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Mark Riva, Sungrooves (Kriztal Entertainment)
DJ Mark Riva doesn't want to change your life with his music; he just wants to put a big contented grin on your face, and he mostly succeeds with this, his debut mix album. Riva's sound is equal parts San Francisco-style deep house and Latin/Brazilian percussion and polyrhythms -- hardly an original sound, it must be said, but one skillfully deployed here. Many well-known purveyors of beats more hangin' than bangin' are represented, including Francois K, Kevin Yost and Chris Brann's P'taah project (superbly remixed by the ever-reliable Atjazz), but Riva's mix really shines when he digs a little deeper and delivers tracks from relative unknowns. "Shine On" from Naked Music's Dave Warrin is a hypnotic early highlight, and the late inclusion of Cuica's infectiously jazzy "Nights Over Vauxhall" is a masterstroke, a track whose densely layered solo instruments and percussive elements evoke peak-hour energy without disrupting the set's laid-back vibe. Cuts from Afro-Mystik, Rivera Rotation, Ive Mendes and Wagon Cookin' also shine, though some of Riva's other selections (like "Felicidad Nova", a cushy samba from former Detroit techno maven John Beltran, of all people) veer too far into "easy listening" territory even for this sunny, strawberry daiquiri of a set.
Field Trip, Field Trip (Stargazer Music)
After many live shows had audiences clamoring for some product, Field Trip finally has released a debut 4-song EP of melodic power pop. Cord Weiss is the creative force behind Field Trip. The former member of Atlanta's Star Collector has written these songs, sings lead and background vocals and handles guitars and percussion. Produced and engineered by Ron Haney and Bart Schoudel of The Churchills, these four songs pack quite a bit of sonic fun, with plenty of guitar-driven jangle, harmonies galore and rhythmic punch. "Into You" is about that kind of strong love that obsessively takes over one's everything: "I really didn't want to find somebody new / I tried to hide behind another lame excuse / I didn't want to go / Until I laid it down and gave it all to you." Lush strong harmonies rule the day here, as befits a pretty love song. The flip side of happy love follows with "Coulda Been," a post punk reaction to having been hurt in a bad relationship: "My head is hanging down / it feels like I haven't felt good in days / I know you never cared / I know you were just scared / And now that it's too late, it's alright / You're just a coulda been." In "Glitter," we learn about concerns going into a relationship, seeking that delicate balance of communication and allowing for each other's needs: "If I could turn the world and take it in my hand / I would break the hourglass and give you all the sand / I'm gonna do my best / Will you do the same?" Closing this quartet of songs is the audience pleaser "Angelina Jolie," a celebration of the pillow-lipped tomb raider of the big screen. Asking her to be his girlfriend, Mr. Weiss wants to know what she saw in that Billy-Bob anyway: "With big lips and big tattoos / you're all attitude / You're graced with everything that's holy / I'm waiting for you, Angelina Jolie." The rocking guitar and harmonies recall a Fountains of Wayne sound. These four fun and sweetly rocking Field Trip songs are a powerful teaser for things to come. Let's hope the year ahead brings us a full-length release from this up and coming NYC band that promises never to take themselves too seriously.
Lou Dog, 61 Old Depot (Home Brew Jams)
It's easy for a guy like Philly-based roots rocker Lou Dog to get pigeonholed as a shaggy-haired, affable riffer -- that's just the kinda music guys named Lou Dog make, ya know? Well, our rocker in question must've sensed the walls closing in on him since he's expanded his sonic palette on 61 Old Depot, his second release of 2003. No longer content to churn out toe-tapping rockers exclusively, Lou has loaded up 61 Old Depot with jazzy stream-of-conscious spoken word ("The House of Flesh on Fire"), blues ("The Touch") and bongos ("Farewells Forgotten"). The first real rockin' tune, the fuzzed out "She's Trying to Hide" is buried four tracks in -- not a promising sign. It's all very puzzling, given that this album was recorded at the same time as his superior 2003 EP, High Speed Secrets. Fortunately, the back half of the album is more Lou Dog's forte -- good-natured rockers like "Krazy Katie" and "The Birth of Cool (for Lester Bangs)" that prove the man is at his best when he's his most unassuming. I'll let Lou Dog review his own album here: On the all-too-apropos-titled "Self-Fulfilling Prophecy" Lou Dog warbles, "I'm not a bad guy, but I could do better." Word, Lou Dog. Word.
