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The Out Crowd, Go On, Give a Damn (Elephant Stone)
Rock revival comes at us again, this time via the Out Crowd, who takes us back to the sounds of mid-'60s, blues-based, psychedelic garage rock à la Byrds, Kinks, Velvets, and Stones. So why, at this point, should anyone care about yet another band that relies upon such past glories? I'll start by saying that I ultimately find nothing inherently vile in such bold-faced emulation, rather it's the packaging that reveals the true intentions of those involved. Are they making this music simply to fill yet another space on the catwalk of über rock and roll hipdom, or do they just need to release their creative juices and have fun? The latter is the ideal and is most often overlooked on the ladder to stardom. If it isn't fun for the artists then it won't be fun for the listeners. A snapshot in the liner photos of someone's ass with a huge Rolling Stones mouth tattooed on one buttock and another person pretending she's about to lick it was all I needed to realize these folks don't take themselves too seriously. Guitarist Matt Hollywood, formerly of the Brian Jonestown Massacre, has been doing this kind of music since 1995, so the Out Crowd shouldn't be lumped in with all the Strokes-ish bands of now. Also to their credit is the modern tone they inject into the songs. The band kicks off the brief album (only seven songs) by tuning up a bit then diving into "Good Morning" -- you can almost see them standing at the foot of your bed, full band set-up in your bedroom, singing "Wake uuup!" like your annoying but endearing roomates. The music is undeniably catchy. The opening guitar line of "The Gospel" sounds exactly like "I'm Waiting for the Man" and morphs into "I Can't Stand It", both Velvet Underground tunes -- their lead singer even effects Lou Reed's drone. Jangles, tambourines, and Rickenbacker guitars permeate the record and, while we know it's certainly not the most original music in the world, it somehow hits that muscle in our brain that commands us to forget such snobberies and just dance.
Stigmato, Inc., Reality Check (Utensil)
From Barcelona comes the latest entry in 2003's crowded field of Latin-electronica acts. Stigmato, Inc. have less in common with fellow upstarts like Sidestepper and the Latin Project than they do with old-school Latin househeads like Ian Pooley and Masters at Work; tracks like "Strive to Be Happy" and "La Maison de la Trompette" have those jazzy, sunburned grooves that practically scream Ibiza circa 1997. Apart from the dreamy, dubby title track, there's nothing especially original here, but most of it works anyway. Credit the scorching solos of guest trumpeter Matthew Simon and the vocals of American-born Danna Leese, who has one of those Lisa Shaw/Tracey Thorn soulful altos that can make the most cookie-cutter deep house track (i.e. "Just For You") sound profound.
Various Artists, Rough Guide to the Music of Thailand (World Music Network)
When Rough Guide is good, they are very, very good as this delightful collection of music from Thailand proves. Although Thailand may be one of the most popular exotic destinations for foreign tourists, the music is not within easy grasp from the Western frame of reference. This comp remedies those difficulties with a remarkable 72-minute overview of Thailand's contemporary music. Rather being limited to what can be found around Bangkok, compilers selects music from regions where most tourists don't venture and concentrated on the lukthung, the central region's country music, and the morlam, from Isaan in the Northeast. From the first notes to the end, this is a trippy groove. The easy high-life electric guitar sound, the bouncing pulsed beat, and snappy groove of Man Motorgai ("The Motorbike Man") singing "Hae Nang Maew" while lyric accents caterwaul sounding like dogs and cats about to tangle. Followed by Namoiy Thammalangka's easy high voice, carried over Asian fiddles, this is a collection that will transport the willing listener. There are 19 selections of unique modern Asian sounds, including a selection of ultra-pop. The China Dolls salsa-tinge their crazy and sweet "Oh Oh Oh", a tune so clever and creative pop fans anywhere in the world will look on this as a pick-me-up. Thai pop (recognizable for the high-life guitar sound) gets another good jolt from Anand Jaidee singing over a cheesy '60s style organ. There's even a track played by elephants! The Thai Elephant Orchestra, from the Thai Elephant Conservation Centre near Lampang were taught to play specially designed instruments, and then to improvise and play music. They do!! And this track is exactly how the elephants performed it. Take a boombox and this disc with you the next time you dine in a Thai restaurant and watch the response! I'll be surprised if some stranger doesn't spring for your dinner.
