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Tracy Shedd, Red (Teen Beat)
As I listened this singer-songwriter from Jacksonville's second album, I waited for hints at the distinction that got this record made, that led other people who hear lots of music into investing time and money to see these songs realized -- some gift with melody or some striking series of images or some display of naked emotional courage, or even some quiet mastery of powerful emotions. But none of that ever surfaced. Instead, just methodical, almost grudging songs turned out from a formula: discordant arpeggios set over bass runs that don't quite match tonally with the drums hanging back until the first chorus kicks in. Produced by Teen Beat honcho Mark Robinson, the album bears his hallmarks: insistent drums high in the mix; a round, pongy bass sound; crisp, airtight guitar; and a mathematically precise interlocking of pieces. Shedd, unfortunately seems like the missing piece. Shedd's voice, unremarkabe in a Natalie Imbruglia sort of way, seems to lack dexterity; she slogs through her words, holding notes for clumsy lengths while adding no particular emotional shading to them. She almost sounds bored, and the general absence of figuration doesn't help: the CD abounds with bald literal statements such as "I saw you walking down my street" or "I remember the first time I saw your face." The flatness of these, and Shedd's uncertain phrasing undermine what are often nimble backing tracks, which are both satisfyingly complex and lucid at the same time.
Lo-Pro, Lo-Pro (Geffen/413)
Featuring former members of Ultraspank, Godsmack, and Snot, produced by Don Gilmore, and signed by Staind's Aaron Lewis to Geffen's 413 imprint, Lo-Pro -- and their self-titled album -- are your average nu-metal fan's wet dream. Chock full of thick, chunky guitars and some strangely uplifting melodies, Lo-Pro is a polished affair from start to finish, with some songs that could easily find mainstream success. The atmospheric, powerful standout track "Not Me" is one such tune, which could quite easily become the soundtrack to many a teenager's life. The bleak lyrics on "Sunday" and "Reach" mean the songs are suitably downcast in mood, and while there's plenty of angst in tracks like "Walk Away", there's an almost positive vibe to the melodies at times, no doubt aided by Gilmore's trained ear for a hook. Lo-Pro are certainly nothing new, but they do check all the right nu-metal boxes. Whether or not they have arrived too late to a rather stale scene to make enough of an impact remains to be seen.
Various Artists, Jazzelicious Presents (Kritzal)
Background music can be good. It provides safe, innocuous, subconsciously fun noise for any lounge or party where staying awake isn't a requirement for your guests. Yes, if falling asleep into your martini is your goal, then pick up Jazzelicious Presents. It's the only collection of slinky, sexy, and completely synthetic Latin/jazz/funk you'll ever need. Put the CD on repeat. Odds are, your guests won't ever pick up on the repetition. Even though six different artists contribute to the album, all the songs blend into one, instantly forgettable arrangement of keyboards, drum machines, and fake maracas. Featuring such gems as "Cali4nia", "Kinda Going Crazy", and "Beach Day", this album should sport the warning, "Will either lull the listener into a stupor or drive him/her to drinking so that he/she may fall into an alcoholic stupor." To be fair, a few acoustic instruments do appear from time to time -- specifically on "King Cobra". On this track, Le D plays what sounds like a genuine, upright bass, and a couple of electric guitar licks… however, that really doesn't make up for the incessant keyboard plinking. In conclusion, if you think your friends will appreciate Jazzelicious Presents while hanging out at your apartment drinking wine or scotch or what-have-you, consider going with the real thing. Invest in some Miles Davis or Chucho Valdes. Or find some new friends.
Elliott the Letter Ostrich, Motocross Be Thy Name (Asaurus)
What to make of an album that looks like an old Nintendo or Atari video game cartridge and whose opening song contains just as much zaps, bams and bleeps? Opening with "...Because Nintemper Is My Word", this group sounds like Terry Jacks ("Seasons In The Sun") on a sugar high. But it works! The techno-folk pop resembles the Buggles more often than not, particularly on "We Do All We Can, The Best We Can, And Await The Results". Backed by casios and acoustic guitars, the album is often a hit and miss, with "Tanooki Power Up and The Responsibility That Follows" being a definite miss. Fans of Laptop would appreciate a lot of the tunes however. The press mentions a passing reference to Buddy Holly, but a couple of "uh-uh-oh-oh"s did not Buddy Holly make! A softer and bland "Farewell To The Astro-Dome" ensues with mediocre results but "8 Bit Commitment -- 32 Bit Break-Up" comes off far better. Perhaps the highlight is the quirky little tune "Casio Republic", a quasi-dance number that, you guessed it, has a casio leading the way. But for the most part, odd yet catchy pop is the musical soup du jour, especially on "Justin Bailey: The Man, The Myth, The Metroid Code" and "I Want To Love You, But I'm Too Busy Fighting These Nebulous Bees".