Read Yellow, Read Yellow (Fenway Recordings)
Brimming with energy, so much in fact that they barely know what to do with it all, and noisy amplifiers that cover up the still-developing songwriting, Read Yellow have done an excellent job of getting themselves fairly well known with just this four-song EP. They had a big 2003 and they're starting off 2004 by touring England with Pretty Girls Make Graves in February. If they continue at this rate you can count on seeing a lot more of them by the end of this year. Their debut EP as Read Yellow (they have a previous three-song EP under the Sharks) is short (four songs in under 14 minutes), aggressive, and to the point though it ultimately doesn't justify all the excitement. The lead track, "Read Yellow", beats a lot of what you'll hear while watching MTV2 between 1:00 and 3:00am and that's a good start. The remaining tracks throw out Hives-ish garage rock ("I get high, baby, whenever I'm around you"), some back and forth boy-girl vocals, and lots and lots of yelling (singer Jesse Vuona does it well, too), but for all its bluster it doesn't really offer much to make it stand out over the loads of bands doing the same thing. A lot will be determined with the release of their full-length, being recorded with producer Paul Kolderie (Morphine, Uncle Tupelo, Belly, Radiohead). For now, they're mostly for the kids, which is fine and which isn't to imply that they're not for real (their live show is said to be amazing). It's just that for the time being, and for this set of songs specifically, there's not really too much there to keep things all that interesting once the buzz wears off.
Various Artists, French Café (Putumayo)
One of Putumayo's most atmospheric collections yet, this diverse compilation is elegant and understated, and quite successful in its seamless mingling of both older songs and those by a new generation of French musicians enchanted with the chanson tradition. It's so visceral in its vibe that you can imagine sitting at a Parisian bistro on a warm afternoon listening to these enchanting songs. While Edith Piaf is sadly missing, there's an abundance of icons to enjoy: the quirky eroticism of George Gainsbourg, the aural come-ones of a young Brigitte Bardot and the renowned chanteuse Jane Birkin. Those songs are mingled amid modern-day acts, like the dreamy-voiced Enzo Enzo and the joyfully jazzy Paris Combo. As always, Putumayo includes liner notes that are as enjoyable to read as they are educational. Ooh-la-la indeed.
Cat Stevens, Footsteps in the Dark: Greatest Hits 2 (A&M)
Does Cat Stevens' really need another greatest hits album? Footsteps in the Dark: Greatest Hits 2is less of an album of truly 'great' hits than a thoughtful compilation that draws upon Stevens' search for spirituality as its central theme. Still, the majority of the songs are worthy of mention, though few are of greatest hits stature. Some of the catchier favorites include "Daytime" and "(I Never Wanted) to Be a Star" with two of the best songs having never before featured on an album, the uplifting "If You Want to Sing Out, Sing Out" from the film Harold and Maude that makes you want to clap your hands and dance in the street, and "I Want to Live in a Wigwam" that epitomizes Stevens' simple song writing style with its almost nursery-rhyme structure. The album is good enough, though I continue to feel cheated by the greatest hits marketing strategy.
The Wednesdays, You Will Gasp and They Will Breathe (Reservation)
For a group that dishes out ten amped-up rock songs in less than 23 minutes (That's right, this album is really short, about EP length), the Wednesdays have tunes in their songs. Usually, though, their serviceable melodies are attached to standard shards of youthful alienation and slacker discontent expressed in lines like "You wanted everything but you can't get nothin' from me" or "Try to communicate where a river stinks from the open tomb/ That feeds her" (Pardon?). But "Rebellion is the Circle of a Lover's Hands", about being 13 years old, making out in a rundown car, and not caring if the rest of the world goes to hell (like an adolescent garage rock version of Prince's "1999"), is a song that Jack White needs to get his hands on.
Various Artists, Club Avion -- Global Indie Clubpop (Eenie Meenie)
The underground dance scene is a strange place. So many genres and sub-genres exist, that I'd never get to talk about the album at hand in my efforts to rattle off all the categories of dance music. So, this time around, Eenie Meenie Records is releasing Par Avion Global Indie Clubpop, a collection of songs from some of the most talented artists in underground Indiepop and Clubpop. Brought to you by party-hosts, Club Par Avion, this compilation features tracks from I Am the World Trade Center and Majestic as well as songs from international stars like Montreal's Stars and London's Vau Sharri. A few tracks border on the absurd with beats, blips, and voices that will infiltrate your brain until the urge to break the CD trumps your patience. Aside from those few, though, this collection provides almost an our of head-bopping, rump-shaking amusement.
