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Tulsa Drone, No Wake (Dry County)
Tulsa Drone's debut album No Wake features cinematic instrumental music based on structures similar to those used by Godspeed! You Black Emperor and associates, but this group uses traditional folk instruments. The band's dark sound depends on Peter Neff's bass hammered dulcimer, and is augmented by a standard guitar-bass-drums set-up and occasional horns. Tulsa Drone's arrangements allow the dulcimer to establish moods that you wouldn't associate with the instrument. Each of the eight tracks build slowly to create tension but seldom release it. Although the pieces are usually under five minutes, the album plays like one long mood piece. In a way, that's a success, but it's also a comment on the band's inability to create any standout tracks. No Wake is a wonderful whole, but it could be improved if there were more interesting parts to it. Still, Tulsa Drone has made alt-country-post-rock a genre worthy of a better name.
Larry Cordle & LST, Lonesome Skynyrd Time: A Bluegrass Tribute to Lynyrd Skynyrd (CMH)
While the title practically reeks of "novelty album", bluegrass musician/songwriter Larry Cordle is dead serious about giving the songs of late, great southern rock Lynyrd Skynyrd a musical reworking. With his super-tight band, Lonesome Standard Time, playing with glee, he pulls it off -- not altogether surprising when you consider that the boisterous Southern-fried rock of Skynyrd is easily transferable into the earthier, folksier -- but equally Southern -- sound of bluegrass. The more obscure Skynyrd covers, like the blues-based "Tuesday's Gone" sound especially vibrant in fact, but there's a catch: you really have to dig Skynyrd's music in the first place to dig these dobro-mandolin-fiddle versions. Otherwise, an achingly sincere, stripped-down bluegrass rendition of the anthemic "Free Bird" -- decently sung by Cordle -- is gonna bug you just much as Ronnie Van Zant's achingly sincere overblown version did. But if you're a fan of Skynyrd's, well then, you are gonna be one happy camper.
Ben Arthur, Edible Darling (Bardic)
Ben Arthur has just enough of an edge to make him passable throughout this record. "Your grinding gives me zipper burn," he sings on "Mary Ann", a polished and glistening pop tune that has some sampling and urban effects in the distance. It's his songwriting and highbrow way with words and phrase turning that is perhaps most enjoyable, resembling Ben Folds, Ed Harcourt or Joe Firstman on the lightweight but alluring "Tonight". An early gem is the melodic pop rock of "Broken-Hearted Smile", having just enough of an Americana feel to get him over the proverbial hump. The quality of the music is rarely failing, especially on the U2-ish "End Of The Day". It also has a Joseph Arthur-cum-Cash Brothers aura to it. The lone departure from this friendly format is a brief Mark Knopfler-esque instrumental entitled, oddly enough, "Instrumental #3". That and a country effort on "Keep Me Around" that has a certain swing a la The Waifs. The title track is quite forgetful, a ditty even Matchbox Twenty might consider too formulaic. The homestretch opens with a somber and moody "Bloomed" with Arthur's strongest performance vocally. "Wake" has a Beatles flare to it with its dreamy harmonies and psychedelic underlay.
Thurderbirds Are Now!, Doctor, Lawyer, Indian Chief (Action Driver)
Like a quirky, spazzed-out version of Brainiac meets the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Thurderbirds Are Now! are the latest incarnation of punk's obsession with creating dance music. And it?s exactly how you think it would sound: synthesizers bounce and jitter, guitars capture a lo-fi groove, drumbeats cater to a dancefloor, and vocals are fast-paced sass attacks. Doctor, Lawyer, Indian Chief is not poor in quality, exactly, as much as it is entirely expected and painfully predictable. Yeah, the album is fun while it lasts, but most likely you'll never think about it or reach for it off your shelf after its initial spin of 23 minutes expires.
