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Applied Communications, Africa Baby, Yeah Yeah Yeah (Discos Mariscos)
Max Wood writes effervescent love letters to nonsense, and his first album as Applied Communications is littered with a dizzying amount of said saucy scribbling. Africa Baby, Yeah Yeah Yeah is a brazen pastiche of audio mash, an eccentric mini-album that goes it alone with equal parts audacity and annoyance. Within two seconds of the opening track "Boy for Sale", the native Floridian unleashes his gawky rap stylings over cowbell and bass: "We're gonna live in an air vent / Prepaid cellular represent". Like an ADD-addled They Might Be Giants covering old school hip-hop, Wood (who as a vocalist has more in common with MC Paul Barman than, say, Mike Skinner) speaks and (sort of) rhymes his way through samples of string sections, Casio beats, horns, cartoons, street noise, and raw instrumentation. His lyrics seem to be as random and meaningless as their schizophrenic musical accompaniments: "You may be a fish / I may be a boy / But together we can be a fish and a boy" ("Salmon"); "Let's make out because my mouth is full of Listerine" ("Casiobeat MT-40"); and "Styrofoam, you're my Styrofoam / You're my Tupperware subordination" ("Boxes in the Carport") are just a few examples of the depths of Wood's irreverence. In the course of the album's 31 minutes, tossed-off references are made to Target, Apocalypse Now, Raisin Bran, Tolstoy, and nuclear fission, but they're merely slapdash utterances, as the album's title itself would suggest. No doubt funny to some and incredibly irritating to others, Applied Communications' batch of nonsensical idiosyncrasies is otherwise too anemic to succeed on weirdness alone.
The Spooky Kids, Lunch Boxes & Choklit Cows (Empire Musicwerks/Universal)
With the knowledge that Marilyn Manson himself attempted to sue former bandmate Scott "Daisy Burkowitz" Putesky in order to keep this collection of pre-Manson demos under wraps, one might expect, even hope, that the resulting Lunch Boxes & Choklit Cows is a humiliating disaster of Y Kant Tori Read proportions. Unfortunately, the Spooky Kids were not a no-talent schlockfest but, rather, a pretty standard early '90s industrial band, grinding out songs full of gross-out song titles, freeze-dried metal riffs and more than a few b-movie samples. In the midst of all of these Revolting Cocks sound-alikes are hints of the influential crossover act to come. On "Scaredy Cat", Manson's generic industrial rage exists side-by-side with his nascent goth crooning. "Negative Three" is a fully formed Marilyn Manson song, full of Manson's trademark theatricality and just a hint of the pop sheen that would come to dominate his future albums. Clearly this album will only appeal to two groups of consumers: Manson diehards and fans of nineties industrial music. Despite Manson's own fears, neither group should be disappointed with Lunch Boxes & Choklit Cows .
Five Eight, Five Eight (self-released)
Mike Mantione's throaty yelp gives his songs an emotional heft that lifts them up above mere verse-chorus rock thud. Thankfully, this return to form for the Athens band, back in its trio setup, the best little man triumphs and cathartic lyrical moments still resonate. The lyrics can stay too simplistic at times, but the best moments still land squarely in the chest. "Criminal," "Square Peg," and "A Man is A Pent Up Thing," are blasts of static comparable to an obvious Mantione touchstone, Husker Du. Look for the great hidden track, too. At their best, Five Eight can set you back on your heels, even after 15 years of trials and tribulations. Here's hoping some twenty year olds grasp the angst within Mantione's best, as he barks, "I'm never gonna fit in, fit in, fit in."
Dan Dugmore, The Off-White Album (Double D)
Pedal steel guitarist Dan Dugmore has been contributing his sound to albums ranging from Linda Ronstadt to James Taylor to the Pointer Sisters and just about every top-shelf Nashville act since, well, since the Beatles stopped making music together. So it's somehow fitting that on his first album, The Off-White Album, Dugmore aims to take the Beatles' catalogue to new territory. Don't expect a radical reinterpretation of the Beatles, a la Danger Mouse's The Grey Album. Dugmore hews very closely to the originals, mimicking the vocals with his guitar and faithfully reproducing the original guitar solos. But even with this tack he's playing to his strengths. Dugmore has an astounding ability to bring out the elegance and transcendence of the Beatles' music with his only his guitar. While The Off-White Album may not add a new chapter to the Beatles' legend, Dugmore has made an engaging and ambitious album. As rich as the Beatles's music is, it is an immensely difficult task to say something that's not already been said in the 30-plus years of Beatles legend. Dugmore has managed this admirably by creating a new and fitting tribute with The Off-White Album.
