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Curl Up and Die, ...But the Past Ain't Through With Us (Revelation)
Using the opening monologue from Paul Thomas Anderson's film Magnolia as a reference point, Curl Up And Die released two EPs last year, one on Status Records (We May Be Through With the Past...) and the follow-up ....But the Past Ain't Through With Us on their home label, Revelation Records. Curl Up and Die play an energetic, if somewhat predictable brand of frenzied tech-metal that brings to mind much better acts such as the Dillinger Escape Plan and Converge. Thus it comes as no surprise that Converge guitarist, Kurt Ballou serves as the engineer on this four-song, 20-minute EP that is all style and no substance. ...BTPATWU finds Curl Up And Die attempting to expand their sonic palette with mixed results. Opening track "Nuclear Waste? Bring That Shit. (We Want a State Full of Radiated Super Heroes)" finds the band mimicking the epic rock of Neurosis and Isis without any of the emotional impact. Similarly, closing track "God Is in Heaven. All Is Right With the World", is a bloated 14-minute track, bookended by painfully boring attempts at "atmosphere". The band succeeds when dishing out frenzied three minute metal songs. Their attempts to redefine and reimagine their sound is admirable, but they have yet to find the right balance of ingredients to truly make it a compelling listen. ...But the Past Ain't Through With Us is strictly a fan-only affair.
Louie Vega, Elements of Life (Vega)
Best known as one half of house DJ/remix/production duo Masters at Work, "Little" Louie Vega likes to delve heavily into Latin jazz on his original material, and his official artist debut album is no exception. There are plenty of danceable grooves on Elements of Life, but nary a four-on-the-floor beat to be heard -- instead it's all salsa, samba, cumbia, even a little tango. This would be good news if Vega's songs were as solid as his grooves, but unfortunately, this is an album riddled with trite lyrics and derivative melodies. The highlights come when Vega steps aside as a producer and songwriter and just lets his gifted studio musicians jam, which they do to wonderful effect on "Mozalounge" and "Quimbombo", a cover of the Willie Colon salsa classic. Especially noteworthy are the contributions of Albert "Sterling" Menendez, a virtuoso of piano and organ who gives tracks like "Brand New Day" way more heft than their easy listening, jazz-house vocals and arrangements ought to have. Vega's wife, the Cape Verdian singer Anané, makes some nice contributions as well on breezy numbers like "Nos Vida" and summer samba of "Ma Mi Mama". But compared to Vega's solo outings and his work with Kenny "Dope" Gonzalez on Masters at Work and Nuyorican Soul, this is a disappointingly shallow set.
Taxi Chain, Smarten Up! (Northern Blues)
Blues with bagpipes? There's no way that can work, you tell yourself. But then you listen to Taxi Chain and think, "Well, on second thought..." Taxi Chain are, for all practical purposes, a blues band -- and they do have a bagpipe. Taxi Chain are also on the young Northern Blues label,which is fast becoming known for its unique take on the blues. If Taxi Chain approach the blues, it's from an R&B-fueled Van Morrisonesque perspective. One listen to the warm horns on "Memphis" or the shuffle of "Cut Me a Key" will definitely clue you in that Taxi Chain's blues aren't of the 12-bar variety. Heck, "It's Your Birthday" boasts backing that wouldn't sound out of place on a Tom Waits song (that Waits vibe also rears its scruffy head in "Buck a Joy"). And what about that bagpipe? Well, it shows up in fine form on a couple of traditional instrumental reels, the intriguingly Eastern-flavored "Tandoori Mustache", and the groove-oriented "James Brown Ate My Bagpipe". Vocalist Grier Coppins at times takes on a Bono-like croon, especially on the standout "Memphis". As enjoyable as Taxi Chain are to listen to, though, you definitely feel a note of truth when the liner notes and press kit rave about the live show. You can tell this is a band that can get a crowd moving, and that they're probably holding back a bit on record.
