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Various Artists, Spin the Bottle - A Tribute To KISS (Koch)
Koch Records has done the KISS army proud with the release of Spin the Bottle. Featuring an impressive array of musicians paying homage to rock's kabuki gods, the album showcases eleven tracks that are, for the most part, outstanding covers of KISS classics. Among the luminaries belting out their respective tributes are Dee Snider, ("Detroit Rock City") and Lemmy, ("Shout It Out Loud"), as well as a plethora of backing band heavyweights including Robben Ford, Tim Bogart, Carmine Appice and Aynsley Dunbar. With such a notable roster of participants, it is difficult to pinpoint one specific shining moment, but the vote goes to Buzz Osborne of The Melvins who contributes an uncanny Gene Simmons-esque rendition of "God of Thunder." The album's biggest surprise may be the inclusion of pro wrestler/wannabe rock star Chris Jericho, who makes a strong accounting of himself with an inspired take of "King of the Night Time World." If there is one flaw with Spin the Bottle, it comes by way of the Tommy Shaw and Kip Winger efforts, ("Love Gun" and "I Want You"), as the pair appear a bit too lightweight for the project. Those tracks aside, the album boasts scorching guitar riffs and tremendous performances from top to bottom, making this one of the finer tribute albums in recent memory. Some damn good listening, and a testament to the continuing KISS legacy in the annals of rock music.
Atombombpocketknife Lack and Pattern (File 13)
There is something comforting in the familiar. Once in a while its nice to receive a CD to review that doesn't try and pretend to be something its not. While Atombombpocketknife's third album isn't particularly memorable, it is a solid exercise in mid-tempo indie rock. Lack And Pattern is a confident, if somewhat pedestrian walk through indie rock territory that had its hey day in the early 1990s. There is nothing bold here, nothing that hasn't been done before, just a solid, polished indie rock record. At eights songs running in 35 minutes, Atombombpocketknife don't overstay their welcome, and get in and out before the proceedings get dull. Opening track, "Slow Gotten Gone" is led by Allison Hollihan's monstrous bass riffing. Hollihan is probably the best bassist I've heard this side of Fred Erskine (Hoover, Crownhate Ruin, June Of '44) in a long time. Her bass lines are fluid and are integral to keeping these songs glued together. "Shards CTA" is a steadily driving number anchored by Tony Lazzara's meticulous and tight work behind the kit. "Gold Leaf" and "Leave Tonight" are also pleasantly up-tempo tunes that don't demand too much from the listener. Unfortunately, the middle of the album is bogged down by two seven-minute, ponderous rock tunes. "Recovery Club" and "Flood" are lost under the weight of their own pretensions and bring down the momentum of the disc. While not an essential CD, Lack And Pattern is the sort of album that will pleasantly kill time in the car stereo or while you're doing the dishes.
The Academy, The Academy (LLR Recordings)
The Academy have some concerns about how you're living your life. On the five songs (ignoring the opening Floydian sound collage) on their debut EP, the Academy lays out a pretty vicious assault on a nameless "you". "You" apparently are "cowardly", "blind" and a big liar. The Academy's tendency to preach would not be a problem if the music were inspired. The band, although very accomplished musically, never deviates from their formulaic modern rock . Each song goes through about four or five shifts in dynamics, but these abrupt changes and tempo shifts amount to little more than the band jumping from one cliche to another. The album is not terrible, the song "In Our Defense" is catchy enough to make a dint on the modern rock charts, but this album is thoroughly unnecessary. Any one who would enjoy The Academy probably already owns a dozen albums that sound exactly like it.
Ray Conniff, The Essential Ray Conniff (Sony/Legacy)
At first glance, the title of this two-disc set seems an oxymoron; how "essential" can Ray Conniff be, when his albums are such thrift store staples? But you have to respect Conniff's six-decade music career, which began with playing trombone and scoring arrangements for big-band legends Artie Shaw and Harry James and culminated in omnipresence in the '50s and '60s, when he charted dozens of albums, provided lush backgrounds for popular crooners like Johnny Mathis, and produced irrepressible versions of familiar standards by the score (This collection has "Hello, Dolly!" and "Greensleeves," just to give you the gist.) But if Conniff's music was once ubiquitous, now you'd have to choose to hear it, a choice few are likely to make. It's not like Conniff will ever be cool; he's the antithesis of cool, his music was for those intimidated by the very idea of cool. Far from trying to anticipate the cultural curve, Conniff purposely catered to those well behind it, taking established songs and refurishing them with a redolent cheerfulness, seeking always to soothe if not altogether anesthetize. Can it feel like being trapped in a mall organ store? Yes. But one thing must be said: Conniff made music for adults. As America's youth worship makes adulthood seem undesirable, even unnecessary, it becomes harder to remember that the pop-music market once marketed exclusively to the genteel, unencumbered tastes of adults. The role music played seems to have been different then: rather than delimit subcultures and manufacture celebrities, it was meant to be elegant aural wallpaper. And Conniff excelled at this. He stressed simple melodic lines, typically carried by a whimsical blend of a peppy brass section with a chorus of white-bread voices chiming nonsense syllables. Just try to resist the buoyant hooks of "Walkin' and Whistlin'" and "Midnight Lace." While this compiliation would seeem to have campy appeal for those seeking the swinging-bachelor-pad aura, it's really too square for that. And it's too good to be straight kitsch and too lacking in self-consciousness to be ironic. It's really best enjoyed by people not looking to have their musical taste noticed at all; it's most poignant gift is reminding us of when that was the norm.
