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Heiruspecs, Small Steps (Interlock)
The anguish of unrealized potential is about 80% of the experience of being a dedicated fan of obscure music. Heiruspecs are that persistently rarest of things, a live hip-hop band, and their association with the Minneapolis underground hip-hop scene might lead those in the know to expect blazing, improvised takes on Atmosphere's moody minimalism, or maybe the Micranots' paranoid madness, or at least Eyedea's atonal boom-bap. But, strangely, what Heiruspecs mainly traffic in is frighteningly close to being smoothed out on the R&B tip, the sort of middle-of-the-road '70s groove you'd expect to be backing Common after being ripped from a Lonny Liston Smith record. So what's the point of having a live band if you're just going to ape the sound of old records? Well, I'm sure these guys are a decent live show, and they've founded most of their reputation on backing up other artists -- that is, playing other people's songs. The two on-board MCs who nominally front Heiruspecs aren't bad, but one of them has a style dangerously similar to that of Atmosphere's Slug, most exemplified in "Meters". It's the 1st-person narrative of a cab driver, which, while good in and of itself, is introspective and contemplative in precisely the same style as Slug's best work. There are a few flashes of promise, but if you're interested in a live band that does more than using their instruments to mimic samplers, may I humbly recommend Miscellaneous Flux's Dead in Dreams? It's daring and frequently invigorating where this is vague and often sleepy.
TV on the Radio, Young Liars (Touch and Go)
TV on the Radio, with help from some of their New York scenesters including members of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, has created an eerie and exciting debut with their Young Liars EP. The band combines unsettling lyrics and memorable harmonies over darkly ambient drums and guitars. The group's strongpoint is certainly Tunde Adebimpe's vocals, but the music and production contribute to creating an ideal album for driving alone at night. The highlight of the disc -- and this is both a praise and a criticism -- comes on the fifth and hidden track, where TV on the Radio performs an a cappella version of "Mister Grieves" by the Pixies. The unnerving doo-wop performance shows the band's creativity and willingness to experiment, but it's a bit disappointing to hear a cover outshine original material. TV on the Radio, in just these five songs, defines its sound without much hesitation, but we'll have to wait to see how this sound holds up over the course of a full-length. Based on the power of this CD, it's a record we should look forward to.
trin-i-tee 5:7, the kiss (Gospocentric)
This is the third album from the New Orleans gospel trio and it's pretty much business as usual: R&B/pop with religious lyrics and three rather better than average (some striking contralto tones) female singers. The songwriting is adequate, in a way that most current pop/R&B songwriting is adequate, and, with production in the hands of a host of respected Rhythm and Praise producers, the whole package is purposeful, slick and slightly predictable. There is a strong modern soul stepper in "Dance Like Sunday", some bouncy R&B jams ("What He Wants" the best, "Holla" risibly bad) , some worthy testifying ("Lord"), a brave and accomplished re-working of "People Get Ready", and rather too many earnest ballads. If the material matched the considerable vocal aplomb that the group have now developed, then the album could have thrown up a couple of true classics. As it is, The Kiss will serve its target audience -- young Christians brought up on Destiny's Child and MTV -- well. Parts will also appeal to soul fans, for the quality of some of the performances, and R&B radio can slip a few tracks in without worrying too much about the religious lyrics, which are overt but never forced or awkward. Nothing staggering, just a competent and pretty enjoyable example of a currently very popular sub-genre.
Unwed Sailor, The Marionette and the Music Box (Gentlemen Records/Burnt Toast Vinyl)
Is "excited" a term used concerning Unwed Sailor's latest output? Well, yes and no. Although the opening "Morning in the Forest" sounds promising, it is more of an unfinished idea put to tape. The core of Jonathon Ford and Nick Tse give "The Marionette's Cottage" a better performance leading into the pretty and picture-perfect "Cuckoo Clocks. The Call of the Windmill", an enjoyable piece of music whose melody is timeless and infectious. The use of instruments and the approach used has almost a Ry Cooder atmosphere to it or early Pink Floyd, particularly on the rolling waves of "The Windmill's Tale of the Music Box Floats through the Air, Riding the Windmill" and "Lost and Alone". Yes, the titles are often a tad wordy, but listeners will be easily lured in. There is a certain sense of this being a melancholic lullaby, particularly given the tone and instruments used over its four minutes.
Although not integral to the album, the fine artwork in the liner notes complements the sounds greatly. "In Search of the Music Box" possesses a different, urgent tone as the bass line works against the acoustic guitar playing. The accordion on "The Meeting of the Marionette and the Music Box" is a slight departure and gives the album a new breath of fresh air. "At Peace in the Forest" takes on a certain natural music sound with the chirping of birds and other animals. The Celtic tinged "The Distraction. A Conflict of Interest. Enchanted by the Unicorn" is an obvious highlight, but there are too many here to mention. This is a quality piece of reflective music from start to finish.