Canadians have their own spin on "the blues", or so it would seem if judging by Taxi Chain. A quintet that might sound better in any country bar in South Ontario, they pump out dark quirky stories over old R&B based style, often accompanied by the skirl of bagpipes. Lyrically, there's a hint the group drew major inspiration from an early incarnation of Tom Waits. Their ode "Memphis" is a paean to the underside of the city, quite the other side of Chuck Berry's song of the same name. The purposefully simplistic sound of rock 'n' roll (drums and organ) opposes the rather distressed themes presented in the opening lyrics: "Martin Luther King was shot / Elvis Presley got his start in Memphis / The Mississippi mud runs thick / Jeff Buckley did attest to it in Memphis". Fond of the conceit, they reprise the tune as an instrumental closer. With titles like "James Brown Ate My Bagpipe" and "Tandoori Mustache", suspicion is that Taxi Chain are out to have a bit of fun. Dreaming up shuffling tunes and bright accents that clash with lyric content might become their specialty, like the easy slink of "It's Your Birthday", celebrating the natal day of a very bad boy. Seems Taxi Chain would like to play with your head.
Various Artists, Wild About That Thang: Ladies Sing the Blues (Delmark)
This is far more a promotional sampler for Delmark than it is a useful review of women in the blues. The tracking seems fairly random -- no chronological order or stylistic sub-grouping -- but that's not the main complaint. Delmark has put together a collection, that, if you didn't know the label's history, would lead you to believe that they waited until relatively late in the game to start devoting much attention to the blues. More than half of the tracks here come from the '90s or after, and though it's more a personal prejudice than an accepted judgment, I'm not interested in this crop of pristinely recorded, by-the-numbers blues. As for the older tracks, most are nice enough (particularly Edith Wilson's interestingly arranged "He May Be Your Man", and of course the Dinah Washington track with Mingus), but Blu Lu Barker's "Don't You Feel My Leg" seems to be included for the sake of cachet rather than because of the quality of this particular performance. If you're a dedicated blues fan, and you can find this for a good price (say, $8.00), it might be good for two or three spins.
4 Way Street, Pretzel Park (Sanctuary)
Coming across as Crosby, Stills, and Nash meets the Thorns, 4 Way Street's Pretzel Park showcases the talents of four lesser-known Philadelphia singer-songwriters under one banner, and what could have been a massively disparate and disjointed record is actually quite the opposite. The distinct vocal styles of members Ben Arnold, bassist Scott Bricklin and guitarists Jim Boggia and Joseph Parsons meld together in some sumptuous four-part harmonies on tracks like "Maze" and the wonderful "Everywhere You Go". Perhaps Arnold's soulful voice is the pick of the vocals, although Boggia's crystal clear pop tone is almost as appealing, but it's the quality and variety of the material that is most striking here. The groovy "Several Thousand" is a variation on the group's standard acoustic rock songs, and "Love and Hope" is a nicely delivered delicate ballad, but it's the classic folk-pop opener "Change Gonna Come" which is the stand-out tune. One or two tracks aside, Pretzel Park is drenched in glorious, laid-back, acoustic rock vibes to make it a timeless, modern-day triumph.
Crooked Roads, Love, Again (self-released)
Chris Dingman, the heart and soul of Crooked Roads, is no choir boy. But then again, neither is Bob Dylan, Lou Reed, or Michael Stipe of R.E.M., and plenty of people dig their quirky, often out of tune, but somehow compelling vocal styles. Initially thinking of himself as a poet, the young Dingman ultimately found an outlet for his muse in song. Where his voice is lacking he often compensates with intelligent, at times humorous, and poetic lyrics. Dingman shows his lighter side with "I'd Rather Be with Her", a straight-up country tune where he informs a current love interest that he'd rather be with a former girlfriend. On tracks like "All of Life's Loneliness", which calls to mind Rick Danko of the Band, "Along the Way", and "Learn to See", where Dingman is accompanied only by piano, the listener can practically hear Dingman's heart breaking. Unfortunately, a few songs, and a bit of the production, sound just plain lazy. On "What the Hell?" Dingman actually sings "You know I love you but I hate your guts..." And some of the vocals are so out of tune it would be a little ridiculous to justify their presence on the album by saying it was a stylistic thing. All that said, the musicianship, particulary the guitar work, is superb, and the overall fidelity of the album is also very good.