Shooglenifty, The Arms Dealer's Daughter (Compass)
It's Celtic. It's Scottish. It's folky. It's Shooglenifty. File it under "world music" or some other similar thing. A nice sort of album, but you would really have to already enjoy this sort of thing, else I fear it might get lost on a few ears. Still, that doesn't mean it's not worth delving into if you are new to this kind of sound. "The Reid St. Sofa" should pull those in who may be deciding to stand on the edges at first. This stuff is played expertly with nary a note out of place. "A Fistful of Euro", "The Nordal Rumba", and "Maxine's Polka" should give you a good idea in text what these guys are up to musically. Something different indeed if you're tired of the same old, same old.
Pancho Quinto, Rumba Sin Fronteras (Riverboat/World Music Network)
Jazz fans, Cuban music fans, drum students, professional drummers, and percussionists of all stripes have already snatched up their copies of this disc. Although this new approach to rumba will dazzle the serious aficionado, even if you know nothing whatsoever about rumba, jazz, or rhythm at all, by the time this record is through you'll completely understand the concept "groove". With a solid group of players surrounding his percussive flights, Pancho Quinto is free to improvise. This work proves that "minimalism" can make for incredibly rich music. Two saxophones, one huffing low single notes in staggered rhythm and one wailing its melodic syncopation, and Quinto's inspired hand-driven rhythms set the atmospheric mood for "Bolero En Medio Del Carnaval". From the complexly textured instrumental melange of "Sosa En El Pais De Las Maravillas" to the happy sound of "Mi Derrota", carried only by two voices and Quinto's percussion until a rich chorus of voices responds, the best surprises here come in all shapes and forms.
Natalie Cole, Ask a Woman Who Knows (WNET/BBC)
There is no doubt that Natalie Cole, like her uncle and pops, has the skills to pay the bills. Whether belting out a Vegas standard, sophisticated soul or a bloody jingle, she possesses one of the creamiest voices imaginable. And regardless of the rampant white bread nature of this concert performance--marred by napping violinists, a solambulant audience and appearances by Diana Krall, her voice still manages to delight. "Tonight is a night for the woman; fellas you're invited too," Natalie informs us from the get-go. "This is about love, good love, not so good love, and a whole lot of attitude; just ask a woman who knows and everyone knows I'm a woman who knows." You bet we know. But none of her sordid past rears its ugly head. Instead we get a night of standards ("Wonderful", "It's Crazy"), classic originals ("This Will Be", "Inseparable") and even a jazzy cover of "Route 66." Not to mention countless costume changes, each more glamorous/risque' than the previous, so that by the time she eases into "I'm Beginning to See the Light" we begin to see more flash and flesh. All in all it's not a bad show. Perfect for the PBS matinee crowd, which is who helped turn this production out.
Various Artists, Cover the World (Putumayo)
I don't know, call me a crank, but I just can't get into this collection of famous songs covered by a slew of international artists, from the famous (e.g. Ladysmith Black Mambazo and Angelique Kidjo) to the less so (e.g. Fatal Mambo and Les Go). Putumayo has put out many fine collections over the years and have been responsible for introducing many a talented musical artist to Western ears (e.g. Ricardo Lemvo, Habib Koite'). However, this one feels a little gimmicky, though will probably do well on the sales front, which, if it helps them bring other less cost-rewarding projects of "discovery" to these shores, is fine by me. And let's face it, if it takes a cover tune, namely, well-ingrained ones like "In the Air Tonight" (here covered decently! by Senegal's Toure' Kunda) or "Walk on the Wild Side" (renditioned by Catalonian Albert Pla) to get folks to listen to some of the world's greatest musical talents, then so be it. There's nothing horribly offensive on here. And, in fact, there are a few winners. The German/Brazilian collaboration of Mo' Horizons brings a spirited samba version of "Hit The Road Jack"; Senegal's Tukuleur do a lovely treatment of Toto's "Afrika"; and French rapper Yannick makes "Oh What a Night" his own. And it is when the cover is innovative enough to pass as an original that success is truly marked, such as on Ladysmith Black Mambazo w/Des'ree's beautiful interpretation of the Bill Wither's and covered to death, "Ain't No Sunshine". And now that I listen to the Japanese female group Nenes lay their distinctive vocals to Marley's "No Woman, No Cry", I'm finding myself thinking this is all actually kinda cool. Alright, the more I listen to this collection the more I like it. Forget every! thing I said before. Check it out.