Milton Mapes, Westernaire (Aspyr Media)
I first heard of Milton Mapes from the unlikeliest of places -- a Starbucks' CD titled "Hear Music, Vol. 10." Yep, I'm officially gentrified. (Though, in my and others' defense, the album included tracks by Cat Power, M. Ward, Fruit Bats, Josh Ritter and Vic Chestnut among other criminally under appreciated souls.) Anyway, Mapes' track on that compilation -- the slow revealing, gorgeously melodic "The Only Sound That Matters" -- makes quite the first impression. Unfortunately, the rest of Mapes' debut release on Aspyr Media doesn't live up to that initial promise. (Sort of like one of those holiday latte concoctions.) Opening track "Great Unknown" hints at good things to come, but for the most part Westernaire is bland, mid-tempo country rock. If you dig the skinny Adam Duritz or the Jayhawks without Mark Olson (if you do, well, there's no accounting for taste) then there may be something to enjoy here. But with the abundance of like sounding material on the market, Milton Mapes is bound to go largely unnoticed until Greg Vanderpool and company can put together a complete record -- one that has, pardon the pun, more to Crow about. Until then, other "Hear Music" artists like M. Ward and the Fruit Bats have brilliant records to check out.
Radio Berlin, Glass (Action Driver)
With so many new bands lining up the comparative influences from the Joy Divisions and Echo and The Bunnymen of the world, it might be disheartening to add another. But while Vancouver BC quartet Radio Berlin also swims in those waters, albeit maybe doggie paddling with their faux British accents; the stylizing effort isn't in your face with the similarities and it feels less forced for that. At any rate, Radio Berlin's Glass leans far more industrial than many other comparable bands, though never losing its sense of melody in the dark atmospherics and agro. With touches of eighties synth pop spiked with punk ("Rote Lippen" and "D.E.S" most specifically), the music is often exciting though also capable of lagging -- the hybrid potentially a tremendous thing to absorb live, but one that doesn't always impress on record either. There is little here in fact to really wow you, but having said that there is also very little wrong with this release... all in all really nothing more or less than an intriguing release from an ever improving band.
Anson Funderburgh and the Rockets, Which Way Is Texas? (Rounder/Bullseye)
Anson Funderburgh and the Rockets are a band that everyone should have a bit of now and again. Their sound is extremely good-natured, with a steady good-time feel that becomes downright addictive. Funderburgh seems to filter his blues through the bounce of rockabilly and consistently pours out punchy, tasteful guitar work. He hooked up with Sam Myers 20 years ago and they've been playing together ever since, obviously loving every minute of it. Myers ("The Deacon of the Delta") is considered to be one of his generation's greats, having recorded early on with Elmore James. Handling harp and lead vocal chores, Myers can likely coax an upbeat view of the world from nearly any blues standard. He plays a fine harp, too. There are too many good songs on this set to even list except as liner notes. Given an assist by the Texas Horns, the band churns out a tremendous cover of Sonny Boy Williamson's "Trying to Get Back on My Feet". But not to be overlooked is "Don't Turn This Child Away from Heaven". After hearing this album, my one dream: I want to hear them play live.
Girls Are Short, Earlynorthamerican (Upper Class)
Claiming that their record collections -- instead of current musical trends -- influence their sound, Girls Are Short seem to have been listening to a lot of the Teenbeat catalogue. Sounding like a glitched-out Unrest fused with the pop sensibility of the Notwist, Earlynorthamerican is a shimmery pop album that isn't quite sure if it's ironic or earnest. "Pinacolada", "Sunshine", and the title track waver between a reinvention of synth pop or a kitschy duplication. It's this uncertainty that takes away much of the fun that could be had on Earlynorthamerican. Tracks such as "Exdegenerate", "Osaka", and "Ah Ah Hip Hop" hint at some truly inventive glitch-pop beneath the smirking veneer. Earlynorthamerican is a mixed bag, an album that wants to be more than the sum of its parts, but whose smart ass, wink-wink attitude is ultimately its downfall.
The Adventures of Jet, Muscle (Suburban Home)
Following up to the pop-new wave debut that was Part 3: Coping With Insignificance, this Dallas trio begins the album with "Number One", a tune that makes you want to run both for your Gary Numan and Weezer collections. With a synth sound backing hard guitar riffs that sneak up on you, the trio of singer Hop Litzwire, guitarist Tony Jannotta and drummer Rob Avsharian start things off on an interesting instrumental-oriented track. "Run Charger" has a poppy, emo-core feeling to it with the electronic ivories constantly being tickled. It also possesses a softer Beatles-pop quality embedded in it. A lot of songs follow a basic format, but "One Last Kiss" might be the most accessible here. Litzwire's vocals have that sugary, sweet feeling a la Wondermints and Velvet Crush/Matthew Sweet vibe in them, making "Orchids" and the crunchy "Drag" soar. "Emily Mazurinsky" is another watershed moment that fuses both guitar and keys perfectly. "Fairlane" is mediocre at best though. The homestretch opens with a fine "Flaming Ghost", another ditty that is car-oriented. The Adventures of Jet are onto something. If the Strokes were void of primacy and heavy on summer melodies, you might get a good sense of this group.
