PopMatters home | short takes home | archivesPopMatters Music Short Takes
Fiel Garvie, Leave Me Out of This (Words on Music)
English dreampoppers Fiel Garvie's second album, their first to be released in North America, mines pop music's more ethereal past, creating an adventurous, seductive, enveloping sound that holds you in its thrall for 45 entrancing minutes. On Leave Me Out of This, the Norwich quintet blend the chiming guitar pop of such late '80s/early '90s 4AD acts as the Cocteau Twins and Lush, the stirring, orchestral pop of Phil Spector's great singles, and the hushed, ambient quality of contemporary acts as the Cranes and the Delgados. Not only that, but singer Anna's unique, breathy voice will have many critics falling over themselves comparing her to Björk (although she sounds more like a cross between Emiliana Torrini and Hope Sandoval). But no matter who you may think they're ripping off, this album has more than its share of sublime moments. "I Didn't Say" and "Get a Reason" are perfect examples of airy pop at its most unassuming, while the gorgeous ballad "Reeling As You Come Around Again" will leave your head spinning. Fiel Garvie tread the line between uptempo indie rock and ambient music with skill, and this pretty little album is just the thing for anyone who craves some new, beautiful, late-night music.
The Great Depression, Unconscious Pilot (Fire)
Melding sweeping chamber pop, dirge-like shoegaze and hookable rock makes the Great Depression's Unconsious Pilot a curious trip, but not one without rewards. Opener "The Baltic Sea" makes good use of its watery moniker, with rolling drums, guitar and bass, and vocals that rise and fall like tide. Through its midpoint, the songs are long and give gravity to instrumental interludes, so at times a song goes on for several minutes before words give way. But with the surprise of the bright, poppy "The Sargasso Sea", complete with buttery French horn solo, the album's entire mood shifts, as does your attitude toward it. Suddenly, the preamble to this song seems like a bit long-winded; the songs that follow -- generally somber but somehow less heavy -- seem a slow, less burdened descent. Such a sharp turn is usually only the result of sheer accident or deliberate genius. With The Great Depression, it's not clear which it is.
The Manhattan Transfer, Couldn't Be Hotter (Telarc)
Couldn't Be Hotter marks the Telarc debut of Grammy winning quartet the Manhattan Transfer, a move which certainly bolsters the label's jazz vocal roster. For over 30 years, Janis Siegel, Alan Paul, Cheryl Bentyne, and Tim Hauser have crafted pristine arrangements showcasing four-part harmonies that made them the premier jazz vocal groups since Lambert, Hendricks, & Ross. The live setting of Couldn't Be Hotter allows the group to highlight songs that acknowledge their diverse influences and offer some of their best hits to fans. While the casual listener can definitely appreciate group's enthusiastic sound, especially the dynamic voice of Siegel, the Transfer could have updated the mix with newer selections and laid off some of the cornball humor that's so specific to a track like "Gone Fishing". Telarc has performers like John Pizzarelli who also mine similar territory, but find subtle ways to keep in step. In these more ironic, modern times, it might be far better to be a little cool.
Jesse DeNatale, Shangri-La West (Jackpine Social Club)
Tom Waits calls him "a unique, original American voice". Ramblin' Jack Elliott calls him "the Bard of Tomales Bay". He calls himself a "soul troubadour". Whatever you call him, Jesse DeNatale needs a castle built for him, pronto. A poet and storyteller of the highest order, with his debut release Shangri-La West, DeNatale proves himself capable of producing some of the sweetest harsh melodies this side of Van Morrison's Avalon Sunset. Brought to life by the singer's crackling, worn voice and gentle guitar, the album is a journey through the remotest parts of the heart. It's a delicate, searing picture of passion, experience, and regret that fuses traditional blues with a more modern alt.country vibe. The best thing about DeNatale's sound, though, is how naturally it comes together -- there's no spit and polish on this record because it's the dankness and the dust that gives it its shine. This is rich, honest blues at its best. DeNatale should be showered with jewels in return for the awesome gift this album is.
Various Artists, Turntables on the Hudson 4 (Giant Step)
Giant Step, as a club, record label, and website, are on a mission to unite all the threads that make up the best contemporary club and dance music. Teaming up with the formidable Turntables on the Hudson DJs is a logical development. Nicodemus and Osiris have been ploughing the same field for a while now. Happily, the result is the best "Hudson" outing yet and one which sums up the nu-NuYorican ethos perfectly. It's a poly-ethnic, multi-cultural trip through cosmopolitan New York and if it is representative of TOTH's club and party nights, then get down there as soon and as often as you can. African, Latin, Caribbean, and deep house grooves form the basis for what has to be one of the most diverse and satisfying DJ "journeys" this year. A stunning hip-hop mix of Plastic Buddha's "String Theory" and a wonderfully inventive Afro-beat extravaganza from the Plebs ("One for Senegal") are perhaps the highlights, but, with the likes of Antibalas, Baby Mammoth, Local 12 (watch for them), and Marzebian all coming up trumps, it's a close call. Summery and sumptuous, don't miss this vibrant "Urban Soundtrack".
