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The Shore, The Shore EP (Maverick)
When I first came across a review of this LA band, describing them as "awe inspiring", I grew very suspicious of some record company ploy. But I have to admit, the Shore has some interesting, well-thought out songs. The opening song, "Firefly", has some beautiful bent guitar chords (à la tremolo-bar style), as well as great melodies. It seems most bands are too scared to do this nowadays, like it's almost unhip or something to be musical and do things slightly differently. For that we should commend them. On their bio page they're compared to "The Verve, Coldplay, and Neil Young". First, I'd take Coldplay and Neil Young off the list. Not only for fear of boring people to death (just by the mentioning of the names), but it's also way off the mark in both cases. As for the Verve, well, I have to say this comparison hits the nail squarely on the head. Frontman Ben Ashley's vocals do remind the listener of Richard Ashcroft, and you can't help but be reminded of the Verve when he sings. Regardless, Verve-influenced or not, there's some great vocal & guitar work on this disk, and there's a fair amount of stylistic diversity for only four songs. There's a nice sitar intro that opens "Makes Me Feel Free", which upon hearing I found myself suddenly being drawn in. Unfortunately, this was right before the song lunges into the familiar rock format, and then tragically into a "jam"-style outro, which made me think of bands like Kula Shaker. Yikes, please guys, please, don't go there. Thankfully, the last song, "I Found You", cured me, picked me back up, and left me feeling good about this band. This one recalls the Byrds, in their Sweetheart of the Rodeo stage, with a great country touch, back-up vocals, and a 12-string guitar line. It's probably the best song on the disk. The production on this disk probably sounds a little too glossy for their own good, but when the Shore hit their stride, it's easy to find yourself enjoying them.
Hella, Total Bugs Bunny on Wild Bass (Narnack)
More insane music from this Sacramento, CA, two-piece, which is always a good thing. On their latest seven-song EP, Total Bugs Bunny on Wild Bass, Hella are as schizophrenic as ever as the duo's four hands defy the point of being human with instruments played at light speed, drums pounding to rhythms calculators could not figure out, and guitar lines that sound more like electrical wires short circuiting than any kind of typical chord progression. It's no surprise, then, that Zach and Spencer -- the names behind the musical madness that is Hella -- have been playing together since the adolescent age of 16. The duo play in perfect cohesion with music so jittery and A.D.D.-addled that it at once boggles the mind and moves the feet.
The A.K.A.s, White Doves & Smoking Guns (Fueled By Ramen)
The A.K.A.s are often pigeonholed as an American version of the (International) Noise Conspiracy... and rightfully so. White Doves & Smoking Guns does such a good job aping the Noise Conspiracy, though, that they come off as near plagiaristic; they have the same socialistic agenda, the same danceable drumbeats, the same garage-riddled guitars, and the same sassy vocal shouts. However, this brash, politically-charged outfit also resurrects the energy of garage greats the MC5 with skittering punk rock guitars coupled with snotty vocals and a Hammond organ pulsing in the background. White Doves & Smoking Guns rarely varies its garage-riddled attack, but, for now, the stagnation and the miming of their Swedish precedents is enough for an entertaining album, if just barely.
The Penelopes, Eternal Spring (Vaudeville Park)
This Japanese pop group have a cool '60s sound to their music, but honestly I would have preferred the lyrics to just be sung in their native tongue. The vocals get a bit distracting at times, marring what could have been a potentially super album. Also, fifteen songs by this group is a bit much, but the good stuff, like "Vehicle", "Heart and Soul", and "Book of Brilliant Stings", shines brightly. Everything is well-produced and shimmers with that nice indie-pop sound that any power pop junkie should be able to enjoy. Plus, they apparently also managed to land themselves a real drummer for this outing. Overall, Eternal Spring is a nice little listen that should receive a few plays.
Various Artists, Gimme Skelter (Buddyhead/Nettwerk)
A collection of odds and sods from indie rock legends, burgeoning luminaries and little knowns, Buddyhead’s Gimme Skelter compilation gathers an assortment of previously unreleased tracks but few new revelations. Mudhoney prove that they still can fire up the Marshall stack on the Jimi Hendrix themed “Hard-On For War” while Iggy Pop flounces under the guise of Buddyhead to produce some throw-away art-punk. The riot grrls are well represented as both Le Tigre and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs offer brief syncopated anti-pop offerings. Weezer continue their move from pop craftsmen to pseudo metal posturing with the inclusion of “You Won’t Get With Me Tonight”. The British appear to still be coming as seminal acts like Wire and Primal Scream offer up a remix and a live track, respectively. Combine these seminal acts with a handful of garage rock also rans and the result is quite under whelming. Instead of provide us with a state of the nation for rock music, simultaneously pointing forward and backward, Gimme Skelter does little more than confirm what we already knew about some established artists, while not really giving us a reason to care about a group of new ones.