Various Artists, Rough Guide to Chicago Blues (World Music Network)
Having listened to this about a hundred times, there's no doubt there are too many good songs to even mention by name. From the opening shouts of Roosevelt Sykes and his boogie woogie thump and roll on piano, all the way to the very end, when Magic Sam electrifies the place with his harder-edged modern cover of the same tune, it's "Sweet Home Chicago". In assembling tracks for this introduction to Chicago blues, Rough Guide compilers skip the more obvious success stories preferring to let the darker edges of the blues seep in. As they immediately do once the baritone saxes start moaning and Nolan Struck reaches out with his weird falsetto-tinged singing on "Strange Feeling". Or when Valerie Wellington squalls her way down "Bad Avenue", which has a guitar break that's so hard-edged and just sounds so hard, it just might break your heart. Seems everyone's here on this disc as they were back then (Elmore James, Muddy Waters, Otis Spann, Buddy Guy, Koko Taylor, James Cotton, Charles Musselwhite, and... who isn't here on these 21 songs?) The best surprise was seeing John Littlejohn finally getting some props. Hearing him cry his way through "What in the World" just once will send people clawing through the bins to find his one and only album. Chris Strachwitz recorded Littlejohn in the mid-'60s on the personal recommendation of Buddy Guy. Buddy Guy was so-oo-oo right.
Sarah Rabdau, Benevolent Apollo (self-released)
Sarah Rabdau's debut release, Benevolent Apollo, features club beats, piano and synth work, and Rabdau's voice. The album shares some traits with Poe's Haunted, but this one's more restrained and, frequently, more melancholy. She did most of the work herself, but Rabdau had considerable help, getting drum programming and production from Eric Jalbert and live instrumentation including guitars by Jeff Wragg and [munk]. A string trio appears on several tracks, but the cellist and violinist perform subtly. Instead of creating drippy sentimentality, the group adds to the type of ambience created on the rest of the track. Rabdau's own synth-playing provides most of the mood; while she occasionally works out a melody line or sets a groove (as on "Karma Song"), she mostly sticks to harmonic ambience. Rabdau's lyrics tend to be straightforward musings on separation and distance. Tracks like "I Tried to Reach You", "I Was Wrong", and "Onlyone" deal with lost loves and deserters. Rabdau's unwilling to give in, as she expresses in the ambivalent "85 and Breezy". The album closes with a hint of optimism in "So Many Millions...", in which she offers advice on fear and the future. While the lyrics are banal ("Don't accept what they say"), the message has impact, especially coming at the end of Benevolent Apollo. Rabdau seems likely to take her own advice and become more experimental. Until then, we've got this well-crafted but fairly standard record to tide us over.
Keoki, Kill the DJ: a Non-Stop Mash-Up Mix (Hypnotic)
With Kill the DJ, flashy DJ Keoki comes off like a petulant child screaming for attention. After 2 Many DJs' As Heard on Radio Soulwax Vol. 2 set the new standard for mash-up albums two years ago, and as the geniuses at Go Home Productions continue to take bastard pop into even more insane territory, here comes Keoki, lagging behind with his own outdated mash-up mix. When you look at the tracklisting, it seems interesting: its eclectic mix of songs like Gary Numan's "Are 'Friends' Electric", The Ramones' "Judy is a Punk", Ladytron's "Seventeen", Felix da Housecat's "Silver Screen Shower Scene", and Hawkwind's "Welcome to the Future" is enough to make you want to give this CD a listen. Take my word for it, you don't want to hear this. The mix is boring, witless, and considering how the guy desecrates the aforementioned Ramones track, ludicrous. The major problem is most of the tracks are vapid electro interpretations of the originals; had Keoki put forth the effort (and the money) to get permission to use the original songs, then the mix might have been a bit better, but sadly, that's not the case. Even the inclusion of the now ultra-cool cover of "Comfortably Numb" by Scissor Sisters can't save this thing. Easily the worst album of 2003 this reviewer has heard.
David Murray Latin Big Band, Now Is Another Time (Justin Time)
David Murray is a whirlwind. The 49-year-old jazz saxophonist is beyond prolific, having put out at least 68 albums over a career that has yet to reach the three decade mark. As might be surmised with such a mighty output, the quality varies. One can usually hear the talent and ability of this tenor man on any release; it's the (over) production that can make the ears suffer. On this recent effort, however, only joy is to be had. The David Murray Latin Big Band swings, improvs and slow steps with an unrelenting, ferocious force, each instrument's contribution always clearly stated, perfect. The horns are always superb, arranged in a manner that is complex and challenging. There is constant dialogue, yet none talk over each other. The many bits of percussion, particularly the fine conga work, push between structure and improv. Then there is David Murray, always leading, his tone thick, his tempo often embodying the whirlw! ind he is, reminiscent of inspirations Coleman and Dolphy. If you have yet to hear what this man can do, this is a must have. And if you already know, but for some reason slept on this, now is indeed the time.