Big Kid, You Must Be Kidding (self-released)
Big Kid is a San Diego-based quartet that specializes in classic power pop, and their seven-song debut EP is perfect for the summer. These guitar-driven songs are great for blasting in the car or on the beach, featuring hard-driving choruses and the kind of subtle hooks that make each song seem instantly familiar. The band grew out of numerous songwriting sessions between drummer Steve Clark and guitarist Damian Hagger. Both men had attended the Berklee College of Music in the mid-'90s (yet didn't know each other then). As the songs developed, the idea of a band to play them seemed a natural progression. Steve's brother Doug was enlisted to play bass and Los Angeles-based vocalist Ken Stacey joined them in the studio to record the songs that would become You Must Be Kidding. Since that time, singer/guitarist Craig Henry has joined the group (in lieu of Ken Stacey) and they recently played as part of the 2003 International Pop Overthrow Festival in Los Angeles. "Feather" is a jaunty rocker, a tale of someone obsessed with a girl seen in a magazine, and most infectious. "Pop Song" is a slower tempo song, again about a woman (this one appears on a billboard) who the singer can't get out of his mind: "Like a pop song that's been played for so long / I hear you all the time". "The Girl Is Alright" tells of one who is wasting time and her mind, in a musical style akin to OK Go. "Extremes" is another pleasant rocker with driving guitar, recalling groups like Phantom Planet and/or Tsar. In this song, the girl-in-question's picture appears on the second page of the newspaper. "I Hope You're Happy Now (Without Me)" is a bitter song of contemplation about the ex-, her wining and dining, and even his very replacement (who he sees reaching the same contemplative state). While Big Kid seems to have the requisite power pop chops, hearty guitar anthems with hooks aplenty, they also seem capable of more. On two of these songs, there's a definite stylistic tribute to the songs of Andy Sturmer and Roger Manning, Jr. "Time in a Day" and "Change Your Mind" (the only songs here written solo by Steve Clark) are impressively Jellyfish-like. You Must Be Kidding is some serious stuff. While these seven songs just come to a little over 23 minutes total, they present a very appetizing sampler from which to attract record label interest. Certainly, Big Kid has talent enough for someone to take a chance on them soon . . . maybe even you.
California Snow Story, One Good Summer (Shelflife)
There tends to be a connection between high-end pop music and the United Kingdom. Whether you're talking about Blur and Pulp or lesser known acts like Appendix Out or Belle and Sebastian, the Brits seem to know how to go about doing it right. Another act creating a bit of a buzz across the pond is Glasgow's California Snow Story, a quartet that uses flutes, guitars, and glockenspiels to get their message across. The debut EP is proof you'll hear more about them and from them in the near future. "The Only One That Matters" is the opener and gets right to the heart of the sound -- a tight and melodic pop tune that recalls the aforementioned bands and also Delgados. "We could be far away from here", sings Anna Barrek as the drums keep everything in check for three minutes. "Summer Avenues" is a tad more, er, summery sounding as David Skirving takes over the lead vocals. It doesn't quite work as well, but Barrek's "ba ba ba da" is a welcomed addition. It also possesses a slight lounge sound effect but never diminishes the song. "Out of Time" (not to be confused with the Rolling Stones tune of the same name) is more in keeping with the band's melodic pop nature. Light harmonies mesh spectacularly with the basic acoustic guitar strumming and minimal bass line. "Snow in Summer" is another solid tune recalling early Velvet Underground with Nico. This is probably the EP's highlight, a shimmering pop tune. At five songs, the short but extremely sweet nature of the music is its selling point. "Lovestrange" is similar to the last two tracks, a fine pop song more bands on this side should do or at least attempt.
The Flops, Ooh La La (self-released)
Like coffeehouse rock? Curious as to what the bassist from one-hit wonders Semisonic is up to these days? The Flops have you covered. John Munson (the bassist in question) and Matt Wilson (best known from his days in Trip Shakespeare) have joined forces, and now have Ooh La La, a self-released live debut album on their hands -- 14 tracks recorded over three nights in Minneapolis. Gentle, acoustic guitar is the order of the day, and while nothing on the album will knock the foam off your latte, Ooh La La has a few quiet gems -- the rootsy, harmonica-aided "Two Wheeler, Four Wheeler" and the Steely Dan-esque "Face Up" chief among them. For a band preoccupied with travel and the distance between people ("Landing", "Travel Plans", "Searchers"), Ooh La La's sound is decidedly earthy and close to the heart. Wilson's plain voice is perfect for the stripped-down arrangements -- though Munson sounds like Mark Volman (the Turtles, Frank Zappa) when he sings and should step away from the mic. Simple but strong guitar interplay on tracks like "Drummer Like Me" and "Landing" atone for the vocal disconnect. The Flops also throw in a few unscrewupable covers (the Faces' "Ooh La La" and Big Star's "I'm in Love With a Girl"); all told, the band doesn't live up to (or is it down to?) their name. Ooh La La is a warm cup of live coffeehouse rock in a convenient take-home container.