The Bother, The Night Bleeds Cold (Three Ring)
Singer-songwriters are easy prey to a troubling syndrome. Often, they seclude themselves in dusty bedroom studios with the intention of putting together a tasteful suite of simple pop songs, however, upon completing the initial recordings, they're unconvinced that the well-tested minimalist aesthetic does justice to material perhaps more worthy of Pet Sounds saturation. Thus, they insist on accessorizing each composition with the requisite bells and whistles, frantically bouncing tracks to accommodate those cellos, splashy keyboards, processed backing vocals, and clumsy drum fills until the poor, over-worked four-track can no longer sustain the complexity, and the song's prospective value collapses under the weight of a gooey mix. Of course, it is true; when you're blessed with top-notch gear and otherworldly chops, a prediliction for excess can, on occasion, work wonders on mediocre songs. Nonetheless, when inspired vocal melodies trump a dubious penchant for string arrangements and warmed-over guitar heroics, it's best to stick with strengths. Mr. William Rahilly's tendency to do just the opposite is the pitfall threatening The Night Bleeds Cold by San Francisco's The Bother. Rahilly, the group's principal songwriter, lyricist and frontman (the only member of the current gigging line-up to play on this record) comes off quite well when he stays focused. Some of his textural touches do work as well as the tasteful slide noodling on the album opener, but, more often than not, when he deigns to really gild the lily, the swell pipes and fine complimentary strums at the center of potentially excellent tunes lose out to murky psych tangents that sound forced, and more schlocky than stylish.
Mr. Encrypto, Secret Identity Crisis (Silent Bugler)
Secret Identity Crisis, the second album from Bruce Gordon, a.k.a. Mr. Encrypto, functions as a kind of litmus test for music critics. It features all the right influences and dropped references, from its cover mimicking After the Gold Rush to its quiet-opener-reprised-as-loud-closer format a la Rust Never Sleeps to its covers of the Kinks, the Apples in Stereo, the Byrds, and Small Faces. But it's also far too indebted for its own good, mistaking self-effacement for healthy influence. Mr. Encrypto would be a fine act to see at your local bar, but Secret Identity Crisis offers exactly zero reasons to buy this as opposed to whatever pieces of its source material remain absent from your collection.
Jericho, Retrospective 1995-98 (Popboomerang)
Jericho existed completely and totally underneath the radar of American music fans, but, in their native Australia, their constant touring helped build them a reputation as one of the strongest power pop bands down under in the mid-'90s. Lead singer/songwriter Danny McDonald has gone on to release albums under the psuedonym P76, as well as under his own name, which is undoubtedly what led the Popboomerang label to issue this retrospective of Jericho's best moments. Fans of the Hoodoo Gurus and the DM3, the Dom Mariani-led band that set the bar for the Aussie power pop community, will be very interested to see what they missed by not being aware of this band while they were still in existence. Hooks are all over the place (personal fave: "Back Where We Began"), and if McDonald's harmonizing with fellow guitarist Leigh Thomas is sometimes ragged, like on "Washed Out," it's in a good way, kinda like the Replacements. In his liner notes, McDonald seems aware of the band's "lost" status, but he declares, "It does me proud to think that we laughed in the face of fashion, and wrote good music simply for the sake of writing good music." So, basically, if you like good power pop minus the studio gloss but with the confidence that hundreds of successful live shows provides, the Jericho Retrospective is right up your alley.
Various Artists, Lovers Lounge (Intentcity)
The gaudy cover art to Lovers Lounge, with its scantily-clad female torso, ancient pillars and red satin, suggests an update of the "exotica" music of Martin Denny and Les Baxter. But the fun-loving, tongue-in-cheek aspect of those 1950s and '60s recordings is sorely missing from the mostly colorless electronic mood music featured here. If you can get over liner notes like, "The pulsing beats…quicken the tantric breath and beating heart of embracing lovers as they dance to the upbeat tempo through an ocean of ecstasy," there are several tracks that do an above-average job of establishing a chill-out vibe. Transglobal Underground member and Daniel Ash collaborator Natacha Atlas lends a bit of credibility by singing on one cut, but for the most part Lovers Lounge is everything that gives "New Age" a bad name.