The Lazy Cowgirls, I'm Goin' Out and Get Hurt Tonight (Reservation)
The Lazy Cowgirls (as misleadingly named as Barenaked Ladies) sure do rock hard. If the Good Ol' Boys (You remember: the honky tonk bar band that wanted to kill Jake and Elwood in The Blues Brothers) rocked hard, this is how they'd sound. The rockers here beat the handful of ballads, and not just because the John Hiatt-worthy crunch of the country-rock riffs gloss over some lyrical limitations. Given the roughhewn, lonely, macho melancholy that the Cowgirls (rather unflaggingly) project, their hurt works better when offset by the punk swagger they're so good at. "Goddamn Bottle", a reprise from an early album (they've been around since the early '80s) might be, in the small world of country-rock-punk, a classic. Now, if they'd only do more with either their slow stuff or their persona, this would be even more than the solid, good album it already clearly is.
The Paperbacks, An Episode of Sparrows (Pshaw!)
Winnipeg, Canada's The Paperbacks have delivered an album here that's undoubtedly good for listening to on a cold winter day, but it still didn't manage to keep my attention for long. The songs are winsome, the melodies well-crafted, but the whole damn thing plods along for far too long. There are moments when it feels like An Episode of Sparrows will really take off, such as on "If I Make It Through This Winter", but these are few and far between. Instead, you have to muddle through such ditties as "I Suffer This Like a Dream" and "My Landscape Is Not Land". Ooh, how deep. Not at all really, and suffering is one good way of putting how I felt while being dragged through this disc. Give it a pass and find something better to do with your grey days.
Bourbon Princess, Black Feather Wings (Accurate)
Monique Ortiz picks up the remaining members of Morphine (Dana Colley and Jerome Deupree) along with multi instrumentalist Jim Moran and puts together an album that sounds well... a lot like Morphine. However, that's not a bad thing at all, and Ortiz actually betters the ghost of Mark Sandman by delivering the next best album Morphine never made (their best was Cure for Pain). Ortiz paints a dark and poetic picture of city life and relationships, sometimes bringing to mind Patti Smith but overall claiming her voice as her own. A very interesting release that should delight old Morphine fans while catching a lot of new ones along the way. "Stretcher" and "Jerkoff" are among the album's many highlights.
Lizz Wright, Salt (Verve)
There is nothing wrong with esteemed jazz label Verve trying to get hip again by finding new young talent. And there is nothing wrong with Lizz Wright's voice, which is really quite nice. But they're trying too hard to make her into a jazz singer, and she's just not a jazz singer. She tries gamely, covering everyone from Flora Purim to Mongo Santamaria, but she's much more comfortable singing "Soon As I Get Home" from The Wiz or her own original songs, which are much more R&B than they are jazz: the title track is all sultry Mayfieldismo, and "Fire" is torch the way it should be done.
Third Grade Teacher, Third Grade Teacher (Pinch Hit)
An excellent album that mixes a good amount of tongue in cheek fun with sincere rocking tunes. "So Long" sounds like The Breeders at their popping best, while "Feel Like Me" bounces around in a long lost alternative groove that is well worth revisiting. On the other hand, there's the druggy fun of "Roll It Up", the weird "Soul Machine/The Launch" and the wild and raging "Dusty O'Merryweather" that's guaranteed to peel back all the layers of paint in your house. All in all an eclectic and wild sort of album that's a hell of a lot of fun and well worth owning.
Mandy Moore, Coverage Epic
You've got to credit Mandy Moore for trying to be taken seriously, as something more than a perky teen pop diva. Moore has little to prove as an actress -- her performances, even in so-so films, have earned raves. It's the music career that's been a bit trickier. OK, so now she get serious and hands over a collection of covers by real artistes, artists like Joan Armatrading ("Drop the Pilot"), XTC ("Senses Working Overtime"), and the Waterboys ("Whole of the Moon"). There are some mainstream numbers in there as well -- and it's on those that Moore sounds most comfortable/confident. Perhaps that has something do with the fact that Moore wasn't even on the planet when many of these more obscure songs were written, and despite her bright, clear vocals, she isn't experienced enough as a singer to bring creative interpretations to these songs. You've got to credit producer John Fields, though; he expertly manages to update the songs without tampering with their musical essence. It's just that Moore's a bit too much of a lightweight (despite the newly dark hair) to give these songs a proper working over.
The Young Antiques, Clockworker (Two Sheds)
Competent adult-contemporary pop that should please those who still enjoy watching VH-1 for its videos. Nothing very remarkable about this lightweight group, but nothing terribly wrong with it either. Pointless enough to put on in the car when you don't really care about what you're listening to yet good enough to cock an ear towards at the right moment. Basically it's a mass of indifferent pop that will leave the audience feeling the same after it's done. However, "Radio Kill Radio" is a dumb bit of a stumble coming from a band as plain vanilla as this. Angst from The Young Antiques? Surely you must be joking.