What The..., What The...
One of those albums that should not have been released to an audience outside of the band's hometown. The band name is bad, the music is even worse. What The... is one of those groups that reportedly plays rock and roll ("In case you've forgotten what that's all about (or never knew)" says their website), but in all honesty they play karaoke rock. You know, that stuff you get to sing to in karaoke bars that is just lame versions of real rock music. Try to stomach songs like "7 Women (A Guy Can Dream)", "Juiced Again", or "Let's Go Driving" and see if What The... is really rock and roll. I didn't think so. You'll be saying "what the..." as well along with your choice of favorite expletive to end the question once you've abused yourself with this disc. Not that you actually would.
Service Group, Minimum R&B (Squid Vs. Whale)
A seriously goofy album with one good song ("C.M.E.M.") and a bunch of forgettable garbage. Yay, it's power pop. Boo, it's power pop done wrong. Everything here is obvious from the diluted Beatles influences ("Dream Vs. Dreamer") to the ripped-off Kinks ("No One You'd Know"). It's all a quite embarrassing affair, and proof that Service Group will probably not be around for very long if they keep cranking out lousy discs like Minimum R&B. Some folks really get a kick out of anything power pop these days, maybe because Cheap Trick continues to bottom out, but there's really no reason to get all hyped over something this turgid and meaningless.
David J, Estranged (Heyday)
It's not hard for David J, charter member of Bauhaus, Tones on Tail, and Love and Rockets, to come across as modest and subtle (some would say slight) on his solo albums, which have appeared every few years since 1983. One of the breed of vaguely eccentric English songwriters which includes Julian Cope, the Jazz Butcher, and Robyn Hitchcock, J has never in those 20 years developed a distinctive style that differentiates him from any of them, and his reedy, languid singing voice remains his most notable feature. Like prior albums, Estranged is loaded with too many songs with too few viable melodies, so that its hard to marshal the interested attention required to extract anything meaningful from his frequently oblique, semi-surreal lyrics. Ballads such as "In the Great Blue Whenever" and "If Anything Should Ever Happen to You" show the most promise, but these tend to drag on as well, diffusing rather than concentrating the emotion they might have evoked. Little has changed in J's musical approach since the '80s -- he prefers a cleanly produced sound with thin, tinny acoustic guitars back by washes of sustained chords held by a keyboard or a elaborately treated electric guitar -- giving this record a time capsule flavor, except it reflects a compelling, popular sound of no particular era, and it's unlikely to inspire the desire to return to this time that never was.
Joel Virgel, Amour Amer (Electric Monkey)
Is this the new Seal record? Would you be happy if it were? Joel Virgel serves up deflated, internationally flavored R&B that probably goes well with swindling newly widowed women out of their lucre. Amour Amer reeks of blowhard romanticism that gags the listener like a room fogged in cheap cologne. The Calgon beats ask nothing of your attention, slipping off into the background like they have something better to do, suggesting perhaps that you should run along and continue shopping. Virgel's voice never once breaks a wet meat whisper (was this recorded in a library?), raking the entire album with an of out of breath seduction that sounds about as sexy to me as a dry palm on Styrofoam. Few records strike me as burdensome to listen to, but Virgel manages to make music where the creative anemia feels contagious. Amour Amer feels like an album that the Thievery Corporation might make if they were Florida retirees trying to mate Tony Bennett and R. Kelly with the Carnival Cruise line house band. His cover of the Velvet Underground's "Femme Fatale" sounds like an elevator music autopsy, leaving the abused remnants of the original lifelessly strewn on its periphery. A few of the songs in French seem to go down a bit easier, but I'm guessing it's only because I couldn't translate the insufferability.