The Defectors, Turn Me On! (Bad Afro)
I don't know what the Danish highway system is like, but I imagine it to be a stretch of road where souped-up muscle cars zip along at however-many-kilometers-per-hour-counts-as-fast while blaring the Defectors' latest, Turn Me On! (Oh yeah, the band is from Denmark.) The band must feel the same way, too, since the album cover boasts "Excellent Music For Driving". The music lives up to the serving suggestion, and if you're a fan of Detroit-influenced euro-garage like the Hives and the Flaming Sideburns, the Defectors need to be on your radar. Turn Me On! is all fuzzed-out garage, lo-fi skronk, played fast and loose. That's all de rigeur for any garage band with half a clue, but the Defectors' secret weapon is farfisa player Martin Budde. His instrument brings a horror-movie vibe -- which helps explain the band's scary-movie-font logo -- to sharp tunes like "Trick Daisy", "Sleepwalking" and the noirish album closer, "The Zoom Out". All the tracks are highlights; I just have to decide which ones to mention: How 'bout the garage pop of "It's Gonna Take Some Time", the demented surf rock of "C'mon Shake!" and the high-octane punk outburst of "Leave Me Alone". Watch out Detroit - with garage rock as good as this, Scandinavia will soon become the new Motor City.
Tesla, Into the Now (Sanctuary)
Few bands in recent memory rose and fell for the wrong reasons more than Tesla. Inadvertently riding the wave of Los Angeles hair metal hedonism in the '80s, the band bore a much closer musical resemblance to Aerosmith than it did to the Poisons and Whitesnakes of the moment. Eschewing the gaudy make-up and neon spandex, Tesla instead focused on crafting songs grounded in the twin guitar work of Frank Hannon and Tommy Skeoch, and Jeff Keith's gritty vocals. The result was four solid albums in a five year span, highlighted by the mainstream cover version hit of "Signs". Artistic integrity notwithstanding, Tesla would soon become a "guilt by association" casualty as grunge exploded, effectively ending hair metal's reign of terror. With Into The Now, the band is intent on making up for lost time, and nearly an hour's worth of fresh songs proves that Tesla is still as potent a force as it was in its hay day. Ironically, much of the new material, including the title track, is reminiscent of the heavy Seattle sound that prompted Tesla's demise nearly a decade ago. Echoes of Soundgarden and Alice in Chains resonate throughout the record, but are tempered by some decidedly thoughtful and sensitive compositions. Tesla can start still turn up or tune down with the best of them, effortlessly changing paces from electric to acoustic and back. As a rock record, Into the Now is a remarkably strong outing; as an album by a talented band off the map for an extended period, it is even more impressive. Too little too late? Hopefully not, as Tesla still has a great deal to offer.
Moya Brennan, Two Horizons (Decca)
Back when she was Maire Brennan, she covered "Big Yellow Taxi", which a friend played for me and which I liked. It wasn't Brennan's song, but it was a song and a great one at that. The notes say this is a song cycle about a harp (!). But after comparing individual tracks, I can only conclude that this is mood music in its purest form: music that's airy and echoey, that sings of escape and/or return (as in "Tara", "Ancient Town", "Sailing Away", etc., etc.), but with little indication of what/where/whom one wants to/will be escaping to/from and/or returning to. Since it has no specificity of its own, it will no doubt fit whatever dreamy mood you're in when you put it on. But why you'd put it on is still a mystery to me.
Jen Chapin, Linger (Hybrid Recordings)
Jen Chapin's last venture was a duet album with Stephan Crump entitled Open Wide. Now, the Big Apple based singer/songwriter is staking out her territory with this full band, making things possess a far fuller sound. It even includes three tracks from Open Wide revamped somewhat. Generally though, Chapin seems to fall somewhere between that Norah lass and Lisa Loeb on the adult contemporary foundation of "Little Hours", a smooth fusion of jazz and pop. A sexier, sultry Chapin crops up on "Good At Love" as she starts off hushed before occasionally letting loose with a bit of scat. Sometimes the adventurous nature doesn't work as quickly though, particularly on the organic, percussion driven "Me Be Me" that sounds a cross between Diana Krall and Alanis Morissette. One nugget is the vivid "Manchild" that has Chapin playing off a piano. Unlike her late father Harry, Jen Chapin is definitely at home in jazz as evident on the pretty "'Til I Get There", containing a hint of folk funk in its belly. The melodic and hypnotic "Numbers" lures you in as Chapin moves between singing and rapping on this sparse yet luscious ditty. And the same can be said for "Hurry Up Sky", a childlike lullaby that has Chapin at her best. There is a great amount of tranquility to the album on songs like "Regular Life" and "Gold". While the latter song title might not sum up the record, it is definitely one that shines. You can sink your teeth into it also.
Anatomy of a Ghost, Evanesce (Fearless)
This Portland, Oregon quartet are a raw, in-your-face punk/emo band with plenty of sweat, effort, and passion, but unfortunately for them, little else. Coming across as Dashboard Confessional meets Cambria, the band will no doubt go down a storm on the Warped tour as they check all the right boxes for the genre, but I'm afraid it's all been done before. Opener "Birth of a Mile" is frenetic and hard-hitting, "Set the Stage" is much the same, as are the majority of the other tracks on offer here. Perhaps only "Street Lights Empty Wells" stands out as worth a repeat listen, with its delicate arrangement. The aforementioned Dashboard Confessional's lyrics and melodies are everything Anatomy of a Ghost's aren't, and as a result Evanesce becomes pretty tedious pretty quickly.