Cougars Manhandler (Thick)
Hailing from Chicago, Cougars an eight-piece monster of a band, follow up their acclaimed debut album Nice, Nice with the six-song EP Manhandler. Imagine if you will Fugazi battling James Brown in a battle of the bands and you might an idea of where Cougars are coming from. Fusing post-hardcore sensibilities with a solid background of funk and soul, Cougars appear to be a force to be reckoned with. Unfortunately, the production of Manhandler doesn't quite capture the enormity of the band's sound. With eight members, the songs sound deceptively simple leaving this reviewer wanting more layers and textures. Instead, Cougars do an admirable, though short of impressive job of delivering some straight up rock 'n roll rounded out with flourishes of keyboards and horns. The title track (which features an insanely catchy horn line), "Phil's Collins" and EP closer "Cookietown" are immediate highlights. However, somewhere in this eight person lineup there is phenomenal, even more ferocious band waiting to be let loose. The Cougars have showed plenty of promise with this EP but there appears to be more than meets the eye. Here's hoping their next full length puts more emphasis on the R'nB influences that are only hinted at here, reigns in the rock just a bit and finds the band with a bigger recording budget. If Manhandler proves anything, it's that there is no limit to what this band is capable of.
The Blackouts, Living in Blue (Lucid)
The Blackouts would have you believe that Living in Blue could catapult them into the next major American rock stars, but for their refusal to play the game. They're probably right, too, which makes their supposedly ambivalent attitude about their success all the more infuriating. Tied to the current college scene only by coincidence, as their variation of rock and roll comes strictly from their Illinois garages, the Blackouts have no distinct sound of their own, but make up for it in excellent, energetic performances and flawless songwriting. Living in Blue is refreshing because it confidently presents material that strives for timelessness and often achieves it. "Something… I Can't Say" introduces rock at the same safe place it reached by the mid-'80s, and though it doesn't push any boundaries that haven't already been touched by the Hooters (then) or the Von Bondies (now), it balances hooks and swagger well enough to sound fresh even by today's standards. "The Games That Play Us" veers directly into the dated psychedelic qualities of the British Invasion that characterized garage rock in the first place, but the wind-up structure of the song that relegates Steve Ucherek's super-charged vocal to the last thirty seconds is simply exhilarating. Other tracks similarly overplay Joe Prokop's otherwise impressive guitar -- "Where It Begins" hints at the hard prog bombast of Rush, for example, while "Fire in the Pouring Rain" is heavy on generic bar-band blues -- but these pale in comparison to more balanced numbers like the stellar "I Have Found Mine", certainly the track that would break the Blackouts… if only they cared to try.
Richard T. Williams
Boulevard, Signal (Boulevard Rock)
This Athens, Georgia band might never live up to the reputation of another band from that town, but Boulevard is making some headway in that direction. An Atlanta fave, the rock quintet tends to toe the line between an early '80s Simple Minds with rock melodies a la the 'Mats. This is evident on the steady and inviting "Boundless" as lead singer Benji Barton has a strong yet dynamic vocal capability. The college roots rock style is also apparent on the meandering "Octane Lovers" although it doesn't match up to the opener although it easily grows on the listener. Boulevard sounds as if they're on their fourth or fifth album here as the maturity of the songs and music is its greatest asset. The mid-tempo "Crazy Morning Mirror" sounds a tad like The Verve mixed with Train. The Beatles-like grandiose orchestration diminishes it somewhat though. The slow building "When I Lost You There" is pure Britpop in the vein of Blur and is a sleeper on the EP. As for surprising gems, "Here's to the Days" is the zenith as the '80s new wave traits of hi-hat, subtle textures and tempo blossom. It's an impressive batch of tunes from a band sounder far wiser than their years.