Holiday and The Adventure Pop Collective, Potential is a Dangerous Thing (Adventure Pop)
Blurring the boundaries between being a band a record label, Holiday and The Adventure Pop Collective, a California quintet whose exact functions remain murky, return with a second long-player in Potential is a Dangerous Thing. After having stirred up some interest with an album and a few EPs, the Collective take another stride in their mission to spread extreme optimism to the world. If that statement conjures images of twee pop, set them aside and replace them with the kind of moody, low-end-heavy stuff you might hear while browsing through Borders. It's got quite a lot more detail and invention than the lite rock it could be mistaken for, and even though its emotions are more hard won than that deservedly maligned genre, the Collective lounges in the sonic background in the same way most of the time. They're like an artier version of Counting Crows' softer side, and they deserve to have as fans all the people who find that description appealing.
Morgan Taylor, Dream in Green (Fisk)
Maybe it's the times, maybe it's living in New York, maybe it's because the Strokes sell, but Taylor has more casual swagger and a bigger appetite for jaded debauchery and darkness (Check out "A Fool's Mouth" or wonder if he does or doesn't push her down the stairs in "A Lemon") than your average singer-songwriter. Which is better than self-pity. I guess. And he's more musically eclectic than most acoustic strummers, even those with a surrealist bent. But he still gets off his best moment during the topically traditional and lyrically minimal love lament of"Raincoat": jangly, catchy, and emotional but not mushy. If tradition ain't broke, why fix it?
Stroller, Six Inches Off the Ground (Compadre)
When you have four musicians who have backed the likes of Ryan Adams, Radney Foster, Kim Richey and Josh Rouse, the idea that you might have what sounds like an Americana or "alt.country" effort on your hands is a good one. And for Stroller, a Nashville band led by Jon Nicholson, what you think is definitely what you get. The half-dozen songs on the EP start with a raunchy pop rocker in "Six Inches". "Hey look at me I'm flying," Nicholson sings with harmonies from Dean Tomasek. It's Southern rock but influenced far more by the Beatles or Tom Petty than Lynard Skynard. "Love Is Alright" is piano-driven and has quite a lot in common with Ryan Adams or Joe Firstman. But at times it brings Train to mind. Thankfully, it's the only drawback as "Janitor Man" is a blues-based rocker that mixes Slobberbone with The Fabulous Thunderbirds. Nicholson even sounds a bit like Steven Tyler in the middle portion before the band really gets rolling. Stroller seem to get everything out of their influences, especially on the sweet and breezy summer pop of "On to Somethin" with just enough twang included. "Sunshine" might be the only quasi-clunker here, but "Back Around" makes you forget about it. Hopefully there's more what this came from....
Sleeping at Last, Ghost (Interscope)
Oh, the power of right place, right time! This Chicago band places its album in the hand of Billy Corgan and a record deal ensues. But the band has the rock chops to back up Corgan's pursuit. "Say" has the Goo Goo Dolls, U2 and Gin Blossoms all rolled into a nice little package. Lead singer Ryan O'Neal is impressive while brother Chad provides one Edge-like fill after another. Travis and lesser-known Canadian band Pilate can be heard on orchestrated arena anthems like "Currents", the lullaby-like "Brightly" and "All That Is Beautiful". What is most surprising about this album is how a deserved buzz hasn't been made about it. Winding, melodic and winding again sets tunes such as "A Skeleton of Something More" and "Night Must End" above and beyond a lot of the current mainstream radio schlock. And you can also tell that the dreamy yet melancholic approach Corgan adheres to is a great influence on the band. "Hurry" has all the makings of "Disarm", for example. However, once in a while they overdo it, forcing the issue on "Slowly, Now". Despite that miscue, this is definitely a band on the rise!
