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Ilya Poise Is the Greater Architect (Second Nature)
Ilya are a victim of their influences and the inevitability of time. Citing such acts as Portishead, Massive Attack, and My Bloody Valentine as reference points, Ilya don't bring anything new to the table already set by these revolutionary acts. Ilya's debut album, Poise Is the Greater Architect, is an exercise in atmospheric, alternative rock that sounds about 10 years old. Spanning ten tracks, the album moves from each breathy, spacious track to the next, offering perfunctorily executed style, but little in the way of substance. Their impressive one-sheet boasts that Urban Outfitters has chosen Poise Is the Greater Architect for instore play and it's hard not to see why. Harmless, inoffensive and about as edgy as a sponge, Ilya will please the ears without the listener asking too many hard questions. Anyone looking for another trip-hop album to chill out to could do worse than Ilya's debut, but the seasoned listener will want to look elsewhere for inspired art-rock.
Ill Nino, Confession (Roadrunner)
New Jersey sextet Ill Nino would like you to believe that they provide some much-needed innovation in contemporary heavy metal music, what with all their Spanish-English lyrics and Latin percussion. However, once you get past the bilingual singing and the samba drums, all you're left with is nothing but more of the same, one-dimensional, maudlin garbage that nu metal bands have been spewing since the late Nineties. The production by Bob Marlette and Dave Chavarri is first-rate, but none of their studio wizardry can save this album, which is mired in boring, sludgy chord structures, weak vocal melodies by singer Christian Machado (yeah, he can carry a tune, but his lifeless hooks just mimic Corey Taylor's equally dull work with Slipknot and Stone Sour), and weepy, hackneyed lyrics that are cringe-inducing ("I loved you/You were all that I wanted/Then, I watched you/Turn into someone else"). Ill Nino mean well, as they try to inject some life into a genre that continues to drive itself into the ground, the best example being the terrific acoustic interlude in "This Time's For Real", but they still have a lot of work to do if they want to match such albums as Sepultura's Roots or Soulfly's Primitive. Spanish or English, it's still lousy.
Greg Weeks, Slightly West (Acuarela)
You wouldn't expect a CD with naked people all over its cover, in Joy of Sex-style illustrations, to be quite as somber as Greg Weeks' Slightly West EP. With organ and guitar played darkly and slowly, and Weeks singing so delicately that at times you strain to understand him, Slightly West offers five songs that epitomize a feeling of drifting through life without knowing where you're headed. "One day some year we'll reappear/and dangle lifelessly as if we're here," he sings at one point, voicing a feeling that runs through every song. One of the many atmospheric and dreamy EPs that the Spanish pop label Acuarela has released in recent years, Slightly West is compelling if you're in the right introspective mood, but it certainly doesn't reach out and pull you into that state of mind.
Carla Bozulich, Red Headed Stranger (DiCristina Stair Builders)
Whether working with the sinisterly conventional Geraldine Fibbers, the caustically jolting Scarnella, or the gonzoid Ethyl Meatplow, Carla Bozulich possesses one of the most distinctive voices in contemporary American music. Heard fleetingly while surfing left of the dial or eavesdropping through a wall, her vocals consistently captivate ears and command attention. And like the larynxes of Lydia Lunch and Patsy Cline, her voice is distinctive enough to recognize anywhere, but compelling enough to make the hairs in your ears prickle in attention. She's been fortunate, too, to have had fellow musical travelers -- whether traditional or experimental -- that complement her talents. Maybe that's why her latest project is such a disappointment. A remake of Willie Nelson's ambitious 1975 concept album sounds like a great idea. Done Bozulich-style, with her like-minded guitarrorist / collaborator Nels Cline (and other jazz improvisers) in tow, this record could have been an intelligent and provocative recasting of a forgotten document of Americana that, in keeping with Bozulich's obsessions, addressed violence and sexual politics in an imagined West. While the lyrical themes are muddled (as in Nelson's original), the musical treatments are as bland as windswept sand. The Middle Eastern-influenced drone and chanting in the title song are appropriately eerie, and the harmonies achieved by Bozulich and special guest Nelson in "Can I Sleep in Your Arms" and "Hands on the Wheel" are certainly worth another listen. Unfortunately, they're the only outstanding elements on a record that's so regrettably forgettable.
Anthony C. Bleach
Glen Bonham, Glen Bonham (Scena)
Glen Bonham has listened to Bill Monroe and Ricky Skaggs quite carefully, judging by the album opener "You Don't Know My Mind", a two-minute bluegrass-meets-country ditty that has enough bounce in it to succeed. But at times the style is not that interesting or any different from the aforementioned superstars. "You can see the fields of bluegrass where I roam", he sings on "I Wonder How the Old Folks Are at Home", but it's generally a bluegrass-by-numbers song. Thankfully, on "Fraulien", Bonham sounds like a cross between Buck Owens and George Jones, which is an early shining moment. "Mr. Homeless" is also in the country style, but brings to mind Alan Jackson somewhat. The biggest problem with this record is the lack of original material, as Bonham only has one, but his renditions of Merle Haggard's "Silver Wings" does justice to the classic. "Today I Started Loving You Again" is another fine effort, but "Fox on the Run" often sounds rather bland. "Georgia Rose" gets better as it goes along, with Bonham letting his capable backing band do the brunt of the work. The album's closing tunes, including "Love O Love", have some fine banjo pickin' and fiddle work as well. Overall, Bonham might be a name to reckon with, if he is able to get more of his own material.
