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Matthew Dear, Leave Luck to Heaven (Spectral/Ghostly International)
Talk to anyone who's familiar with the children's television program Bob the Builder and you might discover two different views on him. One view is that he reinforces traditional gender roles by pandering to the cultural view that little boys should play with manly construction toys. Another view is slightly more progressive; this view claims that little boys are just as likely to use their dumptrucks as busses for their other action figures as they are to use it to move dirt around. Besides, this view claims, Bob has a decidedly unmanly feline named Pilchard as a buddy. Techno artist / former little boy Matthew Dear knows that both of these views are correct. On this, his debut album, he erects tracks piece by electronic piece, assembling the disparate beats and bleeps and clicks and claps by bricking them together. Listening to tracks like "Fex" and "It's Over Now" is like watching Bob build houses. So far, so gendered. But at the same time, though, Dear weaves together glitchy ticks, backwards tape noises, electronic noise, and fragments of his own vocals (on "An Unbending", it sounds like he's talking from behind a baffle that's made out of drywall) to deconstruct his compositions. It's almost as if Pilchard has taken over and decided to use yarn and mice parts to erect the weight-bearing walls of the house. And that is ultimately the strength of this release: it's clear that Dear is more interested in playing with the conventions of the house (music) business, rather than building another boring condominium.
Anthony C. Bleach
Bembeya Jazz, Bembeya (World Village)
Very probably the best band working in African pop today, Bembeya Jazz has been rocking Guinea and beyond since the early 1960s. This, their first album in 14 years, is filled with wonderful Afrobeat textures, glorious harmonies, and the precise lovely haunting guitar work of Sekou Bembeya Diabaté. Attention, guitar canon guardians: Let this man in. NOW. -- his jangling textures on "Sanfaran" rival his intricate spiderwebbing on "A Koukou We". The only problem, if you call it that, is that these songs have been part of their repertoire for decades, and sound a bit dated. How about some new stuff, yo?
Skating Club, Bugs and Flowers (Wishing Tree)
Listeners of sad core rejoice! Bugs and Flowers is here for your enjoyment. An album not quite as maudlin as Things We Lost in the Fire or The Braille Night, Bugs and Flowers combines a veritable raft of influences to float up their unassuming, quieted take on pop music. Conveying the loneliness of Cat Power; the slow, indie-alt/country twinge of Uncle Tupelo, Idaho, Wilco, and Smog; the free-wheeling, airy post-rock of Spiritualized and Spacemen 3; the straight ahead, sad bastard moments of Low, Ida, and Spain; the minimalism of Galaxie 500; the sad British flavor of Belle and Sebastian and Nick Drake; the singer/songwriter approach of Damien Jurado (at the slower moments) and Elliot Smith (perhaps on downers with more picking and less strumming); the vocals of Coldplay's Chris Martin on the ditty "I Returned to California"; the cold, Icelandic instrumentation of Bjork (circa Vespertine) on "Here Before"; and the weary whisper of Wayne Cohen and bombastic snare/loose bass-duo drumming of Steven Drozd of the Flaming Lips' Soft Bulletin era on "Stockholm", Skating Club brings their music to a crowd that grew up on American Music Club, but now have a wealth of artists to choose from, such as the understated Skating Club from Boston. The first track, "Empty New Bedroom", is just plain gorgeous and is the strongest of all the songs. The rest of the album really just attempts to re-capture the glory of "Empty New Bedroom", but never really succeeds. But trying to grab the stars is better than an attempt at touching the bottom of the basketball net. Kudos, Skating Club.
The Sick Lipstick, Sting Sting Sting (Tiger Style)
The Sick Lipstick are to no-wave as Melt Banana are to noise-rock: a weird bunch of spazzed-out rockers who put a lost little girl in the middle of the tornado of noise to squeal, squeak, and screech her way through the mess. Sting Sting Sting, Sick Lipstick’s first full-length, tackles no-wave, noise, and effect-ridden rock from all the angles you’ve come to expect. While members of this collective previously explored sound in the likeminded musical outfit Black Cat #13 and are veterans of the no-wave punk scene, Sting Sting Sting is rather bland and elementary as far as noise-punk records usually go. It seems that Sick Lipstick's primary goal is to be annoying when they should focus on writing actual songs.
