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Artisokka, A Hiding Place in the Harbor (Shelflife)
A Hiding Place in the Harbor is the debut album by Finland's Artisokka. Artisokka, which means "artichoke" in Finnish, plays gentle, earnest indie-pop that is some of the best indie-pop you will hear all year. Listening to this record will slowly convince you that Finland is some sort of utopian paradise full of gentle souls and gorgeous landscapes, because that is what Artisokka sounds like. Between the soft strings that accompany many of tracks on the record, the carefree pace of the vocals, and the ambient landscapes on the album's cover, it seems that Artisokka knows something about serenity and peace that alludes the rest of us. "Imprint" is the best example of the Artisokka ethic. An effortless pop song, "Imprint" would sound good no matter the season or the time of day. It would make you feel good if you put it on the turntable right this very second. Go ahead and try. Other strong tracks include "Mint", which is perhaps the record's jangliest track, "Motionless", which opens the album and is elusive in its aims and direction (in a good way), and "Change", which sounds like a Finnish band imagining what it sounds like to waste away a spring afternoon at a bar in Acapulco. Overall, A Hiding Place in the Harbor is a strong effort by an unknown Finnish band that will continue to garner attention if it continues releasing records that sound like this.
Palaxy Tracks, Cedarland (Peek-A-Boo)
Throw Radiohead on my card table and I'll raise you Palaxy Tracks. This cheeky, Britpop-infected band out of Austin, Texas delivers the ghost-themed tunes on its latest release, Cedarland, with a kind of gentle complacency rarely seen in latter-day pop. The album is a deliriously confident mix of eerie instrumentals and spooky songs fusing modern pop beats with more traditional country jams via mandolins, a banjo, a lap steel, and (believe it or not) a musical saw. It all blends superbly to create a rare, sophisticated mood, with singer Brandon Durham's vocals appropriately eloquent and brooding. The band's first release since relocating to Chicago (their debut, The Long Wind Down, won the Austin Chronicle's Best Texas Record award in 2000) works as a genuine standout of melancholy rock, not to mention as an awesome soundtrack to a fevered game of shadow tag.
Watsonville Patio, Faster, Please! (Tequemo)
This is the kind of EP that deserves much respect. Watsonville Patio have a sound that is truly theirs and rock creatively over the course of the five songs on this disc. "Girlfriend" and "Tijuana Internet Chick" are the cream of the crop, but each tune is near-revelatory in its execution. The secret may very well be vocalist Janice Grube, one of those leading ladies that any guy would love to have fronting his band. Grube is a powerhouse behind the mic and brings to the table a freshness that is overdue when it comes to female singers in the indie scene. The rest of the band rocks just as hard behind her. Faster, Please! excels at what great rock and roll should be about: loud guitars, instantly memorable hooks, a great beat, and a singer who makes you want to come back for more. Five songs isn't enough here, but the band has a back catalogue worth investigating. Pick this one up now.
The Beautiful Mistake, Light a Match, For I Deserve to Burn (The Militia Group)
I know the Beautiful Mistake are talented. I know they're skilled. I know they're musically adept. I know they're catchy. But I just can't dig beneath the thick layer of melodramatic emo song structures, dynamics, and vocals that coats Light a Match, For I Deserve to Burn. The album's tracks lull melodically and scream methodically as the band exploits the done to death loud/soft dynamic that every emo band from here to Mars utilizes. Acoustics often kick in -- on such tracks as "Circular Paradise" -- only to be thrown to the back of the mix as screams enter, electric guitars plug in, and drums begin to pound. You know exactly what it sounds like and have heard it dozens of times prior. And that's exactly the problem -- no matter how musically skilled the Beautiful Mistake are, it becomes fully eclipsed by the fact that this style is now just fucking sickening to hear. Please, please, please make it stop.
Various Artists, Groove Radio Presents House Grooves (Nettwerk America)
House Grooves sounds like a night at Bedrock, Fabric or any of the "better" house nights in the UK. As such, it is competent, miles more entertaining than eurotrance or hard house horrors but, to me, soulless and, increasingly, the fag-end of a music that is running out of steam. Dark, tribal, nu-progressive, call it what you like and (despite the mainstream dancemags' continuing championing of the artists) it all sounds a little stale and formulaic. Still, I'm in the minority and many will slaver and slobber at the very mention of Tino Maas, Ashley Beedle, Harry Romero, Felix Da Housecat, FC Kahuna, Layo, and Bushwacka -- all represented and representative of the "quality" house ethos. The tunes are familiar, the mixes less so -- which is sensible -- and there is an energy and a big room feel that has a certain grandeur. Maas's "Shifter", and Layo and Bushwacka's "Love Story" are typical. Tight, well-produced and undoubtedly driven by more than mere commerce, they will find a ready audience. But, oh for some genuine innovation, instrumental subtlety, or even some old-style funkiness.