Iron Horse, Fade to Bluegrass: The Bluegrass Tribute to Metallica (CMH)
Bluegrass cover versions of old heavy metal songs has been a bit of a novelty in recent years. Austin, Texas's The Meat Purveyors recorded a brilliant version of Ratt's 1984 hit "Round and Round" back in 2002, and country jokesters Hayseed Dixie have put out several tongue-in-cheek albums of reworked material by AC/DC, Kiss, and other classic rockers. Less facetious is Fade to Bluegrass: The Bluegrass Tribute to Metallica, as bluegrass quartet Iron Horse have attempted to tackle the vast, challenging catalogue of, yes, Metallica, their intentions dead serious, and although the album is disappointingly hit and miss, the finer moments offer fascinating new views of several songs. One thing that metal and bluegrass have in common is the often very complicated arrangements, and another is the often dark subject matter; Metallica's James Hetfield has slowly developed a songwriting style that embraces the dark side of country ("The Unforgiven") and blues ("Wherever I May Roam"), so some of this album's tracks are a perfect fit for the bluegrass treatment. "Nothing Else Matters", "Hero of the Day", and surprisingly, the classic "Fade to Black" all work extremely well, combining deft solos, and beautiful harmony vocals (the band's vocals on the final verse of "Fade to Black" is especially chilling). Unfortunately, the experiment fails too often to completely win you over, as clunky, awkward renditions of "Enter Sandman", "One", and "Ride the Lightning" sound much too forced. It's one of those tribute albums where the mere idea sounds more intriguing than the actual result.
James Otto, Days of Our Lives (Mercury Nashville)
James Otto's debut disc, Days of Our Lives, is the kind of country disc that a classic rock fan can love. Devoid of the syrupy strings and thick production that can mar some records -- even he best of them -- and avoiding the cowboy hat paraphernalia of country radio favorites Kenny Chesney and Toby Keith, Otto's record is for the most part a straight forward rock record, sounding as much like something from Greg Allman or the Marshal Tucker Band as anything you might hear on current country radio. The Washington state native opens his disc with a couple of brawling rock tunes, the Allman Brothers-meets-Marshall Tucker blues of "Long Way Down" and the crunching slide-guitar driven "Gone". The songs set the tone for Days of our Lives, announcing that Otto is not going to settle for the parameters that modern country radio has set. "Miss Temptation" is another bluesy, brawling number –- possibly the most straight-on rock song on the record. But songs like "Misspent Youth", "Song of the Violin" and the dreadful "The Ball", which turns a rumination about a misplay at a high school football game into a paean to the singer's child, demonstrate the kind of banal sentimentality that kills not just too many country ballads, but far too many pop songs, as well. Over all, though, Days of Our Lives is a solid debut and James Otto is a country singer with promise.
French Kicks, Close to Modern (STIFLE)
Startime International Records (home of the Walkmen and Brendan Benson) and the magazine Fader recently joined together to form STIFLE, a new label dedicated to enlivening dance music by combining artists of different genres. It's hard to tell what that idea's really about, considering that dance music already draws from a multitude of styles and has itself broken down into innumerable sub-genres. Judging by the label's first release -- Close to Modern by the French Kicks -- the ideas about bringing middling acts together to further the cause of mediocrity. This new disc contains four remixes of the title piece and "When You Heard You" from their full-length One Time Bells. The inclusion of the fifth track could only be ascribed to five being a nicer number than four, as it sounds as out-of-place and unnecessary as it is. Eucho provides two soporific mixes before we get to DJ Smash's "Mobileglobal Vocal Mix", the only track worth listening to on the disc. Unfortunately, it's most notable attribute is that it's better than the rest of Close to Modern. It's a disappointing way to start a label, so let's hope that the forthcoming releases have more to offer.
Roy, Big City Sin and Small Town Redemption (Fueled By Ramen)
After the first listening, Roy's full-length debut, Big City Sin and Small Town Redemption, is strait up Americana -- thickly layered guitars, a large and sometimes languid drumming presence that's totally conducive to head-nodding, and sweet all-American male voices singing about girls and musical integrity. Roy sounds distinctly wholesome. The melodies are classically catchy, the guitar work understated and therefore all the more powerful in its subtlety. But do some research and you'll find that half the band is from Botch, the other half from Harkonen -- serious post-hardcore bands. After Roy's origins are known, a second listening brings out the members' punk roots. The first track, "Something That's Real", has a distinct pop sensibility, but then turns into a Midwestern Bad Religion once the drums kick in. This is the album's strongest track, so don't be surprised when subsequent songs stumble on clumsy lyrics and generic hooks, but for a full-length debut from a bunch of punk rockers-turned-Wilco-disciples, Roy shows promise.
dios, los aroboles EP (Dim Mak)
If you're familiar with Hawthorne, California, you would know that it's home to pop legend Brian Wilson and the Beach Boys and later, home to indie-rock band Black Flag. Soon, you will know Hawthorne as the home of brothers Kevin and Joel Morales and their band dios (all lowercase). One listen to their debut EP, Los Arboles, that's "the trees" in Spanish, and you'll have a hard time believing that this band has only been playing together for a year and a half. In that span, dios have played at South By Southwest, gone on tour with the New Amsterdams, and the Polyphonic Spree, while also securing a coveted spot at this year's Coachella Festival. On Los Arboles, the band unveil five tracks of dreamy harmonies, intricate orchestrations, and the melodic sensibilities that made the Beach Boys and the Beatles so irresistible. The opening tracks, "All is Said + Done", "You'll Get Yours", "Everyday", and "Tragic Lady" are wistful, poignant indie pop. Meanwhile, the slacker-themed, sing-a-long, "Bust Out the Candy", illustrates the band's sense of humor while showcasing the electrifying charisma of The Polyphonic Spree, Flaming Lips, and The Eels. It is evident on Los Arboles, that dios are a noteworthy band to watch.
