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Tom Findlay and Tim "Love" Lee, Sounds Good in the Nude (Shadow/Tummy Touch)
If Tom Findlay's half of this double-disc house/funk/downtempo cocktail had been released on its own, it would've made my top ten list for 2003. Findlay, of Groove Armada fame, mines the deep catalog of London's Tummy Touch Records for 14 funky, leftfield gems, every one of them serving as proof that house music is not getting as stale as you might think -- there are just aren't enough DJs out there playing stuff this deliciously offbeat. Cousin Grizzly's spooky but insanely danceable "Centrefold" and Crazy Penis' remix of Breakdown's bouncy "First of All", with its loopy, George Clintonian doo-wop bridge, are the major highlights, but there's really not an ounce of slack in Findlay's selections, which he blends together so well that it takes ten listens to spot some of his trickery. The same cannot be said of Tummy Touch honcho Tim "Love" Lee's downtempo disc two, which starts off promisingly with Dolphin Boy's dreamy, gorgeous "On the Ceiling" but then quickly loses steam with an unfocused set that sounds interesting on paper -- with doses of postmodern mod-pop (the Supreme Beings of Leisure soundalikes Chungking), porno funk (Los Chicarrons' "Summer Fever"), and ambient glitch-hop (Revolvo's "Knocking Shop") -- but fails to inspire in practice. Still, you have to give Lee and Tummy Touch major props for putting out so much eclectic, risk-taking music, and for snaring a major talent like Findlay to showcase it so skillfully.
Various Artists, Punk Goes Acoustic (Fearless)
The latest installment in California-based Fearless Records' "Punk Goes..." series could be called "Punk Goes Dashboard Confessional". Following on the heels of Punk Goes Metal and Punk Goes Pop, West Coast pop-punk's leading bands have gotten together for Punk Goes Acoustic, a record with nary an amplifier in sight. The result is a collection of 20 songs representing the worst of what "emo" has come to mean by pop-punk bands such as the Ataris, Finch, Piebald, Coalesce and Midtown. What many of these groups fail to recognize is that Dashboard's appeal lay in Chris Carrabba's evocative lyrics as much as his acoustic riffing. When Finch translates its "Letters to You" into the stripped-down format, the chorus of "I want you to know that I miss you, that I miss you so" is glaring in its un-Carrabba-like drabness. Several bands here include drums, seemingly as unaware as Carrabba was on his last two albums that such instrumentation undermines the intimacy the acoustic format can convey. And all that need be said about Taking Back Sunday's contribution is its god-awful title: "Cute Without the E (Cut From the Team)". Yet a few highlights hit upon the emotional honesty that made acoustic pop-punk popular in the first place. For example, under-sexed 17-year-olds everywhere can rejoice in the melodic, angst-ridden catharsis of the Starting Line's "Playing Favorites". If you like the bands listed here and prefer The Places You Have Come to Fear the Most to Swiss Army Romance, you will like this compilation. Meanwhile, the rest of the world will make fun of you. But that's what punk is all about, isn't it?
The Jolenes, Rinse and Repeat (Last Chance)
The Jolenes take their name from the Dolly Parton-cum-White Stripes tune, but the bubbly infectious pop is what sets this album apart from the rest. Brimming with slight country touches on the jangle-ridden "Shampoo", the trio of lead singer Katy Sanford, bassist Christina Wolfe and drummer Candy Blystone are a throwback to the Go-Gos and The Bangles. Whether it's the sweet harmonies or the overall great pop vibes, tracks such as "Princess Coffee Castle" fly off the record with relative ease despite having a dirty garage punk sound as does the grin-inducing surf-rockesque "Spare Tire Liar". Unfortunately, that same momentum drops somewhat with an average Sleater-Kinney lite "Kelly's Got a Stalker". But "What You Want" atones for the slight misstep. The great thing about this album is its primal yet sweet alluring sound. "Double Dare" is a straightforward country-rock ditty that has enough kick to keep going, despite some twists and turns. "Marvin Lee" has a Blondie sound to it with the fills from Blystone carrying the tune. The feel good rock though is what makes this album so bright and cheerful, including the ballsy (ovariesy?) "Marvin Lee" and "Accident". To use one of the song titles, this album begins with a "Bang" and ends with a "Bang"! And a cover of Olivia Newton-John's "Physical" to boot! Holy Shazam!!!