Pinetop Perkins, Heritage of the Blues: The Complete High Tone Sessions (HighTone)
Pinetop Perkins turned 90 the same month this release hit the stands. He's been playing blues piano longer than most people reading this have been alive. Though most well known as Muddy Waters's piano player, Perkins also graced bands led by Robert Nighthawk, Little Milton, and Earl Hooker. On this disc, it's just Perkins and 88 of his closest friends having a long conversation with each other. Perkins punches out 15 tunes that seem to hearken back to times long, long ago. Paying musical tribute to another great bluesman with his "Song for Sunnyland" (that's Sunnyland Slim), Perkins soon takes off into eccentric and completely wild runs around the keys. Known for rugged thumping barrelhouse, Perkins also has a delicate touch when needed. He can keep a light foot on the pedals that make any piano sound like a tack piano, and he trips through the old blues standard "How Long" as gracefully as can be. Mostly, Perkins really pounds them out in his own highly individualistic style. While you can imagine him developing his craft in noisy gin mills, you soon realize that nobody but nobody plays like him.
Johnny Gill, The Best of Johnny Gill (20th Century Masters: The Millenium Collection) (Motown)
Before neo-soul became the catchphrase for hollow R&B, Johnny Gill was preparing a place for his deep, distinctive groan in an era that has since become best known for New Jack Swing. After the demise of New Edition, when Bobby Brown had a real shot at being the King of R&B that Whitney says he is now, all Gill had room to deliver was husky pillow talk. With that signature raspy voice and sweet, silly lyrics, he came up with hits like "Rub You The Right Way," "My, My, My" and "Fairweather Friend" -- all cliché-filled songs full of red dresses and dutiful lovers that ladies love and men love to hate. And while historically speaking Gill might still be the only singer who could turn the repetition of a possessive pronoun into a luscious, memorable hook, there are some things on this Millenium Collection that should be forgotten: like the "7-inch Mix" of "Wrap Your Body Tight," and "The Floor." His throaty baritone is great here for nostalgia's sake, but the title is misleading in that the selections here are not truly a reflection of the best moments in his career. (Where's "There U Go" from the Boomerang soundtrack? Did anyone think it'd be great to have "Can You Stand The Rain" here?) This collection is a good starting point for a new jack who wants a taste of what Gill used to do and it's a great album for nostalgia's sake. "It's Your Body," featuring Roger Troutman salutes saucy lovers and "Quiet Time to Play" is also a good offering. Anyone looking for his very best work will have to pick up the Ultimate Collection.
J. Victoria Sanders
David Hopkins, Here Comes the Bright Light (Modest)
San Francisco-based Irishman David Hopkins is a singer-songwriter who doesn't wish to be known as one due to its "awful connotations", but although he is no folksy troubadour, the fact he sings, and writes songs means he can't escape the tag he detests. Here Comes the Bright Light is Hopkins's first solo release after his time in Irish band LiR and is a collection of sparse acoustic refrains such as the plaintive "Why Are You Leaving Me Behind?" and pleasant jangle-pop songs such as the excellent "For Nothing". Hopkins is clearly influenced by the likes of Nick Drake as evident on his cover of "Saturday Sun", but his sound is not overwhelmed by his record collection. "Miserable Boy" may have shades of Badly Drawn Boy, but as the highly original "The Spelling Song" demonstrates, Hopkins has the ability to be original. Here Comes the Bright Light is diverse and serves as an interesting precursor to Hopkins's next release, One Dark Morning.
Grand Champeen, The One That Brought You (Glurp)
You could look at the latest release by Grand Champeen in one of two ways. The band is either: A.) A welcomed return to the carelessly guitar drenched, beer slurping, big bar sound that made heroes out of the Replacements and Uncle Tupelo or B.) An overly revered (at least by their small but rapid fan base) group of wannabes that couldn't tune (or un-tune) Westerberg's or Farrar's guitar. OK, OK, OK. So maybe there's some middle ground there somewhere. But after several listens of The One That Brought You, the verdict leans toward B.) overly revered wannabes. Of course, if you're one of those folks who though the comeback of southern rock was like a deliciously steaming plate of refried beans, maybe Grand Champeen is just what your colon ordered. They are sphincter-thumping loud and they are brash. And they are certainly sloppy. All things which endear them those left behind in the absence of the Mats and Uncle Tupelo. Yet, while they've got reckless down, Grand Champeen doesn't seem to understand the value of contrast and understatement that Westerberg, Farrar and Tweedy appreciated. That's the key difference. Grand Champeen tries to come at you all at once. When they do turn it down a notch, they're mostly successful (see "Step Into My Heart"), but then it's back to balls out, loud rawk. There's nothing surprising about a Grand Champeen song and that element of the unexpected is what separates a bar band from seminal rock group.