Hitman Sammy Sam, The Step Daddy (Universal)
The leadoff single (and title track) walks the ever-popular line between hilarious and disturbing, as Sammy Sam gets his Bernie Mac on in a sparring match with a chorus of charmingly bratty tykes. "You ain't my daddy!" they protest, and he, ever the loving (step)father, retorts: "Shut up!" It's good, clean fun, and, like Outkast's "Ms. Jackson", accomplishes the rare feat of taking a topic that's almost certainly new to hip-hop and making it sound as traditional as a party anthem. A good dose of the song's charm is that the tension between impotent rage and grudging affection seems true to life, but unfortunately the rest of The Step Daddy doesn't even come close. It's a mess of gun-clap histrionics, hollow threats, and the sort of boasts that indicate a traumatic childhood, all of it over ugly "bounce" beats that do anything but. Look for the single (outside of the Dirty Dirty it's probably somewhere on the bottom end of your radio dial), but otherwise this is a pass.
Becky Baeling, Becstasy (Universal)
"The song lyrics explore the ecstasy of life as well as those incredibly powerful emotions -- both good and bad -- that long to pop your soul out of your body", Becky Baeling says in her bio. Yawn. With help from producers who have worked with Celine Dion, Baeling's dance-oriented songs are pre-packaged and glossy. The opening "Supernova Light", though is actually not bad, which is a bit surprising. It has enough soul in between the thumping dance beats to get it over the bar. "Getaway" isn't quite as strong and falls more towards the bland and boring mid-tempo dance beats. Baeling could probably have more success as a soul singer since most of these Kylie-esque beats are passé.
"I Snapped" has a bit of a funky '70s groove to it, but like most of these songs, there isn't too much to get excited about. "If You Love Me" is eerily like "Can't Get You Out of My Head", right down to the tone and style. Baeling seems to have more talent than this album suggests. The beats on "Without Love" bring to mind "Waiting for Tonight" by Jennifer Lopez. Personally never a huge fan of dance music, but even this tends to get rather stale a bit quickly. Dance music fans should eat this up, however, as there are enough boogie-inducing qualities to transmit to limbs. This is true of the highlight, a cover of Belinda Carlisle's "Heaven Is a Place on Earth". "Take It Away" also fares better, but "Diva" is basically nearly four minutes of hot techno air. This is a fair first album.
Sixty Stories, Anthem Red (Smallman)
This album's title might lead you to expect communist folk songs, solidarity-building singalongs for striking workers, and maybe a rousing rendition of "The Internationale". But, alas, Western Canada's Sixty Stories are not reds at all, and here there's little trace of political consciousness, save for a faint, implicit feminism. The band plays a familiar up-tempo, guitar-driven pop augmented by simple but well-conceived keyboard touches employed for melodic enhancement rather than faddish cachet. Often analog synth sounds are used the way hipsters use old t-shirts from athletic programs at high schools they didn't attend, to conjure an air of ironic, knowing nostalgia and to express a futile derision of mass produced, force-fed novelty. There is an air of nostalgia to this record, but it is not smug or ironic in any way, rather it derives from an earnest, well-detailed rendering of post-adolescent concerns that never condescends to or exploits its audience. Singer/guitarist Jo Snyder's deep alto voice takes some getting used to, but ultimately feels well suited to her material. Her gangly, unpredictable spurts of emphasis match the awkward ambivalence of the situations she relates.