Say Hi to Your Mom, Numbers & Mumbles (Euphobia)
Eric Elbogen is Say Hi to Your Mom (on CD at least) and has turned out a nice, quiet, low-beat sort of album that sneaks into your mind somewhat slowly. There's nothing Earth-shattering about it on the first few listens, but it gets around to sticking with you when you least expect it. "Pop Music of the Future" is charming in its mopeyness. "But She Beat My High Score" should nail a bullseye with any portion of the male population with an affinity for games, and other fare like "Hooplas Involving Circus Tricks" and "Your Brains vs. My Tractorbeam" are, for once, as fun as the titles would suggest. Elbogen even tosses in a cool cover of the Beatles' "I'm So Tired" that just does its own thing without worrying about what it's covering. Nice. Really nice.
The Man, Uptight! (Makeout)
Look out, it's time for another band copping from the '80s. This time it's the Man, and they want to mine one-hit wonder gold. The sound is down pat; the problem is, so is everything else that plagues one-hit wonders that you just don't want to hear anymore. The title track sounds like a mix between the Cars and the Waitresses, and not really in a good way. "First Rate Shit" isn't that at all, but merely more robotic-like pop that plods along in its bemused, self-absorbed silliness. "Sex Politix" is about as thin as this band can go (and they're pretty thin to start), and unfortunately "Last Song" is only the third on this album. It definitely should have stopped there.
Sadaharu, Anthem for New Sonic Warfare (CI)
The majority of bands in our 21st century -- regardless if they happen to be mainstream or independent, heavy or soft, popular or forgotten -- seemingly miss a key element in music: to be truly noteworthy and prolific you must balance both action and theory. Thankfully, Sadaharu seamlessly blend the two aforementioned essential musical components to give the listener not only a lesson in sound with their jazz-riddled hardcore garage sound, but also in philosophy. Anthem for New Sonic Warfare reinforces the fact that we must band together in order to overturn the trite and typical images and sounds that are burned into our retinas and crammed down our ears. I can only hope this album will ignite the cultural revolution it so pointedly aims at.
Jimmy Rogers, His Best (Chess)
Jimmy Rogers shares a name with one of the greats of country-blues, the singing brakeman Jimmie Rodgers, but his musical legacy is far less impressive and his approach less memorable. That doesn't mean his music is not enjoyable, only that it's fairly workmanlike and straightforward blues, typical of the music that was being played by the displaced southerners making the rounds of Chicago. Listening to the recent release of His Best offers no surprises. The 22-song collection features his best work -- like the 1950 cuts "That's All Right" and "Ludella" -- and some lesser cuts -- like the Korean War lament "The World Is in a Tangle". The sound is fairly straightforward, urban-inflected blues, a sound that suits Rogers' understated vocal style and clean guitar. There are some slight similarities in style with Muddy Waters, with whom he got his start playing rhythm guitar, but they have more to do with sharing backing band members -- Little Walter, Big Crawford, Willie Dixon and Otis Spann are featured on various tracks. But the Mississippi-born guitarist, who branched out on his own for good in the mid-1950s, was not the explosive and expressive bluesman Waters was. His Best is a solid and enjoyable collection worth a listen. Just don?t expect groundbreaking work.
Jazzhole, Circle of the Sun (Beave)
This is a nice album folks. And I mean the word nice with all it's precise and non-descript connotations. Listening to this album again and again makes me think of nice things, nice thoughts, nice people. Now, maybe it doesn't sound like a compliment, but it's intended as such. Marlon Saunders and Warren Rosenstein, the veteran core behind this jazz/neo soul/acid jazz ensemble know how to craft a smooth tune with many a nice sonic layer that will undoubtedly conjure comparisons to the Brand New Heavies. Cool horns, laid back guitar, mellow bass, lovely lilting vocals, lulling piano textures and some kick butt tables. The mix is even, not too slick; the lyrics tasteful and suggestive. Furthermore, vocalist Kaissa Doumbe' is lullaby incarnate. These guys have been in the biz for 10 years with this, their fourth album, perhaps their best effort yet. Less hip hop than previous releases, many of the songs here would fit in chill out rooms, on airplanes before take off, in Starbucks or in your bedroom. Check it out.