The Ebonys, The Ebonys [remastered] (Epic/Legacy)
When soul still had some gospel in it, before disco killed R&B fans' taste for slow-grooves and earnest yearning on vinyl, the Ebonys were hot. The Philly quartet, backed by the legendary production of Philly Soul producers Kenneth Gamble and Leon Huff, weren't burning up the radio airwaves by any means in the early 1970s when they released an album full of lush arrangements, better-than-solid vocals, and pure soul. If they're known for a single song, it would be "You're the Reason Why," a top-ten hit on the R&B charts. "It's Forever", a seven-minute slow-dance ballad in the tradition of Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes, would be a similar hit, after two failed attempts at mainstream success with "Determination" and "I'm So Glad I'm Me". There is innocent beauty in this best of The Ebonys, which includes bonus tracks with what could have been hit potential twenty years ago. "The Ebonys," as the press release reads, "had more singles without ever swatting rare air." There is all the stuff of old-school R&B and soul in this work -- from the revival-like sounds of "Sexy Ways" to the epic and pretty "You're the Reason Why". Listening to this small part of their catalogue is nostalgia-inducing and feels like listening in on an era when lead male vocalists could make a careening falsetto sound like true love over a swooning arrangement of lush instruments. When singing "baby, baby, baby" was enough to win over an audience, as long as there was some sincerity in it.
J. Victoria Sanders
Mark O'Connor, Mark O'Connor Thirty Year Retrospective (OMAC-5)
Mark O'Connor is an amazing talent. He picked up a violin at 11; little more than a year later, he was the top fiddler in the country for his age. His fluid playing and improvisational skills made him one of Nashville's top session musicians throughout the 1980s and early '90s. He then changed directions and began working with cellist Yo-Yo Ma ("Appalachia Waltz") and his own jazzy Hot Swing Trio. Now 42, O'Connor captures his 30-year recording career via a series of concerts held in Nashville before a reverent audience. Aided by wonder kid mandolinist Chris Thile (Nickel Creek), guitarist Bryan Sutton and bassist Byron House, O'Connor burns it up on this pristine-sounding two-CD collection. The songs here capture both O'Connor's amazing versatility and progression as a musician -- check out his first composition, "Pickin' in the Wind" then compare it to the Hot Swing-era pieces -- as well as his innate and dignified charm onstage. A real keeper.
Manmade God, Manmade God (American)
There's something to be said for straight-ahead rock 'n' roll music. It's already been said . . . many times. Be that as it may, Manmade God's self-titled debut on American Records bristles with aggressive and inspired energy. Frontman Pann channels both Chris Cornell and Our Lady Peace's Raine Maida with his grungy howl, though the band's lyrics parallel OLP's inspirational words of self-discovery more than Soundgarden's. Rick Rubin and Brian Dubbs produced this album, and it's full-to-overflowing with mid-'90s guitar hooks and rhythms courtesy of guitarist Craig Locicero. Manmade God don't tackle any new issues, but really, are there any new issues? The album runs about 45 minutes -- too long, but nonetheless relentlessly rock 'n' roll.
The Carolines, Youth Electronics (self-released)
The refreshing thing about hearing Youth Electronics is that it's as clear as the nose on your face that there's absolutely no hidden agenda or deeper meaning to the Carolines' music than the desire to have fun, entertain, and write some extremely catchy, bright tunes. Amongst the ultra serious, we-want-to-change-the-world bands, there has to be a place for these purveyors of sophisticated, '70s-influenced AM radio pop. The Portland, Oregon five-piece stake such a claim throughout Youth Electronics, the band's second self-released album, and although the band has a long way to go to achieve its ultimate goals, they have already been seen with all the right people -- shows with such jangle-pop luminaries as Gin Blossoms and Imperial Teen have been followed by a performance at EMP Seattle, during the annual Pop Music Studies Conference. Songs like delicious opener "Lonely Last Summer" have a terrific effervescence and buzz, and confirm the influence of timeless melodies and sounds such as the Beach Boys and the Beatles. But the Carolines are no copycats, as there's a contemporary edge to these tunes that sits nicely alongside their unmistakable classic roots and provides a unique take on a genre often populated by identical-sounding bands. "Only What You Want" is just as catchy, neatly encapsulating the dynamics of the band and the flawless vocals of Aaron Trueb. "Just Like the Sun" reveals a hint of Lennon in his voice, but apart from here, it's a consistently bright and fresh delivery, as emphasised on the excellent "Columbo", which has shades of Ben Folds. Driven by a piano undercurrent and Nathan Trueb's (Aaron's brother) lead guitar, the song is perhaps the best example of the Carolines' sound, and even the slightly downbeat lyrics fail to weigh down a wonderfully executed tune.