Scout, This Soft Life (ModMusic)
A beautiful, super-sharp album that should not go overlooked. Lead singer Ashen Keilyn has a wonderful voice and within Scout she rocks tough and sweet at the same time. This band has already had stints having their songs in shows and movies, but unlike a lot of other groups that have gone down that trail, Scout still have a shitload of talent to work with without the big time endorsements. "Here's the Thing" is one of the best songs of 2003, and "Good Enough For Now" will stick in your head for a nice long time. "Just Between You & Me" is true heartbreak at its finest. This Soft Life is an impeccable album that can be enjoyed by nearly any music fan. Don't miss out.
Caroline Herring, Wellspring (Blue Corn Music)
Caroline Herring returns with her followup album to her critically acclaimed debut Twilight that won her a number of accolades, including a best new artist award. Wellspring is another successful trek down the country and folk path. It's hard not to enjoy the subtle humor brought forth in "Texas Two Step" or get caught up in the prettiness of songs like "Trace" and "Jewels". Texas churns out yet another winner in a continuing display of the varied music scene in the state that other neighbors can only turn sick with envy. Wellspring is a top quality entry into the country genre. That is, country done the way it should be and not all Toby Keith'd out the wazoo with sponsors from Ford Motors.
The Bronx, Bats! (Tarantulas)
Lousy So-Cal band that's heavy on the heavy and light anything remotely entertaining. There are three songs here, concluding with a cover of the Saints' "Private Affair" that doesn't improve on the original at all. Lots of screamed vocals by lead singer Matt Caughthran and the expected noisy guitars and drumming courtesy of Joey J. Ford, James Tweedy, and Jorma Vik. The title track is beyond bad (in a bad way) and "You Want to See Us Burn" is a good title, but no dice on the actual song that sports silly antagonized shouting and luke warm riffs. Pass on this one at all costs.
John Gorka, Old Futures Gone (Red House)
John Gorka's Old Future's Gone is an introspective record. While it doesn't break ground and does little to carry the singer-songwriter genre to new locales, the 14-song disc is a thoughtful, listenable affair, a well-produced effort that places Gorka's rich baritone in a comfortable setting -- acoustic guitars, occasional electric lead, keyboards, drums, etc., each instrument sharing space, none rising out of the mix to draw attention from the whole. Many of Gorka's lyrics mine veins of loneliness, exploring the seams along which relationships break apart. "They moved between hurt and hunger," he sings in Dogs & Thunder", remembering one that got away, but "There are doors that you walk through, that only swing one way." Gorka will "always be lonely", he sings in "Always", "It's the way that I am." Occasionally, the songs show a broader interest -- such as "Old Future", which quotes Blake and bemoans a lost future; or "Soldier After All", which champions those who stand up for their beliefs; or "War Makes War", which attempts to turn the words of Martin Luther King Jr. into a modern-day protest song. Each of these songs fail lyrically, lacking the specificity that makes Steve Earle or Bruce Springsteen's folk-based protests so effective. He is much better at introspection. Ultimately, this is a safe album. Musically, the disc stays within a narrow frame of reference, mixing mid- and down-tempo songs, acoustic instrumentation, lending a sameness to the effort. It is pleasing to the ears, but offers no challenges, leaving an album that is best listened to from afar.
Lumidee, Almost Famous (Universal)
She scored a huge huge diwaali-riddim hit earlier this year with the sublime "Never Leave You - Uh Oooh, Uh Oooh!," which is here in two great versions. (I love the original, with its handclaps and transparent edits and Lumidee's yearning simple vocal, better than the remix with Busta Rhymes and Fabolous getting all gully.) But is there anything else here? Surprisingly, yes: DJ Tedsmooth and Trendsetta know how to play to her strength: vulnerability ("Me and You") and sweetness ("For Keeps"). When she tries to sound tougher, like on "My Last Thug," she falls down some, but overall this is good but not yet great NYC Latin hip-hop soul.