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Zero dB, Reconstruction (Ubiquity)
Following in the very large footsteps of nu jazz remix masters Jazzanova, Zero dB's Chris Vogado and Neil Combstock specialize in taking already big, messy Latin electronica tracks and making them even bigger and messier, with lots of additional percussion, tweaky synths, and basslines pushed so far up in the mix it feels like the strings are slapping you in the face. Reconstruction, a collection of eight of their best-known remix joints plus two new re-rubs, reveals their consistent love of post-production clutter and its attendant advantages and drawbacks. At their best, Zero dB infuse already fun tracks with a loopy, manic energy that makes for great party music -- witness their deliriously bouncy versions of Grupo Batuque's "E Ruim" and Interfearance's "Xtradition". At their worst, they slash and bludgeon good source material until it lies there bleeding and gasping for breath, a fate suffered by both Truby Trio's "Galicia" and Suba's excellent "Samba do Gringo" thanks to an overabundance of annoying loops and cookie-cutter synth lines. They do a lot better with the more laid-back vibe of Peace Orchestra's "Henry", on which their loops and edits are less obtrusively choppy. And they at least score some serious originality points for remixing an obscure Sun Ra track called "Satellites Are Spinning", even if the results aren't something you'd ever want to listen to more than once.
Blue October, History for Sale (Universal)
Blue October makes some innovative gestures on History for Sale, its third album. However, the group does not maintain the creativity throughout the album and, as a result, fails to develop its own sound. Blue October has the potential for a unique voice, and that's what's frustrating about this album. Whenever the band tests itself a little, Blue October sounds as if it's starting to find itself. The club-inspired drums are joined by Eastern-style strings to open the album, and pizzicato strings appear throughout. Blue October begins to stand out, but it always slips back into its imitation of Seven Mary Three. Singer and multi-instrumentalist Justin Furstenfeld writes most of the lyrics on History for Sale. He's willing to take on difficult topics such as child abuse (in "Razorblade"), but he also lingers on bland love songs that never get off the ground. His finest moment comes on his most poorly-titled song, "Sexual Powertrip (One Big Lie) Bla Bla". On this track, his narrator is a conflicted but unreliable lover who's looking for both meaningless and (well, maybe) meaningful sex, explaining, "Don't trust my words when I'm in bed with you". Blue October seems to have the potential for a good album, but it hasn't fulfilled it yet. On this album, the band offers something out of modern rock history for sale; hopefully Blue October's next album will be a little more forward-looking.
The Barnyard Playboys, Corn Dog Love (Rubric)
The Barnyard Playboys are the Barenaked Ladies for hillbillies and hicks -- and that's not necessarily a bad thing. Loud and rude and full of foul body humor, Corn Dog Love sounds like a Farrely Brothers movie put to music. The playing is sloppy and the vocals are raw, but, hey, the Gourds carved themselves a niche with many of the same shortcomings. The problem here, though, is that singer and songwriter John Lyons doesn't have the chops of a Kev Russell. Then again, if you're looking for transcendent roots rock you ain't lookin' here. With song titles like "Turd in the Mail", "Whiskey Dick Mountain", and "My Heart Is in the Right Place (But My Head Is up My Ass)" -- none of which are quite as bad as they sound -- no one involved with the band is making any claims to Gram Parsons's legacy. Instead, it's cow punk for 14-year-old boys, and that's a surprisingly refreshing thing.
Pistol for Ringo, Solid State Neo-Hedonist (Aeronaut)
What's in a name? If you're in one of the billions of bands trying to make it in America today, a lot. When nothing separates you from the rest of the anonymous pack but a clever moniker, you try your hardest to out-clever everyone else. The strain of the effort produces some truly awful handles like Pistol for Ringo. With their naming skills exhausted, all they could come up with for the album title was the random-words-as-pseudo-profundity Solid State Neo-Hedonist. Trying to dig yourself out of a pre-playing hole like this isn't easy, and PFR don't do it. Instead, they offer some moderately enjoyable, well-crafted electro-rock which neither stuns nor appalls. "Nothing Equates to a Saturday" is quite decent, but would it be too much to ask of PFR's titling department to apply the ironic distance in smaller doses?
Various Artists, Inside Deep Note: Music of 1970s Adult Cinema (Ost)
Please pardon the pun, butt this compilation is a bit, uh, screwy. There's no way to validate that the selections are from actual '70s porn flicks, as the liner notes consist only of a supposed female X-rated director's 1974 recounting of her life in the biz of gettin' busy. For all we know, the music here could simply be (re)creations by a funky studio band (particularly given the hi-fidelity quality of most "songs"). That said, this album is bootay. Horny horns, thick bass, orgasmic organ, slickety guitar. Heavy on the funk, interspersed with authentically steamy dialogue, this is the soundtrack Boogie Nights shoulda had, with titles such as "I Can't Believe I Ate the Whole Thing", "My Wife, I Think I'll Keep Her", and "Hebrew National Salami" setting the standard. Oh, and the packaging can't be beat: lots of '70s stills of women au natural striking the pose. I mean, you know, if you're into that kind of thing.