King of Prussia, Blood Rains Down on My Hometown (Best Friend)
The template for this album seems to have been the old lo-fi Guided by Voices records that used a concentrated musical palette to create concise songs with catchy, familiar hooks. But this sounds more like a one-man studio effort than the work of a band, which actually helps to humanize what with GBV can sound formal and remote. King of Prussia, a Pennsylvania town renowned for its shopping malls, is precisely the sort of place a sarcastic, clued-in indie-rocker such as Sam Henderson, who wrote and sang all the songs on this collection, would likely despise. His selecting it as his moniker gives a sense of the irony at work here, as well as his implicit faith that bland, suburbanized people, places, and things can be rehabilitated through being adopted artistically. Henderson's subjects tend to be self-important, self-conscious people and their ambitions, perverted by their upbringing in stale, stagnated places into a predilection for needing to be at once cool and conformist. His lyrics are laced with mundane details yanked out of context to lend them a faintly surreal air. Though sometimes smart-alecky, they are often genuinely affecting in the elegant way they reframe the quotidian.
Geoff Muldaur, Beautiful Isle of Somewhere (Tradition & Moderne GmbH)
This live recording is a testament to the fact the fine acoustic guitar playing can rival any amplified notes any time and any place. Recorded during a European tour in Germany in May, 1999, this performance opens with the lovely "The Common Cold" and continues effortlessly into "My Tears Came Rolling Down". Muldaur has the soul of Stevie Ray Vaughan and delivers the same intensity. The nearness of the music is Muldaur's most endearing trait, especially as the audience hangs on every note. Even the slower blues style of "Gee Baby Ain't I Good to You" is excellent. Another high moment is "Motherless Child", bringing just as much oomph as Clapton's version on From the Cradle. "Just a Little While to Stay Here" has a somewhat gospel leaning to it while "I Can't See Your Face Anymore" is your standard old-time blues tune. Muldaur only penned two of these tracks, including "Got to Find Blind Lemon Part 1", but each song he makes his own with his fine picking and equally experienced vocals. "Trouble Soon Be Over" and "Drop Down Mama" are some of the greatest tunes here, especially the toe-tapping groove created on the latter. Wrapping up with the title track, Muldaur has proven Richard Thompson correct -- there are three white blues singers and Geoff Muldaur is two of them.
Stereomud, Every Given Moment, (Columbia)
At first listen, Stereomud epitomizes everything that's wrong with nu-metal music: lazy, churning, sludgy guitar chords, bass tuned down so low that it rattles your insides, and boring, turgid, lifeless drumming. It's something that has been flogged to death by innumerable bands over the past five years, and the truth is, it's next to impossible to hear any signs of actual talent above the din. However, this band comes awfully close to transcending the minimalist constraints of the genre, thanks to singer Erik Rogers, who boasts a phenomenal voice. Capable of powerfully carrying a song similar to Dave Draiman's work with Disturbed, Rogers shows great range on such above-average tracks as "Show Me", "Believe", and "Define This", but on "Drop Down", he's also able to shift into a phenomenal yell that would even impress Lemmy. "Anything But Jesus" shows the band is above Creed-like sermonizing and boring suburban angst ("I don't want to hear the questions / I got no answers anyway"), as Rogers attempts to carry the band into more melodic territory, but more often than not, the rest of the band leans on the aforementioned nu-metal cliches like crutches. These guys mean well, and they sound better than the majority of their peers, but it's still not enough to warrant spending hard-earned money on.
Various Artists, Fado: Exquisite Passion (Narada)
Because there is something so intrinsically dramatic about Portuguese Fado music, the title of this stellar compilation, Fado: Exquisite Passion is more than just hyperbole. There is an exquisite passion at work with Fado, commonly referred to as the "blues" of Portugal. There is a sense of true emotional torturedness in nearly every Fado song, especially numbers sung by the four talented "Fadistas" on this collection. With the simple musical accompaniment -- a Portuguese "guitarra" being the primary instrument -- the songs on Fado: Exquisite Passion are excellent showcases for the women's soaring, pained vocals. This is also an ideal "primer" to those curious about Fado; you're not likely to find a stronger modern-era compilation. Excellent contributions come from Mafalda Arnauth and rising star Mariza, who -- along with Lisbon superstar Misia, (oddly missing from this recording) -- has been dubbed "heiresses" to the late Amalia Rodrigues, the unrivaled queen of Fado. While all the singers here are strong, Rodrigues's status remains unchallenged. From her mournful, "Com Que Vo" to the earthy "Foi Deus", she will, now and forever, be the defining voice of Fado.