Geno Delafose & French Rockin Boogie Everybody's Dancin' (Times Square)
The additional label "100% Louisiana Creole Zydeco" is enough to explain why Everybody's Dancin'. Zydeco in Geno Delafose's hands is the raucous, rocking fun it should be, honoring the spirit of genre progenitors Clifton Chenier, Boozoo Chavis, and his own father, John Delafose. As the frontman on vocals and accordion, Delafose pulls out all the stops here. The rhythms on most selections are exhausting just to listen to, blistering from start to finish. Like "He-Haw Breakdown" -- who could be able to dance to that one all the way through? Although there is that easy soft swing for lilting two-steps on "Allez Voir Ma Tit Fille". Every song has a well-conceived and complex lead-in although the band is not afraid to experiment with new affects like pounding sub-sonic bass as a call to push the tables aside and get out on the floor. While firmly footed in strong tradition, Delafose is keeping zydeco current by throwing the traditional ("Port Arthur Blues") together with contemporary country ("What Do You Want With His Love") and new approaches to old soul influences. Delafose even gives Sam Cooke's "What a Wonderful World" his full zydeco treatment. If you've really been missing the real deal zydeco, you're not alone, and it's wonderful that Geno Delafose was around to pick up the torch.
Various Artists, The Best of Blues Guitar (20th Century Masters: The Millennium Collection) (MCA)
This release really gives a good name back to the whole idea of the Millennium Collection and compilations in general. The signature tunes of major blues greats like Muddy Waters, Jimmy Rogers, John Lee Hooker, Bo Diddley, Buddy Guy, Elmore James, Sonny Boy Williamson, Albert Collins, Bobby "Blue" Bland, Howlin' Wolf, and B.B. King all assembled on a single disc, one that plays like it's a late-night radio show programmed by a mysterious dj possessing the absolute best taste in music. Take my advice, go buy this right now. Though blues fans likely have many of these songs on other records and have these tunes ingrained in their blood, at about ten bucks, who can possibly resist another transfusion? One listen to Buddy Guy tearing himself up for "First Time I Met the Blues" and you'll fall in love with the blues all over again. His guitar is slashing and stinging, the saxophones are moaning, and Guy's voice seems like its going to shred apart. It can't get any better than this.
Mark Lane, Golden State of Mind (Orange Deuce)
Mark Lane might be known more for whom he has associated with than his own music. The singer was a member of The Hoodwinks with Troy Van Leeuwen, a member of Perfect Circle and Queens of The Stone Age. But this record is more along the lines of melodic singer-songwriter California pop. Influenced by The Beach Boys and The Beatles, especially on "The Chance", Lane opens with "Girl With the Clouds", a tune that recalls Tom Petty circa Wildflowers. Lane, who does most of the instrumentation himself, keeps the flow with more of a pop rock effort on the fine "Drivin' Braille". Lane, who is currently working on a follow up to this record, seems to slow it down with "The One You Waited For" that brings to mind Josh Rouse or Jason Mraz. Lane also brings a lot of dreamy, late Elliott Smith remnants to the record, particularly on the ambling "Fifty Years Too Late". One surprise highlight is the cheesy organ solo the kicks off "Taste For Champagne", a slightly raunchy bar pop tune. Lighter, reflective tunes such s "Lorelei" isn't too over-the-top, although the strings here seem a bit much. Generally though, there is just enough quality material to make it an enjoyable listen, particularly on the lounge-lizard-like "Enough to Go Around" or somber "Ring My Bell".
The Luxury Liners, Overbored (Litterbug)
Rule #27: Never give your album a title that can come back and bite you in the ass. The Luxury Liners' Overbored is precisely just that -- overly boring. Who cares if there are decent melodies and the occasionally catchy song here ("Sunshine") when the majority of this album is watered down pop? The likes of "Dreaming" and "Waiting for the Sun" will have you reaching for your air sickness bags in no time as they're guaranteed to make you want to gag. Pop rock this wuss-like shouldn't be allowed to be made any more. I thought we were over all this when the '80s finally ended, but I guess not. Might make a good gift for someone you really don't care for, however.
The K Word, EP (Liquilab)
Four songs by this now-defunct Roanoke, Virginia group is too much to say the least. Yet another emo/post punk band with a lot of wailing and not much out coming out of their mouths (or instruments). "Mystic Cowboy" and "Market Eight" dish out the expected high energy abstract noodling that goes nowhere and creates its own vacuum. Then there's "Grindin' on Some Flava" and "Bleep Bleep" that repeat the process all over again. One listen to this disc and you can understand why the band broke up; zero original ideas and they just aren't any good. Amazingly, they were together for three years nonetheless. Stranger things have happened, but that doesn't mean you should bother yourself with listening to this mess.