Jing Chi, Jing Chi Live (Shrapnel/Tone Center)
Jimmy Haslip, Vinnie Colauta, and Robben Ford make up Jing Chi. All three are respected figures in jazz-rock circles. Their latest collaboration, a live club recording, is supposed to be a loose, collective jam session but is really all about Ford and his forceful, blues-based improvisations. Moreover, despite being marketed as a jazz (or at least jazz-oriented) album, Jing Chi is an exercise in Woodstock-era "progressive" music. If that is a sound for which you have an undying fondness then Jing Chi Live does all that one could require of it. If, however, you find the very idea dated and dinosaur-like, not much here will change your mind. There is no doubting Ford's technical expertise, and the band as a whole is evidently enjoying itself. The two guests -- saxophonist Marc Russo and keyboards wizard Otmara Ruiz -- are both solid. However, everything tends towards the leaden and the repetitive. To be fair, the up-tempo tracks have the right sense of drive and urgency, while the quieter pieces have a pleasant, meandering, Grateful Dead quality to them, and tracks like the lengthy "Hong Kong Incident" do achieve a kind of crude grandeur. The vocal cuts are horrible, though, and really give the game away. It's a rock extravaganza, well played but sadly lacking in subtlety and grace. For axe-worshippers only.
Frank Stallone, In Love in Vain (Simba)
It can't be easy being Sly Stallone's younger, look-alike brother. But with this collection of orchestrated standards, the sometime actor and full-time crooner Frank Stallone sets himself apart as a talent to be reckoned with -- a song interpreter extraordinare. It's been more than 25 years since Frank Stallone caught the public's attention, doing a doo-wop number in big brother Sylvester's first Rocky film. But his music career's been wildly uneven since, despite a hit single in 1983 with the disco-flavored "Far from Over". Down, but certainly not out for the count, Stallone -- who's been making music steadily since his teen years -- arises with a vengeance on this dynamic aural outing. With the help of Count Basie's arranger/band leader Sammy Nestico, Stallone breathes new life into this lush collection of cover songs. With his suave, '40s-styled vocal swagger, Stallone is a confident, heartfelt singer. On all 12 American Songbook treasures -- including Johnny Mercer's "Day in Day Out", "One for My Baby", and "In Love in Vain", and standards like "Beyond the Sea" and "Witchcraft" -- Stallone croons with unmistakable flair and passion. This is the perfect dinner-party album; just whip up those martinis, sit back and relax.
Manic Hispanic, Mijo Goes to Jr. College, (BYO)
"We're brown, down, and coming to your town!" So states Manic Hispanic on the front page of their website and the back of their latest album, Mijo Goes to Jr. College. This sounds to me like a threat, and upon listening to the CD, I think I'll take it as one. Manic Hispanic, seven guys from a work release program, have been making music since the early '90s -- purportedly put on stage by their parole officer. Since that time, the band's been touring and doing what they love most: playing classic punk rock songs with a signature, Manic Hispanic twist. On Mijo Goes to Jr. College, look for excellent remakes of punk standards, "Brand New Cadillac", "Sheena Is a Punk Rocker", and "The KKK Took My Baby Away", done as "Brand New Impala", "Creeper Is a Lowrider", and "The I.N.S. Took My Novia Away" respectively. Good, not-quite-family fun to be had by all.
Ian Moore Action Company, Via Satellite (Hablador)
Sure, it was released back in 2001, but the world always needs strong blues rock like Ian Moore Action Company's Via Satellite. The Austin-based guitarist has been steadily, if stealthily, in the eight years since his "Muddy Jesus" (off 1995's Modernday Folklore) dented rock radio. Since then, he's been sharpening his lyricism and building on his blues rock influences, adding pop, soul and gospel to albums like Ian Moore's Got the Green Grass and And All the Colors . . .. Via Satellite, recorded live at Houston's Satellite Lounge, proves that Moore's musical vision has been fully synthesized. The expansive "Today" could be "Blue Sky" (from his self-titled 1993 debut) Redux, with Moore's soaring guitar and husky-to-falsetto voice range, and "Johnny Cash" was made to blare while zipping down a dusty highway. Moore, in a good mood in front of his home-state crowd, tosses in "Diabilito", a mash-up of "Muddy Jesus" and Depeche Mode's "Personal Jesus". Of course, Moore shows what he's learned lately, as well: a vaguely-Eastern coda wraps up "Coming Around" (and sneaks into "Diabilito"), while "Angelyne", with Paul Brainerd's trumpet flourishes, could pass for a border hymn. An impassioned cover of Sam Cooke's "Wash Away My Troubles" atones for the rest of the album's sins. The music scene is littered with '90s rockers who have failed in their attempts to remain vital; that Via Satellite finds Moore succeeding while keeping his "Ian Moore-ness" intact makes the album that much sweeter.
Nana Mouskouri, Ode to Joy (Phillips Music Group/Universal Music)
This collection of classics and hymns shows that even at this late stage in her career, Nana Mouskouri can still captivate audiences with near angelic vocals. Songs such as the title track and also the operatic "Casta Diva" are executed gracefully yet powerfully. Signing in a myriad of style and languages, the Greek superstar never falters on songs such as "She Moved through the Fair" and the joyous, spine-tingling "Con Te Partiro". "Blow the Wind Southerly" is another strong effort as Mouskouri takes on a somewhat Irish lilt to the song, something not every singer can do with a voice. What makes this album shine though is the consistency of the music regardless of composer. From Verdi to Don McLean, Mouskouri hits all the right notes over the near 80 minutes of music. "L'amour Gipsy" is a musical operatic fused tune that is short enough to keep the vocal theatrics entertaining. Only on the cinematic "The Summer Knows", taken from the film The Summer of '42, is lightweight and seems out of place for Mouskouri. Schubert's "Only Time Will Tell" is quite haunting thanks to the subtle violins and builds into a large-scale orchestration. The same is true of "Song for Liberty". Andrew Lloyd Webber's "Love Changes Everything" is another highlight with a synthesized backdrop. "Lullaby", with its music box opening, is sweet without being too sappy. The highlight of this album is the consistency within her vocals, clear and precise and dominating. Many people may love their current crop of divas, but few can match up against this lady.