Coco Mbassi, Sepia (Tinder)
Coco Mbassi has a voice that can only delight. It's tough to avoid clichés when attempting to describe this Cameroonian singer's incredible gift: creamy, silky, light and rich, thick as a wave, beautiful. A knack for pure melody that flourishes ten fold when surrounded by her overdubbed harmonies. Comparisons to the better known superpower, Oumou Sangare (for whom Mbassi has sung backup) are inevitable and merited. But her register and smoothness are perhaps more akin to another superstar: Sade. This similarity is reinforced by the laid-back arrangement and instrumentation found on Mbassi's debut full-length album, Sepia. Whether on ethereal tracks like "Mbombo" and "Oa Nde" in which only a piano or guitar supplement her wondrous voice, on others abetted by strings, acoustic bass and various percussion such as the lovely opener, "Mbaki", or a cappella as on the tribute to her deceased parents,! "Bayedi", it is Mbassi's singing that sheds the most light. And it seems we have the French (she moved to Paris two decades ago) to thank for placing the spotlight on such a talent, namely Radio France for having awarded Mbassi the opportunity to record an album after winning a contest in 1996. Before this, she had provided backup for such luminaries as Salif Keita, Dee Dee Bridgewater and Manu Dibango. Now the spotlight belongs to her. And we are better for it.
JamisonParker, Notes & Photographs EP (Interscope)
JamisonParker is an acoustic duo comprised of Jamison Covington and Parker Case. The pair have been making some headway in punk and "emo" circles for their brand of music, led by the song "Home" which was downloaded quite a lot on an MP3 web site. So, going with what got them this far, this five-song EP kicks off with that tune, and it's a goodie. A galloping acoustic track that moves into a tight Replacements fold, the track sparkles from the get go. And they are very smart about it, keeping it nearly airtight throughout. It's that same energy that is the gorgeous thread of the effort, with "Dead to the World" having less rock and more punk it in a la Simple Plan mixed with Goo Goo Dolls. Just as stellar is the Cure-like sound seeping from "Your Song". After a rather mundane mid-tempo pop ditty "Biting Bullets", the record wraps with the infectious acoustic driven punk of "Dear Everybody". This is a pleasant debut with a full-length record expected this spring.
Various Artists, The Original Great American Songbook (UTV)
Thank Rod Stewart for making the Great American Songbook cool again, at least among the set who grew up with Maggie May and who don't remember these songs the first time around. Included are such renowned interpreters of modern songcraft as Billie Holiday, Louis Armstrong, and, um, Johnny Mathis (?). Despite what reactionaries might say, these songs are not more profound or even more literate than the best rock (How many songs here reference capitalized Literature as effectively as the Kinks' "Waterloo Sunset" references Thomas Hardy?). But, in gracefully chronicling the universal travails of love found, won, lost, and remembered, these songs, like Tennyson finding the exact words to express vague thoughts, almost make a virtue out of being shallow.
Roomtone, Lay Awake (self-released)
While others have drooled over this work elsewhere, I'm finding it hard to place a lot of praise behind this album. To me, it seems like lead Roomtoner Nico Chiotellis is doing nothing but a weak impersonation of Radiohead and other such post rock groups so many go gaga over. And maybe that's the whole thing; perhaps Nico truly does pull off a neat cloning trick here. The only problem for m is, I can't really stand Radiohead and have never been able to fathom the constant accolades heaped upon a group that to me is nothing more than a bunch of shysters. Still, if that's your bag baby, you might fall head over heels for Lay Awake.
Cass McCombs, A (Monitor)
This is one weird as hell album. I still can't tell if I like it or not. McCombs has an oddball voice and his songs are rather abstract. On "I Went to the Hospital" he almost does "A Whiter Shade of Pale" one better. "Gee, It's Good to Be Back Home" is also a nifty song. But there's something about A that doesn't sit well with my ears, and I just don't know what it is. Maybe it's that the songs, while pretty good, just have an unfinished feeling to them. Or maybe it's just that damn voice of Cass' that is hard to penetrate. Either way, A is one strange ride, even if the reasons why will forever escape me.