Various Artists, Putumayo Presents American Blues (Putumayo)
This is a whole different slice of American blues and a wonderful bringing together of artists who have remained true to the roots. As such, this collection ends up feeling a more genuine representation of what's going on than nearly any other compilation I can think of off hand. There are some real gems, even just jumping in with Arthur Adams & B.B. King's sultry "Get Next to Me". Adams's honey sweet voice is appealing beyond description, and his muted popping electric slide guitar work only adds to his charm. A modern (first words are "Waiting on the corner with my cell phone in my hand"), urban blues that knows where it came from and isn't at all ashamed to reference older blues lyrics and slang.
The great Ruth Brown is a living reminder that the blues is about the beauty of the human voice telling stories of getting through mighty rough times. She walks the floor hard and confidently on "Good Day for the Blues", a proud woman determined to find work and work for a living to support the family who depends on her. Henry Gray, who made his mark decades past as Howlin' Wolf's old school pianist and is now regarded as an elder statesman of Chicago-style blues, shows he's lost none of his bounce on "How Could You Do It". Accompanied by a swinging band with bullet-miked harp, Gray will make you throw aside your cane and jump up and dance.
If there's a rarity to treasure, it's the chance to again hear Sugar Pie Desanto on "Hello, San Francisco (Part 1)". Sugar Pie was given her name by Johnny Otis who helped her record her first album in 1955, and she's one of the feistiest grand dames performing the blues today. But it's Solomon Burke powering out his immensely soulful "None of Us Are Free" that is worth the price of the whole disc. Accompanied by swooping organ and gospel-style harmonies, his words are a heartfelt and inspiring call for compassion and action. "There are people still in darkness / And they just can't see the light / If you don't say it's wrong / Then that says it's right". Closing the disc, this remarkable song (and there hasn't been one like it for decades) gives a person an awful lot to continue thinking about. There are 14 tracks, including some by younger artists who will eventually be carrying the torch. But for this listener, the people mentioned above contribute the highpoints that make this disc worth owning. But you should get it just to hear Solomon Burke's "None of Us Are Free".
Trevor Lissauer, Transit Plaza (Happy Frown)
Trevor Lissauer has been an actor for most of his adult life, but for some reason, he decided that music would be his new calling. The Dallas native, with some help from drummer Keith Tenenbaum and bassist Barry Whittaker, is a bit like Live's lead singer Ed Kowalczyk mixed with Paul Simon. "Unnamed" is a softer acoustic pop tune that has a catchy riff but is often underplayed. "I miss you now my friend," Lissauer sings before a safe guitar solo ensues. Unfortunately it drags on too long. The arena-like anthems are attempted, but with lines like "Fucked up my Feng Shui" can this be taken seriously on "I'm a Monkey" and the adjacent "On". However, the lighter pop melancholia oozing from "Happy Frown" and "I See You" is quite good, a la Travis in the band's The Invisible Band heyday or solo George Harrison material. The second half of the album sounds a bit more pop-oriented, with "Okay" being one of the album's zeniths. But there are some other gems, especially "Remember" and the lovable "Windows". When Lissauer ups the tempo slightly, he seems far better off on track such as "Place I Found", with the nice Neil Finn-ish timbre to his voice. There is also a spacey, Floydian bend to the closing "About the Sun". It's a good to very good record.
Placer, Summer (Dopamine)
Another big, boring album by a faceless group known as Placer. All the songs here drag on in a puddle of mediocrity that one wonders why the band even bothered. What audience was this recorded for, anyway? The one that left such mind-numbing plod-rock behind in the early '90s? Perhaps. There's nothing redeeming here at all. If you've heard "What's Left", then you've heard the rest of the album without even having to play it. "The Drag" seems to sum up the feeling of this lost cause of an album perfectly. No one should have to be expected to listen to an album this bad and boring more than once. For us reviewers it's a different story, but man, those multiple searches to find one good thing about this disc will live on in my nightmares.
Margo, The Catnap (Tsk! Tsk!)
French droup Margo deploys a very French-like electronic pop disc that floats three feet high and is pretty enough as background music but not much else. "Take Me" is the coolest thing here and sounds like it could be placed within some weird Japanese cartoon or video game. But a lot of The Catnap is inconsequential silliness that doesn't seem to have any rhyme or reason. It merely is, and I suppose that's OK for some folks, but I like to have a little more meat with my potatoes. Not offensive in any way, but not engaging enough to be remotely enjoyable as anything but a minor distraction, either.