Atrium, Free Falling (Abstrakt Reality)
On its debut album Free Falling, Atrium filters lounge vocals and smoothed-out jazz through a screen of downtempo electronica. Singer Nicolle Ross gives each track a smoky R&B feel. Producer Zimar -- who's also the founder of Abstrakt Reality Records -- keeps the groove laid-back while maintaining and ambient and trip-hop feel. He primarily utilizes electronic beats, but keyboards and trumpets fill their place nicely. An obvious comparison could be made to a group like Royksopp, but Free Falling has the beats of an updated Dis Is Da Drum. Atrium pulls these influences together nicely to create a solid album, but Free Falling isn't a stand-out disc. Abstrakt Reality exists to promote underground electronica, and while Atrium has created 10 songs that flow through a comfortable album for your laptop jazz club, it hasn't broken new ground. Free Falling can certainly fill a niche in your evening listen, but it's not likely to be an album you!
Various Artists, The Millennium Collection: The Best of Blues Classics (MCA)
It's an interesting phenomenon that a collection of 12 truly classic songs by a dozen sterling blues artists can end up sounding good, but not great. Because of the mysterious process of sequencing, this disc can play straight through like a slightly above average compilation. The solution is to put this disc on random play or hit repeat to tune into something that's grabbing for attention and then watch the magic re-emerge. In 1956, Muddy Waters set down "Got My Mojo Working" that comes out here in sparkling clarity. All the tunes have been digitally remastered with a careful hand and ear to great advantage. If the listener has spent decades listening to these very songs on scratchy vinyl or hissing tape, and when you're talking about Mae Thornton's 1952 version of "Hound Dog" or Sonny Boy Williamson's "Don't Start Me to Talkin'", this newfound clarity is nothing to be sniffed at. While blues purists might prefer a different sort of series, and blues snobs most definitely would, this comp likely isn't aimed at them, but more towards the person who might take a chance on a low-price blues anthology at the local box store. That person won't be disappointed.
Betty Drake, Grape Or Red (Purple Pit)
Decent Minneapolis band cranks out melodic pop that once again owes a bit to The Beatles and other British Invasion groups. "Just Like That" and "Time Will Never Tell" are undoubtedly catchy, but a lot of this album turns rather faceless pretty fast despite the group's obvious talents. Songs like "Funny Forever" and "Movietown" just don't measure up to those first two songs and seem like they were written without much thought behind them as far as longevity goes. There are a ton of similar power popsters out there, and Betty Drake can only hope to get better in the future if they want to actually make a little noise that's worth hearing beyond five minutes.
The Atomiks, Motordeath (Slovenly)
This Reno, Nevada group comes on all cool with pompadours, stand up bass, and other typical trappings of the rockabilly genre. However, they're anything but, and Motordeath is a not quite concept album about cars, cops, and well... death in cars. George Pickard's vocals get annoying at times with his Robert Smith-like moaning, but there are a couple decent tracks here, such as the tasty "Miss World Goodbye" and "Officer 23" with some cool acoustic licks playing in the background. Still, it's nothing to get that excited about, and the whole is it or isn't it a concept idea wears out pretty fast. It could have been an interesting album, but it falls a few feet short of being even just plain good.
Lou Caputo, Urban Still Life (JazzCat47)
Urban Still Life emulates the cacophony of city life, big band style. Fronted by multi-reedist Lou Caputo, this album packs a couple of hefty punches in the full sound department. Rich in brass background, Caputo's solos deftly hold their own, so much so that, at times, he seems to be shackled by the unwavering accompaniment. This is the main criticism that, unfortunately, underlies almost every track. The 12 tracks are drawn from the classic jazz tradition with new arrangements from seven of the artists participating in these sessions. Some of the best include Jack Jeffers's treatment of Thelonius Monk's classic hit, "In Walked Bud", and Debra Weisz's arrangement of a Charles Mingus medley, "Song with Orange/Nostalgia in Times Square". Caputo tries his hand at arranging Frank Foster's "Raunchy Rita", a hard bop '60s number that fares well enough despite some awkward moments where soloist and accompaniment seem out of sync. "Chi Chi" hits closest to home, that home being New York City, an offering of Charlie Parker with a healthy dash of alto saxophone. Caputo shows flair and potential on his debut album as band leader. It doesn't quite all come together here, but with some fine-tuning, this could be the start of something really good.