Lake Trout, Another One Lost (Palm Pictures)
There never seems to be an end to the line of bands claiming that they've found a perfectly unique, totally new way to blend rock, funk, and electronic music. Well, Lake Trout claim the same, but for good reason. The band got together in Baltimore in the late '90s, and since then has toured nonstop. They've shared the stage with a wide range of eclectic talent -- from Soul Coughing, and Live to Amon Tobin and Cursive. Their latest album, Another One Lost, reflects that diversity while at the same time remaining true to the genre of music Lake Trout's been crafting all these years. Album opener, "Stutter", starts with a gritty riff, punctuated by Mike Lowry's outstanding and funky drumming. On "Bliss", Lowry starts out with a frenzied drum and bass beat that builds and builds until singer Woody Ranere's vocals kick in, warning us, "You couldn't stop me if you wanted to". The added flute and ambient guitar riff create a hyper-kinetic blend of straight-up rock and intricate electronica. Ranere's vocals appear frequently on the album, with instrumental tracks interspersed throughout. A few of these are throw-aways, mainly those in which Ranere uses his Jeff Buckley-esque falsetto as a wordless instrument. When listening to his drone, the "skip-ahead" button gets to be pretty tempting. On the whole, however, Another One Lost showcases what Lake Trout has perfected over the years: a slick blend of rock hooks and electronic-style beats that, despite a sincere effort, makes them damn hard to pigeonhole.
Don McLean, American Pie [remastered] (Capitol/EMI)
The term one-hit wonder tends to be misleading. In reality, most artists saddled with this label had two hits: the one that became an immortal classic, and its somewhat less successful, not nearly as immortal follow-up. Such is the case with Don McLean, whose "American Pie" overwhelms its little brother, "Vincent", as well as McLean's career and even life. An earnest if sappy folk singer, McLean managed to hit the big time with "Pie" despite his midlevel talent and the song's epic length. So why remaster the whole album now? Since American Pie contains both of McLean's biggest hits, it works effectively as his best-of, and even if the targets in "Pie" today inspire nostalgia rather than reactionary rage (who could get upset about the Byrds or Bob Dylan now?), the feeling remains pertinent in these Limp Bizkit days, and the song, hokey as it may be, is still quite terrific.
Troy Campbell, American Breakdown (Loudhouse)
Troy Campbell, the former lead singer of Loose Diamonds, along with some help from noted producer and musician Gurf Morlix, has put together a fine collection of singer-songwriter tunes with strong harmonies. From the opening "Sad Truth", which brings to mind the likes of Kevin Welch or Kieran Kane, Campbell knows a good melody instantly. Campbell brings an enjoyable weary tone to "World of Tears", resembling Rodney Crowell's best work. Blending thoughtful lyrics with some simple guitar playing, Campbell gives new life to the typical tales of heading out of town on "Sorrytown" and the beautiful "The World Keeps on Ending". "Rosabelle" is a departure, starting off with a roots rock intro that you know will build into something toe-tapping and memorable. "Sleeping Without You" moves into a roots pop arrangement driven by drummer Jason White. The slow dance waltz routine on "Blind" misses the mark though early. It redeems itself later thankfully. "Pacific" is a somber and melancholic structure that recalls Blue Rodeo or Chris Isaak. Overall, this is a fine bit of music from another under-appreciated Austin based musician.
Various Artists, Ritmo De La Noche. The Very Best of Latin Jazz (Sony)
A much better album than the inane Very Best Of subtitle would suggest. Latin, Latin jazz, jazz fusion, jazz-rock, bossa nova and Afro Cuban music all get a look in. Santana, Ed Calle, Mongo Santamaria, Ray Barreto, Astrud Gilberto, Stan Getz, Jobim, Hank Crawford, David Sanchez, Arturo Sandaval, Paquito D'Rivera and so forth . . . it's a formidable line-up and the choice of tracks is representative but not too tired. Highlights include David Sanchez' meaty sax on "Street Scenes", a cleanly-remastered "Watermelon Man" from Mongo Santamaria, Antonio Carlos Jobim's cool "Stone Flower" and that perennial dancefloor favourite, Ray Barreto's "La Cuna". Herbie Mann, Stanley Turrentine and Hank Crawford remind us that the '60s wave of US Latin-influenced jazz was so much better than the critics then allowed and, to my surprise, Santana's "Samba de Sausalito" more than holds its own. Ideal for those dipping their toes into this rich multi-generic area but sufficiently well programmed to appeal even to those who will know everything on here like the back of their hand. Great summer music. Great music whatever the season, in fact. And as added bonus, the Astrud Gilberto track is not the ubiquitous "Girl From Ipanema" but the lesser known but equally charming, "Ponteio".