Various Artists, Rough Guide to the Brazilian Electronica (World Music Network)
Aside from hearing the soundtracks of a few futuristic foreign movies, this reviewer was completely unaware there was a big electronica movement in Brazil. This collection provides a startling, and sometimes pleasantly disturbing, array of material ranging from its first stirrings in the east side of Sao Paolo to the boom in the late '90s and a bit beyond. To hear Dona Cila (of Cila Do Coco) singing "Juntando Coco (Instituto Mix)" over a wild mix of local rhythms and genres now remixed in the most current styles is simply worth the price of the whole CD. Superagua's "Stylish" is just that and dreamy and seductive besides, while "Mulata Assanhada" by Rica Amabis is the funniest damn thing ever. Many of these 16 tracks could satisfy even the most jaded jet-setting raver. And why not? Samba was the original breakbeat. In fact, let's guess ravers and chillers both would like the weird loopy twangs of "Chegando De La" by Loop B and the crazed flute and beats by O Discurso on "O Sertao". You won't hear music quite like this anywhere else.
The Beeps, Music for Awkward Situations (Ilegalia)
Another day, another band cranking out some space age bachelor pad music. And like all the other groups who have opted for such a sound, the Beeps are only marginally interesting. Mixing the usual ingredients -- cocktail organ, a penchant for French, some sultry horns, bongos, and the required air of silly hipness -- the Beeps have undoubtedly cornered another sect of those who wish James Bond was still played by Sean Connery. But Sue K.'s voice doesn't enthrall, and fare like "Surf's Up!" and "The Jesus Song" aren't half as clever as they want to be. Yes, you've heard this kind of thing before, and therefore not hearing it again by the Beeps won't hurt a bit.
Various Artists, African Playground (Putumayo)
If five-year-old white kids are any indication, namely Julian, Thomas and Julia, then this Afropop compilation for kids will surely be hit. The three I mentioned wouldn't stop dancing to the thirteen upbeat songs from countries such as South Africa, Senegal, Uganda, Ethiopia, Nigeria, Benin, Congo and Madagascar. "Again, again!" they shouted, bouncing from couch to floor to couch again. I don't know, maybe it was the Dunkin Donuts I wasn't supposed to give them. Anyway, truth is you don't have to be a kid to enjoy this lovely collection. Mostly sung in native languages, though a few are also in English, these songs are fun and energetic. They are often traditional arrangements of the many diverse musical styles that have been born from the African continent. Well known artists such as the Mahotella Queens and Angelique Kidjo mix it up with lesser known though equally gifted talents. Really, any age will enjoy for, unless you speak the languages sung, you'll be just like a child trying to get a grip on the silly sounding words that comprise what we call language. A nice booklet comes with the CD, translating all the songs into English, promising to help your youngin' (or, admit it, you) become that multi-linguist you always imagined.
40 Below Summer, The Mourning After (Razor & Tie/Roadrunner)
The Mourning After sees New Jersey outfit 40 Below Summer add a more melodic touch to their ferocious nu-metal thrashings for their first album on excellent New York indie label Razor and Tie. After getting lost in the corporate shuffle when Sire was swallowed up by Universal, 40 Below Summer drafted in Crash Test Dummies and Vertical Horizon producer David Bendeth to add a deft melodic subtlety to the band's powerful heavy rock. Opener "Self Medicate", which recently featured on the Texas Chainsaw Massacre soundtrack, achieves that balance perfectly, with a cracking melody intertwining with some full-on riffing, while some beautiful piano flourishes add a neat twist to the overall intensity of "Rain". Bendeth's melodic influence is all over "Breathless", but even though it's a relatively new approach for 40 Below Summer, the band avoid sounding like a nu-metal cliché and at least offer up something different for the genre.