Rachel Sage, Public Record (Mpress)
Rachel Sage's fifth album is, at times, a bit too precious for its own good. Something about her voice reminds one of Jewel, and that's not always a good thing. Of course, Jewel doesn't come up with the strange poetry-jazz fusions such as "Beauty Fades" and "Back to Freedom", the two best songs on Public Record. Listening to this makes one feel like Sage wants to be every popular female songstress in the large lexicon of the past ten or so odd years. The opening track, "What If", was supposedly recorded in one take with a Doors influence. It doesn't sound like it at all, though Sage's lyrical ramblings can often become as grating as Morrison's at his worst. Then there's Sage's voice, which moans and groans all too often as the words slip out of her mouth. Her piano playing is moody and a sense of strained sensuality envelops every song, making Public Record predictable by the time the second song, "Too Many Women", has played. Decent, but hardly a keeper in a female singer-songwriter genre that has already been dulled by its more famous contemporaries.
Zach Brock and the Coffee Achievers, Zach Brock and the Coffee Achievers (Secret Fort)
He's young, he's hip, he plays violin in his own post-bop jazz group! Okay, so one of these things doesn't sound like it belongs. But if you like post-bop jazz, and there's no real reason why you shouldn't, you will like this disc. Brock is a hard-working soloist who whips from rock-guitar-like scraping to fiddlin' (especially on the opener, "Now I Know") without drawing much of a distinction. His songs sound better when they're uptempo; closing ballad "Mister Shaw" is too gooey to register, and "Turn" is a cute waltz that gets too cute as it progresses. But watch him -- this is just his first record, and it's pretty good.
Jamie O'Neal, On My Way to You (Mercury)
Blame Shania Twain for the way this album hesitates between twangy banjos and sweeping ballads. And for the way the first half is determined to be fluffy and fun. Still, O'Neal does have a vocal identity of her own. Where Twain is sexy in the tradition of effervescent pop girls next door, O'Neal's a little sultrier, her voice relatively husky for an album with so much crossover ambition. But, among the pop-oriented songs, only "Tryin' to Find Atlantis", with its comic New Age misadventures about finding the perfect man, has a correspondingly clear identity as an example of songwriting craft. Though O'Neal can't beat Twain at her own game, the first half of the album is still the stronger. The second half veers too often into ballads stuck somewhere between real longing and grandiose guilty pleasures. And for sultry country singers who mope a lot, I'll stick with Kelly Willis.
Various Artists, Death Before Disco (PrinceHouse)
It's ironic that a sentence written on the inside spine of this CD's tray card reads, "Without the glitter, without the cliche, without the kitsch . . . This is our music." To be sure, this audio statement of purpose from San Francisco's new PrinceHouse label, is a much-needed clarion call to remind potential rock-minded listeners that dance music is still innovative and inspired. And while the 15 bands represented -- Adult., The Pattern, GoGoGo Airheart, Dance Disaster Movement, Hint Hint, etc. -- defiantly blend elements of rock or disco, new wave or techno, electronic or skronk, everything ends up sounding simply cliched. Spastic, intriguing, and unclassifiable yes, but cliched nonetheless. Of course, this almost defeats the compilation's ostensible purpose. I say "almost" above since there are some folks on here that do manage to avoid that damning praise: The Vanishing, who arose from the ashes of the missed Subtonix, and who might yet revive goth as the next big thing for 2004; Broker/Dealer, who bring some much-needed techno goodvibes to these otherwise dark proceedings; Numbers, who sound like the B-52s playing while experiencing Pokemon-style seizures; and I Am Spoonbender, who sort-of cover "Me and My Rhythm Box" from the long-neglected grandmother to the rough "scene" circulating around bands on this CD, Slava Tsukerman's Liquid Sky.
Anthony C. Bleach