Songwriting duties are mainly split between the Trueb brothers, and while fellow band member Nate Purscelly often gets a look in too, the sibling's contributions are the most memorable in a general climate of breezy pop sensibilities. A case in point is "Blue & Black", a muscular sounding effort that recalls the way in which Bleu beefs up his pop-influenced songs and contains some insightful lyrics: "Alone I sit / Loneliness ringing in my ear / Retrospect dissects the painstaking life of 18 years". Album closer, "Waste Time", also shows there's more to this band than sticky sweet harmonies. Youth Electronics may be self-released, but even if the Carolines sign with a specialized indie label (which is the intention by all accounts), it is doubtful the clear, crisp production job by Tim Harmon could be bettered. It really puts the final flourish on an album that is a testament to the band's commitment to quality, and although it may be nearing winter as I write this review, the Carolines make it seem like summer all year round.
Zox, Take Me Home (self-released)
If you only looked at the pictures in the liner notes to Zox's debut album Take Me Home, you'd probably think that Zox is just another college-party band, good for a slow weekend night on campus, but not much else. You'd be right. Zox plays a reggae-influenced style of rock that its members describe as "Sublime meets Led Zeppelin meets the Police meets Beethoven". I can agree (almost too easily) with the Sublime reference and, while I can't find any Beethoven on this album, Zox does perform a ridiculous version of Pachelbel's "Canon". Zox, relying on Spencer Swain's violin, produces catchy, inoffensive pop. "Stupid Song" reveals that "All I wanna do / Is write a stupid song / With a three line chorus / You can sing along to". Zox achieves that goal, and it should continue their college-circuit success. To do more than that, though, Zox will have to take some risks on its next album.
Colin Blades, self-titled (Connoisseur)
Being the son of former Night Ranger and Damn Yankees frontman Jack Blades doesn't hold the same burden Sean and Julian Lennon encountered when they tried to carve out musical careers, but ultimately, Colin Blades does have the baggage of a successful father to carry as he kicks off his own career in the industry. The question is, does this help or hinder him? On the surface, with dad helping out on the production duties it seems as though having a well-known father in the music industry is a good thing on this occasion, but on further inspection of Colin Blades, it seems Colin should have enlisted the help of his old man with the songwriting instead. Despite Blades junior possessing his father's melodic style and warm, Californian voice, he hasn't developed the ability to consistently write decent songs as of yet. Indeed, listening to some of the pale, insipid songs on this album makes me wonder just how many musical doors would have opened for Colin Blades without such a famous father. The laid back, acoustic vibe of opening track "Been Too Long" may recall his father's post Damn Yankees acoustic album, Hallucination and have a decent melody and sunny, west-coast vibe, but apart from this and the soaring "Are You with Me Or Not?", there's precious little else here to merit similar praise. To put it bluntly, Blades has very little of interest to say in his songwriting, which wouldn't be such a bad thing if it weren't for the fact his melodies and hooks are generally of even less consequence than his lyrics. Defining moments or outstanding songs are non-existent; the whole album manages to be almost entirely safe and predictable throughout. Too often, on songs such as the annoying "Norah" and the drab "All I Ever Ask", it's rock-by-numbers. The multi-cultural theme of "Black" has all been said before more eloquently than on patronising lyrics such as, "All my friends are black / And all my friends are blue / All my friends are red and green and colours I choose", and elsewhere, on songs such as "My Own Life" do a poor job of presenting authentic singer-songwriter introspection. "Coincidental Lovers" apes the Beatles without too much success and schmaltzy acoustic ballad "Best Friend" might have had more effect were it not surrounded by too many other similar sounding songs. There are a couple of other songs which hold some promise at least, including "Say Goodbye Again", a half-decent breathless ballad which is high on sincerity and effort but sadly low on originality. The single, "White Holiday" is at least something different, recalling the jazz-pop approach of John Mayer, but only without Mayer's lyrical dexterity and mark of quality. Perhaps only Hootie & the Blowfish's new self-titled release matches Colin Blades for sheer blandness and tedium, but at least Blades has the excuse that he is only just starting out on a musical career. Next time around, he might be better off trying a harder, more contemporary approach in a band environment where he is not the centre of attention, because this time around, Colin Blades is trying too hard to live up to his dad's name and reputation.
Bill Mallonee, Perfume Letter (Paste)
It is pretty much a truism by now that every alt.country mastermind really just wants to be Wilson or McCartney, and this is very true for Vigilantes of Love frontman Mallonee on this solo disc. Mellotrons hover nicely over "She's So Liquid," the lo-fi/hi-fi good vibrations of "Two Become One" are almost oppressive until it turns into Wings with better lyrics: "Sometimes the universe explodes / You can hear it smell it touch and taste as she unfolds". And the dB's echoes of "After All You've Done for Me" and the Lindsey Buckingham love that lurks in "That Little Something" are adorable. Absolutely pleasant, undeniably intelligent, thoroughly unoriginal.