Scenic, The Acid Gospel Experience (Hidden Agenda)
Seventy-three minutes of float-you-above-the-clouds instrumental rock, The Acid Gospel Experience is one of those albums that feel be utterly transporting, if you're in the right mood. It can get rather tedious if you're not, as the group gets into a certain zone and stays there; there's not much variety here. Still, it's hard to fault a band for trying to focus on using musical instruments to lift themselves -- and us -- up to some alternate plane, and, for the most part, they do a good job of reaching that goal. Part of the key is the way they take a boatload of instruments (including not just guitars, bass, and drums, but also ebow, moog, synth, chamberlin, vibes, percussion, congas, sitar, glockenspiel, and lap steel) and work it all into a seamless entity that floats along and pulls you in. With song titles like "A Journey through the Outer Reaches of Inner Space", you know basically what sort of music you're going to get. But as spacey, extended dream-pieces go, this one has some truly pretty, magical moments. It's not the most diverse album you'll hear, but it makes a gentle bed to lie upon for an hour or so.
Various Artists, The Best of Blues Classics (MCA)
With the current deluge of blues compilations hitting the marketplace led by the impressive Blues Kingpin series (The Right Stuff/EMI) and film maven Martin Scorsese's ambitious Presents the Blues project, MCA faces stiff competition with its current offering. Little more than a generic blues sampler, the new CD includes obligatory tracks by pioneers such as John Lee Hooker, Howlin' Wolf, Sonny Boy Williamson, and BB King. Other featured artists include Koko Taylor and Bobby "Blue" Bland, with a surprise appearance by modern day bluesman Robert Cray. The disc is wholly unspectacular, seemingly thrown together in an effort to cover as many bases as possible by featuring a dozen "classic" tunes by legendary blues artists. Unfortunately for MCA, true blues aficionados already have every one of these songs in triplicate, and are looking for products that are significantly more enlightening. Compared with the aforementioned Kingpin and Scorsese packages, the MCA entry is not even close, and is basically a redundant waste of time.
Soft Works, Abracadabra (Tone Center)
What a pleasant surprise! Survivors of the original "Canterbury Scene" prog-rockers the Soft Machine return with an album that should delight their long-term fans and generate new interest in the jazziest and most free-form of the psychedelic era's UK representatives. From the Terry Riley-esque keyboard opening to the closing trippiness of "Madame Vintage", Elton Dean, Allan Holdsworth, Hugh Hopper, and John Marshall make the best case I've yet heard for the continuing validity of this type of music. It is not exactly groundbreaking stuff, being basically Coltrane-influenced sax over an articulate rock backing, but it really works. Hopper is a wonderfully assured bassist, and Dean is a much more inventive sax player than he used to be, while Holdsworth's keyboard and guitar work have a glorious sense of space and texture to them. Drummer Marshall has a lightness of touch, which is usually so lacking in rock, and plays no small part in the album's success. Although all members have plenty of opportunity, Dean takes the majority of solos and the lead melodic lines. This makes it more of a jazz-oriented session than it otherwise might have been and it may be that the ideal audience for the group now comes from that area. Highlights include the title track and the self-explanatory "First Trane", but I can assure you that this is a mellow but exploratory set worth hearing in its entirety.
Jony Iliev & Band, Ma maren ma (Piranha)
If you're into gypsy music then you probably already know about Jony Iliev & band. However, if you're looking to get your gypsy groove on for the first time and don't know where to start, Asphalt Tango should be the second album you should pick up (right after the recently released and sublime Rough Guide's Music to the Balkans). This Bulgarian sextet jams, and just might make you think about packing that bag for a saunter through Sofia. Jony Iliev's vocals pine over the lamentive wails of accordion and clarinet, Jovan Torbica's double bass proves hefty enough to make you move all by its lonesome, and Ventsislav Radev's ridiculously complex rhythms on drums kibbutz with guitar lines that shuffle through your earhole. Liner notes claim this is what you'll hear throughout the nightclubs and streets of this capitol city. Until you can prove it with a real visit, play this and whet your appetite.
Various Artists, The Rough Guide to Scottish Music (World Music Network)
Whether foreign or familiar, I have yet to meet a Rough Guide music compilation that I didn't like. You can choose to treat them as solid compilations that usually stand on their own, and/or you can use them as a springboard for some of the vast, countless worlds of music that parade our existence. This hour-long, modern Celtic chapter carries on the Rough Guide consistency, albeit not as glowingly. There is enough bagpipe, fiddle and mouth organ to shuffle anyone's kilt, not to mention the wealth of harrowing vocals and ruminative musings that seem to beckon the grayness of lengthy winters. Bands such as Blazin' Fiddles and the Battlefield Band do their best to heat things up with lush harmonies and shivering tempos. Yet, please feel free to call me thick, but after a few listens much of it starts to sound a bit too similar. Or, too depressing, I don't know. Plus, c'mon Scotland, where's that wicked Gaelic rap song about haggis?!