Experimental Dental School, Hideous Dance Attack!!! (self-released)
It ain't easy being willfully bizarre without devolving into novelty. Oakland, California's Experimental Dental School comes perilously close to such a fat on their debut, Hideous Dance Attack!!!, but manages to just land safely on the good side of the clever/stupid line. The trio -- singer guitarist Jesse Hall, drummer Ryan Chittick, and keyboardist Shoko Horikawa -- builds circusy waltzes around Horikawa's organ that calls to mind a Francophone Tom Waits or Mr. Bungle at their least sinister. The song titles read like alternate-universe fridge magnet poetry ("KKKFC Servce Sparkily Squirl Meat" [sic], the Ted Nugent ode "The Deer Love Heavy Metal", "Tractor Loves to Shuck Some Cows", "Mayonaize Volcano, Ketchup Cave") that belie genuine songcraft; these guys aren't just noise merchants, banging out an unholy racket. "Taco Chakra" plays like the score to a horror film set at a carnival (about a Mexican-Indian healer, maybe?); "Some 4" is as close as the band gets to a lullaby, which is to say, Still extremely bizarre, but not as frantic as the other tunes. In most circles, Experimental Dental School will probably be as popular as a real-life experimental dental school, but hey, the freaks gotta get their fix somewhere.
The Fuzztones, Salt For Zombies (Sin Record Company)
The Fuzztones look like they've stepped out of a Screamin' Jay Hawkins convention or are five of his 75 children. Playing instruments such as the "boogie harp" and "involuntary spasms", this group has bottled the dirty, fuzzy sound of sixties rock and brought it back out of the cave. It's a great sonic cave though judging by "My Brother The Man" and the ensuing "Get Naked". Lead singer Rudi Protrudi paints a series of retro rock songs that are part garage rock and part Byrds-like psychedelic. It's a style that even Little Steven Van Zandt has lauded on his radio show. How well it stands up over nearly an hour is another story as "Face of Time" sounds like the B-52s performing not only "Rock Lobster" but "Monster Mash". "Be Forewarned" with its cheesy organ resembles The Mooney Suzuki doing The Doors, yet this seems to gel much better than the last track. "Johnson In A Headlock" isn't bad either although The Hives would be a heck of a lot more oomph to the tune. They do nail the eerie and meaty "Black Lightning Light". Over eight or nine songs though, the time warp wears on you, including the trippy and uninspired "Hallucination Generation". Two exceptions are the lounge-like "A Wristwatch Band" which could've been found on Pulp's This Is Hardcore album and the catchy "Group Grope".
The Rumble Bees, Be Pretty, Be Naked, Be Quiet (Keane)
When an album's subtitled "Stupid Songs for Genius People" and the band's leader, singer and songwriter describes himself as "an idiot", you know that, failing an outburst of truth in advertising, you've got a comedy record on your hands. So, dispensing with the actual music -- an accomplished raid on the history of pub rock, with a little jazz attitude, some blatant theft and some pretty damn fine axe work, of which more later -- is this damn record funny? Despite a scattering of damp squibs, it certainly is, and in fact songs like "One Bad Habit", about a woman so squeaky clean she "drinks de-caffeinated tea", have some nifty tunes going for them, too. Maximum respect goes to guitarist John "Hot Rod" Tompkins though, for in the words of main man Mike Himelstein, "this sumbitch can play that sumbitch like a sumbitch". Truth.
John Train, The Sugar Ditch (Record Cellar)
John Train are a band, not a person, presumably named after the alter ago adopted by Phil Ochs after his schizophrenic crack-up and hailing from the great city of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Their third CD, The Sugar Ditch, follows in the same folksy, poppy, literate tradition that they established early, but this time around they've delivered that most dreaded of beasts: a concept album. Concept albums are always a tricky business, and this one, like most, doesn't quite come together. The story's sort of southern gothic, with a mysterious murder, ambiguous love affairs, and tangled race relations, but singer/songwriter John Houlon, while a capable lyricist, may have aimed a little high here; more often than not he doesn't bring the material to life. Occasionally the music rises to the occasion with sludgy, percussion Appalachian rock, but at these moments Houlon's sweet, rather average voice doesn't carry the authority of the music. There are some nice moments -- particularly "Gene Washington," a superbly-written character study of an older Mississippi black man ("where were you in '60 when my brother took five shot? / nothing rankles more these days than black skin on a cop") -- but all in all it's a less-than-indispensable record, albeit by a good band.