Daughters, Canada Songs (Robotic Empire)
"The 'product' we refer to is well equipped in the service abilities of your common woman," goes one line in a song by Providence, Rhode Island grindcore band Daughters. Or so they claim, because all we can hear is a series of blood-curdling, hair-raising screams that don't let up for the entire duration of their new album, Canada Songs. Mind you, this "album" is only 11 minutes long, but what an experience it is. Underneath all the banshee wails (it almost takes longer to read the extensive lyrics booklet than it does to listen to this CD) is some of the tightest, most intense, intricately planned-out noise rock this side of Ex Models. Screeching guitars slice like daggers, delivering such wildly discordant melodies and complex time signatures that would make Captain Beefheart grin, while the band's drummer completely steals the show with such a stunning display of percussive prowess, it makes the frantic work of Slipknot's Joey Jordison sound downright amateurish in comparison. One of the heaviest songs of 2003, "I Don't Give a Shit About Wood, I'm Not a Chemist", all 78 seconds of it, is the one track that stands out, its middle section breaking into a sinister pause for breath before exploding in an explosion of cacophonous sound. Constantly infuriating, sometimes annoying, and endlessly fascinating, this is one of the most unforgettable listening experiences you'll have in a long time. You can't help but sit, listen in pure awe, and hit the repeat button when it ends.
Various Artists, Sad Songs Remind Me: The Emo Diaries, Chapter Nine (Deep Elm)
What the hell is emo? No one seems to know for certain, and for every self-appointed arbiter of taste claiming that Sunny Day Real Estate is the only true standard by which we know what is and is not emo, there are hundreds of less prominent voices saying that Fugazi or Weezer invented the genre. Since no one really owns the term, it's anyone's guess as to what qualifies, so Deep Elm's stated decision to eschew self-styled definitiveness with their ninth installment of The Emo Diaries is refreshing. The 12 cuts from relative unknowns cohere nearly to the point of monotony, and anyone looking to get a grasp on the genre from this sampler would pick up on the bare instrumentation and lyrical concerns which range all the way from ennui to angst and back again. It might not make a lot of new converts, and Iamuse's wretched "As the Summer Pass Us By" might lose a few, but solid songwriting throughout should delight the faithful looking for the next big thing that won't be so big that you'll have to stop liking them because they're too popular.
Cigarbox Planetarium, Cigarbox Planetarium (Oh! Tonito)
One look at Cigarbox Planetarium's self-titled CD and you're thinking, "this is a comedy album, right?" The back cover has a photo of the duo inside a cheesy-looking wreath of roses; guitarist Andy Charneco appears to have three arms. Then there's the song titles, including "Zombie, Please", "Trouble Is My Beeswax" and "Frankenstein on the Beach". But the actual CD isn't just a joke, more like a tribute to various strains of instrumental music, both kitschy and serious. Think Martin Denny and Esquivel but also Ennio Morricone and Joe Meek. Surf rock, lounge music, cocktail jazz, cheesy sci-fi movie soundtracks, and so on . . . Cigarbox Planetarium run through it all at once, with panache and ample instrumental chops.
Ilona Knopfler, Some Kind of Wonderful (Mack Avenue)
Nice idea this. Take some '60s classic pop songs and give them a small group, jazz-tinged setting. Singer Ilona Knopfler has a pure, clear tone, while, in a talented band, Pat Kelley on guitar and Eugene Maslov on piano stand out as stylish accompanists. The material does not always fit Knopfler's attractive but rather MOR delivery, and next time out I'd advise her to drop the more up-tempo and soul-based numbers, but when she has a gentle melody or understated theme to play with she announces herself as a real talent. "Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood" and "Some Kind of Wonderful" lack, respectively, the passion and bounce that they require. On the other hand Nick Drake's "River Man" and Sedaka's "Breaking Up Is Hard to Do" work surprisingly well. Best of all are the two Zombies numbers, "Time of the Season" and "She's Not There". These are great songs and Knopfler instills them with a freshness and genuine charm. This is a likeable and unashamedly easy-going set, if not quite up to the Krall comparisons that are being bandied about. A promising debut nonetheless and Knopfler should find herself a regular on Smooth Jazz play lists in the coming months.
