can result in a complete mess ("Animal Chin"). On the other hand, on tracks like "Real Racecars Have Doors" or "Toxic Dart", they allow an untidy but melodically charged excitement, reminiscent of the Mothers of Inventions's best Uncle Meat-era extemporisation. Star of the show Lars Horntveth's fondness for baritone sax and bass clarinet somehow reinforces that impression. "Low Battery" shows that there is a quieter more contemplative side to their music and the long re-mix of "Going Down" sums up most of the attributes, good and bad, so far mentioned. All in all, this EP gleaned from various recent albums provides a useful sampler of one of the more extravagant outfits currently invigorating the European nu-jazz scene.
Colin Hay, Man @ Work (Compass)
Colin Hay is best known for his days as the singer for Men at Work. Now, recently being part of Ringo Starr's All Starr Band this past summer, Hay has reworked his classics with some newer songs. Beginning with "Beautiful World" which has an alternative mix, the singer-songwriter struts his wares over an acoustic countryish backdrop. Losing nothing in terms of his voice, the songs take on a different meaning and sound despite some being around for more than two decades. "And still this emptiness persists / Perhaps this is as good as it gets", Hay sings about giving up old habits and taking up new ones. "Down Under" is stripped down to its acoustic base with flute still present over a swampy guitar. This might be best termed "Men at Work: Unplugged", but Hay has enough other material to make it interesting and contemporary on songs such as "Overkill" and one of his new songs "Storm in My Heart", a very decent pop tune that oozes adult contemporary characteristics. "Don't Be Afraid", previously unreleased, is an above average reggae tune that has a great flow to it along the lines of UB40. But hits like "It's a Mistake" and "Who Can It Be Now" still keeps one's attention, particularly the former, which seems a song that Sting took his sound from somewhat. "Waiting for My Real Life to Begin" is the longest and possibly most heartfelt tune of the baker's dozen. "Who Can It Be Now" is toned down with an acoustic version. Overall this is a strong album with songs still as good as they once were.