Big Joe Williams, I Got Wild (Delmark)
Big Joe Williams is under appreciated as far as country blues singers go. Possessed of a voice as big and deep as Lake Michigan and a fluid guitar style, Williams created a raw, earthy blues every bit as powerful as anyone growling above an acoustic guitar. The 16 cuts on I Got Wild (there are four bits of interviews and conversation) were recorded in four sessions -– two in Chicago in 1961 and two in St. Louis in 1958 -- and show Williams at his playful best, just Williams and his nine-string guitar, his moaning, keening mumble of a voice hanging above a picking style that amplifies his playing, making it seem as if more than one guitar is playing. Williams is a true original who, while not breaking new ground, is the living embodiment of his music.
Authority Zero, Andiamo (Lava)
I read the review I wrote for Authority Zero's 2003 debut, A Passage in Time, as a means of prepping for their latest, Andiamo, and while I won't be so lazy as to chop up the earlier write-up and re-use it in service of the new album's review, I could have. Authority Zero shows little sign of sonic growth. The sonics in question? Authority Zero -- lead singer Jason DeVore, guitarist Bill Marcks, bassist Jeremy Wood and drummer Jim Wilcox -- only paint with two brushes: California hardcore and white-boy sub-Sublime reggae. Andiamo's 12 tracks (plus a hidden track, the breathless Irish drinking song "Rattlin' Bog") alternate between the two styles; it all sounds good if you're down with either Warped Tour Nation ("Revolution") or whatever banner Sublime's fans fall under these days ("Madman", "Solitude"), yet one can't shake the feeling the band is suffering an identity crisis. Pick a genre, dudes. There is one change between the two albums: Where A Passage in Time thematically flip-flopped between party anthems and motivational sayings fit for Tony Robbins, Andiamo is nothing less than a call to arms -- the jazzy-hardcore of "A Thousand Year War" works OK (and gets closer to the Minutemen than AZ has any right to do), but the Bill-of-Rights-primer-read-by-a-newsman-and-set-to-a-reggae-beat "PCH 82" is plodding and overserious. Desperate times call for desperate measures, to be sure, but if people are relying on Authority Zero for political direction, then we as a world are in more trouble than I thought.
Various Artists, Bring You to Your Knees: A Tribute to Guns N' Roses (Law of Inertia)
Just in time to provide an accompaniment to the hype that has surrounded the release of Slash, Duff, and Matt's reintroduction to the music scene in the form of much-hyped outfit, Velvet Revolver, this compilation of Guns N' Roses covers is sure to generate its own kind of buzz within the next generation of metalheads. Contrary to popular belief, neu metal-heads and hardcore bands do in fact have a sense of humor, and this fact is proved for once and for all by this group of songs by L.A.'s best/worst/best again metal band of infamy. The record features all the usual suspects. It opens up with an echoey and virtuosic version of "Welcome to the Jungle" courtesy of Zombie Apocalypse that bears little but unmistakable resemblance to the screechy original, exploding into speed-of-light guitar strumming and lyrics spat out with a furious vengence that recalls basement hardcore-shows far more than the decadent stadium concerts of G N' R fame. Similar treatment is given to Haste's version of "You're Crazy" and "Its So Easy" covered by Unearth. Seattle based outfit Vaux is one of the only bands who actually tries to emulate the snotty and decadent sound of Axl and company on their cover of "14 Years" and the results are predictably charming. Abounding with squealing guitar riffs and cowbell-heavy percussion, "Nighttrain" performed without a trace of irony by Most Precious Blood is a laugh and a half. But Most Precious Blood's over-the-top rendering of "Sweet Child O' Mine" teeters over into the realm of the ridiculous. Dillinger Escape Plan's rambunctiously irreverent version of "My Michelle" shatters the original melody into tiny little bits, and then tries to create a new song out of jagged shards.