Corey Stevens, Bring on the Blues (Varese)
It doesn't happen often, but sometimes aping one's musical heroes is enough to sustain a career. For years, L.A.-by-way-of-Illinois blues rock guitarist Corey Stevens has come as close to anyone (see also Shepherd, Kenny Wayne or Lang, Jonny) to evoking the spirit and sound of the legendary Stevie Ray Vaughan. Of course, no one guitarist can fill the void left by Vaughan's 1990 death, but Stevens certainly tries his best on his latest Bring on the Blues. Stevens is the definition of dependable blues rock, mixing slow-brewed jams like "My Blues Are Turning Red" (think SRV's "Texas Flood") with funkier numbers such as "You're So Evil" and "Lonesome Road Blues"; there's no crazy experimentation to be found here. While Stevens is occasionally guilty of play it too straight -- "My Love For You Has Died" lacks the urgency and anguish (and hell, even the ennui) its title would suggest -- there's nothing on Bring on the Blues that wouldn't appear to SRV's fanbase. If you're not hung up on Vaughan the way Stevens is, fear not. The smoky L.A.-blues of "Hang On" and "Real Love" call to mind the grown-up rock of Back from Rio-era Roger McGuinn. And the jaunty "Getaway", performed with some help from Canned Heat, tosses in an organ and harmonica, which proves that Stevens can succeed outside of SRV's framework. Nevertheless, most folks will tune in for the blues, and Bring on the Blues is a fine effort from a top-notch keeper of Stevie Ray Vaughan's flame.
Active Ingredient, Be Smart Don't Think (A. D.)
Active Ingredient members Baby Funkmore (guitar and bass), DJ Rhythmatyx (turntable scratching), Dr. Nemo (mix and mastering), and Swift (Rhodes piano, Wurlitzer piano, b3, clavinet, and synths) are all none other than Jason Vertz (voices and drum programming), the mastermind behind Be Smart Don't Think, a fusion of funk, hip hop, jazz, reggae, and rock that really only seems interested in maintaining the steady groove playing in his head. Although most of the tracks hover around three-plus minutes, the music feels like Reader's Digest versions of one-man jam band excursions. On top of that, the set is largely one for the lonely and detached, in that none of the lyrics tap into anything remotely personal. The most intimate moment is the reggae-tinged cover of the Beach Boys' "God Only Knows", which is the only track that feels like more than Vertz just trying to get himself off. Next time, be smart don't do it alone.
Various Artists, Chill Volume 2 (Abstrakt Reality)
Abstrakt Reality Records, under founder Zimar Manigault, exists to promote underground electronica acts, and it has done so primarily through a series of samplers. The latest compilation from this label, Chill Volume 2 presents 12 new artists on 14 tracks, focused on mellow grooves, especially jazz-influenced downtempo. The record is artfully compiled and sequenced with creative chill-out works. Jun Potaltch opens the disc beautifully with soft vocals and blips on "As Before". Green Glaze stars on this record with the trippy "Super Underground" and the smooth piano and guitar lines on "Essinger". Chill Volume 2, despite its strong individual tracks, works best as an album played from start to finish. That consistency is exactly what you want on a compilation disc, and Abstrakt Reality seems to have figured it out.
Jen Foster, Everybody's Girl (American Garage)
Jen Foster's pretty fine with pithy lines but -- yet another singer-songwriter trait -- she includes too many of them. When the songs rock enough ("Used Black Cars"), or when the tropes signify enough ("Water in Your Hands", for instance, where she is both falling and not going to stay), she pulls it off, even with flourish. But when neither happens, the seamlessness of the production and the poetic descriptions of lingering over quiet, private moments combine in a vicious cycle to make what seems suspiciously like AOR. Heretical as this sounds, maybe if Foster stopped lingering over those quiet, private moments and just decided to entertain a lot of people by speaking directly to them through big, pop sounds and emotions, she'd be better. That is, she might be better if she "sold out".