The Robot Ate Me, They Ate Themselves (Swim Slowly)
San Diego's the Robot Ate Me are an odd bunch. Or rather, they make odd music. The instrumental list employed by the band is a testament to this: guitars, accordions, saxophones, horns, violins, pianos, organs, toy pianos, power tools, harmonicas, old analog synths, imported Chinese instruments; alright, you get the picture. Their debut album, They Ate Themselves, isn't an entirely successful affair, partially because at times it seems as if being "weird" takes precedence over the music. The album is frustrating because when the Robot Ate Me are good, they are very good, and when they are bad they are just dreadful. Songs like "A Harp (And How You Cut My Strings)" and "Everyone Was Still" show that there is definitely some musical prowess at work here. However, for every good cut, there is a track like "Tied To A Car", which is a minute-and-a-half of complete drivel and pseudo-intellectual nonsense. It doesn't help that lead singer Ryland Bouchard has the most grating indie rock whine that I have heard in years. If the Robot Ate Me can get over their self-conscious lo-fi art rock and just write some better tunes they could turn into something worthwhile, but for now they are just another indie-rock band with pretentious lyrics.
Yoshimi and Yuka, Flower With No Color (Ipecac)
What do you get when you take two sonic adventurers -- Yuka Honda of Cibo Matto and Yoshimi P-we of the Boredoms -- and put them together? Some kind of magical forest, apparently. Listening to Flower With No Color is like being set down inside a bizarre-yet-beautiful natural setting. The press materials claim the two climbed a mountain and recorded the album along the way, and that they stopped partway there at a temple where thousands of birds were singing, and recorded that too. I'm not sure if I believe that, but I suppose the album could hold up as evidence in a court, because that's definitely what the disc sounds like. The album sounds like the duo took a bag of percussions instruments and a tiny piano and wandered into a forest filled with colorful mushrooms and friendly animals. It's like a whacked-out, experimental version of a Disney cartoon -- bright and playful, yet weird.
Various Artists, Let's Make Love (Sony)
First off, despite what it says on the spine, this isn't really a Marilyn Monroe album; it's actually the soundtrack to the Marilyn Monroe musical in which she sings a few songs. Also, some of the songs are alternate versions and reprises. Given all that, she actually sings four completely different songs. If you're looking for a Marilyn Monroe album, keep looking, especially since I've seen a few in bargain bins. That said, Monroe's screen persona was a bit too cartoonish to be sustained for the length of an entire album (in movies, that's what co-stars are for), so it's sort of nice having her breathy sensuality interspersed between other numbers. Still, the best songs here, "My Heart Belongs to Daddy" and "Specialization", both feature Marilyn. The first is as self-explanatory (and suggestive) as the title would indicate, while the second is a flirty little duet about the allocating of available resources for maximum efficiency. Both are witty, clever, sophisticated, and, like the rest of the songs on the album but slightly less so, utterly forgettable. Like a good cocktail, this album goes down easy and won't leave you with a hangover. In fact, it won't leave you with much of anything.
Stigmato, Inc., Reality Check (Utensil Recordings)
From Barcelona comes the latest entry in 2003's crowded field of Latin-electronica acts. Stigmato, Inc. have less in common with fellow upstarts like Sidestepper and the Latin Project than they do with old-school Latin househeads like Ian Pooley and Masters at Work; tracks like "Strive to Be Happy" and "La Maison de la Trompette" have those jazzy, sunburned grooves that practically scream Ibiza circa 1997. Apart from the dreamy, dubby title track, there’s nothing especially original here, but most of it works anyway. Credit the scorching solos of guest trumpeter Matthew Simon and the vocals of American-born Danna Leese, who has one of those Lisa Shaw/Tracey Thorn soulful altos that can make the most cookie-cutter deep house track (i.e. "Just For You") sound profound.
Michael McDonald, Motown (Motown)
Michael McDonald -- whose sexy, R&B-tinged vocals not only changed the sound of the formerly country-ish Doobie Brothers when he joined in the mid-'70s, but also brought the band its greatest acclaim -- has found a surprisingly good match on this collection of Motown covers. While covers are always risky -- God knows there have been more missteps by more singers one would even care to count -- McDonald knows both his smoky voice and which songs would work best with it. Produced by blues aficionado Simon Climie, Motown has not only the power of McDonald's fantastically soulful vocals but also the precision of jazz-masters Fourplay providing the musical muscle. With a focus on songs by Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder -- two of the Motor City's most romantic and inspired vocalists -- McDonald (himself sounding plenty romantic and inspired) gives impressive interpretations of charmers like "Ain't Nothing like the Real Thing" and "I Want You". His love and respect for Motown, and the original masters behind these songs, is evident throughout. Without changing their basic structure, McDonald does a fine job of breathing new, inspired life into these classics.